Just Go: Meet the Laid Back Lewis and Clark
Dan Blessing is a laid back, humble guy. In 2010, he and friend Marc VanGrinsven decided (almost casually, it seems by Dan's telling) to paddle an old-fashioned canoe a very long way. As Dan says it: "Marc decided to build a birch-bark canoe, and we hopped in that thing in Grand Portage and took it out to the Pacific Ocean." Wait a minute. Where? Grand Portage, if you didn't know, is in Minnesota, some 4,000-ish riverine miles from the Pacific, give or take.
Expeditions of this magnitude often take months of careful planning and preparation in order to plot a route, adequately equip a team and even drum up sponsorships to pay for the thing. Dan and Marc were a little more casual. "It was just a matter of us putting as much stuff as we could fit in the boat and have it still float, and go." That "stuff" included venison (Dan shot a deer) and wild rice, and was packed in seven 100-pound bags.
"We did just enough research to get us out the door where we needed to be," Dan says in this video interview, "but not enough to realize what we were getting ourselves into." That's clear enough, given how the trip shook out. Their delicious, healthy diet of venison and wild rice ran out in the middle of Alberta and—with temps dropping and money running low—the pair stitched together a diet of "Little Debbies, mac [& cheese] packs and lots of butter." Also, in order to cross the Continental Divide, they trudged upstream for 1,400 miles, pulling or carrying their heavily loaded canoe. They followed old fur trading routes up the Saskatchewan, Sturgeon-Weir, Churchill and La Loche rivers. On the Athabasca, though, they missed a turn. Where woodsmen of yesteryear bypassed the stretch of river between Fort McMurray and Athabasca Landing, Dan and Marc went for it.
Altogether, Dan and Marc paddled (and walked and towed and portaged) for nearly seven months. They inadvertently notched the first ascent of a 100-mile-long canyon peppered with class IV and V rapids—at an achingly slow 1 mph (and that on a good day!). But humble Dan has no regrets about their level of planning. In fact, he encourages that kind of spontaneity from other would-be canoe explorers.
"My advice to anyone who wants to do a big canoe trip is that it's really not that hard. It's not like rock climbing, it's not like whitewater kayaking—you can get in the boat and go, and figure it out as you go. That's what we did." Point taken, Dan. If I go for a big canoe trip, though, I might glance at a few maps ahead of time. You know, just to avoid trudging upstream through whitewater-choked canyons.
To read more about Dan and Marc's trip, visit their website, paddleforsustainability.org.