Saturday, February 6, 2010


Mark and Norah Garrison
Trans-Canada Canoe Expedition
236 Courtland Street
Excelsior, MN 55331
(952) 380-9727

Teacher Couple to Paddle Entire Length of Canada

Excelsior, MN – March 10, 2002 – Mark and Norah Garrison will fulfill a long held dream this summer when they paddle from Minnesota to the Arctic Ocean. The couple's incredibly ambitious route will cover nearly 3,500 miles (5,600 km) in just under four months. Mark, a 5th grade teacher in the Minnetonka School District, and Norah, a Junior High Social Studies Teacher in Hopkins, will bring their passions for exploration, northern culture and teaching together through this expedition. "Wilderness tripping has had such a positive impact on our lives. We want our students to be able to experience it." Mark explains. "Since we can't physically bring them along, we are going to bring the expedition to them."

The couple will communicate with students through their web site at By utilizing research, interviews and photographs, the two will also develop a curriculum that will make the history and geography of Canada come alive for school children here in America. "This is more than a really long canoe trip," Norah says, "it is chance for us to share the rich history of this route with our students, and to show them that dreams can be achieved."

Embarking from the Minnesota -Ontario border on June 14th the two will paddle 20-100 miles per day heading north to Lake Winnipeg on their way to the Churchill River. There, they will paddle upstream from mid July until the end of August. After crossing the continental divide, at the 14 mile Methye Portage, the couple will paddle down the Athabaska, Slave and Mackenzie Rivers to the Arctic Ocean, where they will arrive in mid-October.

Mark and Norah's strong wilderness backgrounds have prepared them well for this expedition.

Norah has been canoeing and backpacking since 1986. She has led numerous canoe trips, and has also led and participated in many lengthy backpack trips in Western Rocky Mountains, Northern Canada and Alaska. She attained her Wilderness First Responder Certification while working for YMCA Camp Widjiwagan before leading a 35-day trip in the Gates of the Arctic Wilderness Area in 1997.

Mark has been canoeing every summer since he was a young boy, and has been on several extended canoe trips, including a 45-day trip on the Hanbury and Thelon Rivers in Northern Canada. He also led a small group from YMCA Camp Widjiwagan on an ambitious 50 day, 1200 mile journey, which went from the Mackenzie River delta, over the Continental Divide via the Rat River, and down the Yukon River. "That trip got me thinking of taking an even longer trip." Mark recalls. "When Norah and I started talking about it again this fall we got very excited about the impact that such a trip can have."

Mark and Norah have traveled extensively together and have co-led many canoe trips. Their interest in northern culture, lifestyles and landscape was peaked during the years they spent living in remote Eskimo villages in Alaska. They look forward to supplementing their knowledge of the north with this expedition through the Canadian wilderness and to including their students in their bold expedition's dream.

For more information, including their itinerary, curriculum plans, sponsors and photographs, call (952) 380-9727 or e-mail:

Posted on Sun, Jun. 02, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Sam Cook
On the Outside

I have a little problem. I don't want to be here.

This is a recurring dilemma that peaks each year about the time the aspens leaf out and the blackflies materialize.

It is not the bugs that make me want to leave. It's simply that every year when the water liquefies and the days grow long, I want to "light out for the Territory,'' as Huck Finn once said.

Doesn't really matter what the territory is. The canoe country. Lake Superior. Manitoba. The Northwest Territories.

There is no shortage of territory. There is only a shortage of time.

I suspect I am not alone in this urge to be somewhere else. Inside the cab of every pickup packing a slide-in camper and every Suburban hauling an Airstream down the road is someone who wants to be on the move. Minnesota's Ann Bancroft is paddling the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence River. Duluth-born Mark Garrison, now of the Twin Cities, is paddling from Lake of the Woods to the Arctic Ocean. A friend of mine is taking a three-month sabbatical, headed for the Northwest.

John Steinbeck tried to explain this urge to roam in the first chapter of his novel "Travels With Charley.''

"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me,'' Steinbeck wrote, "I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.''

I do not suppose that everyone possesses this yearning to be on the road, on the water, on the move. I know many who are content to spend weekend after weekend at the cabin, looking out over the same lake, listening to the same loons. There is much to be said for the cabin life. But I'm afraid I'm addicted to distant horizons.

Give me the bugs, the cold, the rain. Give me moving water, wind in the face, cracked and calloused hands. I'm not sure what's wrong with me, but I may never outgrow the need to sleep on the ground.

I'm not sure where this came from. My parents were not particularly given to travel, although we spent a week every summer in the Rockies. Maybe that's where this urge was born.

Or it might have been when I was an adolescent, and I came across a battered paperback copy of "Kon-Tiki,'' Thor Heyerdahl's account of a 4,300-mile journey by balsa raft from Peru to near Tahiti. I devoured that book. It unlocked something in my psyche and opened my eyes to possibilities far beyond the hay fields of my native Kansas.

I remain hopelessly lured by the trail. With others similarly afflicted, including my wife, I've paddled to Hudson's Bay, rafted a remote river in Alaska, canoed the quiet and imposing Canadian shore of Lake Superior. Wonderful journeys, all of them. But I want more. I want a whole summer. I want a year. I want forever.

A couple of friends of mine from Ely spent four months -- all summer and more -- paddling the canoe country two summers ago. Did that satiate their desire for wilderness travel?

"Rather than cure it, it intensified it,'' one of them said the other day.

They're planning another summer-long trip for 2004.

Steinbeck understood this a long time ago.

"I fear the disease is incurable,'' he wrote.

SAM COOK is a News Tribune outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332, (800) 456-8282 or

Paddling North

John Gregg
Watsonville, Ca.- It is an age-old question, what did you do during your summer vacation? In the instance of two Minnesota schoolteachers, well, the answer is rather daunting.

Mark and Norah Garrison are set to paddle a canoe almost 3400 miles from the Minnesota/Ontario Border starting June 14 to the Artic Ocean and arrive sometime in mid-October. Paddling anywhere from 20 to 100 miles a day, the Garrisons will make a trans-Canada trip that will take them from places such as Lake Winnipeg through to the Churchill and MacKenzie Rivers.

Lewis and Clark have nothing on these two intrepid souls, as they will continue paddling upstream from mid July until the end of August. After crossing the Continental Divide, the Garrisons will stroke their way down the Atabaska, Slave, and Mackenzie Rivers until they finally make their way to the Artic Ocean.

Mark teaches the 5th grade at Excelsior Elementary School, which is in the Minnetonka School District. Norah teaches 8th and 9th grade geography and civics at Hopkins West Jr. High, located in the Hopkins School District.

Mark grew up in Duluth, Minnesota and went to school at the University of Wisconsin Madison and then at the College of St. Scholastica. He is currently taking evening classes at the University of Minnesota where he is seeking his Masters degree. Norah grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. She went to Grinnell College where she studied history and played soccer. She is also attending evening classes at the University of Minnesota and is within an eyelash of getting her Masters.

This was a wilderness love story from the very start. The paddling duo met in Ely, Minnesota while working at YMCA Camp Widjiwagan - a wilderness tripping camp. They both led canoe and backpack trips. The couple has been married three-and-a-half years.

You may wonder if they are setting forth in two singles or just one canoe? Well, where's the romance in that? The answer is one large, rather sturdy canoe.

They are paddling a 20-foot Minnesota III built by We no nah Canoes. The canoe is reinforced with extra Kevlar and a layer of gel coat to make it more durable. It is also fitted with a Northwater spraydeck that will add to its seaworthiness and warmth.

We recently caught up with the paddling schoolteachers and got a chance to talk about the big adventure.

JG: To say this is a daunting adventure would be an obvious understatement but how did you come up with this idea?

NG: In 1993 Mark led a 1200-mile canoe trip in the Yukon and Alaska. He started thinking then about doing something even longer. Inspired by the likes of paddling legend, Verlen Kruger, and even more by the early voyagers and explorers, he bought maps in 1995. After we met, it became a dream trip for both of us. We have come close to doing the trip several times since we have been together, but this was the first time that all of the forces have come together to allow enough time for it to happen.

JG: You are scheduled to leave in June, what are you doing now to prepare for the adventure?

MG: We have spent a lot of time securing sponsors and spreading the word about our trip. We are also writing curriculum, making plans to leave our current lives for 4 months preparing and organizing our food and equipment and working out when we can.

JG: Physically what are you doing to get ready for this trip? Have you been in training, working out, lifting weight, special diet?

MG: Our jobs are winding down and spring for a teacher is a very busy time. We are, however, fitting things in. We both skied the American Birkebeiner - a 52 K ski race as well as several other shorter races. We are running, paddling and working out. As for a special diet, we are mainly focusing on staying healthy and eating the things that will be in short supply this summer like fruits and vegetables.

JG: During the course of this trip I know you have plans to connect with your students, I am assuming you'll work with laptops. What do you hope to accomplish with the kids?

MG: We are not bringing laptops because of the weight and because of the battery issue. Rather, we are hoping to secure a satellite phone, but have not yet been successful - perhaps one of your readers can help us out there. If the phone falls through we will contact my sister, who is keeping up our website, when we pass through towns and she will add updates to our website. Additionally we will have addresses along the way where our students can contact us.

JG: I know you both have a background in canoeing, can you tell us about some of your experience on the water to prepare for this trip?

MG: Norah led canoe and backpack trips in northern Minnesota, the Rockies, the Yukon and Alaska for 6 years, so she has a lot of experience and comfort with extended expeditions. A highlight for her was a 35-day trip through the Gates of the Arctic Wilderness in Alaska. This trip, completely north of the Arctic Circle, inspired her to want to explore the Arctic regions. She also taught environmental education in Ely, which peaked her interest in northern ecology.

NG: We both co-lead canoe trips for Elderhostel in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. We both love to share their passion for canoeing and wilderness tripping with people, both young and old. That's what makes the connection to our students so exciting.

NG: Mark has led many lengthy canoe trips in Minnesota, Canada and Alaska. One particular 1200-mile trip brought him from the Yukon, over the Continental Divide, and down the Yukon River. This 50-day trip is the one that inspired him to dream up this trip. He has also led several groups on trips through classic Voyageur trade routes-including the 9-mile Grand Portage. Other notable trips include a 600-mile trip in the barren lands along the Hanbury-Thelon River system in 1988 and a trip down the Albany River in 1992.

JG: What do you believe will be the toughest challenge of this trip?

MG: The toughest challenge throughout the entire trip will be keeping up with our demanding schedule. Our route is ambitious and we only have 3 rest days planned on the entire 119-day itinerary. Of course we will rest on other days when the wind and weather keep up shore bound, but that will mean that those miles will have to be made up on another day.

NG: We anticipate that the most demanding portion of our trip will the 950 miles we spend paddling up the Churchill, Sturgeon Weir and Saskatchewan Rivers. In that section the miles will be tough and the portages often. We end that section with the daunting 12 mile Methye Portage.

MG: Finally, the weather at the end of our trip will be a challenge. We anticipate breaking shore ice during the last few weeks on the Mackenzie River and Arctic Ocean.

JG: Some of these places almost sound magical, the Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Churchill, and the Mackenzie Rivers in particular. What do you believe will be the highlights of the trip and are there places you are really looking forward to?

MG: We're really excited to see the vastness of this land and to experience the change in climate and seasons as we venture north. As we've poured over our maps, we've tried to conjure up what these places will look like. It is difficult to imagine the sheer size of Lake Winnipeg and the width and speed of the Mackenzie River. We will also see beautiful rapids and falls. Finally, we're excited about the wildlife we will see along the way, and about retracing the trade routes of the Voyageurs and early explorers about whom we have read so much.

There are many such aspects of the trip that we are looking forward to, but the thing about which we are most excited is the trip in its entirety. To travel the length of Canada for four straight months is the best part and something only a handful of people have ever experienced.

JG: Is there any part of the trip that you are especially concerned about and why?

MG: As we mentioned above the Churchill sounds tough and the weather during the last month or so could be very bad. We expect snow and cold. Another challenge will be Lake Winnipeg. It sits on the edge of the Great Plains and is both windswept and shallow. Great waves 10 feet or more are not uncommon. We also have our largest crossings there as we work our way up 300-plus miles of the 60-mile wide lake. We plan to wait out the wind as much as possible and paddle at night when we can to avoid the wind and waves.

JG: How will it work when you need to rest and sleep?

MG: Our days will be long, but we know the importance of rest on a trip of this length. Our bodies will certainly need time to recover after hard days. At the start of the expedition we plan to rest on a rather scheduled basis. As days roll on, and we develop more of a wilderness mindset, we will sleep and paddle more with whims of the wind and weather. We will often paddle for 10, 15 or even 20 hours at a time when we have to, and then rest when we need to get off of the water due to weather.

JG: How about food and provisions?

MG: We have received generous donations that will cover some of our staples. Vigo/Alessi has given us pasta, beans, rice and other mainstays of our diet. Annie's pasta has also donated dinners. Whole Foods Co-op will be supplying us with staples for breakfast and lunch. In general, our diet will be very high in calories, with a balance of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. We will not carry all of our food from the beginning. We will carry the first 30-days worth to The Pas, the second from there to Fort McMurray, and the last from there to the end.

In terms of equipment, we will carry most of it for the whole trip. This will include 2 stoves, a tent, rope, first aid, and of course a fishing rod. We will pick up warmer clothes as we go at our re-supply points.

JG: I know you've spent time in Eskimo villages in Alaska, what interests you about northern culture?

MG: Our interest in northern culture began with the time we spent in the northern wilderness with campers at YMCA Camp Widjiwagan. Something about the beauty, solitude and vastness of the landscape struck a chord for both of us. Because of that, we chose to live in northern places, such as Alaska and northern Minnesota. We also have a keen interest in northern ecology - the geology, animals and plants of the area. I guess you could say that it is the place where we feel the most at home, and also the most challenged.

In terms of northern culture, we admire the tradition and steadfastness of the people who maintain their lives in such an extreme climate. Moreover, they seem to feel the same way about the land that we do. We learned a lot living in rural Alaska, and someday we hope to return.

JG: When and where will you expect to reach your final destination for this trip?

NG: We will end our expedition on October 12 in Inuvik after paddling out into the Arctic Ocean. There is a map on our website at that you can check out. Mark's mother and stepfather are driving up to pick us up there. We will drive back quickly, as we need to resume our teaching positions on October 21. As a side note, our families have been very helpful. Norah's parents are driving us to our starting point and also resupplying us in The Pas. Mark's father is resupplying us in Ft. McMurray.

JG: What do you hope to accomplish in taking this trip?

MG: For ourselves, this trip is a dream, and we can't wait to accomplish our challenging goal. We are thrilled at the prospect of seeing Canada day by day, from the south to the north end. We also look forward to getting into the wilderness mindset of being part of the natural world.

NG: More than that though, we hope to fulfill that dream and share it with others. Not only do we want to share the knowledge we gain about the land and our trip, but we also hope to inspire others to dream big, and to make dreams come true for themselves. When we return we will speak to our students at school and will also show our slides and stories at speaking engagements around Minnesota.

We wish Mark and Nora Garrison the very best as they make their epic journey this summer. As often as possible we hope that the wind is at their back, their hearts are light, and their spirits remain high.

Looking to embarking on a multi-river expedition or just cruising a tributary? Take a peek at West Marine's selection of Canoes and Kayaks. West Marine has everything you need for kayaking - life jacket, accessories, paddles - to make your paddle an enjoyable one. Try out our new selection of Backpacker's Pantry freeze dried meals - perfect for camping and voyaging.

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