Paddling: Mission Uncomfortable

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Outside magazine, July 1996

Paddling: Mission Uncomfortable

Mark Robbin’s lonely quest for the other side of the continent
By Bill Donahue

The setting is bleak–a Motel 6 in the middle of nowhere–and Mark Robbins is weary. “This isn’t fun,” he laments, sprawled on the bed. “Every day, I just keep going until I’m ready to drop. Then I sleep and wake up and do it all over again.”

You might think that Robbins is speaking of a nightmarish nine-to-five job, a construction gig, maybe. But no, his is a purely recreational torture: This summer, the postal equipment repairman from the Twin Cities area is rowing a specially designed canoe–it’s wider and more stable than the average craft and equipped with two oars and a sliding seat–across North America. He
rowed out of Manhattan on April 13 and at press time was somewhere west of Lake Ontario, traversing Canada’s rivers, canals, and lakes with a truck driver’s haste and carrying his canoe on his shoulders between bodies of water. Robbins, a balding, soft-spoken poet with the physique of a lineman, hopes to cover 7,320 miles in six months. He wants to make it all the way to the
Bering Sea before the Yukon River freezes up in October, so he’s occasionally paddling through the night and says he isn’t taking advantage of such creature comforts as movie theaters, ice cream parlors, or bars. “Most nights,” he says, “I just crawl into the void of my tent.”

Robbins is on a mission: He believes–perhaps a tad optimistically–that if he makes it and becomes the first person to canoe across North America, people will line up to buy the special “wilderness rowing” boats that he designs in his spare time. Then he could quit his day job and devote his life to his passion. But even if Robbins’s commercial dreams do go bust, at least he
has a shot at avenging the tragedy of 1990. That summer, the oarsman’s first cross-continental foray ended after 5,000 miles, when he contracted giardiasis in Canada’s Northwest Territories. “I lost 30 pounds in just a few days,” Robbins recalls, “and this doctor I visited told me that if I kept going the lining inside my skull could have pulled away from my brain.” As it was,
Robbins sustained mild central nervous system damage. When he returned to his Minnesota home, he was lethargic and unable to think clearly–and also quite broke. He had hawked his stereo and TV to finance the trip. He was apartmentless for a while, too. But gradually, during the two years it took his nerves to recover, he began saving money again.

This time, as last, Robbins is going low-budget. His $30,000 expedition does boast a World Wide Web site ( and a part-time publicist, but there are no cellular phones or satellite uplinks. Clich‹d or no, Robbins is in every sense of the term a lonely guy, fretfully confronting the wilderness.

At International Falls, Robbins will have to slog over a mile through town with his canoe on his back. Of Saskatchewan’s Churchill River he groans, “It’ll be mosquito hell. You just have to reconcile with giving the bugs your DNA.” Then there’s the Great Slave River, which at times is a mile-wide swath of whitewater. And, at last, the mighty Yukon.

Won’t it be heartbreaking if the intrepid Robbins makes it that far, only to glimpse ice on the river?

“No, not necessarily,” he says hopefully. “I’ll have some heavy-duty ice spikes.” And a rope, and a harness: If Robbins must, he will, like a sled dog, pull his boat over the ice from one chilly stretch of open water to the next. Sounding more a field general than a poet, he says, “I will get to the sea.”

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