On Paddle Strokes and Photos

For photographer and filmmaker Nate Ptacek, life makes more sense in a canoe.


Although it is often maligned, the Midwest holds beauty that will rival anywhere in the U.S. Just ask born and raised Green Bay, Wisconsinite Nate Ptacek. During college at St. John’s in Minnesota he fell in love with lake life up north. During summers, he made a little scratch as a canoe outfitter in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Twin Cities offered mellow city living and easy escapes to wild spots on water. He freelanced a bit after graduation and worked a retail gig at the Patagonia store on Grand Ave in St. Paul. But the water always had his heart.

Ptacek now lives in Ventura, California, where he’s worked on Patagonia’s photo and video teams since 2010. He is currently a video producer and digital archivist, managing all video assets and directing, producing, shooting, and editing content for the brand. Not too shabby for a Wisco cheesehead that had an inkling for j-stokes and snapping pics.

Despite living in SoCal, Ptacek maintains strong ties with the Midwest and adventures in the great wild north. He goes on as many canoe trips as possible each year, typically at least one in Minnesota, and one in either Alaska or Canada.

“Travel by canoe is deeply rooted in tradition,” Ptacek says. “Yet quite esoteric for those outside of Canada and the Great Lakes region. It’s a silent pursuit allowing long distance self-supported travel. The canoe is designed for movement on water, yet light enough to be portaged overland, creating endless possibilities. There’s something about it that fascinates me. With enough time and food, I could paddle from the Boundary Waters all the way to the Atlantic, Pacific, or Arctic Ocean. That’s pretty awesome.”

Here, Ptacek takes us through personal photo and film work around his fascination with water, including a month-long expedition in Arctic Alaska and stills from film projects for Save the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, where he is working diligently to stop a proposed sulfide-ore copper mine on the edge of America’s most-visited wilderness. In the past five years, Ptacek has paddled more than 1,800 miles, and hopes to continue the trend.

“A 1950’s-era de Havilland Beaver floatplane departs from the headwaters of the Noatak River, marking the beginning of a 28-day, 450-mile canoe expedition in the Alaskan Arctic.”

“Andrew Spaeth rigs a motion sensor to an electric fence, our defense system against the local denizens of the Noatak Valley. We saw 23 grizzly bears over the course of the expedition.”

“View from the canoe, midway through our month-long expedition of the Noatak River. Due to the remote location with access via floatplane only, we used PakBoats 17-foot pack canoes, which can be packed into a duffel and checked as baggage or thrown into the back of a floatplane. They handle well though and can withstand the rigors of long expeditions.”

 

“Fresh caught lake trout on the Noatak River.”

 

“Mike Brumbaugh and Kate Ellis launch on the Colville River, a 25-day Arctic expedition crossing the North Slope of Alaska.”

 

“A semi-palmated plover attempts to distract me from its nesting site on a sandy gravel bar along the Colville River.”

 

“Weary, worn down, and cold, we take lunch on one of the last days of the Colville River expedition.”

 

“Kate Ellis and Mike Brumbaugh rig a solar panel to their canoe on the Colville River. With 24-hour Arctic light, it’s possible to charge electronics all day and all night.”

 

“With Canada on the left and America on the right, Dave Freeman (with his wife, Amy, unpictured) paddles through the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This photo was taken during the first days of the Paddle to D.C., a 100-day, 2,000-mile expedition from Ely, Minnesota, to Washington, D.C. to deliver a petition canoe to the federal government requesting action on a proposed sulfide-ore copper mine directly upstream from America’s most-visited wilderness.”

 

“Amy and Dave Freeman continue the Paddle to D.C. Expedition aboard their sailboat Yamaya, with the petition canoe strapped to the deck. After paddling from Ely, Minnesota, they sailed the Lake Superior and Lake Huron portions of the expedition, continuing by canoe again from Georgian Bay onward via a chain of lakes and rivers to Washington, D.C.”

 

“Andrew Spaeth swims through a sea of ferns while crossing a four-mile portage into the heart of Admiralty Island in southeast Alaska.”

 

“Andrew Spaeth waiting for the fish to bite on Hasselborg Lake, Admiralty Island, Alaska.”

 

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Showing 3 comments
  • Rachel M
    Reply

    I want this job! I grew up in Minnesota and miss a lot of aspects of living there. Awesome story.

    -Rachel @ Backcountry Petite

  • Bill C
    Reply

    Grew up in the Midwest, where my dad gave my brother and me a canoe when we were in high school and taught us how to paddle. Kayaks are great, and so are rafts. But there is something downright magical about a canoe. Love this article, and the photos. Great to see younger people appreciating canoes. Paddle on!

  • Cam
    Reply

    Many years ago, growing up in “The Cities”, BWCA was my first wilderness experience as a kid. I returned several times through the next 10 years either by myself, with my dog, or with family/friends until I moved west for good. Yet BWCA will always be my frame of reference for wild. Thanks for the flashbacks.

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