When Zev Heuer’s high school went online in mid-March due to COVID-19, the 15-year-old from Canmore, Alberta, realized that if he finished his coursework quickly enough he could pull off his dream trip—a 1,300-mile canoe journey to his summer job at Churchill River Canoe Outfitters in northern Saskatchewan.
Zev spent the next few weeks churning through his school assignments, planning his route and dehydrating meals at a furious pace. On May 1 he started down the Bow River in Canmore, a half-day’s paddle downstream from Banff. He arrived in tiny Missinipe, Saskatchewan on July 2, after a river journey of two months. For about half the trip he was alone, apart from his dog Blaze.
The beginning of May is early spring in the Canadian Rockies, and the banks were piled high with ice when Zev, his father Karsten and two friends shoved off for Calgary. The 80-mile stretch includes whitewater up to Class IV. Zev and the others ran some rapids and lined others. Then, after one last set of rapids below Calgary, Zev transitioned to a solo tripping canoe. Blaze settled in behind him and they started the next phase of their journey alone.
This wasn’t the first time Zev had crossed a big chunk of Canada in a canoe. When he was just two years old his parents took him on a 3,100-mile canoe and sailing trip from Canmore to Nova Scotia to meet the author and environmentalist Farley Mowat. His mother Leanne Allison made an award-winning film about the adventure, Finding Farley.
Zev doesn’t remember that trip, but believes it’s still in him. “I feel super comfortable in a canoe and I think all of that is because I was in one for five months at such a young age, and have been on a lot since,” he told the CBC.
Zev practically grew up in canoes, including extended trips every summer, Leanne said. “It’s become this thing where we don’t even discuss it. The first two weeks of August we always do a trip from 10 to 14 days, and we’ve cultivated a nice group of families to do it with,” she said. “It’s kind of like tribal living.”
Leanne and Karsten were confident in Zev’s canoeing and camp skills, and they reminded each other that the journey presented few objective hazards. Navigation was simple—for almost 1,000 miles he would follow the same river as it gathered tributaries and changed names: The Bow into the South Saskatchewan and on to the Saskatchewan River proper. Still, Zev had never done a trip on his own.
“My first couple of days where it was just me and my dog were a little scary,” he said in a Calgary radio interview. “I had a sail and my canoe and I was alone and the wind was pretty strong. Those couple of days, I got ripping down the river a little faster than I should have,” he said. Screaming along through the haze he struck a glancing blow on a rock, but managed not to capsize. Another time his boat nearly drifted away as he scouted a muddy bank for a place to camp. He waded into a chest-deep eddy to catch the canoe before it and all his gear floated downstream.
“I felt like a lot could’ve gone wrong but it didn’t,” Zev said. “Overall the trip went pretty smoothly.” He carried a Garmin InReach and was able to talk to his parents a few times when he came into cell service. And with Blaze, he was never completely alone.
“He’s a mutt,” Zev said when an interviewer asked about the dog’s parentage. “I’m not sure what he is, but he’s probably the best dog I have ever had and ever seen.” Blaze spent most of the trip asleep, either in camp or on the rear deck of the canoe. “Whenever it was getting tough I just looked back at him, and it was all good,” Zev said.
Zev paddled about half the 1,300-mile trip solo. Karsten rejoined his son for a few days on Lake Diefenbaker, a 140-mile long reservoir on the South Saskatchewan River, and again for the final 200-mile upstream stretch to Missinipe.
This was Zev’s favorite part of the trip. “When you’re going downstream you can be pretty relaxed physically and mentally, but going upstream the river kind of turns into a maze of fast and slack water,” he said. Father and son ascended the clear, swift-flowing Sturgeon Weir River, climbing gradually through the Boreal forest along a chain of rivers and lakes. Sometimes they waded and lined, but for the most part they eddy-hopped upstream with Zev in the stern, picking his way through the free-flowing maze.
“He really does have this incredible boat sense,” Leanne said. “It’s really deep in him.”
When they came within sight of Missinipe, Zev and Karsten stopped to call Leanne. “They were just floating there and I actually could hear the loons calling through the phone,” she said. “They could have made it in the night before, but they spent one more night out just to absorb what Zev had accomplished.”
When she saw her son days later, Leanne sensed the trail had changed him. “There was a deep sense of calm about him, which was pretty awesome. You can tell he’s very confident.”
Not that he’s gotten a big head, mind you. Zev’s summer job at Churchill River Canoe Outfitters is an apprenticeship of sorts for aspiring canoe guides. He’s still too young to lead trips on his own, so the job description runs the gamut of un-glorious tasks, from clearing portage trails and scrubbing cabins and working as an assistant guide.
If you like paddling, and you’re in the mood for a fiction, AJ favorite Peter Heller’s The River is a must-read.