It should go without saying that you’re bound to face some dicey situations while paddling and portaging a canoe 4,750 miles across Canada. Do it twice, as former oil-rig worker Mike Ranta has, and you’ve probably experienced it all: hailstorms, snowstorms, lightning strikes next to the boat, 20-foot waves on Lake Superior, a herd of elk crossing — and blocking — the river you’re floating down.
Today, Ranta is paddling across Canada for an unprecedented third time (he’s the only person ever to do it alone in a season), and the reason is simple: “I just love to paddle,” says the 46-year-old from Atikokan, Ontario.
This time he is being accompanied by photographer David Jackson, who follows in his own canoe and a pair of beat-up Canon 5D cameras, dropping back or running ahead to capture Ranta’s seemingly endless journey down rivers and across lakes, and marching over roadways.
“It’s a wild trip” says Jackson, who originally met and shot Ranta in 2014, midway through Ranta’s first cross-Canada journey. “Sometimes I can’t believe Mike survived the last two times he did it alone.”
The two started on April 1 in Bella Coola, British Columbia, dragging their boats 625 miles on carts made from old bicycle parts up the Rocky Mountains, then putting in on the Bow River, which runs through Calgary. So far, they’ve been out more than 130 days, stopping to resupply in towns whenever they can. The duo hopes to reach Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, by November, but they often find themselves at a standstill for a day or two, waiting out bad weather. On July 1, Canada Day, the wind was so high that the two holed up in a swamp. “I couldn’t think of a more Canadian way to spend Canada Day,” says Ranta, who takes to the water in knee-high rubber boots, a traditional métis sash, and a birchbark hat, “you know, in a canoe, windswept in a little spruce swamp.”
“We had one beer each,” says Jackson, “and they were warm.” Here are a few of their other, um, highlights.
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Dragging his canoe over the Chilcotin Highway, British Columbia, April 10
To first hit a navigable waterway, the pair had to drag their canoes 625 miles over the Continental Divide. It was only then, once they hit the powerful rivers on the eastern slope, when Jackson came to the belated realization that Ranta is not an expert paddler. He’s just a guy who decided one day to canoe across the country, addressing issues as they come up — or not. His inflatable life jacket deployed early in the trip, and so far he hasn’t bothered to get a replacement CO2 cartridge. “I think Mike is much more of a blind-faith kind of person,” says Jackson.
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Sundrise on Cedar Lake, Manitoba, June 26
A bleary-eyed Ranta prepares to shove off after a few hours’ rest. When they have clear weather, the canoeists rarely stop. “That’s kind of the way you gotta run,” says Ranta, whose longest paddle was 47 hours straight. He pulls ashore to let his dog, Spitzii, do his business, but he stays in the canoe, brewing coffee and cooking meals on a stove between his feet. “We do a lot of fishing. Whatever bites the hook is gonna get into the pan.”