Brutal winter trek tests canoe artisan’s skills

Posted Jan. 06, 2011, at 6:25 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:20 p.m.

Like many a frugal Mainer, I have the heat turned down to save money on oil, so I was feeling kind of chilly in my living room when I turned on Rollin Thurlow’s documentary film “Winter Walk 2003 to Ungava Bay.” After watching snowshoers haul 300-pound supply sleds through a blizzard at 30 degrees below zero, I felt pretty cozy at 60 degrees.

Filming documentaries is not Rollin’s usual occupation. He is the owner of Northwoods Canoe Co., based in Atkinson. Forging his way to success as a canoe builder was a long, arduous adventure.

Frugality, hard work, careful planning and determination were essential to achieving that goal. It also helped, Rollin told me, to have a patient and supportive wife.

“Behind every successful boat builder,” he said with a smile, “is a schoolteacher with health insurance.”

For Rollin, all of those same assets came into play for an entirely different sort of adventure that came his way in the spring of 2003.

“Seven of us thought we’d like to do an extended, self-sustained winter trip,” he explained. “It’s not too often that everything just lines up for you to take that kind of time off,” Rollin told me, “but it all just worked out.”

Back in the spring of 2003, he and six friends took 2½ months to travel into the wintry wilderness of northern Labrador and eastern Quebec on snowshoes.

A week in cars, trains and a snowmobile caravan brought them to their starting point. Then, it took 59 days for them to snowshoe 385 miles. They didn’t see another human being until three days before they arrived at their destination, the town of Kangiqsualujjuaq on Ungava Bay. They hauled their laden toboggans along frozen rivers or on land when the river ice became jammed and ragged. Since they carried all of their gear from the outset, including 1,000 pounds of food, the going was especially slow in the first few days.

Rollin’s boat building expertise came into play with the sleds — he built or helped to build most of them. They look a little bit like flattened-out canoe frames on snow, and they performed beautifully.

The trekkers went through whiteouts and frozen wasteland, drilled through 5 feet or more of ice to get drinking water, slept in tents at 50 degrees below zero, and once had to orchestrate a rescue of a group member after he fell into a deep crevasse. They had a well-organized division of labor that included wood and water gathering, cooking, ptarmigan trapping and sled maintenance. They also budgeted their time to include layover days and time delays for bad weather, which they needed in the end. Like any adventure worth tackling, there were downtimes and struggles, but that exuberant group of six men and one woman persevered for the most part in a spirit of diligence and good humor.

Rollin’s film is a very entertaining and instructive documentary of what it takes to tackle extreme, self-sustained winter trekking and camping. It even includes a lighthearted though accurate explanation of toileting techniques in the sub-zero wilderness.

Rollin hasn’t gone on any other 10-week adventures, and he hasn’t made any more documentary adventure films. He did make two canoe-building films, however, and he has a live webcam that takes photos of the adventure in the workshop every 20 seconds. You can see them on his website, which also advertises copies of “Winter Walk 2003” for sale (www.wooden-canoes.com)

I asked Rollin, who is some years past 60, if he ever thinks about retiring. Maybe he’d have more time to seek other adventures. He looked amused at the question and offered a whimsical reply:

“A lot of people want to retire and build a canoe … I might do that.”

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