When the Green Light is On, You Go
Rapids are always right around the bend for wilderness canoeist Bob O’Hara, perhaps the most influential Minnesota adventurer you’ve never heard of.
SNOWMELT FUELED THE GODS RIVER as it gushed north toward Hudson Bay, pushing Bob O’Hara’s aluminum canoe faster than he would have preferred. The year was 1967, and O’Hara, then 26, was on his first far north paddling trip—an epic journey from Lake Winnipeg north to the Hudson Bay settlement of York Factory.
The river coursed into a bend, beyond which O’Hara, seated in the stern, and his bowman expected to see an island with a portage on it that would bypass a waterfall. But when the pair rounded the bend, O’Hara’s stomach dropped. The island was completely flooded. Haystacks of roiling water poured into the canoe and knocked O’Hara’s friend into the river. O’Hara jumped into the frigid whitewater and grabbed the bowman with one hand and the canoe with the other. He held on for dear life as they went over the falls.
“It all happened so fast there was no time to think,” O’Hara says. Below the falls, the paddlers washed up unharmed on a gravel bar. No worse for the wear, they eventually reached their destination on Hudson Bay, where O’Hara, gazing north toward the horizon, had an epiphany that would chart the course of his life. “I thought I was really at the end of the world,” he says, “and realized that it was just the beginning.”
For most of the next 50 summers, O’Hara took canoe journeys to the far north. As of summer 2020, he had paddled 34 rivers in remote places accessible only by bush plane—places like the Northwest Territories, Quebec, Alaska, and Canada’s northernmost territory, Nunavut. He’s run some rivers multiple times, including the Thelon west of Hudson Bay. He’s canoed across Finland and through long stretches of the Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. He was supposed to travel to Greenland last summer but postponed the trip due to the pandemic. Closer to home, 2020 marked O’Hara’s 62nd consecutive year canoeing and camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
“In my mind [O’Hara] always loomed as some mythical figure,” says Minnesota paddler Pete Marshall, who in 2012 canoed from Alaska to Hudson Bay. “This guy who’s paddled every Arctic river I’ve ever dreamed of and has been going up there for 40, 50 years.”
O’Hara’s longtime buddy Jim Gallagher, a retired U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist in Bemidji, describes Bob as “the dean of Minnesota Arctic paddlers.” Over the decades, the dean has partnered with close to 100 canoeing companions on expedition teams ranging from two members to six. His fellow paddlers have included hardened explorers, relative tenderfoots, and about every strain in between. When not adventuring, O’Hara welcomes aspiring canoeists into his St. Louis Park home, offering advice, technical information, and even equipment.
“The more you get to know [O’Hara], the more you realize what impact he’s had,” says Nate Ptacek, who lives in California and makes videos for the Patagonia clothing company. O’Hara’s influence extends to gear design—he worked with Minnesota outfit Cooke Custom Sewing to create a canoe cover for open seas—and gear use. Ptacek says O’Hara taught him the practice of making windbreaks from packs to block strong tundra winds while cooking at camp.
Though he’s regarded as a pioneer of far north canoeing in the United States and Canada, O’Hara has never sought the spotlight, nor does he seek sponsors for his trips. “I never wanted to be a walking billboard,” he says. Instead, O’Hara exerts his influence quietly. He is a regular speaker at canoeing symposiums and a member of the venerable Explorers Club based in New York City.
At 80, O’Hara remains an obsessive paddler. In the years after the mishap with the waterfall, he developed a cautious approach. Rather than being known for his whitewater prowess, he’s regarded for his expertise in lining canoes down rapids—a technique in which canoeists walk along the shore and guide boats downriver with ropes. One of O’Hara’s favorite sayings is, “Nobody’s ever drowned on a portage.” His measured style has contributed to an outrageously long canoeing career.
“I Fell in Love With the North”
Born in Alexandria, O’Hara settled in St. Louis Park with his parents and sister when he was around 11. He and neighborhood kids spent their free time playing outside. The area south of the Twin Cities was rural, and O’Hara camped there often with his Boy Scout troop.
“Boy Scouts taught me how to camp—and I love to camp,” O’Hara says. The scouts also taught him how to canoe. He took his first paddle in the mid-1950s, in a wood and canvas boat with no seats, at Many Point Scout Camp between Detroit Lakes and Bemidji. He marveled at how the canoe turned on a dime, unlike his family’s rowboat.
One year, Minnesota outdoorsman and author Calvin Rutstrum spoke to O’Hara’s scout troop. At the time, Rutstrum was one of the few voices praising the pleasures of traveling through the wilderness by canoe, and O’Hara read his books for practical knowledge. Later, as a high schooler, O’Hara turned to Sigurd Olson’s first two books, The Singing Wilderness and Listening Point. “He opened our eyes to see more,” O’Hara says of Olson’s evocative wilderness writing.
O’Hara planned his first Boundary Waters trip during his senior year of high school, while exchanging letters with Ely outfitter Bill Rom. Upon graduating in 1959, O’Hara and three friends headed north. Interstate 35 didn’t exist yet, and it took the boys most of the day to drive on Highway 61 from the Twin Cities to Duluth. From Duluth, they boarded a two-car passenger train that chugged up the shore to Two Harbors, where they obliged an undertaker’s request for help unloading a coffin. They rode inland to Ely, and Rom outfitted them with Grumman canoes, 15 double-bagged loaves of white bread, and cans of coffee, beef stew, spaghetti, and bacon. They wore funny hats, blue jeans, and letter jackets, and carried Duluth packs and homemade tents without flooring or bug netting.
Traveling in isolation that’s inconceivable to users of today’s well-trodden wilderness, the boys covered more than 100 miles over 15 days and encountered just one other person—a conversation-starved Canadian ranger on Lac La Croix who invited them in for lemonade. After returning to Ely, the paddlers gorged on the biggest steaks in town for the advertised price of seven quarters. Since that first trip, O’Hara has returned to the Boundary Waters at least once a year.
“The canoe became my new way of life,” O’Hara says. To support this lifestyle, O’Hara taught high school biology at several Twin Cities high schools, saving his pennies for summer expeditions. In 1969, he and three friends took a trip to the Thelon River in Nunavut. The foursome paddled through an idyllic wilderness under a sun that barely set, watching wolves hunt along the riverbanks, and passing tens of thousands of migrating caribou. Late in the days, they set up their tents on the tundra and feasted on grayling and trout.
“I fell in love with the north, I just did,” O’Hara says. For the fledgling adventurer, the draw had nothing to do with deprivation or toughness: “I tell people if you want to rough it, put sandpaper in the seat of your pants.” O’Hara instead relished the camaraderie, wildlife encounters, and isolation under the northern sky. Even the complicated logistics of arranging bush planes and weeks’ worth of food appealed to him.
On that early trip to the Thelon River, the friends ran into trouble where the river pooled into a nearly 60-mile-long lake called Aberdeen. The lake was still frozen, which meant the canoeists were stuck in the area until the water opened up. To make matters worse, their food supply was down to dregs of staples like jam and soup. While waiting it out, they came across two wildlife biologists and an Inuit guide in the same predicament. Luckily, the guide shot a caribou that the men ate as they waited more than 10 days for the lake to thaw.
O’Hara’s encounter with the guide, Barnabas Piryauq, proved inspirational. The two became friends, and their meeting further sparked O’Hara’s love of the Inuit people. “I just got enamored with the way those people survived in the north. They were a tight society and shared everything,” says O’Hara. “You lived within a certain group and everyone was part of the group and you had a place.”
In Baker Lake, a settlement in Nunavut where O’Hara based many of his trips, the Inuit residents gave him a nickname: The One Who Comes Every Year.
The Trips Kept Getting Better
Parts of day-to-day life didn’t fit into O’Hara’s adventurous routine. On two of his early far north trips, he left behind serious girlfriends back home. Neither relationship survived his long absences. O’Hara assumed that as he got older, his desire for domesticity would overshadow the force with which the north pulled at him. As the decades passed, though, the trips kept getting better and the list of rivers he wanted to run remained long. Every dollar he could spare from his teaching salary went toward travel and gear.
“No pizza, beer, or cigarettes,” O’Hara says. During the school year, he coached high school Nordic skiing and track, working 80-hour weeks. Being busy helped him scrimp and save before taking off come summer. He loved teaching, but by the end of the school year he was exhausted and longed for the wilderness, where he came back to life.
“He gets caught up in the excitement of being outside and gets very playful,” says Lee Sessions, one of O’Hara’s most frequent paddling partners. O’Hara often festooned his expedition canoes with colorful flags and named the boats after Inuit words for tundra animals, like Tuktu (caribou) and Amarok (wolf).
On trips, O’Hara usually dresses in red. He’s liked the color since he was a student during the inaugural year of Benilde High School in St. Louis Park in the 1950s, when his suggestion of the “Red Knights” won a contest to name the school’s mascot. O’Hara likes how red clothes worn on the high latitude tundra pop in photographs. This chromatic affection was reinforced one year when a bush pilot missed seeing O’Hara’s party for pickup because their drab-colored gear blended into the gray-brown landscape. After that, he switched to red canoes and packs.
Those who’ve had the honor of sharing a canoe with O’Hara describe him as opinionated and garrulous. “Bob says it like it is,” says Gayle Knutson, one of his paddling partners and an indie filmmaker from Marine on St. Croix. Ptacek, the filmmaker for Patagonia, joined O’Hara on expeditions to Alaska in 2013 and 2014, and says O’Hara can be bristly but is full of funny stories. “He’s a combo of tough love, but he’s really a kind, gentle soul at the end of the day,” says Ptacek, who views the tall, bearded O’Hara as a sort of grandfather figure.
Though not a household name, O’Hara is known by practically everyone in Minnesota’s insular world of hardcore canoeists and Arctic travelers. Cliff Jacobson, a wilderness canoeing guru and author who was mentored by O’Hara, praises his mentor’s willingness to share advice. “[It’s] the real strength of his leadership,” says Jacobson.
Paddling at 80
Wilderness travel is harder now for O’Hara. On a 14-day solo Boundary Waters trip out of Ely in June, he used portage wheels for the first time to haul his canoe and gear. His load included a solar panel and a portable CPAP machine that treats his sleep apnea. The machine’s batteries ran down, and a string of cloudy days stymied their recharging. He started sleeping poorly, grew fatigued, and ended the trip two days early. The portage wheels had worked well, though. O’Hara says he no longer has the balance to carry a canoe upside down over his head while navigating roots and rocks. “I don’t trust myself as much,” he says. “When I can’t do things independently, that’ll have to be the end for me.”
But O’Hara is optimistic about his paddling future. One of his grandmothers lived to 109, and he has six living aunts and uncles. When asked what he will do when he can no longer carry a canoe, he laughs and says, “Those are the things you don’t want to look that far ahead at until you can’t do it.”
One of O’Hara’s paddling philosophies is, “When the green light is on, you go.” Translation: Don’t overthink it. When conditions are safe, you paddle. And he continues to do just that. One afternoon on his most recent BWCA trip, he sat at his breezy campsite on Basswood Lake. Snapping and painted turtles rooted about looking for sandy spots to lay eggs. He watched with a biology teacher’s interest while sipping his traditional aperitif of rum with powdered lemonade. A pair of northern flickers hustled to feed their insatiable brood ensconced in a nesting cavity in a red pine. O’Hara listened to the baby birds squawk and peep for more. O’Hara could relate. Paddling was his nourishment, and he wanted more.
His thoughts wandered to summer plans for 2021—a cruise to Greenland, perhaps a paddle in Ontario’s Wabakimi Provincial Park. And then he dreamed of far north experiences that still lay ahead.