From the November/December 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Adventurer Brett Rogers wants to float the great rivers of the world and tell their stories. So far, he has run the Mackenzie and Yukon Rivers in Canada and the Mississippi in the United States. In each case, he navigated the length of the waterways in nonmotorized craft built by him and his expedition teammates. Next up is India’s Ganges River, with a planned September 2011 departure. Rogers has documented his adventures on the Web, in print, and on TV and is working on a book.
The Mackenzie isn’t a particularly safe river. Were there scary moments? The Mackenzie is absolutely huge, up to three miles wide. At the end, where the river spreads out, if you miss the channel that goes to Inuvik, the last settlement, you basically go into a delta bigger than the state of Connecticut. When we got there, we had horrible weather, and we had to pull over for a couple of days. We knew we were on the edge of North America, not far from the Arctic Ocean. If something went wrong, we were on our own. That was very humbling.
Tell us about the Yukon trip that followed. It was a four-month rafting expedition from Whitehorse to the Bering Sea, covering about 1,800 miles. At times we floated around the clock—with sunlight almost 24 hours a day—for a week or more at a time, and then, depending on conditions, we had periods where we couldn’t make a single mile in a day, so there were both extremes. My philosophy has been, be cautious, but don’t be afraid. The best example was a community called Fort Yukon. Everyone told us, “Don’t go there; it’s a crazy little town.” We went and had one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Their tribal chief had just died, and we stayed for a week to participate in events, including helping to dig the chief’s grave. If we had listened to the warnings from the other river towns, we would’ve floated by and missed it.
For the Mississippi, you built a York boat. What’s that? I try to build a vessel appropriate for the location. On the Mississippi, you have ship traffic, barges, and 29 locks and dams, so we needed something better than a raft. And I wanted to create a boat that captured people’s imaginations. The York was a fur trade boat originally built by the Hudson’s Bay Company and used as the transport truck of Canada and the northern United States for about 150 years. Normally, York boats were up to 40 feet long. Ours was 32 feet. It weighed a thousand pounds empty, and we had to portage it more than ten times, strapping wheels on the boat and pushing it, covering some 11 miles on land altogether. That would not have been possible with a larger boat. Throughout the trip, it always drew people to the river. It was an absolutely beautiful boat. And not only that, history had made a boat that was well suited for river and lake travel. We used it in weather that a canoe or kayak would never survive.
How have you funded these expeditions? The bulk of the money came from finding people who wanted to take an adventure that you cannot find in a travel book and that will never be duplicated, and then telling these folks, “Okay, here’s how much it’s going to cost for you to come along with us.” And then there were some generous donations on top of that.
A Saturday Night Live alum played a role. Tell us about that. I did the Mackenzie River expedition in 2004 as a public awareness campaign for Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicts my Nana. Later, I was introduced to Dan and Donna Aykroyd, who are involved with raising money for the Alzheimer’s Association and for Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s Waterkeeper Alliance, a grassroots environmental movement to protect the world’s water quality. Donna told me she believed I was a future voice for the planet and that Bobby would be a good person to learn from. The Aykroyds’ support has given me confidence and credibility, and it has connected me to vital people like Kennedy as well as donors for my expeditions.
Now, how have these trips changed you? I’ve traveled down the arteries of the continent. There have been moments I’m very aware that I’m in the 21st century with some crazy water pollution going, but there are other moments that could’ve been 500 years ago. This has given me an appreciation for the planet, the water, and the incredible people we have met along the waterways, whether in the Arctic or down south. I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to spend the bulk of my 20s doing these expeditions and spending so much time outdoors instead of being cooped up in a classroom or office. I’ve learned how incredible North America is and how many great adventures there are in our own backyard.
Could you conceivably make this your life’s work? That’s the path I’m on. The Ganges River in India is next. But I take the expeditions on a river-by-river basis, asking myself: If I could do only one more river, which would it be? Then I stay optimistic that I’ll find a way to make it happen. I’ve never been to Africa or South America, for example, so I try to imagine what it would be like to float the Nile or the Amazon. That’s what I’m working toward. Doing these expeditions is very important because obviously most people in the world cannot boat down these rivers for themselves. But if they can travel with me vicariously through writing, photography, and video, then they’ll be able to see the rivers as they are—whether beautiful or ruined. Sharing these experiences may make a difference in the future of these waterways.
Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler.