Rob Kesselring Talks Guiding, Canoeing, and Why He's Not Slowing Down

Rob Kesselring is well known in the canoeing community for his experience in the far north and his passion around guiding others on distant wilderness adventures. Rob has led 17 Arctic canoe trips, 62 Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) trips, and paddled 150 rivers worldwide. He has written two books and given numerous talks about his incredible canoe camping trips.

I caught up with Rob and asked him to tell me about how he got lured into the outdoors, what keeps him coming back for more, and just how it is lard continues to be one of his camp kitchen staples.

Rob canoeing the BWCA | Photo courtesy of Rob Kesselring

Rob canoeing the BWCA | Photo courtesy of Rob Kesselring

What was your first canoe trip?

My first canoe trip was an ambitious one. I bought the seventh Old Town Tripper hull at the factory in Old Town, Maine. I lashed it to the roof of my 1971 Toyota Land Cruiser and drove it up the Alaska Highway. I was planning to paddle the Yukon River, but when the ALCAN Highway was washed out at Fort Nelson, British Columbia (it was a dirt road in those days), I decided to put in on the Muskwua River. I thought it would eventually run into the Yukon. Despite my bachelor’s degree in Geography, I failed to realize that we were on the east side of the divide. The Muskwa River ran into the Fort Nelson River, then the Liard River, then the Mackenzie River, and finally the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk. I never did make it onto the Yukon River, but it was a great trip and a wonderful introduction to the Canadian Arctic.

What sparked your interest in the outdoors?

When I was in junior high, my [BSA] scout leader was an Aussie WWII vet. He was the kind of teacher who would draw a chalk circle on the blacktop surrounding all the scouts. Once you stepped out of the circle, you were eliminated, and the last scout still standing in the circle won. He was not exactly focused on merit badges; in fact, I never even made second class, but he sure knew how to build men.

Did you have any special mentors or learning experiences along the way?

Early on, Wally Monkmen, a tough Scot, taught me lots about the far north and self-reliance. Merlyn Carter, a true bush pilot, was my kindest and dearest friend until he was killed by a bear. Pete Lenmark, a Montana mountain man, helped me succeed on a rugged 760-mile pan-Arctic canoe trip. More recently, canoeists Cliff Jacobson, Sue Plankis, and Dan Cooke inspire me every time we paddle together.

Can you tell me about your time living in the north when you built an off-the-grid cabin near Baker Lake in Nunavut? I see a lot of people talking about this as a romantic idea, but what's the reality of it?

Rob canoeing the Burnside River in Nunavut | Photo courtesy of Rob Kesselring

Rob canoeing the Burnside River in Nunavut | Photo courtesy of Rob Kesselring

I built a log cabin 190 miles off the grid on Nonacho Lake, Northwest Territories. I built that cabin with a guidebook in one hand and a saw in the other. It proved to me that when you are young, enthusiasm can make up for a lack of competence. Sometimes I get criticized for encouraging young people to chase their dreams, even when it means throwing caution to the wind. I make no apology for that; too many of us die with our song still inside of us.

I lived in that cabin for 14 months without so much as a radio and with the nearest neighbors more than 75 miles away. It was a great year followed by a wild year of bumming around Asia and Oceania. Right after I finished those two years, I would have said the year of travel was more significant; but, in retrospect, and in my dreams and my daydreams, it was the year in the bush that was the more formative and powerful experience.

After traveling Asia and Oceania, I lived nine years in Fort Resolution and Hay River in the Northwest Territories. I started a small guiding business there with my 30-year-old Piper Super Pacer float/ski plane. I never made much money—a recurring theme in my life—but I enjoyed the life of a bush pilot on what was truly the last frontier.

You are the father of five daughters, and you've written about introducing your daughters to wilderness experiences (Daughter Father Canoe). At BMP, we’re interested in helping parents get their kids unplugged and into outdoor experiences. Do you have any quick advice or starting points for parents to help them get their kids more interested in the outdoors and less interested in the technology that keeps them indoors?

Rob and his daughter, Zoe, canoeing the Noatak | Photo courtesy of Rob Kesselring

Rob and his daughter, Zoe, canoeing the Noatak | Photo courtesy of Rob Kesselring

My advice is to take your sons and daughters on a long trip the summer after they turn 14-years-old. Just the two of you. If you’re really into the outdoors, take them on a canoeing, kayaking, backpacking, or sailing trip. If you’re not the outdoors type, think about taking them biking or a tramp steamer—whatever you’re comfortable doing—but go and listen. Of my top 10 lifetime experiences, five of those experiences have been my daughters' coming-of-age trips.

Have you had any significant changes or evolutions in your tripping style over the years?

The longer I camp, the more I try to simplify. I attempt to not barricade myself from, but rather, embrace nature. I do much less fishing and hunting and much more observing and studying.

I've had the pleasure of eating your camp chow, and seeing your trail kitchen system in action. You are known as somewhat of a lard connoisseur and a five-gallon bucket enthusiast. You're also regularly out on long, unsupported wilderness trips. Can you tell us a bit about what works for you as far as food and your camp kitchen?

When I travelled with the Dene people of far north Canada, all we would carry for provisions were a bag of flour, baking powder, salt, a pail of lard, and a sack of dried caribou. We never tired of bannock and, of course, we killed and ate anything that crossed our path. Now, I pack and eat modern foods, but I still stick to bannock made with white flour and lard as my mainstay.

Do you have a favorite weekend or close-to-home trip?

No, I am getting tired of all the noisy creeks and woodlots close to home with the tiled drainage, cornfields right up to the riverbanks, and the relentless advancing throb of civilization. There are moments of pleasure, but too often my mood is overshadowed by all the crap.

If you could redo one of your big Arctic trips, which would you choose? Would you do anything differently?

I did redo the Snowdrift, and it was fun, but a wee bit disappointing. It was a little as if I was watching a movie twice, even though it was a very good movie.  I am going to paddle the Noatak again this Summer, and maybe I would do the Hood River (Nunavut, Canada) or Nahanni River (Northwest Territories, Canada) again, but I think I would be wiser to search out new rivers. There are so many rivers and so little time.

Many of our readers are volunteer or professional outdoor leaders, and many aspire to be in such positions. What are the different requirements as far as skill, preparation, and mind-set between a proficient wilderness tripper and a wilderness guide? 

Here's the big difference: when I am guiding, I never exert myself more than 70%. I never know when I might need that 30%. Someone under my charge might get hurt or sick and need to be hauled out or rescued, so I always hold back. Trippers can go at it 100%. I envy that.

A lot of people are obsessed with the idea of "survival" today. Have you had any experiences that would fall under this category (e.g., any major wilderness emergencies)? If so, how did you handle the situation(s)? What do you think is most important to have with you in order to survive in the wilderness?

Canoeing the Rio Grande | Photo courtesy of Rob Kesselring

Canoeing the Rio Grande | Photo courtesy of Rob Kesselring

I've been lost a few times and hungry, too. I’ve been hurt and sick more than once. But you learn to pull yourself through. I like to carry a knife and a means to build fire, but ultimately, what’s in your head is far more important than what is in your pockets.

The trip I did with you on the Kopka River in Ontario was one of the best of my life! If someone is interested in joining you on one of your adventures, how do they go about it? Are novices welcome or is experience required?

I’m always excited to take people of all skill levels on my trips. On my website (www.RobKesselring.com), I have some marvelous trips scheduled for next Winter down in the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande in Texas—truly amazing, almost nineteenth century-like trips. And next Spring, I have some birding trips in the BWCA that I guarantee will teach you new things about nature and make you appreciate it even more (and you’ll have a blast doing it). Dan Cooke and I still have space in our Bushcraft and Paddling groups in October of 2014, too.

Speaking of big adventures, what’s next on your agenda?

In July, I leave for a 400-mile trip down the Noatak in Arctic Alaska.