In the summer of 1975, Jerry Pushcar was paddling up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. After seven months, he arrived in Prescott, Wis. He’d been paddling since early January, and was ready for a few days off the water before moving on to his final destination: Alaska.
Pushcar grew up in Biwabik, Minn., and had worked as a laboratory technician at North Star Steel in Cottage Grove. He had a good job and money in the bank. But at 25 years old, he wanted more.
“Etched into my very soul was a desire — a scrimshawed collage of Indians, voyageurs, trappers, canoeing, log cabins, and adventure,” he writes in his newly published account of the 9,000-mile trip, “Waters Beneath My Feet: New Orleans to Nome … My 3-Year Canoe Odyssey.”
That summer of ’75, while resting at his brother’s house in Bloomington, he was summoned by Minneapolis Star columnist Jim Klobuchar. The two had occasionally been in touch by phone, but hadn’t met in person. Now they sat in Klobuchar’s cubicle as Pushcar told stories from the river. The next morning, he was front page news: “Canoeist licks Old Man River on long haul to Nome,” read the headline.
Pushcar was no stranger to such epic voyages. A few years before, he had paddled 2,000 miles from Grand Portage to Hudson Bay. On that trip, up near Churchill, Manitoba, he shot a goose, then slept in the canoe. In the morning, he came across large polar bear tracks a hundred feet away. Soon after that he had to change his route because someone told him there were roughly 26 polar bears ahead. But the point was moot: One night on the Nelson River, while sleeping on a barge, the tide came in and smashed his canoe to pieces. Pushcar had to walk 110 miles to catch the train home.
Instead of scratching his adventure itch, that trip just made it worse. So in 1975, Pushcar set off on a trip that no one, to his knowledge, had ever done: from New Orleans to Nome. After his meeting with Klobuchar, he went back to Prescott and continued up the St. Croix River, then portaged over to the Brule River. From there he made his way down to Lake Superior, then skirted the shore until he came to Grand Portage. There he climbed the 9-mile trail over the Sawtooth Mountains to the Pigeon River. He paddled through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but winter arrived, so he rented an old farmhouse north of Williams, Minn., for $35 a month.
In the spring, he pressed on Lake of the Woods, then another 6,000 miles through Canada. Once he was sleeping under his canoe with his dog tied to it. In the night the dog jerked the boat, and Pushcar woke up to find a pack of wolves trying to lure the dog away. When winter came, he spent 10 days building a small log cabin in the woods to stay in until spring.
When the ice broke, he moved across Canada, into Yukon Territory, where he had to drag his canoe 51 miles up the braided, shallow Rat River into Summit Lake. From there it was all downhill, down the Yukon River, through Alaska and into the Bering Sea where he continued another 500 miles along the coast. He canoed on the ocean, past killer whales, walruses and grizzly bears. When the water finally froze — his third winter — he had to walk the last 250 miles, shouldering a 50-pound pack the rest of the way to Nome. He arrived Nov. 12, 1977, and has lived there to this day.
The journey took Pushcar nearly three years. In Nome, he wrote his story using his journals, and tried to get it published. He even wrote to Eric Sevareid, author of “Canoeing with the Cree,” to ask if he would help write it. Severeid wrote back from CBS headquarters (where he was a news anchor) and told Pushcar he needed to write the story himself.
So he did. For a few years, he tried to find a publisher, but had no idea how to do such a thing. So his story sat in a drawer until now, when an old Biwabik friend named David Setnicker, who had worked in digital printing, agreed to help him self-publish. So now, more than 40 years after Minneapolis Star readers first got wind of Pushcar’s paddle, the full story has emerged.
Since landing in Alaska, Pushcar found his living working on a gold dredger in the Bering Sea, and more recently as a carpenter. Now he lives part time in a cabin in the mountains where he mines gold for himself, and is at work on a second book about his other big adventure — a year he and his late wife spent living in the woods near the Arctic Circle, north of Nome.
Recently, Pushcar was in Minnesota to sign copies of his book.
“Do it,” he said, when asked what advice he had for people thinking about adventures like his. “I meet a lot of people who say, ‘Oh, I wish I would have done something like that.’ Do it while you can.”
Frank Bures is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.