Who is Bob O’Hara?

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    Profile photo of Micmac

    Canoeing.com would like to dedicate this Forum to Bob O’Hara who has traveled 40 consecutive years to the Far North and 50 year in the Quetico Superior region– noteworthy accomplishments. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge his continued commitment to sharing his knowledge and experiences with other paddlers. He has always gone out of his way to help others reach the far north and make the most of their trips. Bob always remembers that canoeing is about the experience and not the exploits. His spirit perpetuates the joy of canoeing and honors its tradition and history. To know Bob O’Hara is to know a very special man.

    Profile photo of Charlie

    Bob is indeed a special fellow!

    When my paddling partner and I asked to pick his brain about a 2005 trip down the Kazan that we were planning, Bob cooked us supper, toured us through his in-home Inuit art museum, annotated our maps, and passed the entire evening with us.

    (I remember getting home after midnight!)

    I’m eager to hear Bob talk about his recent Hood River trip at Saturday’s Far North Symposium in St. Paul.

    — Charlie

    Profile photo of paddleramj

    I recently had the pleasure of touring the “Bob O’Hara Museum” when I interviewed him for an upcoming feature on Canoeing.com (watch the advanced paddler section in the coming day or two!). I have never had five hours pass so quickly, he was so full of stories and great conversation. Not to mention, he puts on a great spread for lunch.

    But seriously, he’s one of the most generous and knowledgeable paddlers I’ve met in a while. I got to take a look at his photo album from the Hood River trip – if they’re any indication, this weekend’s presentation is bound to be a good one.


    Profile photo of LeeSessions

    Stories From the Archives
    By Lee Sessions

    I was a presenter at the Far North Symposium this past weekend and had the honor of recognizing Bob’s paddling contributions on behalf of a group of Bob’s friends. Tim Eaton suggested I post this note with other paddlers who may not know Bob.

    I met Bob in the early 80s. I was working at Northern Tier High Adventure base in Ely each summer. Bob passed through the canoe base in June as a warm-up trip before heading to the Arctic. Bob made friends easily. Despite the busy life he led, he always took time to write letters. This was before eMail, and back when the cost of long distance calls made them a special treat versus an ordinary convenience we take for granted. Bob often stayed up well past midnight in his final flurry of packing for his arctic trips, but took the time to send off a final letter before the long drive to Yellowknife. “It’s 2AM, and too hot and muggy to sleep. We are set to leave at 5….,” was a typical opening line.

    In August 1986, Bob provided a cover for the canoe I was planning to use for my paddle on the Mississippi River, and a note to my mother when we visited his trailer in St. Louis Park five weeks into our trip. The weather was turning cold, and Bob insisted I borrow his warmer sleeping bag and gave us numerous other “mandatory” suggestions for our own good. This turned out to be a good thing when we encountered freezing rain and some very cold and icy paddling conditions in October.

    At the time, I remember my wide-eyed wonder at how anyone could fit so much stuff into his trailer. Horizontal surfaces were all stacked several feet high with books, magazines and unusual objects including bones and artifacts. There was not enough room on the vertical surfaces for all his posters and artwork. It was part museum, part art gallery, part library, and part LL Bean showroom. He had stacks of original Baker Lake framed prints leaning against the wall behind his couch, and piles of maps and tubes of posters, bags of gorp, Nalgene bottles, and photos scattered throughout the small trailer. Gear overflowed to his storage shed, stuffed with skis, packs, tents, and red-dipped canoe paddles.

    Now I have similar piles of maps, photos, journals and books scattered about my house. We hardly slept during the days of our visit. We fixed up our gear and shopped, and stayed up into the wee hours every night looking at old trip slides as Bob told stories about the Arctic. It was then, in the Fall of 1986, that I first knew I had to paddle to the Arctic. Bob was a great inspiration. But I was just out of college and was not able to join Bob on a canoe trip until several years later.

    One summer I joined Bob on a 10 day trip from Atikokan to Ely, along with Dennis and Brett Allaman and the son of one of Bob’s high school buddies from California. He picked me up from the airport, handled all the food and gear, and regaled me with stories of Arctic adventure before and after the trip. At the time, it was a big deal for me to scrape together the money to fly to the Midwest. Bob made it easy and inexpensive. I heard stories about his descent of the Quoich River with Duke Watson, most likely a first descent, and many other tales of adventure.

    Bitten by the Arctic Bug

    I always wanted to make a trip to Hudson Bay. Bob started cooking up a trip I could join.

    A few years later it came to be. Known now as “The Great Caribou River Expedition,” the trip was initially billed as a ‘family float trip,’ to ‘the accessible arctic’. We drove to Lynn Lake, Manitoba for a great adventure. In retrospect, it was a tough trip, and even with Bob’s planning, and a challenging route for a bunch of greenhorns. I have since spoken and written much about the Caribou River. It was, above all, a great adventure and introduction to the Arctic. This was the first trip where we used Dan Cooke’s “O’Hara design” covers.

    Bob invited me to paddle the Kazan River in ’93. He planned a 30 day trip on the Finnie River, but plans changed, and he decided to repeat the Kazan, which he had paddled twenty years earlier. I have paddled sixteen major rivers, including long ones like the Back and Dubawnt, and nine trips with Bob. My third trip with Bob was in 1998, when he and I paddled the Hanbury, just the two of us. It was a real departure from the longer trips and the full crew of six we had on most trips. We enjoyed a nice pace and plenty of time to explore, hike, and enjoy the wildlife, which was abundant. The bush pilot also failed to find us for the flight home, though we waved and signaled and shot flares and smoke as he flew right over us several times. I also joined Bob’s trips on the Ellice, Armark, Kuujjuua, Bailliee, Arrowsmith, and Hood.

    I spent several years overseas, and Bob was very helpful and supportive of my trip plans during those years. He helped hook me up with fellow paddlers, provided route advice and suggestions about gear and food. I paddled a number of rivers he had already done and had no interest in repeating: Thelon, Quoich, Back, Coppermine, Kunwak, and Clarke. Bob provided advice and encouragement, and shared his knowledge about the rivers, interesting sites to see, and thoughts about getting in and out. Over the years, we have had a lot of fun planning trips, exploring ideas, and getting together each year at the annual Far North Symposium for a reunion of sorts.

    Paddling with Bob is always interesting. Though we are a generation apart, he has been a great mentor who leads by example and revels in the wonders of the Arctic, the changes taking place in the environment, the history and culture of the North and its people. He is quick to adopt new technologies, always eager to meet new people and share everything he knows, and also aware of his limitations. I have seen Bob grow his paddling skills and confidence, try new and different menu items, and paddle with diverse groups. I have learned from Bob to always be prepared, to plan for the unexpected, to roll with the punches, and also learned a few things that fall into the category of “what not to do.” Experience is a great teacher.


    With Bob’s ‘gentle guidance’ and encouragement I now have my own stories to tell to future generations of paddlers.

    Those stories often feature the man in red, attempting to provide “encouragement” to his poor bow paddler, learning to line a canoe safely through a rapid, or encountering a herd of muskox too close for comfort. And because he also pokes fun at himself and willingly shares his adventures and mishaps, it would be nice to share some of these stories with a wider audience. His narrative and description paint a picture. One laughs and wants to cry, hearing what happened when his bear spray went off in a pack after his Thlewiaza trip. Imagine Bob rolling around on the floor of his hotel room in Churchill in pain. The story of Bob, Fred Gaskin and Jack Purchase paddling against the tide on Hudson Bay, having been dropped into the ocean from a ship bound for Montreal, to get to Chesterfield in the middle of the night, only to find out there is no scheduled air service. Bob’s encounters with the French speaking first mate and the Ship Captain’s coffee mug on the ship from Baker Lake to Chesterfield, his story of near disaster with an elderly Inuit piloting the high seas in a freighter canoe en route to Rankin Inlet. Bob pulled out the pots from his pack and everyone bailed repeatedly in an effort to have more water outside the boat than inside. Then they got stuck on Marble Island with no water. Imagine Bob collecting rainwater for tea with his sierra cup. Imagine Bob sawing up $200 wooden racing paddles to build a fire in a wind driven rain when the stoves failed in Quebec. Or hiding from the Gendarmes in Eaton Canyon as the plane circled overhead, because they failed to hire a French speaking guide on the Caniapiscau. (The instructions were in French!) Picture Bob’s first meeting with Barnabus Peryour on the Thelon River in 1969: these are classics and should be documented for future generations. We have snippets of these stories on video and in our trip journals.

    There are few people who so willingly share their enthusiasm and passion for paddling as Bob does. His longstanding love affair with the North and the adventures it brings calls him back year after year. I am amazed he keeps finding new rivers to explore. This is also an inspiration to me. I met Bob when I was 23. I am 45 now. He’s got about 20 years on me and hasn’t slowed down in his pursuit of wilderness rivers. Few people will paddle as many rivers as Bob has. For most, it is just not possible to get out year after year as family and work and other activities intervene. But Bob has continued to find a way, each summer, always bringing others along and sharing in each adventure as if it is his very first. When he climbs into a bush plane for the flight out to the tundra, his eyes light up and he smiles like a little boy with an ear to ear grin. This sense of adventure is contagious. Let’s hope we all catch it. Let’s hope we can sustain this spirit of exploration, looking at Bob’s longevity as an example.

    Bob has made a lasting contribution and positive impact on many people over the years. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to paddle with him on many of these adventures and to count him as a friend. And I am not alone: Many of Bob’s friends contributed to this surprise recognition in appreciation of his 50 years of wilderness canoeing and his passion for adventure.

    Hats off to you Bob. Keep on keeping the round side down!
    Lee Sessions

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    Profile photo of Boneli

    I too was fortunate in being introduced to Bob and invited him on our Seal River trip which remains on his bucket list as of 2009. He first signed up but other commitments would not allow his partnering with us. He did let us use his red “Tuktu” and spray deck which allowed us to descend the Seal River safely this year!

    Bob’s a great guy and very generous in his knowledge.


    Profile photo of mrlousi7

    it is just not possible to get out year after year as family and work and other activities intervene. But Bob has continued to find a way, each summer, always bringing others along and sharing in each adventure as if it is his very first. When he climbs into a bush plane for the flight out to the tundra, his eyes light up and he smiles like a little boy with an ear to ear grin. This sense of adventure is contagious. Let’s hope we all catch it. Let’s hope we can sustain this spirit of exploration, looking

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