FEATURE: From New Orleans to Nome by canoe
There are only a few ways to get to Nome. The most convenient way is to be born here. Or you can come on the big jet or you can come by boat, or by snowmachine or dog sled. Steamships were the best way before aviation.Jerry Pushcar came by canoe, all the way from New Orleans. For nearly three years Pushcar paddled, dragged and carried his Old Town canoe with Nome his destination. Since his arrival some 42 years ago he’s spent most of his time here, mining and raising a family.
Pushcar’s tale is detailed in his book “Waters Beneath My Feet,” published in 2018. Along the journey he took photos and made notes that have gone into the book, which is available in both print and Kindle versions.
Jerry Pushcar was born and raised in Biwabik, Minnesota, a small town in the northern part of the state. He spent his youth canoeing the many lakes and rivers for which Minnesota is known. All that paddling led up to his epic journey to Nome. “I’d done quite a few trips before that,” he said. “I went from there up to Hudson’s Bay, and to Churchill. My canoe got smashed so I had to walk 110 miles.”
At the age of 25 he was working as a lab tech at Northwest Steel, just south of St. Paul, Mn. “We were testing rebar,” he said. “Pull it apart to make sure it’s strong enough before it breaks. Bend it, make sure it bends.”
When he set off on his long journey to Nome, he was financially stable, had money in the bank and a good paying job. “I wanted something that burned deep within me and could not be extinguished,” he writes in the book. “Etched into my very soul was a desire, a scrimshawed collage of tales and Indians, voyageurs, trappers, canoeists, homesteaders, and adventurers captured me.” His plan was to paddle his 17-foot canoe up the Mississippi from New Orleans, cross Central Canada, traverse the Richardson Mountains, then follow the Yukon to the Bering Sea. From there he’d paddle 400 miles through saltwater to Nome. It was a 9,000-mile journey and his only companion would be Blizzard, a six-week old Samoyed.
With canoe on the roof and the car packed full of what was going on the trip, he and a lab tech friend arrived in New Orleans. The Super Bowl was going on there and the town was even more animated than usual. Told by a police officer he couldn’t put the canoe in at the waterfront without a permit, he and his buddy drove a few miles north to a place where they could launch. On Jan 10, 1975, the long journey began. His arrival in Nome on Nov. 10. 1977 was nearly three years away.
The conditions on the Mississippi were tough but not impossible. Reading of his struggle with barges, strong currents, and huge distances to cover it’s apparent that his will power was strong and his commitment to the journey unwavering. But did he ever have moments when he questioned what he’d taken on? “Never did,” he replied to the question in his cozy Front St. home. At times he walked and pulled the canoe along, at portages he’d have to carry everything. Three or four times the canoe turned over. He lost camera gear and had to replace it. Fortunately, he’d mail his film to his brother every three weeks or so, so the photos of the trip were safe. He kept journals, ending up with seven or eight full size notebooks. The details in the book are testimony to his daily entries.
“I ate a lot of blueberries and fish,” he said in answer to a question about what he ate along the way. “But a lot of times I didn’t.” The second winter he went through 250 lbs of flour, mostly baking bannock, frying pan bread. He shot animals also. “Mostly ptarmigans and rabbits,” he said. “And I ate a lot of fish, squirrels and muskrats.”
The first winter he spent in northern Minnesota where he rented an abandoned farmhouse for $35 a month. The second winter he built himself a cabin near Fort Chippewan in Northern Saskatchewan, on the Slave River. He got to know a local Athabascan family and on Valentine’s Day two girls from the family brought him a piece of moose meat. “It got to where kerosene would kind of gel,” he said. “But it got me through the winter. When I’d wake up it was just about as cold inside as out. The fire would go out and I wouldn’t start it until morning.” The closest village had a restaurant and a Hudson’s Bay Store.
Once spring came, he headed up the Slave River to the Great Slave Lake. And from there it was on to the McKenzie River. That led him to a smaller river which climbed to a high lake and from there he had to portage a couple hundred miles to the Porcupine. From then on it was downstream. He hit the Bering Sea at Kotlik.
Leaving Kotlik he faced 400 miles of ocean. “I stuck to the shore and then got to Shaktoolik,” he said. “Around Cape Denbigh I got froze in. Spent ten days waiting for the wind to die down and when it did, it froze solid.” He ditched the canoe and began to walk. Nome was 250 miles away. Asked how it was on the open ocean, he answered: “It’s no place for an open canoe, I know that!” Along the way people in the villages extended hospitality, fed him, and one even offered to buy him a plane ticket to Nome. He declined and pushed on. He stayed in an empty building in Solomon where an old newspaper revealed that Elvis had died.
Jerry Pushcar walked into Nome on Nov. 12, 1977.
Was his intention to remain in Nome for good? “No, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he replied. “I’d never been here, I didn’t know anybody. I had nine cents in my pocket.” But one good thing led to another. “I found an old place to remodel for the rent, then I met some nice people.” He mentions Jim Rowe. His new place of residence was up behind the old telephone office. Chuck Reader owned it and for renovating it, he lived rent free. “I worked some odd carpentry jobs here and there and then I worked for Alaska Gold that next summer,” he said. At Alaska Gold he worked on the boilers of the dredge. The following summer, after a trip to St. Paul to fetch his future wife, he journeyed to Kotzebue and from there to Selawik. One hundred miles inland from Selawik, near Koyuk, he built a cabin and they spent the winter. They were booted out by the BLM and returned to Nome. Since then he’s been most of the time in Nome. He and his wife travelled to Minnesota twice for the delivery of their two boys, now 38 and 35. He has mined on his own, staked a bunch of claims on Hungry Creek. He did carpentry work for Bering Straits for 20 years then went to work on the dredge BIMA for four years. “It was a big bucket line dredge out in the ocean. We worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day for six or seven months. Then went on with panning. They’d drill through the ice. Suck up the dirt and then we’d pan it and send the results to the lab.”
Now Jerry Pushcar is retired. He goes to camp in the summer. In the winter he can be seen working at his impressive wood pile on Front Street. He estimates he burns five cords of wood each winter. Out behind the house is a green canoe. His epic journey is in the distant past but will be part of him forever.