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Water Borne: Dan Rubinstein to turn his 1900km SUP expedition into a new book

There’s something gripping about those lone riders of our sport, paddling impossible distances under the media radar.  They bring back something intrinsic to our collective SUP experience –  elements of curiosity, self-challenge and deep care for ‘blue space’. Discovering what drives them to just set off one day and embark on SUP adventures that may seem out of reach to many of us, is like finding new layers to our sport.

TotalSUP caught up with Dan Rubinstein, Ottawa-based Writer, Editor and stand-up paddleboarder, to talk about his latest SUP journey powered by Blackfish Paddles.

Dan’s SUP expedition – paddling from his home in Ottawa to Montreal, New York City and Toronto and then back home — via the Ottawa River, St. Lawrence River, Richelieu River, Lake Champlain, Champlain Canal, Hudson River, Erie Canada, Niagara River, Lake Ontario and Rideau River – is a story about immersive experience of human and natural ecosystems that lead to “opportunities for conversation. For interaction. A spark of connection across lines that usually divide us.”

Hi Dan, welcome to TotalSUP! Massive congratulations on completing your SUP expedition that has been fuelling your upcoming book – Water Borne. How are you settling in after this much time spent on the water and how is the writing going?

I’ll be honest — it’s tough being back home and back on land. I know from past experiences on long walking trips and from talking to adventurer friends how psychologically challenging it can be once that goal you’ve been stiving toward for so long and constant focus is gone, but I still wasn’t fully prepared for how lost I’ve been feeling in the past month, since I finished the final leg of my trip.

The Lock Tenders Tribute Monument at the historic flight of locks in Lockport, NY, on the Erie Canal. The sculpture is based on an 1897 photograph of lock tenders posing in this location.

I’m trying to come down from the expedition high in a healthy way: running and walking a lot, spending time with my family and friends, cooking and eating good meals, catching up on all of the domestic chores that I neglected because I away all summer. Finally fixed that basement toilet!

And I think I’m ready now to get back on my paddleboard again. I needed to take a break, to let my body heal, but I’m starting to miss it, which is a good sign. The writing is another story. I spent a few weeks rewriting and fine-tuning a very detailed book proposal, which I’m pretty happy with and my agent is going to shop around to publishers. So, I’m not working on the book itself yet, but I have a lot of smaller writing projects related to the expedition on the go: magazine travel stories, a presentation I’ll be doing at a conference next month, transcribing audio interviews … nobody likes transcribing interviews. That’s on my to-do list, but I think I’m going to go for a walk instead.

When did you discover the sport of stand-up paddleboarding and has long distance paddling been on your mind since the beginning of your SUP adventure?

I got into SUP about ten years ago, right around when I finished my first book, which is about the many amazing things that walking can do for our bodies, brains and communities. I rented a paddleboard in a provincial park we were camping at and loved it right away! It felt kind of like walking on water. I’m lucky to have learned from some amazing paddleboarders over the years on magazine assignments rooted in SUP trips: I did a paddle camp with Norm Hann in Belize, paddled and SUP surfed with Karl Krüger while sailing on his boat from the San Juan Islands to Tofino, and have done a couple trips with Simon Whitfield to the Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. The skills and SUP philosophies I absorbed from them sent me down the path to where I am today, especially Karl’s approach to long trips, which are about submitting to rather than “conquering” nature and exploring the human and natural ecosystems you’re travelling through.

Although I’ve become obsessed with whitewater and surfing both ocean and river waves, distance paddling is still one the main attractions to this sport for me. I did an overnight trip after just a couple years of paddleboarding: a one-night, 90-kilometre run on the Rideau River from Smiths Falls back to my home in Ottawa on my 10-6 all-round inflatable board, with a heavy aluminium paddle from a big box store. Despite that clunky gear and my lack of technique, it was awesome!

That set the stage for a lot of SUP camping trips, both by myself and with family and friends. Because the main river where I live, the Ottawa, flows toward Montreal, I’ve long been drawn to the idea, when I’m out there paddling, of getting onto the river and not stopping. That’s more or less where my recent expedition came from, wondering what it’d be like to get on my board and just keep going. I love the idea of travelling from one community and another by SUP. Or from one community to many other communities. And I love paddling in incongruous places, like big cities, that not everybody is drawn to. SUP is such a pared down mode of travel, which means you need to engage with the people and places along the way. It’s a really intimate way to experience the water.

You shared a compelling and relatable (on so many levels!) excerpt from your upcoming book – Was that the final drive behind your journey and how do you look at it now, back home?

“Anxious about environmental collapse, frightening by rampaging technology, uninspired at work, on the cusp of 50 and wrestling with my identity as my twin teenaged daughters left the nest, I knew that I needed to go for a good, long paddle. Exotic, distant places have a strong appeal, yet I’ve always been drawn to adventures close to home. To walk out the door with everything I might need for a couple months and complete a big circle. To challenge myself. And figure out some shit along the way.”

Well, I don’t know how much I managed to figure out — I probably have even more questions about myself and the world now than I did before. But that blurb is still pretty accurate. One of the main things I wanted to explore on this trip was the healing potential of “blue space” — to see how being in, on or around water can enhance our mental and physical health and our sense of stewardship toward the natural world.

That’s something I felt really strongly on this trip, and the people I met along the way who work in this area — at the nexus of health, community, equity, sustainability and water — they really impressed me with their passion and dedication to making the world a better place, for everybody, by carving out and protecting public access to blue space. But what I didn’t expect, the thing that surprised me most, was how powerfully water serves as a conduit to connecting with strangers.

Whether because of the slower pace it often dictates, or because it can be dangerous and deadly and the code of the mariner compels strangers to look out for each other, or because of our deep-rooted biopsychological bond to this magical molecular combination with two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen, when water is part of the picture people seem to have time and receptivity. There are opportunities for conversation. For interaction. A spark of connection across lines that usually divide us.

Relaxing on the swinging bench right beside my tent in Newark, NY. I was camping outside the town’s Erie Canal visitor centre, which paddlers are permitted to the do. The cafe behind me, where I got a delicious iced coffee and brownie, is a social enterprise run by a local non-profit that provides employment and other supports for people with developmental disabilities.

Ottawa – Montreal – New York City – Toronto – Ottawa – A total of 1900km covered on a paddleboard in 10 weeks – What were the toughest aspects of that journey?

The toughest paddling conditions I’ve ever experienced, more challenging than anything I’ve encountered in the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, were on Lake Ontario. I had a 45-kilometre paddle one day in August from St. Catharines, Ontario, to Burlington, around the western tip of the lake. There was a pretty tame wind from the east at dawn, which was pushing me kind of where I wanted to go. But the wind built and built throughout the day, giving the waves all of the lake’s nearly 200-mile fetch to develop. By mid-afternoon, they were four or five feet high and close together, hitting me on the side as I paddled northwest about 100 metres offshore.

I had to fight to keep the nose of my SUP pointed in the right direction and stay on the board. I had to really focus on each wave as it hit me. That was exhausting, paddling on my left side for eight hours and concentrating intensely for so long. I ended up surf crashing into a beach just a couple miles from the channel that would have taken me into the sheltered waters of Burlington Bay. I headed to shore because my body told me I needed a rest, and once I dragged my SUP and drybags out of the breaking waves I realized that there was no way I could re-load the board and get back on the water. Thankfully, the friend who lives near the marina I had hoped to reach was fine with driving a few extra minutes to pick me up.

I had another really tough day at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, dealing with another strong crosswind, this one from the west. I battled for about three hours to try to get around the point that would have taken me into the bay where my wife and some friends were camping. But I just couldn’t make it around that point, so I surf crashed into the adjacent beach and called my friends for a ride. Beyond those days, conditions on the water were fine. I had to get off at the last minute to dodge a few lightning storms and fight through some nasty headwinds on the Hudson River, but that’s part of the fun. It was tough dealing with extreme heat for most of July, however. Humid days above 30 Celsius when I padded 30-plus miles. I just had to be sure I stayed hydrated and jumped in frequently to cool off, even in water than might not have been all that clean. Heat stroke vs. E. coli — I chose to risk the latter to avoid the former.

“Serendipitous encounters with others who are drawn to the water” – Could you tell us about your most memorable encounters?

There were so many! Strangers in boats and along the shore gave me food and cold drinks, offered me valuable advice and places to stay, and just encouraged me to keep going, which meant a lot. A couple experiences do stand out.

Kristen and Chris offered me a lift in their boat part way to my destination on Oneida Lake on the Erie Canal. I was heading west and the wind was blowing hard from the west, making for very wavy and challenging conditions on the shallow, 20-mile-long lake. Unfortunately, their motor conked out about halfway to the marina where they were going to drop me off, so I put my SUP in the water and loaded my drybags amid the swells in the middle of lake and battled my way to the shore so I could pick my way between points to get where I wanted to go.

In late July, at the end of a long, sweltering day on the Erie Canal, just shy of the RV park where I planned to camp, racing to beat an approaching storm, I heard somebody holler, “Take a break, have a beer!” from a boat moored at a marina. Why not, I thought, and joined Matt Donahue and his family on the back of their cruiser. After giving me a cold bottle of water and cold can of beer, he asked about my journey. “That’s amazing,” he said, happy because somebody was doing something with no discernible purpose. A former U.S. Navy Seebee, Donahue told me the construction battalion’s motto: “The difficult takes time; the impossible, a little longer.” Then he gave me a hug — a real hug — and I thought: where else do two men who’ve just met share a moment like this?

I was nearing the end of a long, hot paddle to a campground in Weedsport on the Erie Canal when I heard somebody yell, “Slow down! Have a beer,” from a boat moored at a marina. I joined Matt Donahue and his family on their boat for a cold bottle of water and cold can of beer, and still remember the hug we shared before I left.

A week or so later, as I approached the western end of the Erie, I stopped to camp beside the downtown dock in a small city called Albion, as I had been doing in communities throughout my trip, but something felt off. Maybe it was the fact I had to get the code to the bathroom door from the police station, which had SWAT vehicles parked outside. Maybe it was the drug deal I saw right after hauling my board onto shore. Maybe it was the unhoused man sleeping in the bushes, although there’s a fine line between being on a paddling trip and looking unhoused. Earlier that day, I had met a couple beside the canal. When I told Sue and Doug that I planned to stay in Albion, they said it was their hometown and offered to meet me with some snacks. Happy for the company and food, I said yes, and then realized, when they showed up, that they were probably checking on me. “Is it safe to camp here?” I asked. “We’re not sure,” Sue said. She phoned her brother, who lived on the other side of the canal, and he let me tent in his backyard for the night.

Did it ever get lonely out there, paddling on your own?

Good question. I’d say yes and no. I’d think about a lot of different things while paddling: the logistics of that particular day — how many miles to go, when and where to take a break, where to buy more food, the weather — as well as the logistics of the trip as a whole. I’d also be thinking about the people I’d met and was scheduled to meet, and what I’d talked to them or planned to talk to them about. Sometimes, I didn’t think about anything at all. I get lost in the rhythm of each paddle stroke and my mind drifts. Hours go by; it’s so meditative. That prevents me from feeling lonely. Also, because I had interviews set up along my route, I had great conversations at least every couple days. Sometimes, in the evenings, if I was camping, I was keen to not be by myself — but there were often folks fishing or picnicking or just hanging out in the places where I camped, and that human contact prevented me for feeling alone. And sometimes I wanted to be alone, whether it was on the water or having a whole island to myself at night.

Thomas Bruggman (in purple) and his friend Gary Lantinen beside the Erie Canal is Gasport, NY. Bruggmam runs an amazin off-the-radar campground, Tomtuga, which he shuttled me to for the night and then back to the water in the morning. Lantinen joined me in his kayak for my final few miles one day and then for my first few miles the next morning, and it was great to have somebody to talk to on the water after paddling so much on my own.

Blackfish Paddles were “powering” your expedition – What was your paddle set up and could you share your experience with the paddles you used and the brand?

I used a three-piece Blackfish Andaman 520 for every mile and it was perfect. It’s so light and durable — it still looks practically brand new, even though I gave it a pretty good beating on rocks and concrete. There were long stretches when I was in the zone, paddling hard without making a splash or a sound, and the Andaman felt like an extension of my body. It was great on my hands. I developed some pretty good calluses after a couple weeks and didn’t have any problems with blisters after that, despite paddling 10 to 12 hours a day for 10 weeks.

I also had a three-piece Blackfish Nootka in fishskin as my backup paddle; it felt great on a couple of training runs but I didn’t need to use it on my expedition. The three-piece paddles came in handy during transfers over land — like when I bused back up to Albany from New York City after paddling down the Hudson — because I could fit them both in the board bag with my deflated SUP and pump. They also served a convenient clotheslines in a pinch!

What have you learnt about our waterways and local ecosystems as you paddled? From your observations are we in a state of climate emergency?

Yes, we’re definitely in a climate emergency. I dealt with a lot of wildfire smoke in Quebec and New York State. There was one day, on Lake Champlain, when I had a three or so mile open-water crossing from a headland to Plattsburgh and I couldn’t see the far shore because of the smoke. It was also crazy hot a lot of the time. And although I had a couple planned days off the water on the lower Hudson to rest and do some interviews, there was an unprecedented rainstorm right where I was that weekend that washed out roads and train tracks. One person was killed when she was swept away by a flash flood. Climate change was one of the reasons I wanted to do this trip. Understanding aquatic ecosystems and our relationships with them will be crucial if we’re going to have any chance of mitigating some of the most dangerous and deadly impacts of our warming world.

The historic Saugerties Lighthouse, on the Hudson River about 45 miles south of Albany, NY.

Thankfully, on the other hand, a lot of the waterways I paddled on are actually pretty healthy. I spent time with freshwater researchers on Lake Champlain and Oneida Lake, a 20-mile-long lake in the middle of the Erie Canal, and they’re both fairly healthy. It wasn’t always that way, of course. The Hudson River was tainted by toxic pollution in the 1960s; it was declared “dead” at one point. But that sparked an environmental awakening, and the Hudson is now a biodiverse, thriving estuary. It’s the same story with, say, Lake Ontario and the Ottawa River. Both were very polluted and are now quite clean. Even the Erie Canal, which was created for shipping and was a largely industrial route, now has long stretches where plants and animals have rebounded. That gives me hope.

From your journalistic SUP expedition and meeting people along the way, how do you look at our affinity to the “blue space”?

Blue space is good for us in so many ways, but what I discovered, beyond its impact on our health, and its ability to encourage what researchers call “pro-environmental behaviour,” to want to take care of the planet, is that its capacity to nurture connections between people may be the most important attribute of all. On our polarized planet, when we can’t even agree on the causes of climate change let alone how we might possibly confront it, isn’t anything that nurtures kinship a path worth pursuing?

What’s next and when can we expect the book to be published?

Next is, hopefully, a lot of writing. If things work out, Water Borne should be published in Spring 2025, or maybe later that year. That said, if there’s one thing this trip has taught me, it’s that you never know what’s on the horizon, or where your journey will lead, and that the universe doesn’t care about your plans. So, fingers crossed 2025, but we’ll see. Regardless, I’m going to be back on my boards soon and, although the frozen water season is coming up here in Ottawa, I’m already looking forward to early Spring when the ice melts and the river is cooking and the standing waves we surf are at their best.

Thank you for sharing your amazing story Dan – We can’t wait to see your book published!

Dan Rubinstein is an Ottawa-based, National Magazine Award-winning writer and editor and the former editor of Canadian Geographic magazine. He contributes to publications such as The Walrus, enRoute and The Globe and Mail. His first book, Born To Walk: The Transformative Properties of a Pedestrian Act, was a finalist for the City of Ottawa Book Award and Kobo Emerging Author Award. To find out more, visit waterborne.ca

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*Images courtesy of Dan Rubinstein

About the Author

Anna Nadolna

Anna is the Founder of SUPer Whale, a Cambridge(UK!)-based emerging watersports brand and a stand-up paddleboarding community. She is a certified SUP Flat Water Instructor accredited by International Surfing Association (ISA). Anna is also a digital marketing, storytelling aficionado and a growth hacking enthusiast.

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