The smile was huge and the body a good deal thinner.
Paul Gauvreau, 50, paddled up to the dock in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue just as it began to rain lightly, Tuesday. Family and friends cheered as the tanned and unshaven paddle-boarder from Gatineau completed the final metres in his 1,271-km trip down the Ottawa River.
It is the first time a paddle-boarder has made the trip, which involved 25 gruelling portages in the first six days. One portage alone took five return trips to complete. Board, bags, and supplies — piece by piece — he plowed through the untamed bush again and again.
Gauvreau made the trip to raise money for the Ste-Justine children’s hospital.
Eighteen years ago, Gauvreau and his wife Véronique were told their daughter, Marie-Sol, had a heart condition which, left untreated, would have ended her life before she reached her teens. Doctors Joaquim Miro and Suzanne Vobecky cured her and now the 19 year old is travelling through Europe.
Gauvreau has never forgotten what the doctors and their team did for his family and he wanted to give back.
Gauvreau’s 16-year-old son Joachim — named for Dr. Miro — paddled with his dad for the first 325 km. They had plans to paddle up to 40 kilometres a day, but that goal was dashed by the second night. Spirits were low.
“We went 8 km the first day,” Gauvreau said. “It seemed like every five minutes there was another portage. We knew that if we were to continue, we had to lower our expectations.”
The sometimes harrowing, always wet and often cold trip took 43 days. Gauvreau dropped at least 25 pounds, surviving on dried food and grains like oatmeal and rice, which he could mix with a little hot water.
During the first five days, family members back in Quebec were worried. The paddlers had what is called a “Spot” device with them. The Spot has three buttons and a GPS locator. One button alerts monitors that everything is okay. Gauvreau “spotted” at noon and 6 p.m., daily. The second button indicates the paddler wants to be picked up within 48 hours. The third button launches a search & rescue mission. Family could tell Gauvreau wasn’t getting very far each day and they didn’t know why.
Older brother Marcel drove up to intercept the paddlers.
“I waited on a bridge for eight hours for them to arrive,” Marcel Gauvreau said. “Once we met, everyone’s moral shifted. They began doing 20, 30, 40 kilometres a day.”
Gauvreau took a six-month leave from his job at the Casino du Lac-Leamy in Gatineau to prepare for and complete the trip. Part of the preparation involved modifying his 14-foot, 47-pound paddle boat to better handle the rapids. The last 851 km of the adventure were spent mostly alone.
“I was alone, but I wasn’t lonely,” Gauvreau said. “I knew I was being monitored. And I was so busy all the time navigating and making sure things were safe — that the days went quickly. But I did miss being able to take off my wet clothes and taking a hot shower.”
Gauvreau spent much of the trip soaked to the bone. At night he would strip off the wet clothes and slip into the sleeping bag. The next day, he’d pull on the wet clothes.
One quiet morning after a cup of tea, he startled a black bear. From then on he made considerable noise while he was setting up and striking camp.
But his most frightening moment occurred 9 km north of Lac Simon while he was pushing the paddle boat through rapids — you can’t stand on a paddle board and navigate rapids. He lost his footing and smashed his wrist on a rock. The badly swollen wrist resulted in a three-day break while he brother tracked him down through the bush to give him medication and a wrist support.
“The wrist didn’t look good. I was afraid the trip was over at that point,” Gauvreau said.
Gauvreau doesn’t know what challenge he will take up next, but he did know what he would be doing Tuesday night. First, a hot shower and then a meal of lamb chops with the family.
At deadline, Gauvreau had raised $5,169.80 for the hospital. His goal is to raise $12,710 — $10 for every kilometre paddled.
To donate, visit http://Site.fondationstejustine.org/Decouvreriviereoutaouais