Meet Nate Ptacek

Paddle to DC: A Quest for Clean Water from Nate Ptacek on Vimeo.


Can you give us a little introduction into who you are?

My name is Nate Ptacek – I am a photographer, filmmaker, and wilderness canoeist originally hailing from the northern Great Lakes region of Wisconsin and Minnesota. I moved west to California about 5 years ago for a job at Patagonia, but still maintain strong ties to the homeland, and head north every summer to paddle.

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You’ve done a few wild canoeing trips now, what were your favorites?

During college I worked as a canoe outfitter in the Boundary Waters – a pristine, million-acre wilderness of lakes and boreal forest stretching along the Minnesota-Canadian border. It’s absolutely magical and my favorite place on earth. But the past few years I’ve been heading much further north for month-long expeditions in the Alaskan arctic.

In 2013 I paddled the Noatak River, which flows from the Brooks Range out to the Chukchi Sea and was teeming with grizzlies – we saw 23 over the course of the trip, including a mother with three cubs that came to fish about 50 feet from our camp. Last year I did the Colville River, which flows across the entire North Slope and finishes north of 70° on the Beaufort Sea. Both rivers were about 450 miles long each, and entirely above the Arctic Circle – which means 24-hour daylight, clouds of mosquitoes, and complete and utter solitude out on the tundra.


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What kind of planning and logistical strategy go into doing a 450 mile trip?

Far North trips take months of planning (and years of experience) to successfully pull off. What you’re looking at is a month or more of self-supported wilderness travel – where food, gear, shelter, navigation, safety, first aid, and repairs are all in your hands. After the bush plane leaves, you are completely alone, hundreds of miles from anything.

Picking a good crew is very important – you want people that are experienced and will work well together during tough times. Durable, tested gear in bright colors is crucial: 4 season tents, a cook shelter that can handle high winds, good packs that can take abuse and stay dry, proper footwear and clothing, and duplicates of items like stoves, paddles, and maps. Safety gear includes a Delorme InReach and a satellite phone, in case something drastic happens. Food must last the duration of your trip and still taste good on the last day. We usually bring a mix of dehydrated and shelf-stable food and ship the bulk of it north (along with much of the gear) months ahead of time.

By far, the toughest logistical part is flying in your canoes. Transporting traditional hard shell canoes to the arctic is next to impossible due to the cost and size, so we use collapsible PakBoats 17′ pack canoes, which are basically a PVC skin-on-frame design that fold up into a duffel bag. They can be checked on commercial flights and fit nicely into the back of a bush plane. Another key item is spray decking – for warmth and protection against wind and water (both rain and rapids).


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Being a photographer/filmmaker as well as an adventurer, you generally have to bring about twice as much gear as anyone else. How do you pack for trips like these?

First off, I try to go light on personal gear so I can bring more camera equipment …although the term “light” is relative when you’re out for a month. I pack my clothes, tent, sleeping bag, etc in a portage pack with a waterproof liner. This includes (among other things) an extra pair of warm clothes in case you take a swim, a hooded bug shirt, four pairs of socks, neoprene mukluks, sturdy hiking boots, and a quality PFD. I also bring duplicate sunglasses, toothbrushes, and bear spray, but no headlamp since it’s light out all the time.

For my camera gear… waterproofing, extra padding, and quick access are very important. Depending on the trip and objectives, I usually bring a pretty basic kit, packed in two separate places: a small Pelican 1450 for lenses and extra DSLR body, and my primary camera in a padded insert inside my Stormfront dry bag, which is stashed under my canoe seat for quick access. A solar kit + inverter lives in it’s own dry bag and is deployed on the canoe deck on sunny days.

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What is your photography/filming setup in your canoe?

When photography is the primary objective, I bring two DSLR’s, three lenses, a loupe, and basic peripherals. For video I’ll add in a tripod, a monopod, an articulated clamp for mounting on the canoe, a small shotgun mic, a zoom h4n recorder, and a wireless lav mic kit. I bring about 5 batteries in case there’s a few cloudy days in a row and I can’t charge up the solar pack.

Since this is usually just personal work, I leave the laptop at home to save weight and instead bring enough cards to last the trip, and then just deal with everything when I get home.

A lot of your trips are not without environmental cause or protective goals.. what kind of projects have been able to use your filmmaking skill set to protect the places you’re exploring?

Last August I was able to get some extra time off to volunteer with Save the Boundary Waters, a non-profit group working to stop dangerous sulfide-ore mining proposals within the watershed of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. It’s a super important issue – especially to me, since it’s basically my home – but it hasn’t gotten much coverage outside of Minnesota yet. So over three weeks, I traveled and filmed with Amy and Dave Freeman, two local guides (and 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year) who paddled and sailed 2,000 miles from Minnesota to Washington DC to deliver a petition to the government to stop the mines.

All told, I canoed and sailed with the Freemans for about 300 miles through the BWCA and Lake Superior, with community events all along the way. I edited the film back in California while they continued on DC, and when they arrived in early December, I was able to fly out to help deliver the petition. We hosted events, met with senators and representatives, and even delivered the petition in person to the chief of the US Forest Service, Tom Tidwell. It was an incredible experience, and also my first time getting so actively engaged in the political process.

Ultimately it’s just important to recognize that the wild places we love aren’t invincible – we need to actively advocate and protect them for future generations.



You’ve done some trips with some pretty well traveled canoeists, what influence has that had on you?

Certainly my biggest influence has been a veteran canoeist named Bob O’Hara, a dear friend and mentor with whom I traveled on both of my arctic trips. Bob is 73 years old, and has spent every single summer since 1969 canoeing rivers in the Arctic, mainly in central Canada. He has made first descents of the Quoich and Arrowsmith Rivers, circumnavigated Baker Lake in Nunavut, and crossed Finland from Russia to the Baltic Sea. Needless to say, he is a colorful character – he insists on wearing red from head-to-toe (for visibility), serves a special rum-lemonade mix with a salty snack before dinner, and always brings extra soup and tea after nearly starving on the tundra during his first arctic trip. I owe just about everything I know about arctic paddling to the systems and knowledge he built through trial and error over the years. He is a true modern explorer.

Whats next?

Time will tell – I’m still planning out this season but leaning toward a shorter, less remote trip to save some money. Maybe southern Alaska or BC. One way or the other, I think for certain I will be going to the Boundary Waters this fall – it’s the best time of year there: no crowds and no mosquitoes.


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For more from Nate Ptacek:

Instagram @aborealis

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