FAIRBANKS — Bob Sands and his girlfriend, Natalie Luther, were riding their horses behind the Flint Hills Refinery in North Pole on July 24 when they came upon 21-year-old Volodia Petropavlovsky sitting next to a canoe on the bank of the Tanana River.
Since he was familiar with that stretch of the river and knew it was private property, Sands was curious as to where Petropavlovsky had come from.
“Where’d you put in?” Sands asked the young man.
“Tok,” Petropavlovsky replied.
“Tok?” a surprised Sands exclaimed, noting Petropavlovsky’s accent. “Where are you from?”
“France,” Petropavlovsky answered.
“France?” a surprised Sands retorted. “Where are you going?”
“To the Bering Sea,” the young Frenchman responded.
“Oh my gosh,” Sands said, realizing the magnitude of Petropavlovsky’s plan.
As the two men talked, Sands quickly came to the conclusion that the young Frenchman needed help.
Petropavlovsky had flipped his solo canoe six days earlier and lost much of his food and considerable gear, including his cameras,fishing rod and stove. He wanted to know if he was close to Fairbanks and where he might be able to stop and resupply. Knowing the logistics involved in doing so, Sands offered to let him stay at his house in North Pole while he regrouped.
As it turns out, Petropavlovsky’s trip is on one of five expeditions being sponsored by a French adventure organization called La Guilde Europenne du Raid. The organization funds three to five adventure expeditions each year. The trips are selected from a pool of applicants. This year there were 46 applicants, according to the organization’s website.
In addition to Petropavlovsky’s 2,000-kilometer trip, other sponsored expeditions involve two women riding horseback across the 7,000-kilometer Silk Trail across Europe; a two-person descent of the Amazon River from its source to the mouth; a four-month solo 2,500-kilometer hike across the Alps to take geographic photos; and a five-month, musical backpacking trip through the Himalyas, Burma, China and Central Asia by four men who plan to stop and play music in villages they pass through.
Petropavlovsky received about $6,000 for his trip, which he expects will take him about three months. He plans to write a book about his expedition when he’s done.
Only 21, Petropavlovsky is in his fifth year studying geography as a graduate student at Lyon University. His goal is to get a Ph.D. in climatology, he said.
While Petropavlovsky may be a greenhorn when it comes to Alaska, that’s not the case when it comes to adventure. By his own account, Petropavlovsky has canoed 800 kilometers down the Loire River, the longest river in France; crossed Swedish Lapland, a 450-kilometer hike that took him 21 days; and hiked across the French Alps for 25 days.
Like so many other adventurer wannabes who flock to Alaska from around the world, Petropavlovsky came up with the idea for his trip across Alaska by looking at maps and researching material on the Internet.
“I look on the map and I saw the Tanana River and the Yukon River and thought, ‘That’s good,’” Petropavlovsky said. “I always wanted to cross Alaska in a canoe.”
But it’s one thing to look at a map and say you want to do something like that. It’s another thing to actually show up and do it — alone, no less.
By his own estimate, the trip will be about 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles). “I calculated that on Google Earth,” he said.
After flying to Alaska, Petropavlovsky hitched a ride to Tok and bought a 14-foot solo Wenonah canoe, life jacket and paddles from Hank Timm, who owns Canoe Alaska, for $800. Petropavlovsky had contacted Timm prior to his trip via email.
Pteropavlovsky started his trip on July 14 — “I remember because it was French National Day,” he said, proudly — in Tok. On day five, Petropavlovsky flipped his canoe. He had stopped for a break on an island and his boat was swept into some trees hanging over the river when he attempted to paddle back out into the current.
“On the fifth day of the expedition I almost nearly died,” he said.
Petropavlovsky was able to float his water-filled canoe to the bank of the river and, grabbing a tree with one hand and pulling the canoe with the other, managed to get the boat out of the water and salvage some of his gear. He received assistance from some Native villagers from Northway and Healy Lake who he ran into boating on the river after his accident. When Petropavlovsky told them what had happened, they told him he was lucky to be alive. The young Frenchman agrees, which is one of the reasons he didn’t tell his parents about his near-death experience.
I went out to Sands’ house one night last week to interview Petropavlovsky and found a skinny, polite, bright Frenchman who looked younger than his 21 years. He had a toothy grin, quick laugh and confident air about him.
As you might expect, paddling the upper Tanana River was an eye-opening experience for a young man whose only knowledge of Alaska previously was what he read in Jack London stories and the book, “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer. Petropavlovsky was surprised at how big and strong the river was.
“A lot of whirlpools,” he said of the upper Tanana. “A lot of trees.”
But Petropavlovsky said he came to Alaska looking for “wilderness and nature” and he found both in good supply during the first leg of his trip. I assured him that wouldn’t change during the next 1,000 miles.
With the worst part of the river behind him, Petropavlovsky said “my main preoccupation now will be with bears,” a statement evidenced the can of bear spray attached to his hip at all times.
“And I have a shotgun,” Petropavlovsky said.
Petropavlovsky isn’t carrying a GPS or a satellite phone, but he has maps and a laptop computer, with which he plans to post updates on his Facebook page.
Sands, a friendly 49-year-old carpenter, spent the better portion of a week chauffeuring Petropavlovsky around town to buy new gear, food and supplies during his five days in Fairbanks.
Petropavlovsky bought some new photographic equipment and lots of food, much of which he and Sands boxed up to be mailed to Galena, a village 400 miles down the Tanana and Yukon rivers, where Petropavolovsky will resupply.
They went by Alaska State Troopers and picked up a trip plan for Petropavlovsky to fill out, which he left with Sands in the event something goes wrong. Sands also gave Petropavlovsky a good bow saw and some slugs for his shotgun.
He couldn’t just send Petropavlovsky on his way without helping him, Sands said.
“I’d feel guilty if something happens,” he said.
On Saturday, Sands dropped Petropavlovsky off at Chena Pump Landing to renew his adventure. The young Frenchman loaded his new supplies into his canoe and tied them down under a pair of blue tarps before pushing off and paddling down the Tanana. There was barely enough room for him in the canoe.
“His food bag weighs 110 pounds so he’s not going to starve,” Sands said.
Sands told Petropavlovsky to call him every chance he gets to let him know how he’s progressing. On Monday, Petropavlovsky called Sands to let him know he had made it to Nenana and was headed toward Manley.
“I was worried he wasn’t going to realize how important it was (to call) so I was glad to hear from him,” Sands said, sounding almost like a worried father. “I think he’ll be OK.”
If he does make it to the Bering Sea, Petropavlovsky can thank Sands for his help getting there. That’s what real Alaskans do for people who want to experience the real Alaska, even if they may not know what they’re getting into.
Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.