Building memories on the river

A lot of people in the Yukon can relate to Brett Rogers’ dream. He’s a 24-year-old guy from Ontario with a driving ambition in life…

A lot of people in the Yukon can relate to Brett Rogers’ dream.

He’s a 24-year-old guy from Ontario with a driving ambition in life — to ride what he calls the “10 greatest rivers in the world,” including the Nile in Africa and the Amazon in South America.

Two years ago, Rogers’ quest began when he did the Mackenzie River on a raft he built with four fellow adventurers.

They floated downriver for 29 days, from Fort Simpson to the Mackenzie Delta.

This summer, Rogers is hoping to ride the Yukon River all the way to the Bering Sea.

What a way to spend the summer.

Almost 3,000 kilometres on the water, enough food for 100 days, give or take, with a group of male and female friends who share a love for adventure and a curiosity for wild places.

And it’s all for a good cause — researching Alzheimer’s disease.

Say what?

What has spending three months on a raft, floating from Whitehorse to the west end of Alaska, got to do with researching Alzheimer’s?

It’s about building a memory, said Rogers.

“Everyone is here for an experience, and an experience is a memory, and a memory is the first thing that Alzheimer’s takes away,” he explained.

“The first time I did a trip like this, I felt I should be doing it for something.”

Rogers, a self-proclaimed “adventurer/naturalist” has a personal connection to Alzheimer’s — his grandmother, June, suffers from the brain-wasting illness.

When she was first diagnosed, Rogers decided to attach a social cause to his adventurer’s ambition. His Mackenzie River raft was named the SS June.

“This project will raise awareness,” he said Tuesday as the crew of his second boat, the June Two, prepared to embark.

“Yes, this is a vacation, it is an experience. We could go to Cancun instead.

“But this is more of a way for people to feel that connection, with each other and with Alzheimer’s.

“That connection is something that Alzheimer’s takes away.”

Rogers also has a connection to the broader Alzheimer’s research community. Donna Dixon, the wife of Canadian actor Dan Akroyd who is a figurehead for Alzheimer’s research in the US, wants Rogers to be the campaign’s “face of youth,” he said.

This summer, the crew is raising research funds through a website: www.raftingformemories.ca.

 “Building a discussion around an ‘adventure’ documentary is simply a more effective way to engage today’s youth,” Rogers says on the website.

“Let’s face it, young people love adventure, and I am no different!”

Rogers expects to make more from the documentary film about the trip than from fundraising donations.

He made a documentary about his Mackenzie trip, called Into the Midnight Sun — Mackenzie River 2004.

The Mackenzie trip raised several thousand dollars for Alzheimer’s research, including proceeds from the film, he said.

But will funds raised on the Yukon River this summer really go to Alzheimer’s research?

Or will they finance a kick-ass summer adventure for a group of twentysomethings?

Rogers is adamant that every penny raised will go to the Alzheimer’s Society of Ontario.

The society confirmed that Rogers raised more than $2,000 in 2004, and it is expecting a contribution this year.

“All the money that we raise will go to Alzheimer’s,” said Rogers.

All crewmembers paid their own way, he added.

After a series of interviews for potential candidates this spring, Rogers invited eight companions to join him, several of them fellow students from the University of Waterloo.

There are six men and three women on the crew, all between the ages of 22 and 25, who aren’t too worried about making tuition for the fall.

None of them had been to the Yukon before, except for Rogers.

They all paid $4,500 to do the trip, not including personal expenses, he said.

The crew jumped on the Greyhound together at the beginning of May and arrived in Whitehorse about three weeks ago.

They found a gravel spit poking out into the river at Shipyards Park and set to work, purchasing materials and building their raft — a plywood platform roughly five metres by 14 metres, or the size of a big RV, raised above the water on 48 plastic oil drums.

They built a canvas-covered bunkhouse and a wooden table bolted to the deck. They salvaged two old wood-burning stoves, one for the galley and one for the sleeping quarters.

One assistant, who travelled to Whitehorse with the crew, but didn’t join them on the river, said they pumped $30,000 into the local economy.

Passersby noticed the group working, and word spread around Whitehorse.

Several businesses made donations — spare lumber, a reconnaissance flight in a twin-prop airplane — to their project.

First Nations artists painted the raft with symbols of the Wolf, Crow and Eagle clans.

A small crowd of locals watched Tuesday afternoon as the crew cast off with nine souls aboard.

Problems began immediately.

The Yukon is tricky, as anyone who has paddled it will know. There are lots of eddies, and it can be difficult to hold the main current.

The June Two crew discovered this the moment they pulled up anchor.

Their raft is equipped with a rudder, an improvised sail for Lake Laberge and a “parachute” sail underneath to capture the river’s deeper, faster current.

It has two makeshift oars at the bow and stern.

One of the oars cracked as three crewmembers worked to push the raft into the current.

They were unsuccessful.

The raft drifted into an eddy and hugged the shoreline as it slowly moved downstream.

But move it did, and although the raft is likely destined for a lot of pinball-like action on the water, it was still seaworthy when last seen leaving the Whitehorse area.

Only time will tell if the June Two makes it to the Bering Sea.

The thrill of such an undertaking isn’t foreign to any adventurer — and there are plenty of those in the Yukon right now, both residents and tourists.

But the Alzheimer’s angle seems odd.

Why justify an adventure? Why pretend like you’re doing it for a good cause when, deep down, you know you’re really doing it for fun?

Even Rogers admitted that, “bottom line, we’re all in it for the adventure.

“We could do it for the hell of it.

“But why not use the uniqueness of this trip to benefit something?

“The experience may not raise much money, but it will leave an impact on people.

“Each river I do, I will definitely have a social cause to attach to it.”

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