Kayaking down the river of life

When you meet world-class adventurer Frank Bruno for the first time it's probably his stuffed koala bear and not his prosthetic leg you'll notice. The 45-year-old Frenchman has walked to the North Pole, hiked up Kilimanjaro and sailed across the Atlantic.

When you meet world-class adventurer Frank Bruno for the first time it’s probably his stuffed koala bear and not his prosthetic leg you’ll notice.

The 45-year-old Frenchman has walked to the North Pole, hiked up Kilimanjaro and sailed across the Atlantic.

He’s rubbed shoulders with French president Nicholas Sarkozy and received an award from the Prince of Monaco.

And for each adventure he’s had his rumpled koala bear, Joseph, by his side.

Sitting at a picnic table in the Robert Service Campground, his tent and a kayak nearby, Bruno emits a mixture of confidence and lightheartedness.

The Frenchman arrived in Whitehorse two weeks ago to kayak the Yukon River to the Bering Sea.

He’ll take six youth with him for the 3,000-kilometre journey, all of whom have dealt with significant challenges in their lives, said Bruno. Two of the youth have had amputations, two have been diagnosed with cancer and two come from broken families.

Joseph will also be going along.

“One part of my life is very dark and Joseph makes life too dumb to be serious,” he said with a laugh.

“I speak about serious things – wars, cancer, jails – but I don’t want to be a serious person.”

When Bruno was 18 he was sent to fight for the Corsican army. In 1983, shortly after he enlisted, he was sent to Lebanon where he was shot in the leg.

His wartime experiences left him with nightmares for 15 years, said Bruno.

He was luckier than many of his other friends who he watched die around him, he said, but the adventurer was forced to amputate his leg as a result of the gun wound.

When he returned home from the army he was frustrated to find that his friends and family pitied him rather than supporting him.

“Suddenly when you have a disability everybody wants to think for you,” said Bruno.

People kept telling him that he should work in an office but Bruno wanted to become a professional diver. When he approached a diving school to register he was told he couldn’t because of his leg.

“I laughed a lot when they told me and then I said to them, ‘I want to be the first person in the world who (dives with a prosthetic leg),” he said. And he did.

Encouraged by his successes with diving he was approached by a friend who said he would finance Bruno if he started up an association for amputees.

The Bout de Vie (End of Life) organization was started in 2003 to give disabled people “the fight for life,” said Bruno. Twice it’s won an award for best non-profit group in France.

Not long after Bruno teamed up with triathalon and amputee Dominique Benassi to cross the Atlantic. They competed in the Row of Life race in 2005 and came in third place crossing the ocean in just 54 days.

The competition sparked a flurry of other expeditions, including a trek across Greenland, an ascent of the tallest volcanoes in Argentina and hikes to the North Pole and Kilimanjaro.

In the last seven years since Bout de Vie began, Bruno has risen to near celebrity status in France.

Radio stations in France and Switzerland will be following Bruno and his group of youth twice weekly as they give satellite reports from along the Yukon River.

Five star chefs precooked and dehydrated fancy paellas and pastas for the three-month trip. And a newly designed kite sail has been donated to Bruno for his kayak.

The sail is launched upward into the air whenever the wind is blowing in the right direction and can speed up the kayak an additional 10 kilometres an hour, he said.

“The trip itself isn’t a big thing for Yukon people, nor am I the first guy to do this trip,” he said.

“But a lot of these kids have never slept a night in nature or had to think of bears.”

He expects the trip to have a huge impact on the youth.

“The thing is to show them that when you get a disability or are dealing with (hardship) your life isn’t over.”

You can follow Bruno’s blog at www.boutdevie.org. He takes off this Thursday from Whitehorse and expects to reach the Bering Sea at the beginning of September.

Contact Vivian Belik at

vivianb@yukon-news.com