The adventure life

Canada's king of wanderlust on feeling alive

Laval St. Germain / Canadian Rockies / Photo by

By Kim Gray

As Toque & Canoe embarks on a new year, we confess we’re feeling restless here in our pint-sized Alberta office.

If you, too, have travel on the brain (it’s January in Canada after all), then who better for us to draw inspiration from than Calgary-based adventurer Laval St. Germain?

A pilot with Arctic specialists Canadian North Airlines, St. Germain is always on the move.

He has been since he was a National Geographic magazine-loving kid growing up in Morinville, Alberta, and his curiosity for the planet — along with a desire to push his personal boundaries — continues to take him to the wildest of places.

We’re grateful for our conversation, Laval. You’re a storyteller like no other.

Few people on Earth make us want to strap on our snowshoes and head for the hills like you do!


Laval St. Germain / Canadian Rockies / Photo by


Q: You’re many things: a husband, a father, a pilot, an athlete. You’re also a traveller. What is it about travel that you’re so attracted to?

A: I love the idea of adventure. The adventure life. I love the thought of being fully engaged and even scared shitless at times. When I’m outdoors and I’m pushing it — whatever “it” is — I often find myself in a state of pure awe.

I just rode my bike across the country of Oman on the Arabian Peninsula. At one point, I was cycling down a road with a herd of camels running ahead of me. All I could hear was the moccasin-like sound of their leather-bottomed hooves hitting the pavement.

It was literally like riding the pages of National Geographic. These are the moments I’m after.

Q: You’ve referred to your career in aviation as a gift. Why?

A: I’m forever indebted to my dad, Guy, for nudging my career in this direction, and to my mom, Charlotte, who supported me as a fledgling pilot in my teens.

I’ve always been pulled towards nature. Being a pilot has allowed me to see wild areas and fly deep into them — to land on remote lakes, fly low and fast through mountain valleys and now, as an airline captain, witness the aurora borealis from the cockpit of an airliner at 10,000-plus metres above the Arctic Circle.

Quite often, after landing, I’ll look over at the first officer and say “Can you believe we just got paid for this?”

Q: How else do you like to travel?

A: I prefer human-powered modes of transport. Trail running and breathing hard in the mountains with loam underfoot and the scent of alpine flowers all around. Skiing uphill, sweat burning your eyes and the effort burning your quads, but being rewarded with a near spiritual ride back down through the cold smoke of perfect Alberta powder. The efficient simplicity of a bicycle loaded with everything you need to live, and just grinding along.


Laval St. Germain / Arctic Circle / Photo courtesy of Laval St. Germain


Q: What do you never leave home without?

A: I always carry a headlamp and a small multi tool. The headlamp was super handy when the power went out in the wee hours of the morning at a dodgy hotel in Cameroon, and my multi tool fixed a broken ski binding on a cold day in Nunavut. It may have also opened a warm beer in Bolivia.

More importantly, I always travel with humility and with my heart on my sleeve. I believe that my richest human connections have happened because my vulnerability is plain to see, whether with a shepherd in the mountains of Iraq or a Dené elder in the Canadian Arctic. Travelling like this opens hearts and doors.

Q: In 2010, you became the first Canadian to scale Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. In 2015, you fat biked across the Arctic. What else is on your CV?

A: I rowed across the North Atlantic Ocean, alone, from Halifax to France in 2016.

So many memories! One of which was a conversation I had via two-way radio with a fellow Canadian, a Newfoundlander, working on one of the off-shore Hibernia oil platforms. It was late at night and the seas were stormy. I was lonely and my nerves were raw from the constant pounding of waves and several capsizes.

In the soft red glow of my radio panel, which lit up the cockpit of my tiny row boat, we spoke about his work life and our summers back home and we talked about our wives and kids and how much we missed them.

The only thing missing from this Canadiana moment was a Tim Horton’s coffee and CBC radio playing in the background.


Laval St. Germain / North Atlantic Ocean solo rowing expedition / Photo by Janet St. Germain


Q: Can you tell us about the canoe trip you took with your then 14-year-old son, Eric, starting on Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories and following the Great Bear and MacKenzie rivers to Norman Wells?

A: This journey was one year after the tragic death of our eldest son, Richard, who was 21 at the time.

On July 15, 2014, Richard, who had just arrived in Norman Wells three weeks earlier to start his own career as a young bush pilot, borrowed a canoe with a friend.

To make a tragically short life story even shorter, the canoe capsized and our crazy, talented, adventure-loving boy was killed. This canoe trip with Eric was a way for me to meet my grief head on.

So yes, adventure and wilderness have given me so much and taken so much. Everest without oxygen eventually ended. I found a safe harbour on land after rowing across the Atlantic. But there is no end and no safe harbour when you lose a child.

Losing a child gives you a new relationship with death and sorrow. You can still laugh through the rapids and hoot as the cold water splashes over the bow, but you can just as easily sob at night or fold into your wife’s arms in grief.

I’ve heard it described as a form of dexterity, the ability to bounce between these emotions.

Adventure has its own lessons. You can have horrifying downs and ridiculous highs. In the end, no matter what you face, you must keep moving.

Q: You’re represented by the Speakers Bureau of Canada and known as an expert on how to turn “dreams into goals into reality.” Why are you so committed to the idea of travel?

A: Humans are made to move. Before agriculture, most of our ancestors were nomads. We evolved to be able to travel long distances. More importantly, we’re likely the only animal that can imagine what’s across that body of water, over that hill or behind that mountain.

Our ability to dream about places drives our journeys. I worry that with social media and Google Earth — showing us millions or perhaps billions of detailed images of every corner of the planet — we may lose our wanderlust.

Instagram, Twitter and Facebook can’t give you the wind, the waves, the scents, the heat or the cold — not to mention the warmth of face-to-face human connections.

I always encourage people to “unzip their tents and step outside.” It’s so much easier to stay indoors. I’m an absolute baby when it comes to leaving my wife, Janet, our daughter, Andrea, and our son, Eric.

Once you’re outside, though, the momentum takes over and you’re on your way.

The Norwegians have a great saying for this, “dørstokkmila” — which translates to “doorstep-mile” and essentially means that the hardest step of all is getting your shoes on and heading out the door.


Laval St. Germain / Mount Everest, Nepal / Photo courtesy of Laval St. Germain


Q: You’ve climbed the highest peaks on all seven continents. This spring, you’re planning to cycle the length of Cuba. What keeps you going?

A: Life is short and understanding that motivates me to fully feast on life while I still have it.

I love the Hunter S. Thompson quote: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride!'”


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