Thanks for Uncle Mitch

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Just south of the I-10 bridge, Dominique Liboiron loads up water and other supplies for the trip to New Orleans. Liboiron paddled from Saskatchewan down the Frenchman and Milk rivers to the Missouri River to the Mississippi in order to sprinkle his uncle Mitch's ashes in New Orleans.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Just south of the I-10 bridge, Dominique Liboiron loads up water and other supplies for the trip to New Orleans. Liboiron paddled from Saskatchewan down the Frenchman and Milk rivers to the Missouri River to the Mississippi in order to sprinkle his uncle Mitch's ashes in New Orleans.

Man canoes from Canada down Mississippi River to N.O.

The boat is named Hadley.

A 17-foot red canoe, it has scraped the rocky bottom of the Frenchman River in Canada, run the Chain of Rocks on the Mississippi near St. Louis.

And, after seven months, it has carried Dominique Liboiron to Louisiana along with the ashes of his uncle.

For 3,000 miles, Liboiron has canoed down the Frenchman, Milk, Missouri and Mississippi rivers on his way to New Orleans to say “thank you” to his Uncle Mitch Hamon, who died of heart disease in 2010 at 42.

“To me he was like my big brother,” Liboiron said last week while resting in Baton Rouge after battling torrential rains. “He taught me a lot. He taught me how to be generous and understanding. My interest in music and cooking and traveling, I can trace all that back to his influence. I’m sure there are other ways he’ll influence me in ways I will continue to find out about.”

There was no guidebook for this trip. No one had ever paddled from the Canadian province of Saskatchewan to New Orleans via the Mississippi before as far as he can tell.

Thin and thickly bearded from the trip, Liboiron appears to be in his late 20s or early 30s. Citing a concern for privacy, he will not reveal his age.

A freelance outdoors and sports writer based in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Liboiron said he wanted to take the trip for more than a decade. His uncle’s young death made Liboiron realize how quickly life moves, Liboiron said, and Hamon’s life supplied inspiration to make the trip.

Hadley — the boat — tells the story of Liboiron’s journey. Liboiron slipped into the tiny Frenchman River June 8. Scratches from paddling the narrow waterway — only 9 feet across at times — show where Liboiron had to carry his canoe over fallen trees and rock paths built across the shallow river.

Stickers along the boat’s top rail proclaim the canoe’s name, chosen to honor Cajun fiddler Hadley Castille, who died in October and was good friends with Liboiron’s uncle.

Another sticker, which reads M NONC, is a photocopy of a Saskatchewan license plate that belonged to Hamon. Most people in the small town of Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan, where Hamon worked at a garage and gas station, called him Uncle Mitch, Liboiron said. His personalized license plate bore his nickname, the French-Canadian slang for uncle, M’Nonc.

“His energy was such that when people interacted with him, their energy would change, their eyes would light up,” Liboiron said. “He worked at a garage, and people would stop by, not because they needed gas, but because they would want to visit my uncle.”

Uncle Mitch never locked the door to his house and delighted in sending gifts to his nieces and nephews, Liboiron said. When Hamon died, he had just a few dollars in the bank and a quarter of a tank of gas.

He lived hard, Liboiron said, drinking scotch, smoking a Canadian-sized pack of Player’s Lights each day (north of the border, packs have 25 cigarettes), and eating lots of fatty foods.

During a trip to visit south Louisiana in 1992, Hamon became enamored with Cajun culture and food and the city of New Orleans. He developed a friendship with Castille, who would travel to Saskatchewan to play at a music festival and visit Hamon’s home.

Hamon spiced his food with Tony Chachere’s seasoning and Tabasco sauce, Liboiron said. After his trip to Louisiana, he started a catering company and became known for his jambalaya. Then he earned two new nicknames, Uncle Bayou and Uncle Jambalaya.

After Hamon’s death, Castille recorded a video tribute to his friend, playing a song and talking about his friend. Although far apart in age, Hamon impressed Castille by the way he treated people.

“The friendship we developed over the years began with the magnetism of his character,” Castille said in the video. “I remember some of the first moments going back to when he … came down to New Orleans. … I can almost see the table where they were sitting, and I can almost see the smile on his face, enjoying it as it was in the moment. He was the type of person who could take any situation and make it better than it is.”

Over the 3,000 miles he has paddled, Liboiron has talked to everyone he can about heart disease, giving his trip more weight. He has written about the journey for a small Canadian newspaper and written sports columns along the way to help pay for his journey.

He planned the expedition for about two years. It started with a poster-sized piece of paper on which he listed reasons for and against making the journey. His “cons” column featured just one entry: Fear, mainly fear of drowning.

“In January last year I would lay in bed and think about this trip,” Liboiron said. “The Mississippi really intimidated me. It was such a huge trip and it was so massive, and I had gotten a lot of bad information about it.”

Barges would sink him with their wakes, others told him. Whirlpools near dams would suck him under.

He searched for ways to mitigate the dangers — life jackets and an expensive GPS and emergency call system.

“Once I started listing my fears, I could always find solutions for them,” he said. “And then after a while I didn’t have a reason not to do it.”

Along the way he has left small tokens in memory of his uncle, mimicking the small shrines Hamon kept in honor of friends, saints and the Montreal Canadiens hockey team. Liboiron left tobacco and a picture of musician Emmylou Harris, whom Hamon loved, in North Dakota. He placed a pack of grape-flavored cigars in Montana. Where Louisiana meets Mississippi and Arkansas, he stuffed a letter to his uncle inside a Tabasco bottle and laid it near the river.

January brought heavy rains. Liboiron waited out the downpours in his tent, then paddled hard in the short windows of dry weather. Last week he paddled over to the bluffs at Southern University to rest a few days in a motel.

Two vials of Uncle Mitch’s ashes fill small, clear vials that Liboiron packed inside a waterproof case. One vial will accompany the Krewe of Saint Anne during Mardi Gras. The other will be sprinkled somewhere in a short ceremony of remembrance.

Over the past eight months Liboiron has thought little about the vials. His thoughts turn more often to the cross he was given for protection, a medal that belonged to his uncle.

“This I think about more,” he said. “I feel it. It’s on me. But his memories are what I say make me think about him the most.”

On Friday, Liboiron pushed from shore under the New Bridge along Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge, only 130 miles and a few more days left of paddling Hadley to honor Uncle Mitch.