By Abigail Curtis and the staff of the Bangor Daily News
Saturday, April 05, 2008

ORONO, Maine - Behind the large picture windows of his cozy house on the banks of the Stillwater River, Reinhard Zollitsch watches the snow fall. The flakes are small but dropping steadily, and it is cold outside, zero-degrees-Fahrenheit cold. The scene of snow falling over an ice-locked river is beautiful. It’s also enough to make any passionate paddler feel housebound and eager for spring.

But Zollitsch, 68, has developed an ambitious coping strategy to beat the wintertime iced-in blues. He has a tall stack of charts and maps next to the dining room table. Like any good adventurer, the retired German professor needs downtime to plan out his next marathon canoe trip.

"I enjoy paddling, I like to be outdoors, and I love water," Zollitsch says. "I’ve been in boats all my life, and in the last 12 years I decided I needed something new."

That new thing has consisted of summer after summer of difficult solo paddles which challenge him, body and soul. Zollitsch is up to the challenge. His piercing eyes, quick laugh and brisk demeanor belie his age. His energy seems endless. This year, his high-tech Kevlar canoe and carbon-fiber paddle will take him along the western shores of Newfoundland.

It will be Zollitsch’s 13th year of long-distance solo canoe trips, some of which have stretched for hundreds of miles. Over the years he has circumnavigated Prince Edward Island, followed the New England coast from Boston to Machias and paddled the St. Lawrence River from Lake Ontario to the sea. It’s not a usual summer vacation, but the retired professor has his reasons for picking up the paddle.

For Zollitsch, the fun of such a trip is in its planning and its precise execution, down to the exact amounts of granola and Dinty Moore beef stew he allows himself each day and the changes of clothes he packs (zero). He camps, and eats, minimally on these journeys. He keeps his eyes on the waves and his mind on making good time and getting to the next takeout safely.

"I try not to have scary weather moments because I’m alone," he says. "I plan. If the tide rips at a certain time, I avoid it. I’m not there. I go out there with brain, not with brawn."

Planning is how he survives the hazards of fog, wind and sea, unhelpful humans and dangerous motorboats. Planning is the way he finishes his trips successfully and so on time that Nancy, his wife and support crew, almost never has to wait for long at the pickup site.

"It has to make sense," Zollitsch says of his trips. "And you pull it off successfully. You don’t wait for Lady Luck to pull you there. She’s so fickle and stingy, you can never count on her."

He is a man who has known about the fickleness of Lady Luck ever since he was a youngster growing up in wartime Germany.

"The first six years of my life were spent in bunkers," Zollitsch says.

The hardships continued even after the war ended. Zollitsch remembers squeezing with six other families into his grandmother’s house. He can’t forget the feeling of being hungry.

"I learned a lot in those years," Zollitsch says. "I had a miserable childhood, and I’ve replaced my entire childhood with the childhood of my kids."

He laughs. "And I’m having a great childhood right now."

Zollitsch planned to spend a year at the University of Maine, where he fell for Nancy Miles, the first person he met in Orono.

"The bus stopped in front of her door. I saw the bright eyes. I said, ‘Wow,’" Zollitsch says.

Their romance continued during school vacations, and he fondly recalls the Blizzard of ’62, which dumped 46 inches of snow — and provided a sweet moment for the couple.

"She showed me how to make snow angels," Zollitsch remembers. "It was a great love story."

Zollitsch married Nancy, raised four children and taught German at the university for more than three decades. His years here have been good, but there have been some hard times, too. Especially when he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer.

Zollitsch calls Sept. 14, 1994, his "second birthday." It’s the date of his successful operation to remove the cancer.

The experience of being a cancer survivor changed him.

"I want people to put some joy back into their lives," he says.

Zollitsch found one new source of joy in the long, solo paddles he took after his recovery from cancer, and makes a point of engaging all his senses when he is on the water.

"I’m not plugged into an iPod," he says. "I listen to the wind, especially on the ocean — you’ve got to."

There have been scary moments, too, including one that happened last summer at the mouth of the Kennebec River during a strong ebb tide.

"I didn’t know how bad it could be," Zollitsch said. "Waves as tall as this room, breaking the length of this room. I was surfing and I couldn’t get out."

He successfully beached his canoe despite the waves and then warned others through his writing. Zollitsch writes about his trips almost as tirelessly as he paddles them.

It’s all part of the fun of taking to the water in an open boat.

"I like open horizons. It’s just wonderful," Zollitsch says. "It’s just endless. If you wanted to, you can go on forever."