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Christa Lawler, Forum Communications Co., Published June 01 2012

Film explores rower’s Lake Superior odyssey

DULUTH, Minn. – When Ian Harvey set out to row the length of Lake Superior in 2005, he expected the blisters under blisters, the seat pain and the unpredictable conditions on the water.

He didn’t know the 400-mile trip from Duluth to Whitefish Point Harbor in Michigan would catch the attention of members of the Bear Clan in Munising, Mich., whose ancestors made a similar trek in the 1890s that ended in a deadly battle with the Sioux.

“The whole thing was just to raise money,” Harvey said. “Then to have this secondary experience. I hadn’t expected to meet this family with a legendary story. I’m wrapped up with something I never intended to be involved with.”

The film “The Connection” is a 62-minute documentary about Harvey’s unprecedented row and meeting the LeVeque family, who eventually adopted him and made him a blood brother. The film directed by Peter Minns was to have its world premiere this weekend at the Duluth Superior Film Festival, the Duluth News Tribune reported.

Harvey, of Belfast, Northern Ireland, does this sort of thing: endurance rows to raise money for charities. In 2000 he covered 212 miles of lakes and rivers in Ireland and in 2003 he rowed 200 miles across the northern part of Lake Victoria, the second-largest freshwater lake in the world.

“Right, done that,” Harvey said. “Now what’s the largest?”

His journey across Lake Superior was in support of the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Children in Need and Fields of Life, which builds schools in Africa.

The two-week trip included a support boat with medical professionals. He rowed an average of 37 miles per day, usually keeping the shoreline in view. He used a 19-foot, 40-pound scull he nicknamed Pudsey, the mascot for the BBC’s Children in Need charity. At night the stopping spot was marked with GPS. He slept on the boat and sometimes they went ashore to wait out bad conditions.

At the trip’s most dangerous point, Harvey had about 50 miles left. The weather was bad and the support boat had been redirected far out in the lake. The waves were taller than Harvey, a smaller support boat overturned and he estimates he was two strokes from losing his boat. He saw the support boat in the distance, the flag waving, and described it as a romantic moment.

“I was scared witless,” he said. “I expected to see Humphrey Bogart on the deck.”

Dan O’Neill, then-president of the Duluth Rowing Club, said this trip is just not something people do. For context: The rowing club does an annual fall event, Death Row, which covers just more than 17 miles in a day.

“When we do our marathons, even just rowing gently, after two and a half hours you want to get out of that boat.”

There were points of contact along the route, people who helped out Harvey and the crew. Kris LeVeque met with Harvey at Grand Island, and said she was drawn to what he was doing. In the 1800s, Le-Veque’s Ojibwe ancestors took a similar journey to fight their rivals, the Sioux. Only a young boy returned alive from the battle.

“Somehow, some way, it touched me so much inside to think someone was doing the same row as my ancestors did,” she said.

LeVeque, who also is part Irish, gave Harvey a book with her family’s history and a note about what his trip meant to her. She said he read the book that night and then spent two days with the family waiting out bad weather. Friendship turned familial: Since then Harvey has returned a few times for visits and has gone through a ceremony to become an adopted brother.

“Everyone kind of fell in love with Ian,” LeVeque said. “He’s a gracious person that gives all his help to others. That’s why my mother named him The Warrior, because of him out there fighting for the children.”

It was mutual.

“I felt quite close to them,” Harvey said. “The bond grew and grew.”

The whole story piqued the interest of English filmmaker Peter Minns, whose award-winning journalistic-style work includes “Under the Hammer,” an investigation into Sotheby’s that caught international attention.

“If you’re sitting in a pub in England hearing a story about rowing 400 miles across a dangerous lake and ceremonies and adoption – what more could you ever want a film to be about?” Minns said.

The team returned to the area for two weeks of shooting, including re-creating parts of Harvey’s row, last fall. This weekend’s screening was to be the first for an audience.

Meanwhile, Harvey is training to row Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in Ireland.

“Rowing gets into the blood and becomes an obsession for a while,” Harvey said.

And Minns has become interested in making more films in this area. Specifically, a film on sled dog racing.

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Christa Lawler writes for the Duluth News Tribune