A Gentle Giant Paddles On: George Juris Luste (1940-2015)

It is with sadness we announce that physicist, paddler and great friend of the museum, George Luste, passed away on Saturday, March 21st, of brain cancer: quietly, surrounded by family, and barely a month after his appearance at the Wilderness and Canoeing Symposium at Monarch Park High School in Toronto.

Of Latvian descent, George did his doctorate in theoretical physics at Johns Hopkins University in the 1960s, producing documents such as Diffraction Dissociation and 5.5 Gev/C Kp[arrow]4 and notes on The Solenoid Vertex Spectrometer: A Simulation Study.  He was a man of intellect, curiosity and creativity who earned a reputation within the scientific community, particularly at the University of Toronto where he worked for most of his academic career, until retirement a few years ago.

But with his wife, Linda, who moved with him to Toronto in early 1970s, George was as passionate about wilderness and canoe tripping as he was about physics and family.  With Linda and his children, and different groups of paddling friends over the years, George pioneered routes and traversed other exotic cross-watershed paths through Labrador, Northern Quebec as well as on rivers in what is now Nunvaut and the Northwest Territories. 

A scholar at heart, it was never enough for George to research and retrace historic canoe routes.  At some early point, he fell in love with the publications of the early travelers, explorers, gentleman adventurers, surveyors, geologists and, of course, recreational paddlers like Elliott Merrick, Grey Owl, Sigurd Olson, and Eric Morse.  His passion for northern books and his passion for northern stories and northern story tellers became something of an obsession with the books—as a collector, buyer, seller and, eventually, occasional publisher).  

His other great contribution to the paddling community was the extension of annual slide nights at his Toronto home in the 1980s to a more organized annual festival of stories that became, through the auspices and in partnership with the Wilderness Canoe Association, the Wilderness and Canoeing Symposium.  This has happened each winter for more than 20 years and has drawn audience members from around the world to hear an increasingly eclectic blend of voices from aboriginal elders, to antiquarian book dealers, politicians, scholars, historians, comedians and raconteurs mixed in with the usual cast of racontours recounting the exploits of their adventures great and small—all aided, abetted and otherwise egged-on by George.

Even before Kirk Wipper’s canoes came to Peterborough, George was always quietly present in the background, helping, contributing.  And since the mid ‘90s, with funds of his own augmented by donations from the proceeds of the Wilderness and Canoeing Symposium, George has generously supported the growth and development of the Canadian Canoe Museum.  He made a particularly pivotal contribution in 2003 when the museum momentarily faltered and again, a few years later, in conjunction with the passing of his long time friend, Herb Pohl, helping not only to realize Herb’s dream of publishing a book called The Lure of Faraway Places but also to create an exhibit marking Herb’s remarkable (though less so when viewed in light of George’s considerable paddling resumé) contribution to the world of wilderness canoeing.  And latterly, George has given the museum one of his tripping canoe as well as a donation of rarified northern books.  He is one of a few people over the years who through his ongoing support we can say is truly part of the fabric of the museum as it evolves.

Over the past three years, as George has struggled with his illness, he found the time and the energy to work with the WCA and WCS to build a partnership with the CCM, celebrating wilderness canoeing, that would live on after his death.  And so it was that the George Luste Lectureship was created.  Fittingly (and poignantly with this pioneering paddler’s recent passing as well), the first Luste Lecturer was John Lentz, the first of many, we hope, supported by donations to the Luste Lectureship in George’s memory.  As well, inspired by George’s drive to keep the spirit of wilderness canoeing and canoe tripping alive and well, we hope that in his memory, through partnership, the WCA, WCS and CCM will be able to expand their collaborative work to other types of story telling on other platforms.

For as much as George was a scientist, a committed contributor his family and to the paddling community, an outspoken conservationist, advocate for his faculty colleagues at U of T, and a champion of other voices in the wilderness community (including George Grinnell, whose book, A Death on the Barrens, George published in 1996) only rarely did George actual say or write anything himself about his own considerable experience in the natural world.  One of those rare gems from George’s own story trove is a poem, called “O Lamented Land” …

O LAMENTED LAND 

The melancholy cry of a loon

echoes through

these northern wilds

 

It is a solemn land

a lonely land

a patient land

waiting

unchanging

 

Frozen in time

Age and rock

Water and bush

A crucible of life

A refuge for

mammals and birds and fish

 

Old Indian campsites

Voices from the past

shrouded in darkness

and imagination

The progression of life

slowly marching

towards the morning light

 

But voices from the present cry

‘steel concrete power’

these are ‘real needs’

 

Foreign men

who have no roots here

are building

roads and dams

 

To bring a flood

To erase

a treasured gift

which they don’t see

 

Let the Cree

who live here

Who buried their fathers here

Who watched cold and winter

and starvation

and survived

 

Let these people decide

Their silent gaze speaks

of memories and needs

of animal spirits

and ancestral deeds

 

This is

their native land

 

An obituary notice for George will be published in one or more of the Toronto papers on the weekend of March 28th and a celebration of his life will be held at a future date, to be determined by his family.  George’s considerable legacy will live on at the Canadian Canoe Museum in the annual tradition of the lectureship in his honour.  Anyone wishing to make a contribution to that can do so through the Canoe Museum's website, or by calling Christina Skuce at the museum (705) 748-9153, noting the wish to remember George in this way.  We will be celebrating George’s remarkable life at the 2015 Luste Lecture which will be delivered by the irrepressible musher and wilderness man, Dave Olesson, in the fall.  Please stay tuned for details.

Tribute by James Raffan