Thursday, September 30, 2010

Le Fin

Yesterday I drove up to the local canoe & kayak shop near my parents house to drop off my canoe. From the beginning, I was to use the Magic 16' that Bell Canoe Works let me borrow and then return it or buy it. Being destitute, I returned it. Standing in the parking lot, I said goodbye to 'Casco', the 33-pound canoe that I had paddled across North America. I had spent more time with her than with any girlfriend I have had, more time than I spent with my family in many years. Saying goodbye and driving way, the expedition was at long last over.

These numbers are approximate (and hastily put together).

April 4, 2009 - May 26, 2009
1300 miles in 55 days
Portland, Oregon to Jackson, Wyoming
Columbia River, Snake River

September 23, 2009 - November 16, 2010
1700 miles in 54 days
Jackson, Wyoming to Grand Portage, Minnesota
Snake River, Jackson Lake, Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone River, Missouri River, Souris River, Lake of the Woods, Rainy River, Rainy Lake, Boundary Waters border route, Lake Superior

May 14, 2010 - May 24, 2010
270 miles in 10 days
Lake Superior

August 23, 2010 - September 22, 2010
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to Upper Saranac Lake, New York
800 miles in 30 days

April 24- May 14, 2007
Upper Saranac Lake, New York to Androscoggin River, New Hampshire
300 miles in 20 days

September 23, 2010 - September 25, 2010
Androscoggin River, New Hampshire to Portland, ME
115 miles in three days

In the map, Red indicates distances paddled, blue indicates distances biked, and green indicates aborted routes or legs.

My parents have been enjoying the press- about 250 newspapers and various blogs and websites have picked up the story. For once, the life of professional whitewater trash makes headlines and my parents have relished it. Seattle Times, New York Times, Denver Post and others- all have printed it. It is surreal and little bit embarassing.

I graduated from college two years ago, and as I reflect on this span of time, certain things jump out at me. My diploma was handed to me exactly 120 weeks ago, and of that time I've spent 98 weeks in a sleeping bag on the ground. Some was work, some was the ARE. On time off, I would visit friends- driving into Denver or taking the train to New York or Washington, DC, and live their lives for a short time. I am a social person, painfully so, and my self-imposed exile of one expedition after another, while bringing fulfillment, also makes me pause and wonder if I am missing what they all have- a social group, the fun of living in a city in one's mid-twenties. It will be an on going question, and one with no answer.

What is next? I said after the 'Northern Forest by Canoe' expedition that "... these expeditions have a nasty side effect that I am only now coming to terms with: they're habit forming..." It seems, then, that I am hopelessly addicted. As I write this, I am preparing to leave for New Zealand to lead whitewater and hiking expeditions for the National Outdoor Leadership School, my employer. Come spring, more expeditions maybe in Utah, maybe in the Yukon. A life lived camping and teaching.

Throughout the America's Rivers Expedition, I had a playlist on my iPod- and more frequently, in my head- that was a helpful motivator and something to cling to in times of struggle. In a bitter and frozen Montana, hearing 'Big Country' by Bela Fleck brought peace to a stark landscape. Many nights I spent along the Columbia or the Snake in a cold, wind-shaken tent listening to 'Portland Town' by Schooner Fare and think how impossibly far I was from Maine, and yet, somehow, I would make it. As I rounded the point and came into Casco Bay, I saw the light (though not Portland Head, as I had hoped), and I sang out my ending.

I see the light across the bay,
I see the light not far away,
And I hear music all around,
I'm gettin' close to Portland Town,
So, Mother, won't you make my bed,
I see the light of Portland Head,
I see the light, I'm comin' 'round,
I'm comin' home to Portland Town.

Some years ago, out on my own,
I set a course for parts unknown,
Leavin' behind both friend and foe,
Needin' to find what I've come to know,
As I watched the islands fade away,
And bid farewell to Casco Bay,
Though it's been years and years since then,
My heart has brought me home again.

'Years and years since then/my heart has brought me home again.' Indeed. Someday, I will return to Maine when I am more ready to settle down, but until then, it is off on the next adventure.

* * *

I have many reasons to be thankful, and many people to thank. First of all, my parents, who have suffered long in support of my waywardness and were dead set against this expedition for much of the planning and execution, thank you for, in the end, supporting me in this endeavour and in life. Also to my brothers and sisters-in-law, for their enthusiasm and support- when one's head is in the clouds, it is good to be reminded of your worth.

To the Portland crew- Emily Hoffer, Abby Martin, and especially Kendall Williams for the help and support when I was at best a frightened and confused boy about to bite off more than he could chew.

To the National Outdoor Leadership School, my employer, for the flexibility to pursue this expedition and for the support to see it through. NOLS is the leading teacher of wilderness skills and leadership, and in addition to being lucky to work for them, I realize the things I have learned and perfected over my time there allowed me to safely and efficiently execute this expedition. The friends I have met and the mentors I have had there were supportive from the very beginning, to all of them, and to Duck and Rebecca in particular, thank you.

To my sponsors, Bell Canoe Works, Kokatat Watersports Wear, Delorme Maps, Cooke Custom Sewing, and the Manhattan Meadery, thank for the support that made this trip possible. The equipment they provided is of the highest quality and I chose them just as they chose me. Support these companies; they are the best for a reason.

And to all the people I've met along the way for the kind words, enthusiasm, and for when they gave small kindesses even when they could not comprehend what I was doing or why.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Down to the Sea

The portage around Presumpscot Falls on the Presumpscot River was among the most dangerous carries of the trip. It was short, well marked, and had solid footing, but I could smell salt water and my mind was wandering to other places.

The falls had been underwater for over 200 years, but with the removal of Smelt Hill Dam eight years ago, the falls came to light, and at their foot I loaded my canoe, Casco, and paddled out into the brackish water of the estuary. There, plunging my hands into salt water for the first time in eighteen months, I knew I was close. I had paddled from ocean to ocean, but I was still not home.

In the estuary I floated, enjoying the slack tide and solemnly snapping on Casco's party dress before I went into open water. I brushed my teeth, changed my shirt, and took a deep breath before putting paddle to water once more. The 4300th mile had begun.

I had grand plans of a triumphant finish, but as I rounded Martin's Point and saw the blinking lights of the harbor beacons, I could not wait. I had told my family I would come in at 2pm, but I coasted in a half hour early and they had to hurriedly get the ballons out of the car. It was a warm reception, and as I chatted with reporters and hugged family, I regularly took pulls off the champagne bottle of Allagash Stout my mother had brought me. I was home.


Last I wrote, I had paddled and portaged into the Adirondacks to connect with the Northern Forest Canoe Trail that I had completed previously. That accomplished, I met my brother and we did a leisurely two day, ten-mile trip in the St. Regis before driving south to meet my parents. I returned home for two days to be with close family friends as they celebrated the life of their grandfather, a great man I had know from my earliest memories. Then it was back to Maine, solo, to put in on the Androscoggin River towards the middle of the NFCT.

In Bethel, Maine I made the obligatory stop at the pizza shrine at Mallard Mart to consume the ambrosia I had partaken of so often in college. Thus fortified, I walked four miles to Songo Pond, but it's outlet was dry and that had me walking twenty-five miles and then paddling under the stars down to Long Lake and the route to Sebago Lake. In all, I traveled over 100 miles in two and a half days. Happy to be in Maine, and happy to be approaching the end, I moved well.


Some reflections and a summary of the trip will follow in the next few days.

Hurtling Towards Casco Bay

Yesterday was a rough day. When paddling, it usually takes 10-12 hours of pouring rain to soak you thoroughly, but with the bike and trailer portaging set-up, full saturation happens in a matter of minutes. The first bike was named Taj, the boat Casco, and the second bike Taj II. But all together? I just call it the 'Contraption'.

Biking south from Ogdensburg, New York, I passed quite a few Amish folks in buggies, and for the most part they waved and smiled- making them the most pleasant road companions I've had yet. But at one point, soaked to the skin and pushing uphill in a place otherwise known as the pit of despair, one of the buggy drivers actually pointed at me and laughed.

Since Mattawa (where I was constantly singing 'Mattawa' set to 'Panama' by van Halen) I beat down the Ottawa River for four days to Pembroke, collected my bike and proceeded across Ontario making a series of guest apperences on the Madawaska River and the Mississippi River, though I only really made any distance on the Rideau Canal. The Rideau runs fron Ottawa to Kingston and Lake Erie and was built basically to avoid the United States when it was still feared that we were going to make Upper Canada the 14th state- believe me, we tried.

I biked on to Prescott and the border crossing, where oddly enough I was not allowed to bike or walk across the border, but had to paddle and then get yelled at for 'dodging the border patrol'. If by walking into the border check point with my passport is 'dodging' then I'm guilty.

Another great aspect of this week has been the wonderful hospitality I've encountered- more so than the previous five months combined. There was the girl at the burger stand who's sympathy with soaked paddler had her sending her mother into the park to check on me, and eventually bringing me dinner. The campground owners who brought tea and muffins to a sore and bedraggled boy, along with good conversation on everything from African politics (they were of Rhodesian extraction) to travel, family and the like. And finally Jim and Donna in New York, who opened their home to me when all other doors seemed to be closing. As the trip comes to a close, life is good and the spirit of hospitality is alive and well in this part of the world.

I am in Tupper Lake, New York now, and tomorrow morning I'll meet my brother and we'll do a short paddle together before he heads back to Manhattan and drops me off in Albany. In 2007, I paddled from the Adirondacks to Maine, and I'll be counting a section of that trip to bridge the distance. In two days, I'll start again in New Hampshire on the Androscoggin River and paddled 3-4 days down to the sea at Portland Maine. So close.

Back in Ontario, I had the pleasure of walking past the Time Travelers Motel in Petawawa. I couldn't help but laugh- I wondered if they get much business there if the motel is only for time travelers. I can't imagine many people who regularly travel through time see eastern Ontario in 2010 as much of a destination. Just sayin'.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

It's On, Huron

I had hurriedly packed my barrel and was about to hurl myself out of the tent but as I did, the tent began to flatten again, and I was reduced to sitting my my arms and shoulders bracing the structure against the wind and rain. A broken pole would not be a big deal, but five broken poles would be. In a lull, I jumped out and collapsed the tent, stuffing while trying to keep from getting blown over. Two hundred meters away, ten foot waves obliterated islands one after another while streaks of foam rushed through the water below me.

In all, I felt lucky and happy- I had dodged a much bigger bullet.

The night before, I had pulled into camp east of Killarney, Ontario and had flicked on the weather radio as is my routine while setting up camp. Clouds had moved in, but the water was oily calm and without much energy. After the French version, which sounded strangely dramatic, my old friend from the Thunder Bay Coast Guard Station came on and began heralding the apocalypse. The storm was going to break over night and the hot, humid and calm weather of the previous week was getting blown out rather forcefully; 50+ knot winds, 10 foot seas, etc. So at 6pm, I packed up, rounded the last point out of Lake Huron and into the French River, and set up camp. The next morning, I was glad of it.

I began this leg near Sault Ste. Marie, and have moved over 300 miles since then in about 13 days. Across Huron, up the French and across Lake Nipissing to North Bay and the access to the Mattawa River. Now, I report from Mattawa.

These past few weeks have been gorgeous- nothing here but rock, pine, and water for hundreds of miles. Camps too (what in Ontario they call cottages), but plenty of room to explore and great campsites. Huron felt a bit more like a sea kayaking trip, with the hottest weather I've ever camped in in my life- I would take breaks throughout the day to just lay fully clothed in the lake. The wind blows from time to time, and with nothing but water on the horizon, the swells can get rather large. On one crossing, the waves were about 4 feet with a huge period and thus easily managed with some focus and a windward eye. About halfway across, the loudest and deepest noise I have ever heard boomed out, exactly like thunder. I started at it, afraid it was the expected thunderstorm. The plume of dust from an inland mine showed my fear unfounded.

On the French River I rediscovered my love of Fun Dip, the staple of Little League games of years past. My version involves Snickers bars and cream cheese. The quest for calories never ceases.

I saw a black bear way out in Georgian Bay on an island deep water soloing a sick 5.8 too- one of the highlights of the passage. For those non-climbers out there, the bear, an young adult, was climbing a vertical rock face perched over the open lake. I have photos- it was pretty awesome. Later the same day, a duck walked up a 60 degree rock wall to watch me eat. I am not alone out here.

OK, time to run. I am now in the Ottawa valley, and a rest in Pembroke awaits!