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!

Friday, August 20, 2010

In It to Win It

The plan is set, finally.

I am in Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory after just working two NOLS courses here. One was the hike/canoe combination and the other a US Naval Academy training. In between, I got to explore the Land of the Midnight Sun a bit more than in years past- pouring beer in town and getting up to Dawson City for the Music Festival being two examples.

I fly out on Sunday, and expect to be launching 'Casco' in Ontario on Wednesday, August 25th. I'll be heading across the Great Lakes from Superior to Huron and Georgian Bay and then up the French River to Lake Nipissing and North Bay. From there, a short portage to Trout Lake and the Mattawa and Ottawa Rivers, the Rideau Canal, and into New York on the St. Lawrence and Raquette Rivers. A hop skip and a jump to Old Forge, NY and the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which I have already completed. Down the Androscoggin River in New Hampshire to Bethel, Maine, the Crooked River to Sebago Lake, and down the Presumpscot River to Casco Bay and le fin.

A busy plan, but I am planning one month for these last 800 miles. Wish me luck.

More to come.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

An Update and a Summary

Here is an update on the America's Rivers Expedition, current to March 10, 2010. Thus far, the expedition has lasted 106 days and covered 3000 miles during the periods April 4-May 29 and September 23-November 17.


It is March, and I am at rest- the expedition is on hold while the land and waters march toward thaw and I work to refill the expedition coffers. Spring approaches, and as the lakes begin to be kindled rotten by the sun I plan and prepare for the return to travel. In 2009 the 'Casco' was moved 3000 miles by paddle and portage on the Expedition and in 2010 it will move the last 1200 miles down to the sea at Portland, Maine.

Now, the 'Casco' sits with a duffel of gear in it, the rig safely in the dark of a timber warehouse on the shores of Lake Superior at Grand Portage National Monument. It is stored beneath a 36 foot Montreal canoe, the storied craft of the working paddlers of the past. How it came to be there, to rest as I am for the final push, is related below.

The ARE was from its conception split into three legs representing the western, central, and eastern regions of the North American continent. Each leg was then split into a number of reaches, each named for the principle body of water it covers, while the last reach was aptly titled 'Home'.

In April and May, 55 days of travel brought the Casco and her solo passenger 1300 miles from the Pacific Ocean near Portland, Oregon up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to Jackson Hole in Wyoming. Headwinds and heavy seas on the Columbia as well as its numerous dams and impoundments slowed progress, but gave time to explore the plight of the anadromous fish of that river and those that have depended on the fish for millenia. The Snake River followed, and for five weeks the Casco ascended one of the West's great working rivers; for its 1000 mile length alternately beloved and deeply abused. A bike named 'Taj' was added after an attempted ascent of Hell's Canyon to aid in the long upstream portages, and progress in late spring was brutal in most aspects. By the end of May, 'Casco' had entered the Rocky Mountains, portaged Alpine Canyon to Jackson Hole and was enjoying deserved rest. 'Casco' and the rest of the rig went into storage while I traveled north, to the Yukon Territory to work in hopes of making enough money to continue in the fall.

On September 23, 2009, after 200 days near-continuous days in the field (both on the ARE and off) I returned to Jackson and travel continued. With 'Casco' trailered behind 'Taj', we moved north through Grand Teton National Park to put in on Jackson Lake and then north again to Yellowstone National Park and Yellowstone Lake. After the descent off the Yellowstone Plateau, 'Casco' entered Montana and put in on the Yellowstone River at Gardiner. The 600 miles of undammed river that followed would be of the most challenging of the expedition as the temperature dropped into the teens and started the coldest October Montana has ever recorded. Ice a half-inch thick coated paddled and boat as travel progressed down the empty reaches of central and eastern Montana, testing gear, will, and the paddler's ability to consume vast quantities of food.

The North Dakota border came, and with it the confluence with the Missouri. Here, then, was a choice. The original plan was to descend the Missouri to the Mississippi and then ascend the Ohio River to Pittsburgh, the Allegheny River and the old portage into New York State. The way was open, but other plans took precedence. The Northern Tier route, always an afterthought of an option, came to the fore and instead of turning south as would have been prudent given the advanced season, the 'Casco' moved east, and north. After the portage to Minot, North Dakota and the put in on the Souris River, another decision had to be made. The new route took us northeast into Manitoba and to Lake Winnipeg, and from there up the Winnipeg River to Lake of the Woods. Given the late date- it was almost November- the Souris was left behind in favor of a portage directly to Lake of the Woods.

After the Lake and the ascent of the Rainy River to International Falls, Minnesota, a refit and resupply allowed an October 28, 2009 launch on Rainy Lake and the old voyageur highway across Minnesota to the Grand Portage and Lake Superior. What followed was both heaven and hell- a 16 day solo crossing of the Boundary Waters in November. During this time, not a single other person was seen- in their place, in the place of the happy multitudes of summer, were lonely wolves howling at night, frequent snow, scarce birds and the encroaching ice of winter. How lucky I was- to cross the most traveled paddling destination in the world and have it all to myself.

As Thanksgiving drew near, the Height of Land- all snow- was portaged, and the Casco' descended the Pigeon River to the Grand Portage- a nine mile carry to the fur trade post and the shores of Lake Superior. A final carry to a Native-owned casino and a begged ride to the bus station brought me fifty hours across Canada to New England, home in time for Thanksgiving and family.


I will be in the field with NOLS from mid-January through May, and June-August. That means that in the twenty months between the expedition's start and expected finish, I will have been on one expedition or another for 540 days out of 600- not so much an accomplishment as a recognition of how grateful I am for this lifestyle and for the people that helped me achieve it. In September of 2010, the 'Casco' will, in a world smoothed by luck and planning, come down to the sea at Portland, Maine and the ARE will be put to bed, 4200 miles across North America.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thawing Out in Thunder Bay

Splashing through a film of ice stark naked, I had a strange moment to contemplate the absurdity of my position. It was November in northern Minnesota, and this was the first sunny day after nine snowy days of continuous gray.

This was no sanitary bathing or life affirming communion with nature; rather, I was chasing my boat which had come unhinged from its locking place amid the rocks. Now, I grew up with canoes in the vicinity of seventy pounds, and in one job ran wood and canvas monsters of 100 pounds, even. In November's Minnesota and the 2800 miles previous on this expedition, it was a thirty pound kevlar canoe, the miracle of space-age materials science. While in every corner a tremendous boon, the featherweight character of my dependable friend causes it to literally fly off when a duck, two lakes over, has the occasion to sneeze.

Upon returning from a twenty foot carry around a short, angled drop on the Basswood River, this is precisely what had happened. In 12 seconds of inattention on a day when none of my senses could detect a breath of wind and the cove had no current to speak of, Casco, my trusty partner in cross-continent voyaging, had sprung its bounds of rock and ice and was currently 30 yards out from shore and accelerating.

Habits mark the experienced outdoor person long accustomed to environment and activity, and good habits and reliable consistency mark the pro's. When something goes wrong, it is always the sum of a series of small and seemingly inconsequential bad decisions- one or more of which is either a bad habit followed or a good habit not. I always pull my boat on shore and tie it up whenever I am more than a few feet from it- always, except this time.

Shikata Ga Nai. There is no other choice. I shed my clothes, layer upon layer that had been with me without break for much too long, and waded in.

My breath came ragged in dying hot exhalations, air steaming on the iced water's clean surface as I started to swim. Happily, I am no slouch in the water; I swam competitively for over a decade and got my name on record boards at a handful of area high schools. I swam too fast- my boxers started to slip off almost immediately. Holding them on was slowing me down, so I let them go with the intention of retrieving them on the return trip. Unfortunately, they promptly sank, though given their age and state that may perhaps have been a blessing.

Climbing into a canoe from the water is necessarily an awkward maneuver; being cold, wet, and naked added a novel element. It was not until I was standing on shore quite pink and without a stitch with the secure boat at my feet that the hilarity of the event overwhelmed me.

I laughed.

I could do little else- the consequences of my mistake, my first real mistake on this trip, revealed dauntingly post-swim. I dried off and got my clothes back on, perfectly comfortable within a few minutes, but moving on with humor protecting me from the shuddering thought of what could have happened. The swim capped off a string of mistakes- I dropped my spoon in a lake during a snack break and let the wind catch and carry off a waterproof mitten shell during a snow squall. These things hit me hard- scary mistakes a hundred miles into the half-wilderness of the Boundary Waters.


I wrote the above in an empty bus station in Thunder Bay, Ontario. That was three days and a forty-four hour bus ride ago. Now, I am home and relaxing comfortably with all the hot water, fresh food, and central heat I can stand. The moment post-trip when one ceases relying on their metabolism for homeostasis management comes as relief that is hard to appropriately describe. My run across the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota saw me push 300 miles in fifteen days, consuming forty-five pounds of food.

I had planned for 13.5 days to reach Lake Superior, but the weather had other ideas. Seven sunless days of snow flurries and wind-driven sleet was followed by a few calm but portage-filled days. On one particularly calm afternoon I was forced into my parka at dusk- about an hour early. The lake was glassy calm and the sky cloudless- this would be the night. In the north, this is a special night: the first cold, calm night when the last warmth of the lake is sucked into space. The next morning, ice as far as I could see.

It forms first in crystalline lines that if given a chance stretch out into perfect angel wings, singular as if shed, deer-like. These coalesce and disappear into the first sheet, 1/32 of an inch thick and growing. By the second day in areas of perpetual shadow the ice was ply-wood thick, 5/8". The larger lakes stayed open, but in the narrow areas the ice slowed me down by at least a day, so the margin of error in my food was in the final counting not much of a margin at all: I ate full meals five times a day right to Superior, but ate my last handful of dry roasted peanuts thirty feet before I sighted the Great Lakes, that being the last ounce of food. Good timing.

The Boundary Waters are the most traveled canoe area in North America, and I traveled it from end to end and did not see a single person in fifteen days. It deserves its reputation; it seems an endless string of clear lakes bound by living rock and conifers. In my experience this string was domed by skies either gray or angry and precipitating. By the time I reached the Pigeon River and the last of the lakes, the lack of sun had long since begun to hurt. In fifteen days I had maybe thirty-five hours of sun. The days were short, the nights long- sleeping for ten hours and reading a book every two days became the norm as I hid from the dark and cold.

In a fury of portaging, I hauled my boat and kit nine miles down the Grand Portage as the voyageurs did, having crossed from the Arctic watershed to the Great Lakes and Atlantic. As I came down the old and long beaten trail to the shores of the largest lake on earth, it began to rain once again, tiring after its hour long respite. On shore at the end of the Portage is the reconstructed stockade of the Northwest Company, a fur-trading concern of the late eighteenth century. It is a National Monument and the kind superintendent allowed me to store 'Casco' in the warehouse there- my slim, space-age canoe leaning against the wall amid thirty plus foot birch bark Montreal canoes of ages past. It is an odd juxtaposition, but one I keep telling myself fits in some odd way.

I made it out with winter at my heels, the way closing even as I emerged. The gales of November will blow on Superior, and I will rest. Come May, we'll see about the third and final leg: the way down to the sea at Portland, Maine.