Excepting a brief boat ride on the Sault St. Marie and a Disney cruise to Nassau, the first time I left American soil, it was 1998, and I was an 18 year old clown evangelist. It was a church mission trip to Lima, Peru, and we were going to spend a week sharing the gospel with the Latin world through the universal language of whatever is happening here:
We'd spent months preparing, but our careers were short lived, because the first time we put on our makeup the street kids we were supposed to be entertaining cried and ran away. Some tried to hit us, some froze in terror. None were drawn up into spiritual rapture.
The choice to travel the world as a clown evangelist, it seemed, was a grave mistake.
I'm not proud of any of this, but I can say that we learned from our mistakes. We cut our losses, put away the costumes, and spent the rest of our week in inner city Lima painting a deaf school and listening to stories from families living in a leper colony. We all vowed to never speak of it again, and I'm breaking a blood oath by posting this here. (That last sentence is the only part of this story that isn't true.)
Adventure travel that's learned from its mistakes
I tell you this because 1) when you have a story about Peruvian clown evangelism, you can't let it go to waste, but more importantly 2) it's a prime example of adventure travel gone wrong.
Personally, I have to admit that the term "adventure travel" itself makes me cringe a bit because it triggers so many problematic mental images. If I'm in a historical state of mind, I see a British guy in a safari helmet forcing locals to carry his crap through the jungle while he searches for ruins to plunder and pretends to "discover" places where people have been living for thousands of years. If I'm picturing modern adventure travel, it's backpackers harassing wildlife in New Zealand or getting drunk after their kayak trip in Cabo. Whatever the merits of the happy hour at Senor Frogs, it's just not our jam.
Admittedly enough, in our years of travel, we've gone on our share of tours that were marketed as "adventures", and they haven't been all bad: we met some really hardcore people "volcano boarding" in Nicaragua, and "100% Aventura" will always be one of my favorite inside jokes because of a zipline tour we took with friends in Costa Rica, which I'm going to keep to myself in the spirit of inside jokes. But really, in those contexts, "adventure" just translated as "cheap thrill".
Like clown evangelism, compared with the adventure experiences that we know are possible, that kind of definition just seems wrong, wrong, wrong. So as we've decided to delve into the "adventure travel" business, we've had to define the concept for ourselves in a way that seems more accurate to our experience.
Boldly Went defines "Adventure"
For us, adventure has been 100 mile mountain runs, multi-day river excursions, local bus rides through places where we don't speak the language, 15,000 foot peaks, unexpectedly wandering into llama sacrifices, calving glaciers, and erupting volcanoes. It's been human connections that have changed our career paths and physical challenges that have redefined our sense of what is personally possible.
And so, as we define it, adventure is:
1: Something you work for. You really need to have trained, researched, learned a new language or skill, suffered or sacrificed, gotten deeply uncomfortable in the process, or worked hard to get there. Doesn't mean it's not fun. Just that it's not easy.
2: Transformative. It's an experience that changes you, teaches you something about the world, impacts your relationships and outlook, and that you won't forget. Bonus points if it also impacts the world in a positive way.
3: Beautiful. It happens somewhere spectacular, or connects you with other human beings in a deep way. It's an experience of overcoming a challenge or living out a dream, or it moves you. It makes you laugh, cry or hurl.
4: Responsible. It doesn't count as an adventure if it's exploitation. If other people, or the ecosystem, are harmed in the GoPro'ing of your outing, you're an ass, not an adventurer. If the locals don't benefit in some way from your having been there, it's problematic.
Putting all of those things together is a challenge, which means that a real adventure is also rare.
Our big idea: giving you an in with the locals.
At our events and on our podcast people tell adventure stories to share inspiration, but as a business and community we want to go beyond inspiration to also help people make adventures actually happen.
While there's no true shortcut to real adventure as we think of it, and you can't sell it in a canned tour, as we've traveled we've realized that there are ways to make it more accessible. And that's what our newly launched and constantly developing Navigator Network is aimed at.
All over the world, we've realized that there's nothing more valuable - and often more difficult to come by if you don't speak the language - than local connections, and local beta. So, we're working with locals to connect travelers looking for real adventure with the cool people in cool places doing cool things. They're the people in their communities that know where you should go, know who you should go with, and can help you plan your adventures or go along with you. And by connecting with them, paying a price that they set for their services, you can be sure that you're putting money directly into the economies of the places you're adventuring in and leaving communities better than when you left.
We already have navigators signed up in our hometown of Seattle, Nepal, and Guatemala, where we're particularly excited about our partnership in San Pedro la Laguna on Lake Atitlan. Javier (pictured above) is our hookup, and we initially met him when he was our Spanish teacher in early 2016. We learned that he also runs a small non-profit called Trek for Kids that provides livable wage guiding jobs to locals and donates money to send local kids to high school and college. Only 20% of kids in their area graduate high school, but they're currently making education possible for 7 students from small communities around Lake Atitlan. Javier is just the kind of guy we think you'll want to meet, and we hope you'll get in contact with him through our Navigator page to start planning a trekking trip on the hills and volcanoes around Atitlan. (Pro tip: he's also super well connected, so can likely help if you're interested in trail running, kayaking or other types of adventure near Lake Atitlan as well. He can also teach you Spanish, Mayan culture, and grills a mean chicken. And you can donate directly to Trek for Kids through their page, hyperlinked above.)
We're relying largely on referrals and personal connections to build this network, so if you're interested in being a navigator in your area - or if you know someone in any part of the world that you'd trust to make real adventure possible - contact us!
Also, I'm a little rusty, but if anyone needs a clown I'm still secretly keeping the dream alive.
It's not entirely clear how or why this became a thing, but today, June 21st, is International Hike Naked Day. We became aware of this at our first Bend event in February when Amanda Timeoni, aka Not a Chance, told the winning story about her experience as a never nude hiking with a naked partner. Whether or not you decide to keep your clothes on today, it's only right to honor the day by checking out her story here.
And remember, it's only weird if you make it weird.
I'm not even going to try to make this transition elegantly
In completely unrelated business, we'd be remiss not to mention that this week's podcast features Tacoma's Ken Campbell, a guy who is interesting for reasons completely unrelated to nudity.
Ken's a serious paddler, and a real water protector: on the podcast he tells a story about the time he paddled around Newfoundland (a trip that is really crazy if you can conceive of it..), and he also founded the Ikkatsu Project as a way to research and draw attention to the impact of plastics on marine environments, particularly around Puget Sound. And he is the subject of an award winning short film about the time a few years ago that he built a boat out of discarded plastic bottles and paddled it 150 miles from the bottom to the top of the Sound. I know I'm giving you lots of entertainment assignments, but you can and should watch the whole film here: it's inspiring, thought provoking, and full of beautiful imagery of the Pacific Northwest. I love this stuff.
This week's podcast - in my opinion, one of the best we've put out - features two athletes who don't need an engine to cross massive bodies of water.
1. Dean Burke
Dean, undoubtedly one of the best storytellers AND hardest-core athletes in the Pacific Northwest, recently became one of a very small number of human beings to paddleboard across the Straight of Juan de Fuca between the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island during the first stage of the ridiculous and utterly intriguing Race to Alaska. 50-ish miles of just him, a board, a paddle, a bunch of fog, and the open sea. I'm sure we'll be sharing more about that story in the future, because Dean's one of our favorites. For now, bookmark this page for a time when you have about 45 minutes to watch his presentation above about Puget Sound. Guaranteed you'll see Tacoma, WA in a whole new light, and move paddling on Puget Sound to the top of your bucket list!
2. Melissa Kegler
Our second storyteller on this week's podcast is pursuing the "Triple Crown of Swimming", which you probably haven't heard of because almost no one has done it. It involves crossing the Catalina Channel in California (20.2 miles), the English Channel (21 Miles), and swimming around Manhattan (28.5 miles). She ticked off Catalina (and tells us a story about it...) in 2016, and England is up next in August. Find out more about Melissa on her website, and toss some money her way to help her get from England to France! (I don't know how these things work but I'm guessing it pays for like 16 wetsuits and a shark cage or two? Just kidding. She tells you exactly where your money will go on the site! And it's not to wetsuits because she doesn't have time for that crap.)
I'll spare you the photos, but I want you to know that I have a gross bacterial rash on my chest that I'm treating with antibiotics. And while I don't want to point any fingers, we just got back from a week and a half on the Hudson, and there's a fair chance that "the river that flows both ways" is also "the river that gave me a staph infection". While there have been major cleanup efforts on the river in recent years, outdated sewage systems in the communities along the way mean that there is still a fair amount of bacterial contamination in many places, and I wouldn't be the first person to exit the Hudson with a little bit more than I entered with.
The rash got me researching the history of human pollution on the river, and it's not surprising (as an Eastern American waterway) that it has a fairly extensive one. The most notable cleanup efforts in recent years have been focused on the removal of PCBs - industrial plastic neurotoxins and likely carcinogens that were pumped into the river en masse for 30 years, most notably by General Electric, until the late 1970s, when their production was banned by the Federal Government. PCBs made Hudson silt toxic, fish inedible, and swimming dangerous, so the EPA designated 200 miles of the river as a superfund site requiring cleanup. GE resisted participating in the cleanup initially, and made arguments that we'd all be better off if we just left the PCBs in the river where they now belong. The EPA pushed back and GE agreed to help fund what became the largest ever environmental cleanup of a river, which is still ongoing. (Or so Wikipedia says. Wikipedia also points out that the musician Pete Seeger was a major leader in pushing for cleanup efforts.)
Staring at my rash on the same week that the President announced that he's pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, it's easy enough to draw some analogies between the situation on the Hudson and the narrow corporate interests that are driving the push to ignore the testimony of the vast majority of the world's scientific community, and the political consensus of every other country in the world (excepting Nicaragua and Syria). They're both, ultimately, about abdication of responsibility: weak arguments are made against the validity of the best science because a responsible party doesn't want to deal with the cost of their actions. The financial concerns of the few, and the culpable, are asserted against the economic and health concerns of the many.
The difference between the situations being, of course, that in the case of the Hudson, the US government was actually a driving force towards a cleanup process that has been largely successful: the ecosystem is healing, and people can generally now interact with the river much more safely than in the 1970s (my own rash notwithstanding).
While economic, pragmatic, and ethical arguments about why we should protect the world we live in are probably the most important ones, personally my own sense of the importance of the environment would probably best be labelled as spiritual.
I've inherently loved being outside since I was a kid, but when I was 23 Angel and I moved to New Zealand and I did a Masters degree in Theology focused (in very broad terms) on the idea that God is present in nature. While I worked this out academically at University, I felt it personally in New Zealand's beautiful landscape - and maybe most powerfully on the Pacific along the spectacular Otago coast where we lived.
While the way that I'd conceptualize my theology has changed significantly in the time since I finished my degree, and I wouldn't necessarily describe my feelings about the outdoors in religious terms, my sense of connection to the natural world has only grown. Trailrunning has put nature at the center of my most important means of maintaining health and happiness. Thru-hiking put it at the center of my emotional processing of my father's death. And paddling has made the outdoors a means of connecting with my own mortality and place in the world. The outdoors is something to feel, as much as anything to conceptualize or commodify as a political or economic unit.
And so, as I experience it, the American withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, like other human decisions not to live in ways that are ecologically sustainable, is a spiritual failing, which does spiritual damage, as well as a political and economic problem.
Every Boldly Went story is essentially a variation on this theme, "The outdoors is meaningful to me because...", and I think it is probably a natural human tendency to develop a sense of connection to the environment. In the span of history, it's a strange situation we're in, for many of us to spend more of our time in a built environment than a natural one, and for this sense to require intentional cultivation. But I think it's why outdoor athletes, along with farmers, foresters, fishermen, hunters and others who interact with the outdoor environment on a regular basis keep some element of essential humanity alive that might otherwise be lost. Environmental interests are human interests, because humans are one element of the environment. People who interact with the non-built environment regularly get that intuitively.
New Zealand is one of the world's most beautiful countries, and also one of it's more sparsely populated - particularly on the South Island where we lived. When we moved there we noticed a sort of "If you don't build it, they will come" dynamic, where protected land was abundant, and life in the outdoors - both recreationally and vocationally - was an assumed and ordinary part of life. It's no surprise then that the preservation and protection of their natural environment was a key part of Kiwi identity. Because it's such a beautiful place, there's a chicken and egg question: do they protect it because it's so beautiful, or is it so beautiful because they've protected it? Whatever the case, the presence of clean, beautiful natural spaces drew people outdoors, and the fact that people were outdoors led them to value clean, beautiful natural spaces. They were locked in a positive cultural cycle that was good for people, and good for their environment.
Spiritually sound environmental leadership, I think, which recognizes the essential human connection to the world around us, looks something like trying to kickstart that cycle. Costa Rica is a country that has done it with some degree of success in a culture that is very different from New Zealand's, and with far fewer resources, and in the US Western states including our home in Washington and some of the New England states have done so as well. At our local levels, in our outdoor communities, grassroots cultural change is exactly this - reinforcing for those who feel less connected that the outdoors is essential to who we are as human beings, helping more people get outside, and building the community connections that make durable political change inevitable.
That gross rash I've got? It's a nice, concrete reminder that our leaders' spiritual failures have real world consequences. But our connections in the outdoor community? They're the foundation being built to subvert short sighted interests that do damage to our planet, and to our essential humanity.
The next few weeks' podcasts feature environmental leaders Mike Webb, a surfer still going strong at 68 years old who also leads eco-tours, Ellen Bayer, a Barkley Fall Classic finisher and University of Washington professor of literature with an academic interest in Environmental literature, Ken Campbell, founder of the Ikkatsu Project who, among other things, constructed a kayak out of discarded plastic bottles and paddled it between Seattle and Bellingham to raise awareness of the fragility of Puget Sound, and Dean Burke, hardcore SUP boarder and TedX and University of Washington presenter on the relationship between the city and Puget Sound in Tacoma.
Stories and inspiration
One of the reasons we organize storytelling events for the outdoor community is that we know that even small exposure to new ideas can trigger major new adventure paths.
For instance, a few months ago, Angel and I were at a bookstore in Seattle, and I stumbled on a book in the local section by David Ellingson, called Paddle Pilgrim: Kayaking the Erie Canal and Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty. I neither bought nor read the book, but I really should at this point, because it set off a series of events that led to our recent mini-epic paddle of the lower Hudson.
As thru-hikers, trail runners and international backpackers, we're generally happiest on extended adventures of the type where you can settle into the rhythm of living outside, and can start to forget, at least for a while, that life is anything but exploration. I happened on the book at a time when we had just bought a foldable Oru Kayak and were learning to use it, and when we'd just finished a year and a half of thru-hiking and backpacking in Latin America and were looking for something new. When I flipped through the book I thought, "Hmm. Kayak touring? I wonder if we could pull this off in these Oru's?" When an opportunity arose to visit the East Coast a couple of months later, we found ourselves putting in at Albany to recreate the part of the "Paddle Pilgrim" experience, spending a week and a half trying to make our way to NYC by way of the Hudson.
We'd planned to tackle about 150 miles of the Lower Hudson, which is all a part of the Hudson River Greenway Water Trail - a national water trail - which means that there are camping or hotel accommodations and launches at least every 15 miles on both sides of the river, and in most cases more frequently than that. Campsites and boat racks could have been more abundant and accessible, but otherwise the logistics of planning this trip were straightforward. There were plenty of places to get water, to resupply food, or to pop off the river for a shower and a night in a hotel. Things are set up there for long distance paddling, and we found that it was a challenge that we as fit people, but relatively inexperienced paddlers, could take on confidently and safely.
Beyond "Paddle Pilgrim", there are a few online articles about people who've taken this trip, but we didn't meet any one else doing even sections while we were out, and several locals told us they'd never heard of anyone doing the whole trip. Even being early in the season, that was surprising due to the ease of access and logistics, the availability of comprehensive maps and even a guidebook, the proximity to one of the largest concentrations of people in the world, and the fact that the river is fairly perfectly set up for such a trip.
Our approach was to apply the lessons we've learned thru-hiking to an extended kayaking trip: pack as light as possible, embrace your inner dirtbag, chill out, and look out for both type 2 and type 1 fun: work hard while enjoying it as much as you can.
This was our first extended paddling trip, so didn't want to get ourselves in over our head, but we did want to see what our Oru Kayaks were capable of. Oru is a relatively new company with an innovative concept - a highly functional but lightweight origami-esque folding kayak that you can toss on your back and take to places that a normal kayak wouldn't easily go: two miles up trail to a mountain lake, for instance, or (in our case) the checked baggage carousel on an airplane and the luggage compartment of a Greyhound bus. We wanted to be as self-contained and human powered as we could be, and do it on the cheap without car rentals or paid boat transportation.
Hudson River People
We tend to like our adventures with a side of community, so we planned this trip to be social from the start. Angel had been coordinating with folks in the Hudson Valley for several months to organize the first East Coast Boldly Went storytelling event in Athens - a small town where we could paddle right to the venue (the Athens Riverside Diner - as classic an American diner as you're likely to find) and hear some stories from locals about life on the river. She's also set up get-togethers with folks in New York City connected with OutdoorFest and Mappy Hour, like-minded organizations that bring people together in the outdoor community in inspiring ways.
But what we found was that meeting cool people came naturally. Before we even started, we crashed in Albany with Alan Wechsler, a guy we met randomly through the Warm Showers bike-touring website, who we found out was both a serious all-around outdoorsman and an award-winning journalist who writes primarily about the outdoors. He ended up coming to the event in Athens with his girlfriend, and with Darryl McGrath, a serious birder and the author of the book Flight Paths about the successful efforts of a few female biologists to bring both Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles back from the brink of extinction.
Beyond those personal connections, people along the river seemed universally interested in what we were doing, and offered us important advice like which bushes to stash our kayaks in when we were spending the night in town, and where to find the local breweries. On one occasion when we were lugging our packs up a hill, a guy mistook us for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and offered us a ride to the trailhead at Bear Mountain. (Thru-hikers can't escape trail magic even if they try.) West Coast rumors of East Coast rudeness are greatly exaggerated.
For its access to history and quaint small towns, the lower Hudson is a sort of poor American paddler's version of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. There are towns, I'd say on average, every 10 miles along the river, and history is everywhere - from the giant manors, light houses, and literal castles dotting the river, to the ruins of ice houses where the frozen Hudson was broken up, stored and shipped down river, to the islands seemingly made entirely of the bricks that were produced to construct New York City.
Most of the towns are quaint maritime villages, but you get a range of experiences from a place like Coxsackie that is almost a ghost town to Beacon, which is a bustling arts community full of NYC refugees. In general the community along the Hudson is vibrant, and a highlight was wandering by accident into a Spring Festival in Highland, across the river from Poughkeepsie, where we gorged on street food and local beer while we waited on our laundry to dry at the local laudromat.
Outdoor adventure on an industrial river
One of the things I love about paddling is that it allows you to easily get out of the controlled environment of the city into the heart of nature without much travel time. On a windy day in Seattle, we can throw our kayaks on Puget Sound and go from urban safety into a harrowing, life-threatening encounter with mother nature in a matter of minutes. And so, despite the fact that the Hudson is a relatively populated river, living on the water for a week and a half felt like a real outdoor experience, where wind, storms, and the tidal nature of the river were the primary challenges we had to contend with on a daily basis.
If you're not from the area, the Hudson itself is probably not exactly what you think: it has a reputation as a highly polluted waterway, and in places around the city it still has issues. But while the river is still impacted by its industrial history, NY has engaged in massive cleanup efforts in recent years, and our experience was characterized more by pretty tidal estuaries, abundant bird life, jumping fish, pleasant state parks, and rural villages than visible pollution. Nowadays, it's safe to swim in most places, even if we weren't taking our drinking water from the river. The Hudson didn't feel particularly busy either, despite some reports we'd heard. It is an active shipping channel, but above NYC large ships were relatively uncommon - we probably saw 1 - 2 per day - and beyond a few smaller boats we frequently had the river mostly to ourselves.
It's a common saying that the Hudson behaves more like an ocean than a river, and while I think this is a bit of an exaggeration (conditions, when choppy, were very similar to our home base on Lake Washington in Seattle), a sea kayak would have been the ideal tool for the job. Our 12 foot, folding, lightweight and rudderless boats were functional overall, but I would compare the experience to bike touring with a commuter: you can make it work, but there will be times when you wish you had a beefier model. In our case this was typically in high winds, when tailwinds led to tracking problems and headwinds slowed down our lightweight boats more than they might have heavier ones. Our most nerve-wracking experience was during a river crossing at a wide point in high winds, when the river was whitecapping. We intentionally steered relatively close by some stationary smaller fishing boats so we'd have aid in case we capsized, and they cheered for us while we navigated some pretty gnarly chop. In the end our boats contributed to our decision to cut our trip about 30 miles short at Croton-on-Hudson when high winds were predicted and we didn't want to contend with tough conditions along with the increased large ship traffic near NYC. But beyond one fluke, but nearly catastrophic hole punched in my boat 4 miles into the trip (Gorilla Tape works miracles), the Oru's were what we expected them to be: light, functional, and fun, and pretty darn good for an affordable boat you can pack up, throw on your back, and cart around the city when you're done. And you can't really beat the cool factor.
Here's to hoping the trip becomes famous
There's nothing quite like the experience of discovering a hidden gem, and it's strange that a paddle down a river that fronts possibly the most famous city in the world would seem like that, but because we didn't come across anyone else doing the same thing, this trip really did. 150 mile paddling trips might not be everyone's thing, but the fact that NYC sits at the end of a really fantastic one suggests to me that there's significant economic and adventure potential for the Hudson that hasn't yet been realized. It's a world-class paddling experience hidden in plain sight. To me, it's a water trip that captures a similar magic to the Camino de Santiago, or the Appalachian Trail, and an outdoor experience that was full of natural beauty, culture, and history.
And we're of course all about helping people get outside, so if you have questions about our trip, logistics, gear, or if you want to repeat it, please, contact us!