"E.T.", aka Elizabeth Traver, was featured in Episode 48 of the podcast telling her story about formative experiences fishing in Wyoming. This week's podcast features more storytellers from the Laramie event, so we feel like it's a great opportunity to share this great little adventure story by E.T. - one of the craziest job interviews we've heard of. A scientist, ultra runner, world traveler, mountain biker, ski instructor and more, she is just the type of remarkable (but unassuming) character that we love discovering, and introducing to the world.
While white water rafting tends to get lumped in as a low key family vacation type adventure, E.T.'s story isn't about any laid back float trip. Straightforward and almost Melville-esque, I love it as 1) an illustration of ET's amazing spirit and 2) a brief window into the harrowing life of a rafting guide, lived when the rest of us aren't in the boat. It's also an evocative picture of adventure life in Wyoming - with the Tetons, Yellowstone, the Wind River Range, the Snake and Kern Rivers, it's one of the world's great mountain adventure locations that I personally haven't explored enough.
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 While there have been major cleanup efforts on the river in recent years, outdated sewage systems in the communities along the way mean that there is still a fair amount of bacterial contamination in many places, and I wouldn't be the first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!
Today abruptly marks the end. We weren't planning it that way, but winds are predicted to be high the next 2 days and paddling into high winds means difficult and dangerous water conditions. It's hard to make forward progress when the wind is pushing you back, but of bigger concern to us are the waves that are generated by the wind and the wakes from the boat traffic are made more ferocious.
We want to finish strong and without a capsize, so we're exiting the river at Croton, about 30 miles upriver from our anticipated end point at The Battery in Manhattan, NY.
Today, on one of our final rest breaks, I looked out over the Hudson, and reflected over the experiences of the past 10 days--battling 100 degree days, fighting winds and waves, bandit camping, huddling in the tent through a thunder and lightning storm, fearing another hole in a kayak or that the patch on the current foot long hole wouldn't hold. As I reflected I thought about how it all seems like a small memory already, and that I wish I would have taken more time to reflect on the journey along the way.
So much of energies and efforts on multiday adventures go toward logistical planning and as I reflected, I remember that this is true for life in general. Thinking about where you're going, how you're going to get there, how long will it take, how much food will I need? Where will I camp? Details that are important in execution but that cloud the experience when you're in it. This is true of all of my multiday adventures and it is true for life too.
Today, I found myself wishing that I had experienced it all more. Felt the exhaustion deeper, the happiness higher, the company of new friends more, and so on. I wondered if I would feel this way one day when looking back on life and knowing death was right around the corner.
But really, this adventure played out just perfectly, and I am thankful to have shared another multiday trip, this time a new-to-me adventure type, paddling, with my main adventure squeeze. I am also happy to have made a choice to live with intention and create space to reflect and feel ways about life that I don't regret. Creating these life microcosms through multi-day adventures also reminds me, and now you because you've read this far, to feel deeper all the time and reflect upon our circumstances more regularly to be sure that we are carving out a meaningful life.
So, what's your next multiday adventure going to be? And how do you reassure yourself that you're living the life you want that is fulfilling and that, one day, when reaching the end, you don't wish you had taken the time to feel deeper? Or if you're not living that life, can you? Post your thoughts and tips below.
On day 1, within 2 hours of setting off on our journey, we spotted a huge barge coming up the river. It was moving with enough speed that it had a wave coming up in front of the boat.
We saw some sandy beach to the right, and we thought it would be convenient to pull off. We got our boats to shore, pulled them just out of the water onto the beach. I videoed the barge going by. It looked like it was moving so slow.
After shutting down the video, I watched as the wake started to creep toward shore from the boat. I didn't know exactly what Tim was doing, but I saw that the wave was coming up to shore pretty big. I pulled my boat back, and I yelled to Tim to "Grab your boat! Grab your boat!"
I hadn't realize that Tim had taken a shoe off because there are some really nasty thorny nuts that are laying around on the beach that uncomfortably poke straight through shoes. Tim had taken his shoe off to try to pull one of those out. Which meant that he wasn't able to grab his boat.
I watched as his boat smashed into a log on the side of the beach going straight through the side of his kayak, and I heard the terrible crunching sound of a boat that was getting broken. I had to grab my boat again because the wave was so big that it had crept up to the point where I had pulled my boat out of the water and still swept it down the beach. So I chased after my boat all-the-while with scenarios of a broken boat running through my head.
I got back to Tim, and he was squatting down on the beach holding his head in his hands. It was not funny at the time. Tim went to quick work repairing the boat with the gorilla tape and gorilla superglue that we had packed. Thankfully we had packed them because Tim had researched a little and knew that was what we would need in the case a field repair would be required. I thought that was really unlikely, but here we were on day one, just two hours into our trip, doing a field repair. Suddenly not so unlikely, and I was feeling thankful Tim is the prepared one.
The patch continues to hold and we're on day three now. We contacted Oru Kayak who told us the best way to repair this was "good ol' duct tape."
We'll see how it goes! We really want to paddle all the way to New York City and as long as the patch holds, we think we'll make it. The paddling and scenery is nice btw.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.