Up against the current of the Columbia, Snake, and Clark Fork Rivers, I’ve slowly but surely fought my way uphill. This past week, I’ve portaged my canoe and gear up and over U.S. Route 12 of the Continental Divide to an elevation of 6,312 feet – encountering an all-day, mid-May snow blast and up top, a migratory grizzly bear – who waltzed on past and paid me no heed.
Today is day 104 of the expedition, I’m safely down the mountain, and as I sit and sip an ice-cold Blackfoot IPA (courtesy of local vets Matt and Mike – cheers, gents!) at “Lakeside on Hauser” bar and restaurant, I’ve at long last got the Missouri River in sight. Lake Hauser is an intensely beautiful place in the world, and come tomorrow, I’ll put into the Missouri River, to experience the pleasure of paddling with the current.
In Helena, friend Norm Miller, founder of the Missouri River Paddlers’ group, shot a two-part, thirty-minute expedition interview which you can see here:
And so, I paddle forth. Onto the Missouri and later this year, on down to the Mississippi, where I hope to make a turn for Hannibal, before heading downriver to the Gulf and the promise of adventures, characters extraordinaire, and La Nouvelle-Orléans.
On an “adventure of a lifetime,” Neal Moore is making a 7,500-mile journey across the United States in a canoe connecting rivers from the West Coast to the East Coast.
Moore, 48, left Astoria, Oregon on Feb. 9 and has paddled up the Columbia, Snake and Clark Fork Rivers.
“It is a challenge, but anything in this life that is worthwhile is a challenge,” Moore said.
Moore continued his portage from the Clark Fork River to the Missouri River in a snowstorm Friday to the top of the Continental Divide on MacDonald Pass, a 1,200-foot elevation change that he called “a hell of a climb.” More than a foot of snow accumulated during the night as he camped under a tree.
On Saturday he descended into Helena where he will put into the Missouri River on his way to the Mississippi River and New Orleans. Next year he plans to paddle from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama then navigate rivers north concluding the journey at the Statue of Liberty.
Moore said he is inspired by the late Dick Conant of Bozeman, an unrivaled long-distance paddler and Navy veteran who went on many grand canoe adventures. “We met on the upper Mississippi River and he planted in my mind that it is possible to connect the rivers across the nation.”
Conant vanished on his last adventure in 2014 on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway headed from the top of the Hudson River to Florida. His canoe was found by a duck hunter, but his body was never found and likely was swept out to sea.
“I looked into connecting rivers across the country when I learned of his death,” Moore said. “This trip is to pay homage to Dick Conant. Some of the route for this journey is what he covered from Mississippi, Alabama and north.”
An amiable man with a big smile, Moore is an explorer, author and journalist who said his trip is all about the stories of people he meets along the way, as well as the adventure.
“The idea for 2020-21 is to travel in a traditional style canoe to chronicle the story of America leading into the election and the year following with an emphasis on the thread that unites us — what it feels like, looks like and tastes like to be an American from Oregon to the Statue of Liberty,” Moore said.
“The first thoroughfares in this country were rivers, the first roads went along these rivers, the first settlements, towns and cities were built along these rivers,” Moore said. “The canoe pays homage to those people who came before us. It is a challenging mode of travel, but is doable. When in the canoe you are down low, inside of the river, nature is all around you in a rugged wilderness. I have a front row ticket to not only nature and adventure, but to the history of America and the stories of all these different people and their experiences.”
With the coronavirus pandemic, Moore said this trip is a self-imposed solitary confinement where he goes days with no human contact. On the Snake, Moore said he didn’t see a human for five days.
Camping wild is the best possible place to be during a pandemic, he said, and that’s why he camps on islands away from people. Because he doesn’t want to cause any COVID-19 problems for friends or acquaintances when he come into town, he wears a mask and practices personal distancing.
“I am not a reporter, but a journalist storyteller. With coronavirus, meeting people is more difficult. I love greasy spoons in small towns because that is where locals go and old-timers can be found telling stories over coffee. With the gradual opening of restaurants I look forward to meeting some of them … at a distance,’’ Moore said. “This is a difficult time for many people, Moore said, but where you find trial and tribulation with the coronavirus, we see people helping others, putting their shoulder to the wheel, rolling up their sleeves and coming together. When I walk the streets of a town, I get the feel of the pulse of the community, and have chance meetings with individuals, these stumble upon stories are always the best.”
A two-time cancer survivor, Moore grew up in Los Angeles and was inspired to become an explorer after reading adventure books. Having lived in Africa and Asia for many years and been on several solo explorations since 2003, he considers himself a citizen of the world.
Documented in his book “Down the Mississippi,” Moore said, “When not on an adventure, I dream. In 2008 I had an epiphany that the best adventure of my life would be in my own backyard — in my own country. That led to a 2009 canoe trip down the Mississippi River from its source to New Orleans.”
Two years ago, Moore attempted to canoe from Astoria to New Orleans, but rivers were at 100-year flood stage. On the St. Regis River he had a brush with death when his canoe capsized in the frigid water after it came in contact with a fallen cottonwood tree and he lost most of his gear. He was able to get to Missoula where he regrouped and then portaged from there to Helena pulling his canoe. He later stopped in North Dakota after more than 1,700 miles.
He spent the past two years living in Taiwan where he taught English to earn money to finance his adventure.
On April 23, when Moore first entered the Clark Fork River out of Lake Pend Oreille on the Idaho/Montana border, the water was flowing 5,000 cubic feet per second. He paddled until evening when a severe lightning storm was approaching and he made camp on a large island.
“I’d taken the canoe and other heavy gear at least 30 feet away from the water, up and onto the island, and made camp several hundred feet further away,’’ Moore said. “Come first light, the water had risen significantly and strong, deep currents had replaced the rocks where the canoe had been the night before. They were all gone.”
Moore said that during the night Avista Power released water from the Noxon dam and water was flowing at 30,000 cfs. He notified the sheriff he was okay and Avista employees in a jet boat recovered the canoe that had overturned and most of the equipment that had floated downstream.
After portaging past the dam, Moore put into the Clark Fork River.
“I’ve been dreaming about paddling (the Clark Fork) for many years. It’s magnificent and wild, and incredibly beautiful,” Moore said.
Neal Moore says he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t try again.
Moore, 48, made his way over the Continental Divide near Helena on Saturday toting a canoe filled with his belongings. The two-day trek over MacDonald Pass amid a mid-May winter blast and grizzly bear encounter comes nearly three months after he started his journey from the West Coast – a 7,500-mile adventure he hopes will culminate two years from now when he paddles around the Statue of Liberty in New York.
“I had been a traveler for most of my life,” he said. “When you start traveling internationally, you meet other travelers, and the question is always, ‘What’s next?’
Moore is originally from Los Angeles, but has lived overseas in Africa and Taiwan for decades. He considers himself somewhat of a “citizen of the world,” enjoying returning to his home country to document his adventures as a freelance journalist.
“It happens to be two things I’m good at,” he joked. “I’m not good at a lot of things but I can go long distances in a canoe and I can story tell. The actual physical nature, day-in-day-out nature of it, mixed with the chance to stumble upon stories is sort of challenging, it’s fun and it’s a real adventure.”
It was on the Mississippi that he befriended fellow paddler Dick Conant of Bozeman. Conant spent years paddling across the country in his canoe and offered invaluable advice.
“When I started out on the Mississippi River like a lot of other long distance paddlers, I was going as fast as I possibly could,” Moore said. “What Dick taught me was to slow down, it’s not a race and to just enjoy the journey and learn the history of the places you’re passing by.”
Moore’s 22 Rivers project is the second attempt at his latest adventure. He paddled up the Columbia and Snake rivers, portaged for about 100 miles, and after crossing the Divide will launch on the Missouri River in a few days. He plans to float the length of the Missouri and Mississippi to New Orleans where he will then connect rivers north to New York and his ultimate goal of the Statue of Liberty.
Moore suspended his first voyage two years ago after paddling and portaging more than 1,700 miles from Oregon to North Dakota. That trip included a potentially life threatening crash on the St. Regis River when a snag caused his canoe to tip and belongings to scatter.
Moore felt he must return to attempt the trip again but debated whether to begin where he left off or depart again from the West Coast. The ability to link the rivers together in one journey proved to be the deciding factor.
“I don’t think I could’ve lived with myself if I didn’t try it again. To start over again, and I had friends argue it both ways of whether to continue where I left off or to try again,” from the West Coast,” he said. “It came down to my own thinking and this crazy dream route. The route I selected, it had the chance to be continuous.”
Moore holds a degree in English literature – he teaches English in Taiwan – and also learned about filmmaking while at the University of Utah. He shoots videos, writes and photographs his adventures on the website www.22rivers.com and Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/riverjournalist/.
“It’s sort of a personal project and it’s something that might get picked up by news agencies or not, it might result in a book, but I’m not doing it for that reason,” he said.
“The actual thinking is to touch America, to try to come across to see it firsthand and experience the rawness and the transformation.”
As with nearly all aspects of life these days, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven a powerful influence on Moore’s project. Many campgrounds are closed and “river angels” who offer assistance to long distance paddlers have had to alter the help they can provide.
The river itself offers a sort of “solitary confinement” that lends itself well to traveling during the pandemic. Where he has stopped to see friends, he has distanced himself by camping in a garage or travel trailer and staying out of homes.
For Moore, COVID-19 is now part of the story he hopes to tell.
“My thinking now is it’s actually still possible to chronicle stories,” he said. “You meet up with people who are really interesting characters and have something to say. The thinking now is to have this time and to underscore what’s working with what people are facing with the virus as well as the economic fallout.”
While he understands the hardship many currently face, Moore also hopes to find inspiring stories.
“The whole thing with journalism is that it’s positive journalism as well … to find and highlight the American collective of what’s working and to find and highlight these unique and interesting characters,” he said.