Story By Laura Miserez, Missourian Features Editor; Photos By Julia Hansen, Missourian Photo Editor
For Americans of European ancestry, Ellis Island is where their families’ journeys to discover the country began. For Neal Moore, 48, Ellis Island, with its iconic Statue of Liberty, will be where his journey ends.
Moore is on the trip of a lifetime — his words — traveling the length of 22 rivers across 22 states from Astoria, Ore., to New York City in a canoe. The Mark Twain Museum and CNN have both called him “a modern-day Huck Finn,” but even Mark Twain’s most famous character didn’t travel as far as Moore will on this expedition. He first launched his canoe into the icy waters of the Columbia River Feb. 9 and is intending to travel 7,500 miles to arrive in the Upper Bay of the Hudson River around New Year’s Day 2022.
He rested in New Haven Monday, grabbing a coffee at NorthStar and getting his canoe repaired at Paddle Stop New Haven. He passed Washington Tuesday on his way to St. Charles. He will connect to the Mississippi River near St. Louis and head south toward New Orleans, which he hopes to reach by Christmas. From there he’ll cut across the Gulf of Mexico 150 miles to Mobile, Ala., and then paddle north to Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania via the Tombigbee, Tennesse, Dix, Kentucky, Ohio and Allegheny rivers. He’ll reach Lake Erie before turning east along the Hudson River.
Moore is an author and citizen journalist. He’s a Los Angeles native but has lived in South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia and Taiwan. For him, this adventure is a unique way to explore his own home country, connecting people and their stories in the process.
“The rivers bring people together,” Moore said. “The first roads built, the first communities built in this country were along the rivers. By stringing these river communities together from coast to coast and adding them up, I think I’ll have the story of America, and that includes all of us.”
Moore, who has two published books, is chronicling his expedition via Instagram @riverjournalist and online at 22rivers.com, where people can donate to help fund the trip. Although he is collecting notes of conversations he has with the everyday Americans he meets and the history he learns along this journey, Moore hasn’t started planning for a book about this adventure yet.
“As a storyteller coming along, the big thing for me is to put my biases aside and to actually listen, to speak to people and to learn from them,” Moore said.
‘Local Knowledge Will Save Your Life’
Each section of his route requires special knowledge to navigate, and Moore relies heavily on the expertise of people living along the river. For the Missouri River, that meant connecting with the Missouri River Paddlers, a Facebook group where more than 3,000 people from Montana to St. Louis exchange information on paddling the Missouri River. The group also has a website, missouririverpaddlers.com, where members post updates on where along the routes the travelers are.
Norm Miller founded the group in 2010. He lives near the base of the Missouri River in Montana and has been dubbed the source of knowledge on the Missouri River and its paddling community.
There are also at least several hundred people in the group who live along the river and volunteer to feed, house, resupply and assist the travelers who arrive in their towns. They’re called “river angels,” a term Miller coined around 1998 based on the “trail angels” who help hikers on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails. He said the group, particularly the angels, are one big family willing to help anyone who wants to get on the river.
“We’ve had paddlers given airplane rides to scout the route ahead,” Miller wrote in a message. “Sean Trombly, who is paddling from Montana to the Gulf and is in South Dakota currently, had his guitar stolen in Bismarck, and 35 members chipped in to buy him a new one. I FedEx’d it to him last week.”
Miller paddled with Moore for a few days when he was in Montana. In New Haven, Moore met the local river angels — Lance Strohecker and Gary Rice of Astral Glass Studio, and Shane and Stacy Camden, who own Paddle Stop. Shane Camden said they see five to six travelers come through every year.
“Typically they (the travelers) are taking time off work, so it’s easy to offer some dinner or a few drinks,” Shane Camden said. “If they have to provide themselves food and drinks and shelter for three or four months, that gets quite expensive. So we as angels take them in and help them out.”
The Road Less Traveled
Moore started Feb. 9 with the most dangerous section of his journey and one of the most dangerous waterways in the world — the Columbia River Bar in Oregon. He said people in the nearby town of Astoria are part of multigenerational fishing and tugboat industries, so they were able to help him prepare to survive. Moore laughed that they also probably thought he was crazy for attempting it.
“You have the ocean pushing in and this massive river pushing out,” he explained. “If you can survive that, you’re doing well.”
Astoria is also significant as the grand finale to Lewis and Clark’s 1805-06 expedition of the western United States. Moore thought it was fitting that he begin his journey at the spot where such an important one ended.
From Astoria he continued up-current and eventually lugged his canoe up the Continental Divide inside Glacier National Park, Mont. He entered the Missouri River in May at its origin in Montana and started paddling toward North Dakota.
This section of the journey was familiar terrain. Moore first attempted his 22 rivers expedition in 2018, but he started nearly a month late and was facing a 20-year flood on the Columbia and Spokane rivers and a 100-year flood on the Clark Fork River. He almost drowned in the St. Regis River near Missoula.
“I came around the bend, and a huge tree was blocking the river and pulling me in,” Moore recounted. “I thought to myself, ‘I am absolutely not going under. Whatever happens, I am not going under.’ As I came to hit it sideways to slow down, my canoe swung out and tipped me (into the water). One second I looked, and my canoe and all my belongings in the world were gone. The next second I saw myself grab onto the roots and scrape my way up.”
After surviving what Moore described as a “near-death experience,” he restocked in Missoula for a month before continuing on his route. By this time he’d traveled the 1,800 miles to Tobacco Gardens, a historic RV park near Watford City, N.D., and he was far behind schedule and still shaken up.
“I wanted to hang up the paddles as a pause, not as giving up,” he said.
He decided to restart this journey back at the beginning in February instead of continuing on from where he left off so he could achieve a truly continuous journey. Going back to the beginning of his route offered him a chance to visit friends he’d made on the previous trip.
Moore said the interactions he has in the tiny towns he encounters feel earned because he’s worked so hard to get there.
“It’s an honor to walk into these towns,” Moore said. “By walking the streets and meeting people, you get a feel for the heartbeat — who they are and how they operate.”
St. Louis Inspiration
A longtime avid traveler and an author, Moore started thinking about traversing America’s rivers 12 years ago. At the time, his only experience with canoes was half a day as a Boy Scout, nearly a lifetime ago. But he stumbled upon St. Louis writer Eddy L. Harris’ 1988 book, “Mississippi Solo.” Harris was a novice too, and it gave Moore hope that he could accomplish a similar feat.
Moore previously canoed 2,300 miles down the Mississippi from Lake Itasca, Minn., to New Orleans in five months in 2009. He co-wrote a 2012 book about the expedition, “Down the Mississippi: A Modern-Day Huck on America’s River Road,” with the former executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Cindy Lovell.
Since then he’s written a second book. Published in 2017, “Homelands” recounts his experiences as a 19-year-old Mormon missionary in Cape Town, South Africa, in the early 1990s. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Der Spiegel, a German-language publication, and on CNN International.
Moore, who departed from the south shoreline of the Missouri River near New Haven on Tuesday, said he enjoys his moments of solitude out on the river where he is free from the noise of modern-day America. He travels without music and books on tape, instead his ears are filled with the orchestra of nature as his eyes scope out the horizon before him.
“To be on the water is a phenomenal way to experience the country,” Moore said. “You literally have nature all the way around you, beneath you, to the sides, above you. To see the country — really see it, up close and personal, in such a fashion — it’s a journey of a lifetime.”