Paddling to find what America means

By Richard Sayer

8 & 322

Oil City’s Gale Boocks wanted to present a gift he received from a famed paddler to Neal Moore, who is paddling across the U.S. Moore made a stop here in the Oil region this past weekend. They met up and this is an account of this connection.

This past weekend a wanderer came through Franklin. A seeker really, a documenter, a man alone but among many; a former missionary on a different kind of mission, a paddler.

Neal Moore set out from Oregon on the Columbia River in a red 16-foot Old Town Penobscot Royalex canoe right around the time the Coronavirus was hitting the states. Being alone in a canoe was taking social distancing seriously, but that wasn’t his motivation. This world traveling ex-patriot author and super curious self-identified middle-aged man was going to explore his country of origin after having been away for so long.

“What I’m trying to do traveling across America is to listen and learn,” Moore said about why he is traveling in what would seem an erratic pattern of 22 rivers across the continental United States from Oregon to the Statue of Liberty where he hopes to land in the middle of December.

His stop in Franklin is 19 months into his journey. Along the way he has chronicled his encounters in dozens of handwritten journals, a blog on his website, and instagram account and countless stories that meander in and out of topic like the rivers he paddles.

In fact, he appears to crave meandering. From the swirls sent behind his paddle that mix and move with the current as they become one with the rhythm of the stream, to the mixture of bird calls intertwined with far off car horn reminders that civilization’s hustle and bustle hasn’t stopped during his journey.

“I think a lot,” Moore said about his average 25 miles a day paddling on the rivers. Each place he visits gives him even more to think about, more people to weave into the fabric of his memories, more conversations about life to ponder the similarities we share despite the differences we hold in our outstretched hand stopping ourselves from getting too close to one another. “Once we put the party politics aside we have so much in common,” he said about his many stops along the way meeting people of all walks of life and political ideologies. “I just try to listen, no judgement.”

When he landed on the shore of the Allegheny near where French Creek comes in this weekend it was the same day an article appeared in The Derrick and Hews-Herald about his stop down river in Emlenton a day or two earlier. Oil City’s Gale Boocks, an avid paddler himself back in the day, saw this article and knew he wanted to meet Moore. The next morning he went to where an old paddler would think to find Moore, but no one was there. He, on a hunch, tried the local B and B appropriately named Peddlers & Paddlers and lo’ and behold there was Moore sitting on the front porch talking with new friends.

Boocks sat and joined the conversation and after chatting awhile it dawned on him that he had something he wanted to pass on to Moore. A paddle he used many times on many rivers that was a gift from a person that could be described as a forefather to the modern paddling world. Moore was very familiar with this legend. Verlen Kruger  paddled over 100,000 miles in his lifetime, spoke many times about paddling all over the world and authored books on the subject. Moore said he had read Kruger’s books and admired him greatly. Boocks, a preacher, performed Kruger’s wedding vows.

Boocks invited Moore over to stay with he and his wife and sit out back to talk about life and the spirit that moves people to do what they do.

Neal Moore sits in Gale Boocks back yard this past weekend during his stop in Franklin and Oil City.  Encounters like this one with Boocks and many others along the way are helping in the journey still to go. Boocks said the main reason he wanedt to meet Moore was to share his knowledge of the upper Allegheny. “It’s not hospitible in places,” Boocks said. “And know where those places are.”

And that’s what they did.

Boocks presented a treasured paddle he had received from Kruger to Moore as a gift. Moore said he never met Kruger. This was quite an honor for him to receive this and vowed to use the paddle as well as eventually find a younger paddler to pass it along to in order to further pay this gift forward. 

Moore departed the next day adding Franklin and his encounters to the list of treasured memories and his scratched notes in his journal.

His goal is to get up north while its still milder temperatures knowing it is best to beat the famed western New York first snows of the year on his way to the Hudson. He is hoping to reach the end of his journey, the Statue of Liberty, by December 14. “I’m approaching her from the American side,” he said, adding that this country is so filled with those whose ancestors approached her from the other side, and that many still are. Adding again to the fabric of who each of us are as Americans.

Moore might realize the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but straight lines are boring and zigzagging is more fun and allows more time for reflection and encounters. Making connections is exactly what this journey is all about for him. How we are connected by water, how we are connected by similarities and sometimes even differences, how we connect to strangers and friends alike. That is what hours alone with one’s thoughts can do, find those connections and add them to ones personal spirit that has grown from the experiences.

Moore embraces serendipitous moments, like meeting Boocks and adding him to his tribe. And he added several other Franklinites as well in his short time. Some, like Chamber director Jodi Baker Lewis also want to meet him again along the journey and join for a few miles of paddling and help him celebrate his arrival and end of this part of his journey.

Given his objective, his journey won’t end at Lady Liberty. He is on a journey to seek beyond his own tribe and try to better understand the tribe of humankind. 

Photo courtesy of Jodi Baker Lewis who met Moore and now wants to paddle along with him during part of his journey sometime after Applefest is over. Connections, fabric, stories. Moore left the next day from Franklin and began posting more photos on his Instagram account.

Not his first try

This was Moore’s second attempt at this journey. The two time cancer survivor set out in 2018, but once in a century flooding brought that journey to an end. He said he is self funding this journey and tries to live minimally, often pitching his tent where allowed or a spot offered. “When you need help and help is offered, it becomes a part your life and your journey.” He said he’s learned over time that people want to help and he also like to help others. He and Boocks talked a great length about the spiritual strength of being in the service of others, a definite shared bond found beyond just the love of paddling on a river.

Understanding America’s heart and soul


Understanding who we are as a people with each stop along the way, Moore examines further the complexities and simplicities that makes Americans, Americans. Sitting on a patio in the back of Gale Boocks‘s house on a Sunday night, waiting for roasted corn and a couple of slabs of meat off the grill, Moore and Boocks shared an experience that can only happen when someone is accepting of a wayward stranger on a long journey. These encounters become beautiful to witness and experience. The many encounters we have in life we take for granted, family, friends, neighbors…. sometimes it takes a stranger to remind us of that we have so much more to learn about each other. And sometimes, how little we know about ourselves.

Moore is getting to know people and by doing so, he is understanding the culture of a place and how each place is different while being the same.

Moore and Boocks inspect the Kruger paddle that Kruger himself made. It is a kevlar paddle that Boocks said” if you were being attacked by a bear and you swung this paddle and hit him, the bear would stop and the paddle would still be able to be used.” When I asked Boocks why he wanted to give this paddle to someone he just met, he said “It just seemed like the thing to do when I found out he was a foller of Verlen.” Moore said he was humbled by the gift adding, “The power of this journey, the people I come in contact with and the nature around me. It builds. I’m in the best shape of my life at 49. I feel stronger everyday.” He said he has be fortunate to stay healthy and during the height of the pandemic last year he was very careful and as soon as he could get the vaccine he found his way off the river to get it.

Carrying people with him and how to follow his journey


Moore has been collecting signatures on the canoe. Some have faded or washed off in the journey, but many remain. All who signed are with him in his strength to go on. He has written also a quote from Richard Bock, the famed auther of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, “Bad things are not the worst thing that can happen to us, nothing is the worst thing that can happen to us.“

Moore tells a story like following a map of rivers with tangents and off-shoots. He has a penchant for describing adventurers of the highest caliber as “badass.” At 49 he is in the best shape of his life and his body and mind have allowed hime to stay focussed for thousands of miles of hard paddling. He is earning the badass title.Follow his journey on his website at https://22rivers.com/storytelling/ or on instagram at ​https://www.instagram.com/riverjournalist/?hl=en

A Peace Of My Mind (Podcast)

APOMM

By John Nolter

A Peace Of My Mind: Building community and bridging divides through portraits and personal stories.

Neal Moore is paddling 7,500 miles across the United States. Photo by John Nolter, taken in Columbus, Mississippi.

Neal Moore is a journalist, an adventurer and an expatriate. He is in the midst of a two-year journey, paddling 7,500 miles across the United States. I met him in a coffee shop—by chance—in Columbus, Mississippi and we found time the next day to do an interview.

“So the big idea is to travel from sea to shining sea, connecting the waterways. I’m looking at 22 rivers. The idea is to touch 22 States and make my way across 7,500 miles from the Pacific Coast, to the Continental Divide, to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Great Lakes, to the very feet of the Statue of Liberty. It’s a two year journey.

I’m attempting to connect waterways, but also to connect the stories of everyday Americans, to listen to folks and try to understand what the commonality is, the thread between us that can spin positive and speak to our mutual experience.

I’ve been an expatriate on and off—mainly on—for 30 years. I’ve been living between Africa and East Asia for this time and this is a chance to come back to my own backyard, and to experience it up close and personal. This is a unique way to see the country.

The canoe is the first form of transport and these rivers and waterways are the first thoroughfares in this land and they absolutely connect. And so, to unfurl the map in your mind and then to try to plot out your course, it took a year just to plot the course.

When I look at rivers, when I look at water, I’ve always found that this is sort of a stabilizing substance. Our bodies are +/- 70% water. The surface of the earth is +/- 70% water. And I think there might be a correlation there. When I was younger, I went to school in Hawaii. Then when I transferred to the university of Utah, I would take off every winter quarter and go back to Capetown. And for the three months I was there—which is their summer—I would just be surfing in the water every single day.

I had all this stress. I had lost my brother as a boy. I had lost my mom. And when I came home, my dad had moved on. It was just me, and I found, when you submerge yourself, and even when you’re near a waterway, that stress washes off.

So, the idea was to paddle the year leading into national elections, and then the full year after, no matter how it would have turned out. What would we look like as a nation the year after national elections?

___

I identify as liberal. I sort of identify as very much as flawed, as well. So I understand that I don’t have all the answers. And the moment that I think that I do, that’s when everything sort of goes topsy-turvy and my personal life sort of gets messed up. And so for me, when you you do unfurl that map of America, and you look at my route, this route that I’ve selected, these 22 rivers and waterways, it’s by and large, all red. The country is very red in these rural locations that I’m finding myself paddling through and stopping off to, to meet folks.

So my thinking going into it is sort of like George Orwell and his masterpiece, Homage to Catalonia where he’s a journalist based in London. This was before his fame, of course, with Animal Farm, with 1984. Well before that, and he puts himself onto a boat and he disembarks in Barcelona and he attaches himself to the losing side of the Spanish Civil War and to an anti-fascist faction known as the POUM. At the end of chapter one, he finds himself on the front, taking a shot at another human being for the first time in his life.

What he says is, “understand that I am biased, but also understand that I am here.” And this is the age before the green screen. But what he’s saying is we have New York journalists, the big name ones, and we have London journalists, the big name ones who say that they’re there during the Spanish Civil War in Spain, and they’re not. They aren’t there and they’re still biased. But as he says, I’m biased, but I’m here.

And so my thinking, looking at the map in that vein and with that exclamation point is to see the country and to learn, and really try to take off the mask of these monikers that we sort of throw on to ourselves. The things that if we let them, can separate us, be it identity politics, be it race, be it religion.

What I’m looking for is that common thread, from coast to coast. What I’m really looking for is the common humanity, and I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it with individuals. I’ve seen it with families. I’ve seen it with communities. And when you see it, and when you’re able to document it, it just blows you away. It’s so profound.

When you add up all of these stories, everybody has a story. My thinking is by the time I get to the Statue of Liberty, and approaching her from a rarefied view, coming the wrong way, from the West Coast to the East Coast, I feel like I earned these towns, that I earned the chance for these stories. I want to earn that view. And to really properly understand it, I need to first understand who we are, and what we’re about and how far we’ve come.

___

I think the big surprise for me has been the wildness. A journey like this by and large, you’re pushing yourself out into the wild. And then in so doing, you get to embrace the wildness within. As Max finds out with Where the Wild Things Are, the monster is inside of us. And so to be able to understand that, embrace that and try to deal with that on a personal basis, in concert with nature. When you’re in your canoe, you’re down low in the water, and you see it, you experience nature from a wholly different vantage point.

Every day that I’m out there in nature, every single day, I find myself laughing. It’s this care-free laugh of, I really should be clocking in or clocking out somewhere with a proper job. And I’m not. I’m out here in nature and I’m free. I’m positively free. And there’s something beautiful about that.

I’m generally up an hour before first light. I’m deflating my air pad and rolling up my sleeping bag. I’m packing up inside the tent and taking the tent down. It takes about an hour to an hour and a half. And then I put all of my worldly belongings into my canoe. And I push off. And in that exact moment, it’s just pure perfection.

There’s something so beautiful about that moment where you step off from Terra Firma into the water. Whether I’m headed downstream with the current or whether I’m fighting like hell going upstream, you’re in the moment. I don’t travel with with earbuds in my ears, listening to books on tape or listening to music. Nature herself is my orchestra.

And when you’re paddling, you’re looking out for obstacles at all times. So you’re listening to the water. You’re watching out for boulders. You’re watching for hanging tree limbs.

Whether it be the pandemic or whether it be the headwinds and the tornadoes and the two derechos. There are hard times, but you understand that it’s temporary. You understand that around the bend, that we’re going to be okay.

In many cases on this journey, I’m risking my life. I’m putting myself completely out there. And there’s a strange thing that happens. There’s this strange phenomenon that takes place, when it’s touch and go, when you realize that you’re in a situation that can absolutely end your life, it’s when you feel like you really live. You have to focus. You cannot freak out and you have to see your way through.

And so whenever you have tribulation, you have to have to experience that. Be it the loss of loved ones, be it nature’s temporary fury. You have to soldier through. And by making your way through the hard times, on the flip side of that, when you make the safe harbor, when the sun comes out nice and bright and beautiful, then it’s all the sweeter. It’s all the sweeter because you’ve earned it.

___

I think our greatest strength is empathy. When you stop and you take away these labels that we like to identify ourselves by. When you strip all of that away, what we’re left with is something beautiful. And it’s something I think that we can all connect to. We can all relate to. And if we let ourselves, we can all love in a positive way. That is our common humanity. That is the natural desire to help, to have empathy for our brothers and sisters. And I think from coast to coast, what I’m finding doesn’t always work out that way, but when you’re looking for it, you see It. You see it.

And when you do see it, it strengthens your belief in mankind. And I think it makes you—the would be traveler in this life—a very happy person.”

Discussion questions:

-What is the boldest adventure you have ever embarked on?

-Have you ever placed yourself in harm’s way?

-When have you pushed your physical and psychological limits?

-Have you experienced water in a healing way?

-Do you agree with Neal that empathy is our greatest strength?

-When have you offered empathy? When have you received it?

-When have you had a clear sense of our common humanity?

-When have you experienced wilderness?

-What does Neal mean by the phrase “the wilderness within?”

-If you could set off on a journey, what would you hope to find?

Neal Moore’s Two-Year Canoe Journey Across America and Into the Light

Fourteen months ago in Astoria, Oregon, Neal Moore shoved off in his 16-foot Old Town canoe, bound for the Statue of Liberty, some two years and 7,500 miles ahead. The 49-year-old had come home after nearly 30 years abroad to rediscover America and share the stories of its people in a style of journalism all his own, “slow and low down from the view of a canoe.” …

You can read Jeff’s entire expedition interview at Adventure Journal here.

Neal Moore retraces the steps of Lewis and Clark, part 2

By Les Winkeler

THE SOUTHERN ILLINOISAN

Neal Moore uses detailed charts of the Mississippi River to plot stopping points and possible campsites while canoeing across the country. He is in the middle of a 22-month, 7,500 mile journey that will take him from Oregon to Ellis Island. Photo by Les Winkeler, THE SOUTHERN ILLINOISAN

GRAND TOWER — Neal Moore has packed a lot of adventure into his 49 years, beginning with a Mormon mission trip to South Africa as that country was emerging from apartheid. Moore has spent most of his adult life in Africa and Asia, but has longed to return to his American roots.

The California native is currently in the middle of a 7,500-mile trip in which he hopes to reconnect to his native country in an incredibly personal way. He is essentially retracing the steps of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s epic Voyage of Discovery.

He will travel 22 rivers over 22 months while making his way from the Columbia River in Oregon to Ellis Island in New York. Moore recently spent the night in Grand Tower where he provisioned himself, just in time, for colder weather.

An author and freelance journalist, Moore’s goal is to gain insight into the soul of America, to dissect what Lewis and Clark have wrought, there is another side to the trip that Moore had to take into consideration while planning. Twenty-two months in a canoe, making your way through some of the biggest, as well as most treacherous water in the United States takes a toll – mentally and physically.

The reality of paddling nearly 7,500 miles is one of the reasons Moore is doing the trip from west to east … he’ll spend a lot more time traveling downstream.

“I’ve been planning and planning this for quite some time,” Moore said. “I was looking at initially going from east-to-west, naturally to tell of the progression. I was given a contact of Norm Miller, he runs the Missouri Paddlers page. He paddled a canoe in 2004 from St. Louis, up the Missouri River and over the divide. Talking to him what he said was it’s not the physical part, the struggle.

“I looked at the map, I knew there’d be 200 miles from Cairo to St. Louis, to come up the Mississippi, then up the Missouri, but what he said was psychologically, for hundreds and hundreds of miles on the Missouri to paddle up, it’s wild up to Yankton, knowing you could walk faster … So, looking at the map I got excited thinking, ‘What if I could do the whole thing in reverse?’”

That’s not a small consideration when you begin a 7,500-mile journey will some back issues. To compensate he outfitted the canoe with a back rest and steeled his mind.

“You’re forced to be strong,” he said. “Your body becomes strong, but also, mentally, you have to see that goal. It goes back to being an Eagle Scout where I wanted to give up and dad said, ‘You can’t give up. You started something, you have to finish it.’”

He began a similar trip a couple years ago, but flooding forced him off the water.

“Two years ago, I was against a 20-year flood on the Columbia River,” Moore said. “It’s really heave ho, I really like the idea of the open canoe. You’re experiencing the same hardships they (Lewis and Clark) would have encountered as well. You’re opening yourself up to hell or high water quite literally.

“But, you’re also open to all of the good. You are going to meet people who aren’t so nice. You’re going to meet people who might wish you ill. You’re going to meet a lot of people who are there to support you and encourage you that you can learn from as well. That also goes hand-in-hand with their experience as well.”

That’s where the psychology kicks in. For 22 months, Moore will basically be isolated on the river, except for the people he meets along the way. There is no room for a support group in his [16-foot canoe].

During the course of the journey, he will spend most of the time with his own thoughts.

“You have to will yourself forward,” Moore said. “You fight and you fight. This is a part of life as well. You have to have a goal and you have to sort of struggle. And, part of the beauty is the struggle. There are days where you just whistle and you just laugh at the beauty, the beauty of this river. You also have the other days where you are fighting for your life.”

He said his early life featured frequent moves, forcing him to make new friends on a regular basis. That experience is coming in handy on the trip, although there are still some difficult times.

“The psychological part, I don’t like big crowds too much,” Moore said. “I really like the idea of being out there. At the same time, I’ve moved for the majority of my life. When I was a kid we lived in eight different houses in Los Angeles.

“Especially doing these stories, you have these intense kinds of friendships that are short, then you have to get back on the water. That, for me, I think is the hardest part. As my mom tried to teach me, by leaving you’re opening yourself up to the possibility of the realization of more friends and stories down the road.”

You can follow Moore’s progress and chart his new friendships at www.22rivers.com.

A Spartan Life

By Neal Moore

Along the Snake River at Nisqually John Landing, Wash.


Brian Bensen stands astride his makeshift home with pride. Bensen was my neighbor at Nisqually John Landing, Wash. Photo by Neal Moore.

Brian Bensen is a minimalist, a fisherman, a hunter, and a survivor. He lives along the banks of this river, of multiple rivers, out of a 7’ x 12’ motorcycle toy-hauler he lovingly calls his house. Attached are a quartet of solar panels, a trio of car batteries, an AC/DC converter, a drop-down bed, an air conditioner, a TV and DVD player, pots and pans and knives and forks, a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer, a tarp, and a blanket hanging off of his higgledy-piggledy back shower featuring Marilyn Monroe. Bensen has spent the last three years shifting this home, along with a Kawasaki 650 off-road motorcycle that clamps down inside, an aluminum jet boat, and a GMC truck to pull them from camp to camp, Gypsy-style. “If you look, especially in the Northwest, in the twelve Western states,” he says, “there are campgrounds that are beautiful where you can spend 14 days, no money involved.” He laughed at the thought, at all the memories of Lolo Pass in the summers and this very spot on the Snake piled with snow come the winter. “And that’s about as long as I want to be in one place anyway.” Bensen is sixty-two and he’s been on the move for all of them. Civilization calls his elemental lifestyle homeless, but he calls it sweet freedom.

 

“I consider myself the king of campin’ because I’m off the grid,” he says. “I’ve been at it three years, perfected a lot of things. Literally, if I have to, I can survive. With nothin’. No help from nobody.” Although there are contradictions to being labeled a minimalist when you have a Kawasaki 650, he might be forgiven because he wants to trade it in for an electric scooter. But either way, he is still a minimalist. And that’s part and parcel of Spartan.

When folks less fortunate come around, Bensen is happy to share. “Just heat up the coffee if you want,” he told his neighbors, a homeless couple from the neighboring trailer at Nisqually John Landing here in Whitman County. “The heater is right there. The creamer and honey, it’s on the shelf.”


Detail of Bensen’s collapsible kitchen. Push comes to shove, Bensen’s going to provide for himself, and he’s going to give to others. “I figure if things get really, really bad – especially after what I seen at Walmart a couple weeks ago, I can always feed myself. Feed as many weary travelers as I can.” Photo by Neal Moore.

 


Detail of Bensen’s solar panels attached to the side of his toy-hauler-cum-home. Photo by Neal Moore.

The world around Bensen, around us all, finds itself in a gut punch of a downward spiral and we don’t yet know what bottom will look like. When asked what advice he might have for others, for people that will soon find themselves, not by choice, but by necessity, out of doors, he thought and then raised his head and his voice like a preacher. “My advice to you if you find yourself in that situation, first off, it’s one day at a time. Think of nothin’ but base survival. And then modify it. That’s what I did. I started out with one panel and one battery – so I could afford about two hundred bucks. And then once I got to know the system, I continued to learn, to graduate farther and farther.”

Bensen bought most of his hardware at Home Depot in the 75% off rack. The solar panels, each twenty-five watts, came from Harbor Freight. The solar system is capable of 14.4 volts. The whole setup with the control module and lights, because he’s a preferred member and he had a coupon, was $149. On top of the trailer are coils that go back and forth in plastic garden tubing which Bensen reckons can handle between eleven and thirteen gallons of water. It’s mounted on a 30-gauge galvanized steel sheeting roof. It gets hot in the summer. So hot, he had to add a cold-water line to mix it. “So, the whole setup you’re looking at – I probably don’t have 2 grand into it, including the power and the trailer – the whole nine yards.”


Brian Bensen shows a passerby the inside of his trailer at Nisqually John Landing, Wash. He calls breaking camp “riggin’ down”. He can rig this trailer down to move on to the next camp in forty minutes. Photo by Neal Moore.

It’s easy to glorify, but difficult to understand a truly Spartan lifestyle. The Spartans of ancient Greece lived with their armaments. They were warriors. They lived with physical emphasis. The emphasis was on combat. Bensen, who was born into the Home of Truth satanic cult in Moab, Utah, was raised up with the group’s, and later his family’s strict and simple ways. He is missing his left eye, and he told me his step-father, who he says he could never please, once yelled at him: “An eye for an eye? No! Somebody takes one eye, you gotta take both.” Bensen has been fighting for as long as he can remember, he’s been scrapping his way to happiness and freedom since he left home, his family and the commune at age thirteen. He admits to an “illustrious life,” including stints on the oil rigs, cowboying like a vaquero, raising his family as a single parent rough and on the road with a child in one arm and a “Will Work for Food” sign in the other, along with stretches in multiple county jails.

The road forward for Bensen and his menagerie of vehicles is fraught with Covid-19-related closures. His favorite camping spot, Heller Bar, surrounded by semi-arid mountain peaks and an entry point for power boats into Hells Canyon, recently denied him entry. Soon after we met, all free camps in Idaho closed their swinging gates. While I was here at Nisqually John Landing, state park rangers came by to cordon off the bathroom, and there are rumors of this camp, of all free camps in Washington following suit.

“I never go hungry because I’ve always got food around. Once the snow melts, and it gets warm, I get up into the mountains. If they block off the roads, I’ll take my Kawasaki – they can’t stop me. Man, there’s wild berries and wild lettuce. It’s a paradise. I eat a lot of fish because I am ‘the master of disaster spin-caster’.”

Bensen’s got itchy feet by nature, and you never know what’s coming next. When his wheels and his boat and his trailer are not in motion, his mind is. “I can literally go wherever I want, whenever I want, for however long I want,” he told me. “My goal for this winter is – I’m headin’ down to Yuma. And wanderin’ around the desert lookin’ for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. For somethin’ to do. To entertain myself.”

 

Roll On, Columbia, Roll On

Astoria, Ore.  A version of this story first appeared in the “22 Rivers” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here

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Ray Roberson of Saint Maries ID finishes a set at FisherPoets Gathering in the Voodoo Room. Feb. 29, 2020. Astoria, Ore. Photo by Neal Moore.

When Jon Lee and his band Slimeline kicked into “Roll On Columbia” the tightly packed crowd at Astoria Brewing Company joined in. It was FisherPoets weekend at the mouth of the Columbia River, an annual gathering of grizzled fisher folk from Alaska to California who come to celebrate their craft with prose and poetry and song. Old and young here know Guthrie’s ditty by heart, and Lee, a descendant of over a century of Chinese cannery workers in Astoria, sang it with gusto.

But the Columbia no longer rolls – thanks in colossal part to the Grand Coulee Dam for which “Roll on Columbia” was penned – and this was Lee’s point: to encourage debate.

Lee had asked his friend Scott McAallister, a commercial fisherman from Juneau, Alaska, to interrupt him half way through. And so he did. The duo yelled back and forth for some time in pre-scripted fashion. McAllister arguing that Guthrie was a tool of the Corp of Engineers who never cared for the Columbia or the men and women who worked her. And Lee, that Guthrie, who could do no wrong, was being ironic.

“Ha, that would be the ultimate,” Robbie Law, Lee’s cousin and member of Slimeline, later told me. “To have the Bonneville Power Administration pay for you writing subversive lyrics.”

As big a boon as Alaska is for fishermen today, the Columbia River was once bigger. “It was just a wealth of big trees and salmon and water,” Lee said. “It should have sustained us. But we squandered it. It should have lasted forever.”

Lee’s friend, the writer Victoria Stooppiello, was born and raised in the Lower Columbia region. Her father, grandfather, and great-uncle were commercial fishermen their whole lives. In an essay titled “Denial is Not a River” she conjured the folly of over-logging and the damned dams and renewable energy through the lens of an economic enterprise zone.

Many of the professional fisher folk had a streak of activist in them. For they rhymed not only about the joys of the salmon runs of Bristol Bay, a region of Southwest Alaska, but the need for the EPA to reverse its recent verdict to allow the National Environmental Policy Act permitting process to consider mining it.

To once and for all disallow Pebble Mine, a porphyry copper, gold, and molybdenum mineral deposit project that will replace the sanctity of the salmon and these waters for the bounty that lies underneath.

Closer to Astoria, the presenters here assembled were passionate about the Columbia River, reflecting on the over-fishing that led to smaller fish and lessened runs, along with other obstacles the salmon now face.

As one fisher poet concluded at the gathering’s farewell event on Astoria’s fabled Pier 39, referring to the dams and the engineers who built them, “Sometimes it seems instead of one apple, we’ll devour the whole damned tree … So, it’s time to step back and take a long sober look, and conclude, Mama Mia. Let’s go back to the software, and try to come up with what’s really a good idea.”

Introducing 22 RIVERS: traveling from Oregon to New York via canoe

Hi, my name is Neal, and in these polarized times, I’m going to re-attempt to paddle from sea to shining sea, taking journalism slow and low down from the view of a canoe, to listen, curate, and re-discover the threads that bind Americans together.

The re-launch will take place this Sunday, February 9th, 2020 along the storied banks of the Columbia River at Astoria, Oregon. And the journey to New York – encompassing 22 rivers, 22 states, and 7,500 miles – will take two years.

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My 7,500-mile canoe route across America from Astoria, Oregon to New York City.

You can view an interactive version of the above map complete with 100 story-stop towns and cities pinpointed along the way here.

So why not come along for the ride? You can follow the journey on Instagram and if you so desire, sign up for and receive my personal newsletters via Substack as I progress across America.

Together, we’ll go behind the stereotypes and observe and absorb and questionTo take up the fight for the sacred Columbia River salmon, step in stride with an ex-offender upon release from the big house, and crouch down low with a hobo on the tracks, train in sight, that whistle bell a’blowin’.

To come face to face with America’s soul.

 

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“A modern-day Huck Finn” — CNN

 

I have previously paddled the length of the Mississippi River from the headwaters at Lake Itasca to New Orleans, resulting in the publication of Down the Mississippi: A Modern-day Huck on America’s River Road by the Mark Twain Museum Press. Armed with a gaggle of cameras and an Old Town canoe, I traversed America’s mightiest river while sourcing, capturing, and dispatching 50 “Human Face of the Great Recession” stories from the epicenter of the United States.

The route 

In 2018, I attempted a similar sojourn, making it from Astoria, Oregon on the Pacific to Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River, North Dakota – about 1,800 miles in total.

This time around, from early 2020 until New Year’s Day, 2022, I intend to go the distance in a continuous storytelling expedition from Astoria, Oregon, to New York City.

Part One: To the Great Divide: We’re heading for the Continental Divide (yet again) during a time when our nation is truly divided. It’s up the Columbia all the way to British Columbia, up the Pend Oreille, and the Clark Fork to MacDonald Pass in Montana – all upstream and uphill, 1,111 miles. It’s going to be a struggle, but I hope to do it 5 months.

Part Two: To the Big Easy: It’s likely to take at least a week to haul that canoe (plus 300 pounds of gear) over the Continental Divide for 55 miles, but it’ll be worth it to get to Helena, to get back in the water again. Once there, it’s 3,249 river miles down the Missouri and the Mississippi, dodging acres of barges, 1,000 foot tankers, swirling eddies, and the Chain of Rocks to the French Quarter, New Orleans. I believe I can do this stretch in 8 months, partly because I can’t wait to get back to the Preservation Jazz Club in New Orleans.

Part Three: To Lady Liberty: It’s a long, tortuous route of 3,127 river and portage miles to Lady Liberty at the edge of the Atlantic, which I reckon will take 12 months. We’ve got to skirt the Gulf Coast in open, often treacherous water, paddle up the Mobile, Tombigbee, Tombigbee-Tennessee and Tennessee rivers, down the New River, the Cumberland, the Dix and the Kentucky rivers. Up the Ohio, up and down the Kanawha, and up the Allegheny rivers. From Lake Chautauqua, it’ll be uphill and downhill for days over Portage Road to Lake Erie. Then from Buffalo, it’s the Erie Canal, the Mohawk, and down the Hudson to see and know what has always made America great[!] 

More than ever, we need to highlight, understand, and celebrate America’s incredible diversity, to tap into her collective experience.

So, let’s get to it – roll up our sleeves, get our feet wet, and in the spirit of Mark Twain, Light out for the territory.

 

Long after Tiananmen, a simmering dissent

Note: As I’m taking a respite from the rivers, a dispatch from the Far East… 

By Neal Moore

TAINAN – Li JiaBao wasn’t born when automatic weapons fire rang out on Tiananmen Square in 1989, when “Tank Man” brought a convoy of People’s Liberation Army tanks to a halt on the street of Beijing, or even when the Brits handed Hong Kong to Mainland China nearly a decade later. A post-’97 youth, Li, a twenty-year-old who hails from Shandong, is a pharmacy student in Taiwan who calls Xi Jinping “Emperor Xi” in a startling pro-democracy video entitled “I Oppose!”

As the world pauses to remember the students lost at Tiananmen thirty years ago June 4, we can see the unquestionable resolve of those they’ve inspired, like young Chinese exchange student Li JiaBao, and veteran dissident-in-exile Cai Lujun.

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Cai Lujun protesting on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Liberty Square, Taipei. Photo by Neal Moore.

Cai, now age 50, was one of China’s first cyber-dissidents. He was a curious and sympathetic bystander at the protest at Tiananmen Square before the massacre. Only later, when a friend, a young lady, was detained for penning an essay critical of the state, did he find his own voice of dissent. The government gave him every out possible: “Just sign this confession,” they said. The secret police visited his parents and his wife. His family pleaded for him to sign. But he would not.

Cai went to prison in his home province of Hebei in 2003 for “incitement to subvert state power”, serving a three-year sentence for an online Radio Free Asia essay, in which he argued “all of us are people” … “we should do our best to get our freedom, our human rights.”

Soon after his release in 2006, Cai smuggled his way onto a Chinese fishing boat headed for Taiwan. Ten years later, safe with Taiwan ID card and passport, Cai looks out for his fellow Chinese dissidents here on Taiwan. He claims rightly that most desperately want to stay, but the Taiwan authorities are likely to send most of them back to China.

“What does that feel like? What fate awaits them?” I asked in a joint interview with Li and Cai on Li’s campus of Chia Nan University of Pharmacy and Science in Tainan.   

“I know about thirty people that the Taiwan government sent back to China,” Cai said. “They call me on the way out when I couldn’t help them.” Cai explained this with a nervous laugh, fighting back tears. Li, the student dissident by his side, looked on in shock. “Nobody knows what will happen.”

Li is not a child of wealth. But both his parents are teachers back in his hometown of ZiBo City, a small city by Chinese standards, in Shandong’s ZiChuan District. His dad teaches English and Math. His mother teaches English.

Although Li says he knows full well what he’s up against, Cai understands the reality of “the hard road”. Cai gave forceful advice. “You need to speak loud, loud and loud, let more people know those things.”

IT FEELS LIKE STANDING IN FRONT OF A TANK

In his essay “I Oppose!” live streamed on Periscope back in March, Li says, “I have the courage to declare that I am prepared to stand up, just like … those fellow students who were crushed under the tanks and massacred in their youth by the bullets of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on Tiananmen Square that June 4th night. Those fellow students never got to go home.”

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Li JiaBao, who is currently making news from the BBC to The Economist, at his university in Tainan, southern Taiwan. Photo by Neal Moore.

But Li seems likely to be forced to face that regime, certainly not by choice. He’s a vocal critic of China’s decision to scrap presidential term limits, railing against President Xi, and the direction he’s taking the country.

The denouement will come when his exchange student status ends on July 2. Although he applied for political asylum in Taiwan on April 28, he most likely will be forced to board a plane returning him to face Chinese retribution.

“After you did the livestream, what did you think would happen when you go back to China?” Cai asked Li.

Li replied, “Nobody will know what will happen the next second. But the only thing I’m sure of is your life will start changing the moment you stand up.”

“Li is on the road from which he cannot return,” Cai told us. “I think China is predictable. Nothing will change. Because most Chinese people don’t change. Also, the Chinese Communist Party won’t change. Like I said, if you give China 5,000 more years, will they change? I’m not sure.”

Li interjected, “I have to say, as a Chinese student, that everyone got brainwashed when they were very young. But when you graduate from school and enter society, you will discover the real world is totally different from what the Communist Party told you. Everybody, so everybody, don’t just listen to the teachers. Don’t listen to your parents. And don’t listen to the Communist Party. Walk boldly. Walk bravely. Be yourself boldly. Just be yourself.”

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Cai Lujun and Li JiaBao share a smile, Tainan, Taiwan. Photo by Neal Moore.

 

Cai smiled at Li, and with his fist in the air, he saluted “jiā yóu, jiā yóu,” keep going. To which Li pumped his own fist, and smiled right back, responding, “jiā yóu.”

A TICKING CLOCK

Unless he’s awarded asylum in Taiwan, or can find another government willing to help him, Li will be forced to fly back to China when his visa runs out on July 2. He probably will be charged with the same crime as Cai, “incitement to subvert state power.”

“If I’m able to stay in Taiwan, to continue my studies, I’d like to finish,” Li said. “And devote myself to the democracy and freedom movement. But I’m really worried that the Taiwan government will … not let me stay in Taiwan. I hope other countries can help. America and Europe.”

When Li self-recorded his speech denouncing Xi back in March, all communication with his family was cut off within three hours.

“He doesn’t know it,” Cai told me in confidence, “but the police would have visited his home directly after. They would have definitely shut down all communication between him and his family,” including (as it turned out) his parents’ financial assistance.

As a result, when Li ran out of money a short time later, friends in Taiwan assisted. To help him stay on as a student, even as the date of a forced departure looms.

True to Cai’s prediction, Li has not heard from his parents since.

When asked if he’ll have the courage to board the plane, to pay the consequences for speaking out against the most powerful man in China, Li said, “I think I’ll have courage to face anything that happens but when that day arrives, I will feel sadness.”

And then Li linked his personal struggle to his homeland. “We still need somebody, the young people, to speak out. When the seed of the revolution is snuffed out, I think that will be a sad ending.”

ECHOES OF TIANANMEN

Thirty years ago this week, the crackdown on civilian and student protestors at Tiananmen Square, also known as the June 4 Massacre, would leave hundreds, if not thousands dead. The government’s response against unarmed activists was beyond brutal, and it played out on television screens and newspaper front pages worldwide.

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Photo courtesy Wang Dan.

Wang Dan was the most visible leader of the Tiananmen Square protest. You might remember him. He was the one with the big glasses, slight build, and the bullhorn. After the massacre, Wang was No. 1 on the Chinese government’s “most wanted” student list. He was captured, and served four years in jail before going into exile – first in America, where he earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, and then to Taiwan, where he taught cross-strait history at National Chengchi University and National Tsing Hua University.

I caught up with Wang Dan for the twenty-fifth anniversary, and asked if he could remind people of the message he was trying to deliver to the Chinese Communist Party at Tiananmen Square.

“We had two appeals,” Wang told me. “No. 1: Dialogue directly with the government, and No. 2: To modify the April 26 editorial of the People’s Daily.”

The April 26 editorial, titled “The Necessity for a Clear Stand Against Turmoil,” was broadcast on national radio and television in China, and appeared on the front page of the People’s Daily, a Beijing-based mouthpiece of the Communist Party. The editorial, penned by deputy chief of propaganda Zeng Jianhui on behalf of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, deemed the protestors part of “a well-planned plot … to confuse the people and throw the country into turmoil.” The piece effectively changed the party’s attitude toward the protestors, based on misinformation. The students had not called on the government to step down, as alleged in Jianhui’s editorial, but for a dialogue of reform and openness first initiated by Deng in 1978.

Tiananmen Square remains a pivotal, game-changing event in the history of modern-day China. Although the students lost their bid for freedom, their argument for a voice carried weight with the rest of the world, and shaped how the world would view China, as well as themselves, in the foreseeable future.

In retrospect, I asked Wang what lessons he believes China, and the world, have taken away from the Tiananmen Square protest?

“The world needs to believe that from 1989, even Chinese people look forward to democratization,” he explained. “Anytime they think they have a chance, like in 1989, they will not hesitate to stand up.”

My final question was what he would like to say to the leadership in Beijing today, and his answer, I believe, could apply to himself, to all those who stood up at Tiananmen, along with the next generation of dissent, like Li JiaBao.

“Think about the party’s future,” Wang replied. “There will be only two choices: Democracy, or die.”

 

 

 

 

2nd Place at Lawdog’s Gopher Hunt

By Neal Moore

ELLISTON, MT — I entered the half-empty bar and ordered a Bud in a bottle. There were a number of Bigfoot posters inside and when I gestured at them with my thumb the barkeep said something about an annual Bigfoot hunt and how it attracted folklorists from several counties.

A full color banner of the illusive Sasquatch was staring me down with the caption, Reigning Hide and Seek World Champion. It was all a bit weird, and the day was just too pretty, so I stepped back outside to take in the vista.

Across from U.S. 12 was a set of railroad tracks and a series of undulating green mountains that stretched right up to the Continental Divide, each dotted with larkspur and Douglas firs and lodgepole pines. There were huge rolling clouds and a bright blue sky and a succession-play of light and shadows as the clouds scuttled by along the road.

I was in Big Sky country.

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Photo by Neal Moore. Inside the Lawdog’s Saloon, home of an annual “Bigfoot” and “Gopher” hunt for the past couple decades.

Here in the parking lot was a lineup of Harley Davidsons, American flags, 4×4 ATVs and just up from where I stood, a glistening “Lawdog’s Saloon” commercial sign with a bulldog and placard lettering that spelled out Gopher Hunt.

I was wondering what that could be about when, as if on cue, a slew of laughing kids arrived. Their pickups skidded to a halt and swaggering through the dust kicked up from the road they emerged with gopher tails in hand, hauling them in through the front swinging saloon doors by the armful, in great heaps up and onto the bar.

I came back inside and in time asked one of the lads about his haul.

“Hunting is who I am,”18-year-old Cameron Johnson told me. The kid was big on smiles but you could tell that he meant it, that he meant more than the pursuit of gopher.

Cameron was soon joined by friends Bridger and Tristan. An inseparable trio — you can tell when boys complete each other’s sentences — I would soon learn had taken second place.

I asked if we could step outside for an interview, if they could tell me what the hell a gopher hunt was?

“We come to the bar to sign up,” started Cameron. “And shoot gophers all day long until five and then…”

“…Make sure you cut the tails off…” added Bridger.

“…And then, yeah, you gotta cut the tails off – that’s how they get the count,” completed Tristan.

But the boys readily admitted they’d been late on the draw.

Cameron shrugged when they brought this up. “Well, we got here at twelve and it started at eight.”

“In the morning,” said Tristan.

“Yeah, eight in the morning,” continued Cameron. “So, we were a little bit behind, but we still got second.”

I had already overheard them. The boys had won $50 plus the promotional Coors and SKYY shirts they were now wearing.  But I asked them anyway.  “How many did you shoot? Did I hear fifty?”

“Yeah,” confirmed Cameron. “We shot fifty.”

“And then you bring the tails back, onto the bar?”

“Yeah, you bring them back,” continued Cameron. “And Mike, the owner, counts them. And he tells you what kind of place you get.”

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Photo by Neal Moore. The Lawdog’s Saloon commercial sign lights up in the parking lot in preparation for a night of drinking and singing and counting gopher tails.

“So, fifty gophers – 2nd place.  Do you think if you’d have been here on time, you could have got 1st?”

All three nodded.

“Yeah, we would’ve,” settled Cameron.  “’Cause he dropped his gun on a rock, too.”

Cameron and Tristan motioned to Bridger.

As if to explain, Bridger said, “Yeah, that’s what happens.”

“He knocked his scope off,” reported Tristan. “So, we had to – it was pretty much two shooters there.”

By this time, I was desensitized to the wholesale slaughter of the local gopher population, weighing it out in my mind that here in Montana, this must be a rite of Spring. And I found myself feeling bad for the kid with the wispy beard and the aw-shucks grin. So I tried to shift the blame to the weather.

“I overheard somebody talk about the tall grass. That we’d had a lot of rain here. Tall grass,” I motioned with my hands to Bridger, demonstrating growing grass. “That interfered with the gopher hunting, right?”

“Oh yeah, definitely.”

“You couldn’t really see them too much,” said Cameron. “They ain’t much taller than the grass, so.”

“Yeah, you’re out in the field tryin’ to kill gopher, and they’re layin’ in the grass after you kill them, and you can’t see them.”

“What do you shoot gophers with?”

“Me and Tristan here, we’re shootin’ .17s and Bridger’s shootin’ a .22.”

I nodded as if I concurred, as if I knew exactly what they were talking about.

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Photo by Neal Moore. An unused entry form for the Annual Gopher Hunt, a tradition in these parts stretching years back — although this is a first for Mike Jacobson, the newly minted owner of the Lawdog’s, soon to be renamed the Spotted Dog Saloon.

“Okay – lessons learned for next year?  What would you do differently?”

The three boys hung their heads.

“Ah, show up on time,” said Cameron.

“Yeah, we’d show up on time for sure,” said Tristan.

Bridger brought his head up. “Don’t drop your gun.”

“And make sure you have plenty of ammo,” said Tristan.

“About hunting in general,” I shifted.  “It’s sort of like, from what I’ve been told, a spiritual experience. What would you say about hunting in general?”

“Hunting,” offered Cameron. “Well, it’s a great time. It’s who we are,” the boy said, bringing his me to a we. “You do it for a pastime.  Well, I almost failed school because of hunting. Like, it’s what I love to do.”

And Tristan was nodding. “It’s something you hear about, and you think, yeah, that’s cool. But then you go out and do it and it’s a totally different experience.”

“Yeah,” said Cameron. “No one really knows until they’re out there. With a bow and elk.”

Bridger was looking left out of the conversation, so I prompted him back in.

“Okay, Bridger, what would you say?”

“Well, I don’t hunt much. I rifle hunt. I’ve never been bow huntin’.  Bow huntin’s a lot different.  I don’t know, I don’t hunt a lot.”

“Okay, but today you did?”

“Yeah, I shot some gophers.”

I brought my final question back out to the group. “How would you explain how you feel when you’re out there?”

“It feels a lot different,” Cameron said, referring to his beloved elk.  “They’re a lot bigger than you. There’s way more out there than just yourself. There’s just so much more to experience. And you see the views of stuff, you know, on the internet. You see pictures of animals. But you go out there, and it’s just so much more surreal.”

“You see people in the city talkin’ about it,” said Tristan. “And they’re, you know, surrounded by concrete and steel, and once they come out here, they just can’t describe how beautiful it is.”

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Photo by Neal Moore. From left to right, 2nd place Gopher Hunt winners Cameron Johnson, Bridger Wheat and Tristan Terrell pose for a picture outside the Lawdog’s Saloon.

For Cameron, for all three of these boys, hunting and the great outdoors was their freedom, their release, their adrenaline rush.

“Until they’ve got an elk sniffin’ on their back they just don’t know what it’s like,” Cameron told me. “When you’re bow huntin’ and they’re all around you at twenty yards. It’s a little crazy. It’s intense. It gets your blood pumpin’ for sure.”

 

This story was made possible by Andre de Kock.