Paddling to the Statue of Liberty: Neal Moore’s grand, bittersweet finale
By Birney Imes
Two years ago as he was beginning a canoe trip that would crisscross America, Neal Moore called a friend, a fellow paddler, who lives on the Hudson River just above New York City. He wanted to know the best time of year to arrive in New York by canoe.
The friend, Ben McGrath, a New Yorker staff writer, said he would consult with a neighbor, who was a more seasoned paddler, and get back with him.
At the time McGrath was completing a book on another long-haul canoeist — one who gave Neal the idea he could travel across the country by connecting rivers and who spent a night in Columbus doing such himself.
The neighbor and Ben agreed, December would be best, after the winds of November and before the snows of winter.
Armed with that information Neal continued the journey he had begun on the Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon, with the vague goal of saying hello to Lady Liberty in New York Harbor sometime in December 2021.
Along the way Neal — an expatriate who in his 30 years abroad was a Mormon missionary and an art dealer in Cape Town and an English teacher in Taipei — met Americans of every stripe.
They told him their stories; gave him rides to a store for provisions; provided warm meals and a place to sleep. Some even gave him the keys to their cars.
Occasionally his hosts would paddle with him, an afternoon, a day or several days. Neal invited these kindred spirits, these lovers of nature and flowing water, to join him in New York at the completion of his trip for a celebration.
They could, if they wished, paddle with him on his final lap around the Statue of Liberty.
“I chose to end at the Statue of Liberty because her hand is extended to every American,” Neal told a reporter in Pittsburgh. “We as Americans know if we fall we have the strength to get back up. I want to find what unites us. Because we all know what divides us.”
Neal’s welcoming personality and listening skills draw people out. He makes you feel as though you are part of his journey.
There must be scores of people like friends of Beth’s, who met Neal briefly while he was here, who now follow him on his blog (22rivers.com).
When Neal tied up at the dock near the Riverwalk in early April, he was 6,000 miles into his 7,500-mile journey. He said then he was on schedule to reach New York by December.
Neal’s arrival in Manhattan earlier this month was less than auspicious.
Passing under the George Washington Bridge on an ebbing tide, a strong wind turned his canoe around.
Unable to reposition his boat, he paddled the four miles to his destination backwards, which, as he said, was appropriate “because the whole (west-to-east) journey has been the wrong way.”
When waves splashed water into his boat, he put the Coast Guard on notice he might need help.
“They sent a New York Police Department boat that just went roaring right past me and never came back. It just threw one hell of a wake,” Neal told “Adventure Journal.”
On Tuesday morning at Pier 84 at West 44th Street, nine kayakers, outfitted in wetsuits and dry tops to insulate them from the 45-degree water of the Hudson River, prepared to launch.
Neal, who turned 50 just before reaching New York City, would be paddling the 16-foot red Old Town Royalex canoe he has used for the entire trip. He bought the boat on Facebook Marketplace in San Francisco while he was still in Taipei and had a friend pick it up for him.
Along the way, he’s asked benefactors and people he’s met to inscribe the white interior of his canoe with a Sharpie he carries for that purpose. He said those inscriptions, which now cover the canoe’s white interior, helped sustain him during his long and sometimes trying voyage.
Five of the nine kayakers who paddled with Neal had hosted and paddled with him when he passed through their towns.
Among their number was a registered nurse from Kansas City; a retired educator, who is now an environmental activist from Louisville; an educator from Pittsburgh and a Mississippi River guide from Clarksdale.
The morning was unseasonably warm with a slight breeze.
The paddlers would escort Neal down Manhattan’s lower west side before crossing over to the New Jersey shore, past Ellis Island and on to the Statue.
Two motorboats would accompany the group, one for the media and a rescue boat, one of which would take Neal back once he circled Liberty Island.
Ferry traffic increases in the afternoon and accordingly the waters in that stretch of the Hudson grow more turbulent, the guides for the trip said.
As the group approached the Statue around 1:30 p.m., Neal paddled his canoe out ahead of the flotilla.
Describing his mixed emotions as he approached the Statue, Neal said initially he was ecstatic. “The whole trip came back to me in rapid flashes.”
“And then I was crying,” he said.
“It’s been so much more than a physical trip,” he said. “For the biggest part of the trip, I thought it would go on forever.”
Later that evening about 35 people gathered for a reception at the Manhattan Kayak Club.
Ben McGrath, the “The New Yorker” staff writer who gave Neal scheduling advice, was one of several who spoke. Ben’s piece about Neal’s trip was published in the magazine’s Dec. 20 issue (“After 7,500 Miles, A Long-Haul Paddler Floats Into Town”).
Ben noted how Neal had brought together our geographically disparate group, most of whom did not know one another prior to this event.
We were from Mississippi, Oregon, Montana, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Indiana and New York.
“He connected us all and made us friends,” he said.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.