Bircus Brewing Co. & Circus Mojo will sponsor a reception for the intrepid adventurer, Neal Moore, who is on a 7,500-mile journey paddling across the US from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Neal is currently paddling up the Ohio River and will arrive in Ludlow Friday evening, July 2.
“Neal’s mission of celebrating resilience resonates with me. Over the past 11 years we’ve hosted circus artists from 42 countries for events here in Ludlow and across the USA. Come kick off Independence weekend celebrating Neal Moore’s American adventure,” said Paul Miller, Founder Circus Mojo & Chief Goof-Officer of Bircus Brewing Co.
Neal began his cross-country journey February 9th, 2020, and will end December 2021 in New York harbor, at the Statue of Liberty.
Neal Moore’s adventure across America is “To showcase, highlight and celebrate how our identity, ethnicity and freedom play out across this entire land… What makes Americans tick… Falling down and scraping our shins and getting up drying and our tears and putting our best foot forward.”
Join us Friday evening at the Historic Ludlow Theatre, Home of Bircus Brewing Co. & Circus Mojo for a chance to meet Neal Moore and support his Grandiose Mission. $1 from each Bircus Beer will help fund Neal’s journey with an additional $1 benefiting the local city youth outdoor adventure organization, Adventure Crew, whose mission is to “Open the doors of nature for city teens to strengthen their connection with self and others and create the next generation of healthy outdoor enthusiasts and environmental stewards.” Live Music, Circus entertainment, craft beer and wood fired pizza kick off at 6 p.m..
Neal Moore, dubbed “a modern day Huck Finn” by CNN, is the author of Down the Mississippi and, most recently, Homelands: A Memoir. A nomad, adventurer and storyteller, Neal’s reporting has taken him from Night-market meetings with Chinese cyber-dissidents to mountaintop encounters with approaching super typhoons. His work from North America, Africa and the Far East has appeared in Der Spiegel, The New Yorker and on CNN International.
A Peace Of My Mind: Building community and bridging divides through portraits and personal stories.
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.”
-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?
From the High Arctic to the Southern Ocean, human-powered paddling feats over wild, open water will mark a 2021 for the books. A handful of paddling expeditions are launching in the months ahead, ready to mark new chapters in the annals of the sport. Notably, two trans-Pacific Ocean crossing attempts will be setting off from the mainland U.S. to Hawaii, plus bids across the Drake Passage and through the Northwest Passage. Meanwhile, other endurance paddlers keep plodding novel extended courses closer to home, day by day, including one man‘s circuitous 7,500-mile crossing of North America and an unprecedented, multi-year effort of one woman to paddle 30,000 miles around the entire North American continent.
Chris Bertish’s Trans-Pacific Wing Project
Big-wave surfer and motivational speaker Chris Bertish is following up a 2017 standup paddleboard crossing of the Atlantic Ocean with a bid to make the first-ever trans-Pacific journey by wing foil. You read that right: hydro-foiling across the Pacific Ocean. Bertish plans to set off from Half Moon Bay, CA, in June, on an estimated 3,000-mile, wind-powered trip to Hawaii. Bertish upgraded the super-sized “Flying Fish” SUP he paddled across the Atlantic with hydrofoils for his TransPac Wing Project. Bertish plans to follow prevailing winds and currents in the north Pacific, covering between 40 and 80 miles per day.
Cyril Derreumaux’s Crack at a Legendary Crossing
France-born American Cyril Derreumaux will get a head start on Bertish, departing in May for a solo sea kayak Pacific crossing from California to Hawaii. Derreumaux, who set a Guinness speed record for rowing the same route as part of a four-man team in 2016, will attempt a paddling feat that’s only been accomplished by Ed Gillet (sea kayak) in 1987 and Antonio De La Rosa (SUP craft) in 2019. He’ll paddle a custom-built, live-aboard, solar panel-clad sea kayak that’s sleeker and far more seaworthy than the modified off-the-shelf tandem Gillet piloted over three decades ago. Derreumaux anticipates spending 70 days on the water.
Freya Keeps Paddling
The global pandemic forced Freya Hoffmeister to take a year off from her attempt to paddle around the North American continent. Instead, she spent 2020 sea kayaking in Norway and Sweden. But the German super-paddler, who has already circumnavigated Australia and South American, got an early start this year, tracing the Sea of Cortez and much of Mexico’s Pacific coast. Pending COVID regulations, Hoffmeister could eclipse the 600-day mark of a 30,000-mile expedition she anticipates will take up to a decade to complete.
Neal Moore’s Final Act
In February, we caught up with long-distance canoeist Neal Moore, who has spent the pandemic year adrift on America’s rivers. After descending the Mississippi River, Moore is headed north, linking waterways up to Lake Erie. This year he’ll aim to complete the third and final “act” of a 7,500-mile solo sojourn at the Statue of Liberty via the Hudson River.
Arctic Cowboys: Northwest Passage
A trio of Texans are waiting out COVID to finalize their plans to make an epic sea kayak journey through the Northwest Passage. West Hansen (who led a National Geographic-sponsored expedition on the Amazon River in 2012), Jeff Wueste and Jimmy Harvey, aka the Arctic Cowboys, will attempt the first documented single-season kayak transit of Canada’s arctic archipelago, with no land crossings—departing from either Pond Inlet on Baffin Island or Tuktoyaktuk at the mouth of the Mackenzie River, depending on COVID regulations. Either way, the journey will span some 1,900 miles with the goal of documenting how climate change is reducing polar ice coverage and opening up the passage of a mythical northern seafaring route. Along the way the team will travel the frigid waters that gave birth to kayaking, exploring waters that have never been paddled in modern times, and making open-water crossings up to 60 miles long.
De La Rosa’s Next Big Ocean Epic
Spanish adventure athlete Antonio De La Rosa has plotted an ambitious triathlon for the austral summer, traveling by standup paddleboard, sail, and overland in Antarctica. De La Rosa will SUP 600 miles from Patagonia to the Antarctic peninsula, across the feared Drake Passage. Then, the recent Eco-Challenge Fiji racer will retrofit his custom-build ocean board for sailing, making a 1,200-mile passage to South Georgia Island—emulating the path of Ernest Shackleton. De La Rosa will then follow Shackleton’s footsteps across mountains and glaciers to finish at the remote outpost on South Georgia’s east coast.
FULTON – Neal Moore smiled as he glanced down at the 16-foot Old Town canoe sitting on the banks of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
“I call her ‘The Shannon,’” Moore said. “She’s named after a now-defunct bar in Taipei.”
Moore stopped briefly in Fulton at the end of April, roughly 5,000 miles into his canoe trip. He dropped a visitor off on grassy terrain – a small toad – that had hopped aboard along the way, before heading to a tour of the Natchez Trace.
Moore is on the last and final leg of his 7,500-mile expedition across America, paddling 22 rivers across 22 states. It was Feb. 9, 2020, just prior to the pandemic, when he launched his red vessel into the icy waters of the Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon.
“The end game is the Statue of Liberty,” Moore said.
A native of Los Angeles, the 49-year-old freelance journalist describes himself as an internationalist, a nomad of sorts, having lived in America, Africa and East Asia. He typically spends his time traveling between Taipei and Capetown. That is, until he set out to rediscover America … backward nonetheless, from the Pacific west to the Atlantic east.
Hailed a “modern-day Huck Finn,” he spent a year planning the expedition, completely mapping it out using detailed paper navigational charts. He said that although he has it well planned, he has gotten off track once or twice.
“I have cheated every now and again with Google maps,” he said.
The Shannon is loaded with supplies, some 500 pounds worth. Freeze-dried food, water, a tent, and a two-wheeled contraption he uses to harness the canoe to himself and pull it across areas of dry land.
“There are areas that I have to cross to get to the next body of water,” he said. “So, I load the canoe and harness it to myself and pull it to the next destination.”
Moore said at one point he will have to carry the canoe some nine miles, but he has faced tougher circumstances. His canoe has been hit by a shark, smashed into jagged rocks, and had close calls with a barge and roughly 1,000 pelicans.
In spite of it all, he is determined to reach his final destination, the Statue of Liberty. But it’s not really about the destination, it’s about the journey.
Moore is documenting his river voyage, discovering places, and meeting people along the way. His end game is to write a book.
“You make connections along the way through what’s called river talk,” he said in a previous interview documented on his website, www.22rivers.com. “So there is a long-distance traveling community that I’m pretty well tied into. People have really opened their arms. But at other times, it’s the stumble-upons, people, and stories that you encounter. As a storyteller, I love those.”
Moore’s style of journalism has been described as “slow and low down from the view of a canoe.” For two years, he wanted to come face to face with America’s soul and find stories to unite.
Moore has authored two books, including his 2009 journey through the Mississippi River in “Down the Mississippi,” and “Homelands,” which recounts his experiences as a 19-year-old Mormon missionary in Capetown, South Africa. His work has been featured in The New Yorker, Der Spiegel, a German-language publication, and on CNN International.
He is chronicling his 22 rivers expedition on his website and via Instagram @riverjournalist.
He’ll continue his journey up the Tenn-Tom, through the Great Lakes, and on to the Hudson River.
Until then, he is taking in all the sights and documenting his adventure. While in North Mississippi, he has enjoyed a Paul Thorn concert, been introduced to the press at The Commercial Dispatch, and toured the Natchez Trace.
When asked about his favorite place out of his worldly, nomadic travels, Moore was quick to answer.
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.” …
A misbehaving minister and a crazy canoeist share a recent Sunday front page of The Dispatch in Columbus, Miss. Thanks to Slim Smith for the interview, Birney Imes for the photo (and awesome digs above the historic Dispatch offices), along with the ever-talented Tom Hudson for introducing me to the press. They do it old school here in Columbus, Miss., a fourth-generation family newspaper business with a 1950s printing press. She spits out an impressive 200 papers a minute, and once loaded onto trucks, a whopping 14,000+ copies will travel to six counties by morning.
Neal Moore admits he’s going about this all backwards.
Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark made their way west across the North American continent on a well-supplied expedition of discovery.
Moore is doing it backwards — from west to east — with only a canoe and the supplies he can fit inside it. The 7,500-mile trek began on Feb. 9,  when Moore, 49, paddled out into the Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon. He expects to complete the journey in December at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
Now, on the third and final leg of his journey, Moore stopped to rest and explore in Columbus this week before resuming his journey up the Tennessee-Tombigbee River and on up through the Great Lakes and the Hudson River.
Moore’s journey follows a circuitous route including 22 rivers, which he has chosen as the name of his journey and the book he plans to write about the experience.
He may have started two years ago, but he’s been an adventurer since his teens, when to satisfy his mother’s deathbed wish Moore went on a Mormon mission — a rite of passage for young Mormon males.
Moore arrived in South Africa as a missionary, but while his religious work ended quickly, his love of roaming the world has remained.
“I’m sort of a nomad,” Moore said. “I move back and forth between Taipei and Capetown, but I generally use them as a springboard to other places.”
Yet for all his world-traveling, Moore began to be drawn back to his home country about 12 years ago when he ran across a book called “Mississippi Solo,” by Eddy Harris, just as the Great Recession was beginning.
A freelance journalist, Moore saw how the media was reporting the recession and was convinced it was the wrong approach.
“They were going to the great financial centers, going to expensive restaurants and talking to people and saying, ‘This is what’s happening,’” Moore said. “I said to myself, ‘That’s not the story. The story is in middle America.’”
Inspired by Harris’ book, Moore made his own expedition down the Mississippi River, using the stories of the people he met along the way to frame the story of the recession.
“Part of the idea for the trip I’m on now is that the most incredible adventure of one’s life can be in one’s own backyard,” Moore said. “Having spent nearly a lifetime abroad, looking for adventure and going from culture to culture and continent to continent to find it (inspired me) to come back to my home county and really experience it raw and up close and real. It’s a unique way to reconnect with a part of who I am.”
Planting the seed
It was on that 2009 canoe trip down the Mississippi that Moore encountered someone who would plant the seed for Moore’s current adventure, a man whose life as a river traveler also included a stop in Columbus.
Dick Conant, a colorful canoeist who became an almost mythological figure among river travelers, is believed to have died in 2014 in North Carolina. Conant met New Yorker magazine writer Ben McGrath, who decided to turn Conant’s story into a book, which is set to be published this fall.
“I met Dick at the Brainard Portage on the upper Mississippi,” Moore said. “He was on the greatest adventure of his life. When I asked him what his plans were, he said he was connecting rivers to travel all over the country. My jaw just hit the floor when he told me that. I didn’t know it was possible. All those years, that idea was in my head like a mantra, that you can string these rivers together, that they connect, that it’s absolutely doable.”
COVID-19, which arrived about the time More was beginning his odyssey, has limited his visits with friends along his routes, but he’s been able to tap into a loose network of kindred spirits on his journey, breaking up the isolation of the travel.
“You make connections along the way through what’s called river talk,” he said. “If you’re a jerk upriver, people hear about it downriver. But it works the other way, too. If you’re nice and genuine, people hear about that. So there is a long-distance traveling community that I’m pretty well tied into. People have really opened their arms. But at other times, it’s the stumble-upons, people and stories that you encounter. As a storyteller, I love those.”
As he grows closer to the end of his long journey, Moore said he’s come to realize that it’s as much a story about the past as it is the present.
“You touch base with the immigrant experience, the Chinese in the Northwest, the African American experience in the Delta,” Moore said.
Moore said an encounter with a Native American near the beginning of the journey, gave him a perspective that has traveled with him.
“He said, ‘You’re going the wrong way, but doing it this way will allow you to document the destruction caused by the white man, sort of in reverse. Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark came right through here and my people helped them. There is a first people on every single one of these waterways you will travel.’”
Moore said that conversation convinced him the journey isn’t just west to east, but across the American eras.
“Part of this for me is that you sort of see where we’ve come from, how far we’ve come and who we have become,” he said.
One year ago, Neal Moore was a month into a 7,500-mile canoe expedition across the United States when the world descended into the chaos and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. The vagabond journalist launched his Old Town canoe in Astoria, Oregon, early last February, with the goal of paddling to the foot of the Statue of Liberty in New York. He coined the journey “22 Rivers”—for the number of big waterways he would travel and, also, for the number of states he would visit along the way. Traveling alone, Moore hoped to hear and share the story of Americans; CNN describes the 49-year-old Los Angeles native, who had been living in Taiwan, as a “modern-day Huck Finn.”
Moore’s only option was to keep paddling when international flights were grounded last March. “The journey itself—the canoe and my tent and all of my gear—became my home,” he says. “And sheltering in place meant continuing the journey.”
He fought the currents up the Columbia, Snake and Clark Fork rivers to the Continental Divide. Then, he cruised for eight months and 3,249 miles down the Mississippi to New Orleans. He marked the expedition’s one-year anniversary on the Gulf Coast, waiting out fickle winds before beginning a long, sinuous route north to the Great Lakes and the Hudson River.
“In many cases, it’s been hell and high water,” says Moore. “I’m open to nature and the raw environment. I’ve been through a tornado, I’ve come through high winds and freak waves, I’ve really been up against it.”
When we connected, Moore was in downtown Mobile, AL, having “just connected the Barrier Islands off the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama, stringing together Deer, Horn, Petite Bois, and Dauphin islands with intense open Gulf passages in between each.” He’ll soon be heading north through Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Despite all that paddling, it’s his legs that are sore, strained to maintain his upright, seated position in the canoe, between his loaded canoe getting hit by a shark, escorted by dolphins, “and thrown around by the waves every which way—at times like I was atop a mechanical bull.” At this many miles in, his arms and back are well tested and honed. “They know the routine,” he says. “And any muscles that don’t are going to find out. Because I’d say this journey is a perpetual all-body workout.”
The upside of the day-to-day rigors on the journey means growing stronger by the day. “The old adage rings true,” says Moore, “under such conditions, one goes from strength to strength.”
Moore notes that his weight fluctuates by 10 pounds: losing it in on the water, when consuming a lot of water and camping for days on end; then gaining it back during city layovers. Still, he’s confident that when he gets to his New York destination, approaching two years on tour, he’ll be in the best shape of his life.
Besides the physical challenges, Moore has faced solitude. He envisioned a solo journey punctuated by visits from friends for sections along the way. Most of his companions were forced to bail. Meanwhile, lockdown orders meant he often missed the social aspects of stops in small-town diners, forcing Moore to adapt his usual methods of meeting locals and collecting their stories. In other places, Moore witnessed growing dissent for rules meant to curb the pandemic, including an anti-mask rally in Sandpoint, Idaho. “I was warned by friends to stay the hell away, but I couldn’t help myself,” recalls Moore. “I could see it was a spark, that that mentality was going to spread.”
Yet Moore has also benefited from the friendliness of small-town America, even in these strange times—often observed from a curbside, as he dines on takeout. “The kindness, the humanity,” he says. “It’s just awesome.”
That physicality, and that contrast between elongated isolation and interludes of joyful human interaction, have been a tonic for Moore—something he wrestles with when he catches himself dreaming about where his life will go post-trip. Moore admits he came into the expedition battling demons: childhood traumas he’s failed to confront and encounters with skin- and testicular cancer. When he was in pain, wrought with uncertainty and facing multiple surgeries, Moore says, “I’d counter my aggression and self-induced pity by closing my eyes and dreaming of stepping away from it all.”
He once wondered about his strength and stamina and ability to recover. But a year on the river has reaffirmed his capacities. “We have what is called muscle memory. Your body and your muscles remember,” Moore notes. “While they don’t necessarily like the idea of full-on adventure, I am a testament to the fact that they do.”
Sometimes Moore struggles with aloneness, especially when he realizes he’s floating in and out of peoples’ lives, traveling on before relationships can take shape. Yet he’s becoming content with that. “Out there on the water, I laugh every single day,” he says. “It’s a carefree laugh, a laugh of freedom. Am I really alone? Of course I’m not. I’m surrounded by nature personified, all around my craft. I am surrounded and I am enveloped with love. And it feels goddamn wonderful.”
When the Down the Mississippi author and adventurer Neal Moore set out for the second great expedition of his lifetime in February of 2020, he had no idea that his two-year, 7,500-mile documentarian trek by canoe would wind up navigating a nation mid-pandemic.
The original plan was to exercise slow journalism while covering the distance of twenty-two rivers and twenty-two states—from Astoria, Oregon to New York City—all in order to “come face to face with America’s soul.” “The idea was to go, from coast to coast, within two years—leading into the national elections and the aftermath thereof,” said Moore. “What I’m trying to do is to look for positive stories of what unites us as a country.”
And while the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated some logistical matters of Moore’s trip—and in many ways made it more solitary—he admits to the value of being in a position to document this particular America, this particular moment in history. “If anything, this has enhanced the storytelling,” he said. “It’s during hard times when people and families and communities really step up, and I’ve been able to witness a lot of that.”
After completing the first of three “Acts” mapping his path—a 1,111 mile upstream and uphill journey up the Columbia, Snake, and Fork rivers to MacDonald Pass in Montana, completed in ninety-seven days—Moore headed 3,249 miles down the Missouri and the Mississippi, pointing straight towards our own Big Easy. And in mid-December, so close to the end, he made a stop in the Red Stick. Over the course of five days, he made the obligatory stops: beers in a Spanish Town backyard, three meals at Poor Boy Lloyds, breakfast at Louie’s. And from his Hilton room downtown, he spent most evenings looking out at the river, which he’s come to know quite well. And as an outsider, he observed that Baton Rougeans know her too: “The residents of Baton Rouge have relationships, with this river and with nature, and with each other—neighbors in Spanish Town who are friends and actually know each other—you just don’t see that in lots of larger cities.”
Just before our press date, Moore told me this on his cell phone, windblown on an island in Old Man River and shooting for New Orleans, where he would complete Act II and spend the holidays, mostly alone. “But I’m very excited about it, this solitary experience of New Orleans,” he said. “I’ve learned that traveling solo, you’re open. You’re more open to observations, to potential new friendships, to stepping out of your comfort zone, seeing things from a unique perspective.”
As we reported last week, Neal Moore is now over halfway through his 12,000km odyssey across the United States. He plans to paddle 22 rivers, portaging his fully laden canoe on a cart where necessary, and finishing in New York with a celebratory spin round the Statue of Liberty. ExWeb spoke to Moore about his journey.
Back in 2018, you made about 3,000km before stopping. Did you repeat the same route on this expedition? How did it differ this time around?
Two years ago, in 2018, I paddled and portaged against a rip-roaring flood on the Columbia and Spokane Rivers. The dozen-plus dams, including the Grand Coulee, were nearly fully spilling. This required a 16 to 32km portage around each one -– harness strapped to my limbs, wheels tied under the canoe and all my gear inside, pulling my craft like a mule on the side of the road. Soon after, I tipped in the St. Regis River in western Montana. After I got my canoe and some gear back, I missed out on paddling up the Clark Fork because of a 100-year flood. I eventually hung up my paddles in Watford City, N.D.
This year, I launched at Astoria, Oregon three weeks earlier, on Feb. 9, 2020. I was determined to paddle up the Columbia farther than last time, to just above the Canadian border, where I could catch the mouth of the Pend Oreille River and paddle to Lake Pend Oreille. Here, I’d follow the Clark Fork to Garrison, Montana, sticking to a waterway all the way to the Continental Divide.
But COVID-19 hit weeks into my expedition. Although I cleared the state of Oregon the day before it officially shut down, by the time I got to eastern Washington on March 23, the Washington governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order and the U.S.-Canada border closed down. So instead of progressing further into Washington along the Columbia as intended, I went the Snake River [a federal waterway].
I was in Lewiston, Idaho nine days later. From here, I hiked 160km north along the Idaho border, paddled 100km across Lake Coeur d’Alene and portaged an additional 65km north to Lake Pend Oreille. I made my way to Garrison, Montana, where I repeated my portage up and over McDonald Pass and down the Missouri to the Mississippi, where I find myself now.
Which parts have been the most challenging?
The Columbia River Bar at the mouth of the Columbia River is known as the graveyard of the Pacific, the most dangerous stretch of water in the world. You have to come prepared with the right gear, a clear forecast and a lot of luck. Paddling the mouth of this river is an adrenalin rush, but once you make it around Tongue Point and into the “old-man sloughs,” you’re relatively okay.
There’s a stretch of the Columbia River Gorge just above Bonneville Dam that’s problematic when a strong wind gets behind you. New Englanders Pete Macridis, 25, and Timothy Black, 23, vanished on this stretch of river in 1978. Two years ago, I had a rough time here, but conditions got even worse for me farther upriver.
It’d taken a full day to portage the dam, and the next morning, winds were forecast for 17mph. I made a mental note to not paddle that day, but when the day looked pleasant, I made a too-rash decision and launched out. Following the Columbia River up along the jagged shore on the Washington side, I had a refreshing, gentle push of wind behind me at first, but this was soon followed by a gale. The waves pushing upriver chop into you unlike any other place I have paddled, propelling the craft quickly forward as you watch for obstacles –- boulders, submerged trees, anything that can capsize you. I managed to get into a cove an hour later, sitting on the slippery, jagged boulders as I held onto the canoe. The canoe was smashing up and down onto the rocks with each progressively larger wave, and if I didn’t get it out, it would be destroyed.
When the wind and the waves picked up even more, I called for assistance in case it got even worse, which it did. The waves soon swamped the canoe, and I lost some gear. The Corp of Engineers sent out a couple of young rangers. The fresh-faced kid, who looked like a teenager, was giving orders to the other kid with a beard. They loaded up my canoe, my gear and myself onto their craft, and halfway across the river, both of their boat’s motors gave out. All other boats had got off the river by this stage, and as the waves propelled us upriver, I thought to myself, Who rescues the rescuers? And if anything happens to these kids, it’ll be my fault.
It was tense, and one ranger was asking the other if we were going to smash on the rocks. A dozen minutes later, the engines started back up and we made it out safely.
Any other major difficulties or close calls?
What stood out this time was both the ruggedness and remoteness of the Snake River. In the nine days I paddled her, I didn’t see any other boats, and not one fisherman. I experienced sleet, snow, a torrent of rain, and wind pushing me forward, backward and side to side.
The tricky part of all this remoteness is that if you tip into the cold water, it’s on you to save yourself. I had a wetsuit, a fire starter kit and a cell phone in a waterproof case (although no reception) on my person at all times. Once I thought I’d have to jump for it, because the wind and rollicking waves pushed me hard against a riverbank filled with obstacles. I pulled alongside a log and was bailing hard, because the waves kept breaking into my open canoe, but this log soon disappeared, and then I was grasping onto willows.
A half hour later, when I felt I couldn’t hold on any longer and was ready to jump in and swim for shore, the wind changed on a dime, and it blew the canoe back out into the river.
Another close call came as I paddled six days up the Mississippi from its confluence with the Missouri, just above St. Louis. I would have liked to have made camp on the bigger islands here, but they were inhabited by people who did not want visitors. I was told later that they make meth along here and to stay away from these folks.
On my fourth night on the Mississippi, I was straddling one of these islands as the sun was setting. I was determined to get past these people and set myself up on a sandbar just under the dam at Clarksville, Missouri.
But it was nearly dark as I approached, and I realized that there were a whole lot of pelicans on the spot I’d wanted to call home for the night — over 1,000 of them and more incoming. They were nervous, so I gave them space, but then the wind picked up directly against me. The rain fell sideways and I was pushed out into the channel. I was fighting like hell for at least a half an hour to make the shore.
But as I struggled to get around the pelicans, a spotlight beamed directly through me and the pelicans. And they flew, all in one motion, up they went. A thousand-plus pairs of wings in one frantic motion, all lit up by the spotlight. The beam came from a tow pushing a load of dark barges. It had snuck up on me, and I was far too close to the flashing red light on the lead barge. I paddled for all I was worth to get out of the way, thankfully making another sandbar in time.
You have said you hoped to be able to talk to people and tell their stories. How has COVID changed this mission?
Talking to folks in a story-minded setting has been extensively curtailed this year. Instead, I’m mainly documenting the people I meet by chance along the way. I’m listening, learning, absorbing the ties that bind –- the threads that make us Americans. I’m looking to underscore our common humanity, but especially bringing into focus the immigrant narrative, the Black experience, along with what we can learn from Indigenous American wisdom.
What challenges do your big portage sections present?
Hiking the Continental Divide was a challenge this second time, as I hit a late-May snow blast. It’d been forecast as rain the day before, but it snowed all day, for the hardest part of that climb. But I had the right gear, and when I got to the top of the pass at 6,312 feet, I was the only camper. There was a foot of snow and soon I had my tent set up. I was out of my wet clothes and into the warm.
Moore portages down after a snowfall. Photo: Gary Marshall, BMGphotos.com
The following day was brilliant sun with no wind, and it was an easy portage down to Helena. The local paper’s photographer came to snap some shots of me portaging my belongings down the mountain. The moment he got his shots and headed back to town, a grizzly showed up. He came over the divider, his back hump prevalent, and ambled across the road 50 feet in front of me. I was harnessed from behind, attached to the canoe and wheels and gear, and by the time I got my gloves off to try to snap a picture, he was out of sight.
Where are you now and what are your plans for the second half of the journey to New York?
I’m in Memphis and will be back on the water in a few days. I’ll continue down the Mississippi to New Orleans, which I hope to reach in mid- to late-December. From there, I’ll skirt the Gulf Coast and along the Intracoastal Waterway, then up the Mobile, Tombigbee 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 River. From Lake Chautauqua, it’ll be uphill and downhill for days over Portage Road to Lake Erie. Then it’s the Erie Canal, the Mohawk, and down the Hudson by December 2021 to see what has always made America great!