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Two years, 22 rivers, 7,500 miles. Crossing America by canoe

  • >>Corey Kilgannon, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-12-19 12:08:16 BdST

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Neal Moore paddles into the New York harbour with a group of friends and supporters, Dec 14, 2021. His 7,500-mile journey from coast to coast was finally ending. He said it took him 22 months of paddling through 22 states and as many rivers. He said he stopped in more than 100 towns and cities and estimated he may have met several thousand people. (Hilary Swift/The New York Times)

A man in a red canoe paddled down the Hudson River, over ferry wakes and past the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan and into Upper New York Bay.

The canoeist, Neal Moore, 50, of no fixed abode, threw his arms up in the air in celebration and relief, as he finally paddled into New York Harbor on Tuesday afternoon.

His 7,500-mile journey from coast to coast was finally ending. He said it took him 22 months of paddling through 22 states and as many rivers. He said he stopped in more than 100 towns and cities and estimated he may have met several thousand people.

Moore began in the Columbia River in Oregon, crossed several northern states and travelled down to the Gulf Coast by last winter. By early 2021, he was headed back up to the Great Lakes and to New York state, where he followed the Erie Canal to the Hudson River and ultimately to the Statue of Liberty.

“I felt like I followed that light shining all the way across the country,” he said later. “My journey was one of illumination. So to finally see that beacon up close, that flame of liberty, after seeing it in so many people I met across this land, it was overwhelming.”

Traveling by river became metaphoric: Just as rivers connect towns and cities, Moore said, he began exploring connections between people often separated by race, class and political stripe.

“I wanted to see the country up close and personal at this interesting time, with the pandemic and all the political strife, to find out what it actually means to be American today,” he said.

Inspired by the travelogues of Mark Twain, Moore set out to roam “community to community” and write about the people he met. He posted regularly on Instagram and wrote lengthier takes on the laptop he kept in a waterproof bag in his canoe.

The trip — he often paddled more than 20 miles a day — was a way to survey from water level a country facing a divisive election and, as became increasingly clear once the trip began, a growing pandemic.

He grew up in Los Angeles and lost both his mother and his only sibling, an older brother, while still a teenager. By 19, he had moved to South Africa and wound up living largely there and in Asia for three decades, visiting the United States only sporadically, including two other extensive canoe trips.

Being a longtime expatriate gave him a fresh perspective for the journey, he said.

Into his 16-foot red Old Town Penobscot canoe he loaded a tent, jugs of water, a bucket of freeze-dried meals, as well as a sheaf of navigational charts and a marine radio.

He set out from Astoria, Oregon, on Feb 9, 2020, and paddled up the Columbia River, hastening his way out of Oregon and Washington just before both states locked down their borders because of the pandemic.

He then paddled the Snake River for five days and didn’t see another person, he said, and travelled through Idaho and Montana to the Continental Divide, then crossed it by using a set of attachable wheels he carried for transporting the canoe along the side of the road when waterways did not connect or proved unnavigable.

He headed down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf to avoid the northern freeze, and by early 2021 was headed back north up the Ohio and Allegheny and other rivers to Lake Erie, bound for New York City.

Some days he would paddle from sunrise to sunset, and some days he would linger — either by choice, to explore and speak with locals, or by necessity because of weather or other issues.

After arriving in March in Demopolis, Alabama, on the Tombigbee River, he remained there for a month because of tornadoes and flooding.

“It was about slowing down and listening to people’s stories,” said Moore, who carried a Sharpie with him so that well-wishers could inscribe messages in the canoe’s interior for good luck.

“I wanted to be open to nature, come hell or high water, and open to new friendships,” he said.

At each stop, he would often stash his canoe, set up his tent and try to find a cheap meal in town. Some people would smile and wave. Some might invite him to a meal or spend the night. Moore, who teaches English and is a dealer of historical relics, said this helped him travel on a shoestring budget of about $1,100 a month.

While he travelled, the pandemic was engulfing both cities and rural America, a reality that he said hit home five months into the trip when he arrived in Bismarck, North Dakota, and heard that all the hospital beds were full.

Though many municipalities were implementing lockdowns, Moore, who had all his possessions with him and no home to return to, simply continued his journey, which was outdoors.

“By any standard of distance paddling, you have to be in awe of what Neal has done,” said David L. Miller, a long-distance paddler and author who met up with Moore twice along his journey, once along the Mobile River in Alabama in February and again in October along the Erie Canal.

While much of the country was on pause, Miller said, “here’s a guy who was out there taking the temperature of America, seeing if there are still people out there who will still take in a stranger. And along the way he’s collecting their stories.”

In colder conditions, such as in the Pacific Northwest, Moore would typically wear a wet suit under baggy waterproof outer clothing, and a life jacket. On hot days, he might wear only his swim trunks.

Fraught moments, in his telling, ranged from the drunk man in Idaho who stood outside Moore’s tent threatening him, to the patrons in a bar near the Missouri River in Montana who became angry upon hearing of his support for Joe Biden.

“But people were cool, by and large,” he said, adding that he usually avoided political discussions.

“I wanted to put my biases to the side and just listen, to strip all that away and really start see who we really are, outside of the divisive trappings of politics, race and sexual orientation,” he said. “And I saw that it’s still possible for all of us to connect as people.”

There was the family in St Joseph, Missouri, who within minutes of meeting Moore gave him a jar of moonshine and a joyride in their dune buggy.

Moore got a tattoo, in remembrance of his brother, from a man along the Missouri River who said he once shared a solitary confinement unit with Charles Manson.

His numerous adventures on the water included a night when a rapidly rising portion of the Clark Fork River washed away his canoe and gear while he slept. Moore said he was nearly run down by a barge on the Mississippi River and was trapped briefly under his canoe by rough water on Lake Erie near Buffalo, New York.

There was the grizzly bear he crossed paths with in Montana. The bear thankfully sauntered away before Moore could access his bear spray or knife, he said.

There was the giant gator on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana that backed off once Moore turned his flashlight on it. In the Gulf of Mexico, he paddled with a pod of dolphins and had his canoe rammed repeatedly by a creature he was later told was most likely a bull shark.

From Lake Erie, Moore paddled roughly half of the 350-mile Erie Canal across New York and walked his canoe for the other half, after the state closed operations for the season.

Journeying down the Hudson, choppy water nearly capsized his canoe off the west side of Manhattan. On Tuesday, the New York City Police Department kept an eye on Moore from the shoreline as he made his way to a marina.

For the last leg of his journey to the Statue of Liberty, he invited roughly a dozen kayakers, including several people he met during his travels, who paddled along with him and watched him finish.

One of them, John Ruskey, a canoe guide and carver from Clarksdale, Mississippi, said he became intrigued with Moore’s journey and wound up paddling along with him for several days on the Gulf Coast in February.

“He was like Don Quixote setting off to right the world’s wrongs,” he said.

Ruskey noted that Moore’s 22-month journey could have been a two-week car trip but added, “When you step out of a canoe on a river, people want to hear your story — it opens up a lot of doors.”

While in New York, Moore stashed his canoe at the Pier 84 Boathouse in midtown and splurged for a few nights in the historic Hotel Belleclaire on the Upper West Side, in the suite where Mark Twain was said to have once stayed.

As for the future, Moore said he was headed — by plane — to New Orleans and then Houston and would “try to figure out my next move.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company