Canoe Across America
Journey underway: One man, one dog, one canoe, 5,200 miles and eight months
By Tim Mutrie
Earlier this month, Darrin Kimbler launched his canoe at the mouth of the Columbia River, near Astoria, Ore., with his dog, Mike, and a full load of gear. If all goes according to plan—and according to Kimbler’s blog, CanoeAcrossAmerica.com, not all has gone according to plan already—Kimbler and Mike will paddle into Key West, Fla., in eight months time.
The 41-year-old Kimbler, an adventurer who recently relocated to Wisconsin from Vermont, and Mike, a six-and-a-half year-old Australian cattle dog mix, are hoping to string together a web of waterways stretching from coast to coast in their 17-and-a-half foot American Traders Atkinson Traveler wood-and-canvas canoe. “It gives me an opportunity to fulfill a dream,” says Kimbler, who is dedicating the adventure to his grandmother, Hazel, and hopes to raise awareness to combat obesity.
The route, according to Kimbler’s research, represents a new pathway, he said. “A gentlemen over two years canoed across the U..S going across the northern tier, but as far as I can tell, no one’s done the full diagonal link that I’m doing. It’s incorporating the Lewis and Clark Trail and several other existing water trails, but nobody’s ever linked them all together,” he said.
CanoeKayak.com caught up Kimbler, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (botany and forestry), prior to his April 1 departure for a full-debriefing on the adventure. It should also be noted that Mike announced his presence more than a few times at Kimbler’s side during the phone interview.
What’s your background as a canoeist? “I’ve been canoeing since I was about eight or nine years old. I grew up in Kentucky, and we canoed and camped on vacations. I got away from it though, till my teens and 20s, when we moved to Wisconsin. And during that time I worked with Rutabaga, which is probably the largest single paddlesports shop in the country, in Madison. … I was the assistant manager there for a number of years.”
“I soloed the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail, in 2007, from Old Forge, New York, to Fork Kent, Maine. I’d done other trips in northern Canada, about half that distance, but that’s the longest solo distance canoe trip I’ve done. I through-hiked the Appalachian Trail, in 1998, so I’d had some adventures under my belt.”
Eight months is a lot of time to pre-plan for, no? “Yes, but Google Earth is a wonderful little tool, so I’ve mapped out daily objectives and campsites and I know from experience that I’ll hit half of them. I tend to plan quite conservatively… On the Appalachian Trail, I finished three days after I projected; some days I go further, some days I go shorter.”
What’s the plan for provisions? “It’s much more expensive to buy food along the way when you can buy in bulk in advance. So breakfast and dinners I’ll be mailing to myself, and lunches I’ll be buying along the way to add variety to what I’m eating and to supplement things.”
And your craft? “We’re using an American Traders Atkinson Traveler, a wood-and-canvas canoe. Doing research, I’ve looked back in history when people spent their lives outdoors and the wooden canoes are built to last and they’re repairable. So I’m looking at it as a nice durable boat to get me from one end to the other. And, wood tends to be more buoyant, and it’s 17-and-a-half feet, so that gives me room to carry gear and the dog.”
Dog?! “Mike, he’s an Australian cattle dog mix. He’s about six-and-a-half now, but he thinks he’s still a puppy. Cattle dogs are very young at heart. I have a 12-year-old dog too, and she’s not coming, but she still thinks she’s a puppy too.”
“If I talk to Mike, it’s slightly less crazy than talking to myself [laughter]. He’s my companion, and it’ll also take the burden off my wife not having to take care of two dogs while she’s in school [to become a physician's assistant]. But Mike, he’s been a part of the plan the whole time.”
You’ll be in the wilds and close to cities too. How’s that going to work? “I’ll be going through quite a few larger cities, and probably not stopping there for long at all—they’re not necessarily canoe friendly—but the Dakotas and Montana are going to be some of the wildest stretches, as well as the Big Bend section of Florida… It’s mostly salt marsh, no sandy beaches, no development, it’s remote. At other times, Interstate 90 is going to be along the route, so it’s going to be a mix.”
“Originally when I planned it, I planned on going up the Tennessee and ending in Charleston, South Carolina. But being a lover of maps and fond of Google Earth, I found this canal connecting the Tennessee River to the Tombigbee, and that’s when I decided to finish in Key West… And also partly because I didn’t want to portage over another Continental Divide. Now, I’ll be crossing the Continental Divide just east of Helena, on McDonald Pass.”
What will any portages be like? “I’ve got a set of wheels, so I’m gonna put ‘em under the canoe and I’m gonna pretend to be a draft animal, pulling 15 miles over the Continental Divide. When I did the Northern Forest Canoe Trail I did portages of similar length, so I’ve got a system worked out. I’m going to be pulling right up U.S. 12, the road that cuts through the pass. I’m not necessarily a purest, so I’ll try and do that pass myself, but around dams, I’m not gonna turn down offers of help.”
What other sorts of supplies are you bringing? “I’ll probably have about 80 to 100 pounds worth of gear. A good chunk of that will be my tent, because I’m using a canvas tent; it’s 20 pounds. And that excludes water when I’m on the ocean, when I’ll probably have 100 pounds of water for certain sections of the ocean.”
Why the big tent? “I wanted a tent that I can stand up in, for one thing. Having a nice canoe to carry the weight, I don’t need a backpacking tent, but it’s a pyramid tent [Tentsmiths, Miner’s Tent] and it goes up quicker than a lot of modern tents and it doesn’t break down like a modern tent, and I can stitch it up and it breathes.”
“I won’t have a satellite phone because I’m not going to be that far out of the world for that long. So I’ll have my cell phone, a marine radio and a GPS for certain sections, but mostly it’s river and rivers only flow one way so I don’t worry too much about getting lost. But in the Big Bend of Florida, in the mango swamps, I may need it there. And I’ll have a laptop for updating the blog when I get into towns. And I’ll have the camera too for updating photos and possibly video to the blog along the way.”
Beer cooler? “Probably not. I will be eating a fair amount of fresh food, but most of it won’t require refrigeration.”
Does the route “go,” as they say? “The route will definitely work. There’s guidebooks for the Columbia and Missouri Rivers, and the Florida section is part of the Florida Sea Kayaking Circumnavigation Trail, but the Clark Fork is gonna be a little bit more mysterious just because it’s not as well known as a river as far as travel. So it’s little less scouted, but it should be no problem—it goes through Missoula. But there’s one section I may have to portage around a canyon.”
“As far as timing, I want to get as far up the Columbia Basin before the spring runoff takes off, and hopefully catch the spring runoff on the Missouri side of the Rockies. I want to finish the trip in a single year, so this puts me in on the first of December—barring hurricanes. And I will be hitting the Gulf Coast in hurricane season—that’s the one big unknown for me. I’m not that keen on riding a storm crest inland.”
Do you hope to write a book about the trip? “I’d like to. But the big reason I’m doing this, is I’ve gotten out of shape over the years, and this will definitely do it. But I also wanted to bring notice to the fact that we’re all out of shape, and hopefully inspire some people to get out and exercise. … I’m 30 pounds overweight right now, borderline obese, and 65 percent of adult Americans are overweight or obese right now.”
What books will you bring along? “I’m a botanist at heart, so I’ll be taking as many field guides as anything else. I’ve read the Lewis and Clark journals, but I always have a book in hand. I’ll probably have 20 pounds in books. And there’s going to be a lot of wind days in the Dakotas, and the best way to sit around camp is to have a couple of books handy. It’s just you and the dog.”
Any doubts about pulling it off? “Every time I take a large trip I have a period of ambivalency; there’s always doubts. You just have to be confident with your skill level and know when to pack it in if things are beyond your level of ability. But I’ve been able to problem solve, and I may be one of the only people in America to ever use a signal mirror to flag down a plane after getting stuck in the wilderness.”
What’s the story there? “We had pinned a canoe in a rapid in northern Manitoba, and we were about 90 miles from civilization at the time, and it was September, and my wife had only met me three months before, and she was along with me and there happened to be a float plane about 10 miles from our position. And with the mirror, we were able to bring it in. We were right by a lake, and they were able to land within a 100 meters of where we pinned the boat. They didn’t have room for us, but they called an air taxi and they came and picked us up.”
What was your wife’s take? “Well, you know, we came out of it OK and I think she had a little more confidence in me after that. We did, after all, get married.”
Any serious rapids to negotiate? “I think most of the rapids I’ll encounter I’ll be going upstream on. There’s some Class II stuff on the upper Missouri, but most of the rapids will be on the Clark’s Fork and I’ll be going upstream. So I’ll be lining or poling or portaging those.”
Publicity? “I’ve been slowly rolling out the plans and website. People have been very responsive. NRS and American Traders are sponsors, so I’m getting some help and I’m getting some positive response from people who are beyond the paddlesports community, because the paddling community doesn’t have nearly the weight problems as people outside the community.”
Will friends being joining you for any stretches? “I’m inviting everybody to come out and join me and paddle a section with me.”