“I found myself committing to cross a foreign continent I had never been to—by human-power—in late autumn, and with a person I had never met”
You may remember Alexander Martin. Just over a year ago, the 25-year-old from Connecticut completed the first, modern-day canoe expedition across America—a 4,300-mile solo journey from Portland to Portland, Oregon to Maine, that is. 2011 presents a new year for “Zand” and with it, a new continent to paddle across. Martin explains: “The Trans-Europa Canoe Expedition will follow the waterways of history across Europe; the route will take us west to east from the Atlantic Coast of France at Nantes, up the Loire River, through French canals to the Rhine River, over the mountains of the Black Forest to the source of the Danube River, and down the Danube to the Black Sea. The route, from Nantes to Istanbul, is more than 4,000 kilometers long and will take place between September and December, totally roughly 100 days.”
Making a beeline for Budapest, hoping to make it before the harsh eastern European winter sets in, Martin sent in this correspondence giving us the lowdown through Kilometer 230: Riviere Loire, Tours, France. Stay tuned to Canoekayak.com, where Martin will be recounting the epic journey in a series of exclusive En Route posts.
The Inevitable Slide of One Expedition into Another
One expedition runs into another; each are separate entities, resolute in memory and emotion, but one journey succeeds in ending only as it strives in egging on the next. As I paddled into Portland Harbor (Maine) last year and finished a 4,350-mile paddle across North America, my mind wandered through jubilation, aware almost the instant I smelled salt water that this was only a resting place. The fear and excitement of what was to come next was overwhelming.
In school, I studied history. I graduated with a degree in the same, but was robbed of the tangible experience of the past by a New England upbringing; our history is rich and overflows our landmass, but it is young and tends away from the monumental. Comedian Eddie Izzard famously said, “I’m from Europe. Where the history comes from.”
It began, as it usually does, with a map. It was a rather poor map of Europe pasted by some askance editor into the end papers of a book that topped my barrel on a river trip in New Zealand. Continuing just a few degrees north of due east from Portland Harbor and Casco Bay, after a certain expanse of salt water, one runs into France and presumable reaches areas that are at least marginally canoeable. The Loire River dominated France; the Rhine, Western Europe; and the Danube, most of the rest of the continent. What I noticed was that all three rivers, in this interpretation, had their upper reaches or headwaters quite close together.
I would continue east across the Northern Hemisphere, and I would continue by human-power and by canoe.
Research happened apace with work, and the barest framework was built to just the point where I realized it was Possible, and then, at that supreme moment, I committed to the idea of paddling across Europa with a plane ticket.
Then, I sought a partner. A good friend from college immediately signed on; with law school imminent, he backed out at the last minute. The night before leaving to teach a 32-day field course with NOLS, I sent out a last-ditch email to two dozen friends and acquaintances, begging all to help me see the project through and pulling out all the desperate stops, even quoting Shackleton’s famous 1912 recruiting line from the London Times: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.
I returned a month later with real offers, so I jumped at the first one, from a friend of a friend: a young New Yorker in between jobs in finance and looking for an adventure.
So I found myself committing to cross a foreign continent I had never been to—by human-power—in late autumn, and with a person I had never met. Leaps of faith are rarely so necessary. The route would take us from tidewater on the Atlantic coast of France, up the Loire River to the canals of eastern France, across the Rhine, through the Black Forest to the headwaters of the Danube River in Germany. From the source, we would follow the Danube through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria, and then either paddle the Black Sea coast to Turkey and Istanbul, or ascend the Yantra into the Balkan Mountains and then paddle down to the warmer Aegean and attempt the route into Turkey from there. In all, 3,800 kilometers, from Nantes to Istanbul.
One expedition leads into the next. And as I begin to gain pace in the crossing of Europe by canoe, I wonder where this journey will take me, what histories I will discover, and finally, what direction of discovery it will point me towards.