Corps of Rediscovery: The team at Escape Rapids on the Coppermine River on the second-to-last day of their eight-month, 5,200-mile journey.
By Jon Turk
Photos by Adam Trigg
Back in the hippie days, we had a saying: "You can work hard all your life, and if you save your money you can retire and go to the beach. Or you can go to the beach."
Rephrasing this as a question: "When does a vacation—or an expedition—cease to be an interlude within an otherwise normal lifestyle, and become a lifestyle unto itself?"
Most of us manage to break away from our busy lives for a week on the Boundary Waters, or the west coast of Vancouver Island, or something like that. But a handful of paddlers, over time, enjoy the rhythms of their boats so much, and stay out so long, that the notion of 'normal lifestyle' becomes a blurry memory of something that happened long ago, or perhaps not at all.
Winchell Delano is one of those paddlers. After completing a four-month, 2,600-mile canoe journey across Canada from the Pacific Ocean to Hudson Bay (for which he and his three companions won the 2013 C&K Expedition of the Year Award) Delano caught up on his latte-drinking, and quickly launched an even bigger trip—an eight-month passage from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Starting in January 2015, Delano and teammates John Keaveny, Dan Flynn, Jarrad Moore, Adam Trigg, and Luke Kimmes canoed a relentless 5,200 miles from south to north across the United States and Canada to arrive in Kugluktuk on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Winchell Delano and Jarrad Moore (in bow) boat-scouting Rocky Defile Rapids on the Coppermine River, Northwest Territories.
And then, pop! Three hours after completing this journey, one paddle-stroke at a time, they walked into an enclosed, confined, aluminum tube, with jet engines bolted on the sides, and returned to civilization at 500 miles per hour. Barely a week later, this interviewer guy (me) called and asked him to expose his deepest innermost feelings. Delano explained that trips like this are a "twisted love," and to succeed you have to "put up with real time, because chronological time is not a factor." He may have sensed, or feared, that I would ask him to clarify these aphorisms, because he quickly reminded me not to take him too seriously. "These are just external responses. I don't deny modernity."
I asked Delano if he had any Huck Finn moments on the lower Mississippi, viewing this commotion we call western civilization from the natural rhythms of boat, paddle, body, and current. He told me that for the first couple of weeks, the river seemed like a wilderness, because the levees forced civilization into an invisible background, like the monster under the couch. It wasn't until St. Louis, sleeping under an Interstate highway bridge, where the rumble of big trucks never stops, that he felt a surreal distance from the 18-wheelers above him, rushing stuff across the continent, yet an odd connection as well, because the trucks represented a reality that we all grew up in, and will eventually return to in one way or another.
￼On the Little Minnesota River, the boys pull toward their first taste of downstream paddling since leaving the Gulf of Mexico more than four months before.
For most of us, a 2,000 mile paddle, in any environment, on any type of water, would be a big deal. But the Rediscover North America crew paddled their first 2,000 miles—almost half their expedition—upstream on the Mississippi River. Delano told me that any true canoe journey travels downriver and upriver, across still water, and on portages over land. "I wouldn't want to sign up on a trip without all four."
The team left Yellowknife in early August, launching into the deep wild of Arctic Canada, as autumn quickly approached. Delano wrote in their blog: "The weather forecasts … were starting to paint a bleak and unavoidable picture. Conditions were only getting less and less favorable from here on out, and the longest, most remote stretch lay in front of us. But it was not only fear of the tundra fall that drove us. We were excited for the landscape and water to come."
As out interview drew to a close, I asked Delano if he would consider joining me on a 10-year circumnavigation of the Western Hemisphere. He laughed. "Ten years, huh? If you asked me today, I would probably say no. But, call me back in a couple of months and I might change my mind."
–Jon Turk is C&K's Expeditions Editor. This story first appeared in the December 2015 issue of Canoe & Kayak.