Justin Staker, a 37-year old physical therapist and PhD student at the University of Minnesota, spent summer weekends during his childhood at his grandparents’ home on Lake Pepin, a naturally occurring lake on the Mississippi River. When Staker wanted to escape shore, a canoe was always on hand. He ranged farther and farther, eventually trading the loaner boat for a Perception Eclipse. He then moved into his longer, faster Kevlar Current Designs Nomad and filled it with camping gear before paddling it from the same home on Lake Pepin to Morgan City, Louisiana and then on to Florida. He aspires to do the what he calls the “Great Loop,” a journey that would take him down the Mississippi, across the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, around Florida, north along the East Coast, up the St. Lawrence, through the Great Lakes to Green Bay, up the Fox River, down the Wisconsin River, and finally up the Mississippi back to Lake Pepin. So far, he’s made it from his grandparents’ home to Crystal River, Florida, is arranging to make the next leg of the journey.
CanoeKayak.com: You’ve already spent a lot of time in your Current Designs Nomad and haven’t had your fill. Why is it your favorite RIDE?
Justin Staker: It’s extremely stable and especially when loaded. The other thing that’s great is it really doesn’t take a lot of effort to maintain speed. It also tracks straight without a need for the rudder. Surprisingly for such a long boat, it turns and maneuvers in incredibly tight areas. It can spin on its own length, which is great on little rivers and in locks. My Perception was much more of a tank, whereas my Nomad is long and fast, but nimble too. It’s also easy to roll. It’s just one of the easiest kayaks I’ve ever paddled and fits me like a comfortable pair of jeans. It’s that comfortable. I once sat in it for 12 hours straight. It’s better than sitting in a car for that long.
Plus, its load-carrying capacity is great. I didn’t have to resupply for 40 days on one trip. I even had so much left over at the end, I gave away a week and a half of food. Mine is Kevlar, so it’s so light you can just throw it atop the car. I never hesitate to take it out as a day kayak.
Tell me about a dicey moment when your Nomad proved to be your best paddling pal.
Down by Crystal River, Florida, I had to make an open water crossing. A power plant there has a two-mile jetty that’s just enormous. There’s one gap that’s maybe 40 yards wide. That day, there was about a 30-mph sustained wind. I couldn’t see the gap and I couldn’t use GPS in that situation, so I took a reading for where I thought it was and used my deck compass to adjust. I had to compensate for a quartering wind with waves cresting at 4-5 feet. The tracking and speed worked in my favor as did the maneuverability after I overshot, used the wind to take me back, and then had execute a 180-degree turn. I was confident through all of that.
So, how do you balance your academic life and your paddling life?
Any chance I get, I go paddle. My parents live just an hour away on the Mississippi, so I can grab the boat and go. I also try to help people who are doing long Mississippi trips. My parents have hosted a number of paddlers and I’ve been active with that. When I can’t paddle, helping out other paddlers is my stand-in. I also just built a stand up paddle board and am building a Chesapeake Light Craft Triple. Building boats also keeps me connected and while I build them, I dream of my next trip.
You’ve paddled from Lake Superior to Florida. Please close with a couple stories from the trip.
Paddling over a particular wrecked boat in Lake Superior gives me the willies. It’s cool, but it gives me the shivers too, just seeing that bow rise up to me from the depths.
Not too far from Pensacola, Florida, I was in a bay, and five to ten dolphins accompanied me. They stayed with me for half an hour, eye to eye, just a few feet from me, shooting under my boat again and again and surfacing to eyeball me.