By Conor Mihell
Josh Tart's 6,000-mile kayak journey on the so-called “Great Loop” cruising route almost ended before it began. For Tart, five weeks on the Ohio River were a precursor to the Loop—a classic circumnavigation of eastern North America that links the Tennessee River to the Mississippi, traces the Gulf of Mexico coastline to the tip of Florida, follows the Intracoastal Waterway to the Hudson River and rejoins the Mississippi via the Great Lakes and the Illinois River. Then, on Day 38, Tart woke up on a sandbar on the Ohio along the Illinois-Kentucky border to discover that his kayak was gone.
"It has simply disappeared," Tart, 22, wrote on his blog, "along with all of my fishing gear, all but one gallon of water, my food, half my clothes and other various things."
For Tart, an upstart long-distance kayaker and recent college grad who sketched out the Paddle For Wells expedition as a 15-month paddling and fishing epic in support of clean water development projects in Africa, the shakedown on the Ohio was unraveling fast. "This whole thing is new to me," Tart said in a telephone interview earlier this week. "A lot of professional instructors set out on these trips and they've got a system down and can really cover the miles. I've been hunting, fishing, canoeing and kayaking most of my life, but I'm a total amateur at something like this. The fun has been getting out there and learning."
Meanwhile, the two days he spent in search for his kayak were the "most stressful" of the trip. He was in the midst of putting in calls to sponsors when the trusty Ocean Kayak Trident 15 he calls "Banana Pepper" miraculously reappeared, found by a friendly local almost right across from Tart's campsite on the Ohio.
Then and there, Tart acted on a gut instinct and re-routed his trip from Kentucky Lake to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and Mobile Bay, avoiding the big water of the Mississippi. Since departing he's traveled some 1,300 miles to Panama City, Fla., though he recently escaped the daily grind of a kayak fishing paradise to return home in Springboro, Ohio for Christmas and New Year’s.
Canoe & Kayak: So you've made it as far as Panama City, Florida. Is that about how far you were hoping to have made it by now?
Josh Tart: Originally I was planning to make it to Tampa, but the last few weeks I realized that wasn't going to happen. There were weather delays and I fished for a week in Pensacola.
What's your daily mileage been?
I've been averaging 15 to 25 miles per day. I didn't do that much fishing in freshwater. I was just getting in the groove and touring pretty hard. Since I got to saltwater I've been fishing a lot more. What I do generally is troll a weedless spoon behind my kayak while I'm paddling.
How has the fishing been?
It's really picked up since I hit saltwater. I've caught eight or nine new species and I'm really looking forward to getting back in January. I'm more used to fishing in eastern North Carolina and Florida is a whole different animal. I'm just loving it. I've been out redfishing, I've caught sheephead, white trout, speckled trout and a snapper. Really, I've only scratched the surface.
How much camping have you been doing?
I'm camping almost all of the time. I'd say I've spent 95 percent of the time camping or sleeping on marina docks. The people have been a highlight of the trip; I haven't had a bad experience yet. I usually sleep at the marinas on the weekend so I can resupply. They've all been great and have let me set up my hammock in the trees or on a covered slip.
So you're using a hammock?
Yep. I've enjoyed it so much that I sent my tent home. It's much more comfortable than a tent. It keeps me off the ground. The only downside is that sometimes it's hard to get out of the wind. After a couple of days of paddling in the wind, all you want is a quiet place to sleep.
How has your kayak and gear been working?
Other than when I lost it, it's been great! I wouldn't paddle anything else. When I hit Mobile Bay in the first week of October, Ocean Kayak sent me a rudder. I can't believe I paddled 1,200 miles without a rudder! I've had to rearrange the gear a couple of times and this first part of the trip has been all about finding out what gear works for me. It's definitely a tight fit.
Have you had any special memories of the trip so far?
Losing the kayak was a big one. But the biggest moment for me was reaching saltwater. It's a whole different dynamic, and it felt like coming home. I know I'm in a totally different part of the world but it still felt like home—the saltwater, the culture. It was a real boost. I was getting tired of paddling rivers.
What's it like traveling solo?
Most of the time it's good. But it does get lonely sometimes, and there have been a half-dozen days where I've just about lost it because nothing was going right. I meet somebody new just about every day and I'd say I've already met three or four people who I know will be friends for life.
Are you getting tired of the trip?
There was a time back in October where I was pretty slow-going and discouraged. But when I reached saltwater, that faded behind me. I'm setting small goals, and when I reach them, I set more goals.