BY CONOR MIHELL
Daniel Alvarez has hiked all of America's biggest backpacking trails—the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and Hayduke—but he was virtually a beginner paddler when he decided to attempt a 4,000-mile journey across the contiguous United States from top to bottom. A self-described "ex-lawyer" from Tallahassee, Fla., Alvarez, 32, launched his sea kayak from Minnesota's Northwest Angle in 2012 and paddled to Key West. The nine-month journey down the Mississippi and the Gulf Coast was so transformative he kept paddling, returning north to Minnesota via the Atlantic coast and the Great Lakes and finishing the 503-day journey last fall.
The idea first came to me to connect the northernmost point in the Lower 48 to the southernmost point as a backpacking trip. But as I stared at a map and saw how I'd walk right by so much amazing water—the Boundary Waters, Lake Superior, the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico—I thought it would be much more interesting in a kayak.
I didn’t have any experience with sea kayaking before I started the trip. I'm a long-distance backpacker for sure. I'd done a small bit of whitewater and a little messing around on sit-on-tops in Florida, but the first time I ever even sat in a real sea kayak was the day I started the trip. The backpacking background helped a lot because the experience there (over 8,000 miles on long-distance trails) meant that I didn't have to think much about the camping and could focus on learning how to paddle.
When you're hiking, you can pretty much hike forward in almost any condition and know you'll be able to cover so many miles. Kayaking is a different world. The wind and waves dictate so much that it becomes almost impossible to predict your progress. Also, no one is going to drown on a dirt path if they trip and fall.
Humans are designed to walk, it's how we evolved, so it seems reasonable that we can walk day after day. We didn’t evolve paddling boats, so I thought that maybe it would wear me down or put too much of an unnatural strain on my body, but after the initial adjustment, paddling became pretty natural.
This trip was much longer time-wise compared to the hikes. Each hike took about five months. Paddling, it took me nine months to reach Key West and another seven to come back. It also felt a lot more urban than hiking trips because human civilization is often built around water, not on mountaintops. Other than a few areas, I'd pass towns all the time which isn't necessarily a bad thing, it just changes the focus of the trip a bit. I thought a lot more about history, commerce, and civilization on this trip than I did hiking along mountain ranges.
People kept joking about how I should just turn around and come back at the end. I'm from Florida, so I was fairly close to home in Key West. But as I learned a bit more about route possibilities and thought about what a trip back would be like—how much fun it would be to paddle into New York, how I'd never been to Montreal, how I could follow the voyageurs' route west, how beautiful the north shore of Lake Superior would be—the idea grew on me.
When I reached Key West I started parading a bunch of excuses through my head—the timing is a bit off, I'm tired, my gear is getting worn out—but I remembered how so many people I met along the way would say to me something like, "I wish I could do that, but …" and how I think we can always find excuses if we want to find them, but if we really want to do something, we have to just go. So when I heard those words coming out of my mouth, I knew I had to go, that I had to try at least, because there would always be excuses not to. The timing is never perfect for big dreams, no one is going to open a perfect door for you all the way, you have to see that tiny crack and pry it open with your will.
The trip was full of highlights. I loved the old voyageur routes through the Boundary Waters going down and up the Kaministiqua River coming back. You feel like you are traveling through history there. Paddling into New Orleans and portaging through the French Quarter was a thrill. Some of the undeveloped barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico are incredible, especially the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The Everglades is a unique place that just feels like another world. Georgia and South Carolina's coast is really undeveloped and gorgeous. I paddled into New York on a horrific day for wind and waves, thought I was going to get killed by ferries—and almost got arrested by the NYPD. And Lake Superior is beautiful in so many ways. From the Apostle Island sea caves, to Isle Royale, to the Pukaskwa, it is absolutely stunning. I think, with the right mindset, if you view everything as an adventure, any piece can be a highlight.
If we don't protect the beautiful places we love, they will disappear. I'll never forget hopping from island to island along the Gulf Islands National seashore in Mississippi. It was gorgeous, white sand everywhere, beautiful ocean stretching forever, sunlight and waves, then suddenly the coast crowded with offshore rigs. I'd crossed the state line into Alabama. Alabama allows offshore drilling in their waters, Mississippi doesn't.
In a kayak, I felt like I was always at the bottom of the water cycle, the lowest point, catching everything that's flowing into whatever river, lake, or ocean I was in. You can see the difference between areas that have been well protected and those that haven't. You can almost drink the water without filtering it in the Boundary Waters, but I remember being thirsty on the Mississippi and Hudson Rivers while I stared at all that water around me knowing I couldn't drink any of it with any filter.
When I step outside into these beautiful places that I love, how to protect them has to be part of the journey because protecting them was part of the journey for those who came before me.