This is a guest post by Eric Straw, who paddled a body of water in all 50 states over the summer of 2017 for his Canoe 50 Campaign.
I already miss the rivers… It’s true, even after just returning from paddling a natural body of water in every state. Fortunately, as I discovered on my Canoe 50 Campaign, I don’t have to venture far to find a river. None of us do. From Delaware to the Dakotas and from Mississippi to Montana, every state in the union has a place to paddle, explore, and discover nature anew.
I have a multitude of stories and takeaways from my half-year excursion. Fresh off the water, here are a few that stick out. First off, I believe, more than ever, that our riparian areas are proper focal points for protection and barometers for overall ecosystem health; they are worth seeing, they are worth protecting and they are — along with our diverse population — what makes our nation exceptional.
Despite being from the suburbs, I grew up with a love for the outdoors. As a kid I collected wildlife sightings like baseball cards. For me, the only thing akin to finding a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie in a pack was seeing a rare animal in the wild. Both occurrences put me in a state of bliss only rivaled by an unguarded bowl of candy. Along this canoe trip, I remained enamored by chance encounters with wild animals; my first bear sighting is a prime example.
Paddling down Pine Creek Canyon, Pennsylvania, I floated under passing white clouds, above the glinting water and between the steep canyon walls cloaked in green. The evening set in with a warmth only a fine summer day can provide. Then I saw it — 200 yards down river — the unmistakable shape of a black bear. Trying to calm my excitement, I put on my zoom lens as the bear began crossing Pine Creek. In silence, I canoed downstream as the bear reached the opposing bank and began walking along the shore, towards me. Soon, I was only 30 feet from 300 pounds of fur, teeth, and claws. At a loss for creativity, I called out “Hey bear!” The lumbering creature stopped, turned and looked right at me before disappearing behind a wall of shaking leaves. I passed over the next riffle, dumb grin plastered upon my face. While the spell of baseball cards wore off long ago, I doubt the spell of wildlife ever will.
I didn’t plan this quest with the goal of reinvesting faith in the American People, but after the 2016 election, it became an enduring part of my canoe trip. In every state, I encountered strangers from all walks of life. After meeting hunters, vacationers, bikers, immigrants, fishermen, kids, and retirees, I came away with one thought — people are complicated, but mostly good.
In six months of driving backcountry roads, leaving my car overnight and camping alone, no one ever stole from me. On the contrary, the people I met offered kindness. Countless individuals provided help, rides, meals, beers, etc. On four occasions, strangers gave me cash out of the blue. One kayaker in the Florida Keys put a hundred-dollar bill in my hand. “Go get yourself a good meal and have a great trip,” were his only conditions. I’ve long touted the kindness of the American People, but even I was overwhelmed with the sheer volume of kind gestures during the course of my long paddle.
Now, like most of us, I have many frustrations with our political climate and the normalization of viewpoints that trend in frightening directions. On the nature side alone, I think it’s a shame that the mere word environment has become so polarized. It’s a shame professing a love of nature might somehow instigate a vicious political argument. It’s a shame people feel they need to be either on the side of the economy or the environment, as if improving either inherently destroys the other.
But, after meeting with a broad swath of America and canoeing with people of all political persuasions, I can say this: we all don’t boil down to a choice between, what many regarded as, two poor options. Red state or blue state, I found that the American People, on a whole, do care about how they’re going to leave this land for their kids and grandkids. Whether it’s a turkey hunter in rural Virginia, an outfitter in Alaska, or a Paiute Tribe member in the high deserts of Nevada — people give a damn about their natural world. That should give us all hope.
Along with all the human interactions, the memories of the waterways I canoed will endure. Setting out, I was almost more excited about visiting the unassuming, low tourism budget states than the postcard destinations. Instead of finding mundane, unattractive water bodies, I was floored by the scenic rivers and unsung wilderness areas in states rarely noted for their natural beauty. In April, I swam in the clear blackwater stream on a Wild and Scenic River in Southern Mississippi. In May, I saw thousands of arctic migratory Red Knots gather by spawning horseshoe crabs at the mouth of the Mispillion in Delaware. In June, I surprised a family of river otters, playing in a shallow riffle, in the hills of Ohio. So on and so forth. My canoe quest was a never-ending showcase of American splendor in places you would and wouldn’t expect.
Classic beauty isn’t the reason our rivers deserve our respect and stewardship. Ecosystem health, human well-being, and an array of non-aesthetic factors are as essential. But, boy does it help to stir hearts and open wallets when you realize how stunning our rivers are to behold. I’ve raised money for American Rivers throughout my journey because I believe our nation needs this kind of organization to raise the profiles of endangered waterways and protect natural places, from the unassuming to the majestic. I believe America’s rivers and wildlands are what make us exceptional and they’re worth protecting — grab a paddle and go see for yourself.
Please help me reach my fundraising goal for American Rivers by donating here.
Read more of my state by state adventures at www.shamelesstraveles.com