Neal Moore has spent much of the last few years trying to paddle west to east across the United States. In 2018 he made it more than 1,700 miles, bucking historic high water up the Columbia River and crossing the continental divide before calling it quits in North Dakota. He’d lost his canoe and most of his gear to a Cottonwood snag on the St. Regis River in Montana, and though he regrouped and pressed on he’d fallen weeks behind schedule.
His 22 Rivers project—“a solo, continuous canoe expedition from west coast to east—from the Pacific to the Statue of Liberty—listening, curating, and re-discovering the threads that bind Americans together”—would have to wait. The 7,500-mile route from Oregon to New York via New Orleans would take two full years, and he’d simply run out of time. So Moore went back to Taiwan, where he works as an English teacher and freelance journalist, to plan and save for his second attempt.
I have no home. I have no car. I’m essentially homeless. I have the tent and I have the canoe.
He set off again Feb. 9 from Astoria, Oregon, and paddled straight into the COVID-19 pandemic. Moore once trekked across northern Ethiopia with a donkey named Gopher, and is no stranger to long river trips, having paddled the Mississippi from its source in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico in 2009. He told the stories of the people he met along the way, first as a CNN citizen journalist reporting from the river, and later in his book Down the Mississippi.
A solo traveller in a canoe, or for that matter on foot or a bicycle, invites spontaneous connection, and Moore had envisioned his project as one part Huck Finn adventure, one part Charles Kuralt travelogue. But with the virus now spreading rapidly along his route, the expedition has changed almost overnight into a hermit-like endeavor as Moore, for now at least, continues upstream, holding stubbornly to his dream.
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Sometimes in this life you get second chances. Astoria (re)launch at the mouth of the Columbia River! Cheers to my Pier 39 compadres – adventurer, owner/operator & ex-special forces Floyd Holcom, Columbia River Gillnetter, FisherPoet & Folklorist, Tom Hilton, and nautical writer/historian & sailor Peter Marsh — for an incredible stay, your friendship & for sharing your knowledge of this river. Photo courtesy: Floyd Holcom.
AJ: People all over the country are canceling backcountry trips, but you’ve decided to keep going. Have you thought about how to keep yourself and others safe as you canoe across the country?
My first choice is to camp wild. On my previous trip down the Mississippi River I followed the example of the 500 pelicans that were coming south with me. They would sort of circle an island and right at dark they’d land and power down. Then they would be off by first light. I was doing the same thing. So that’s really my first choice.
We call that hide-and-go-camp. It’s an extreme form of social distancing, but one of the really cool things about this kind of travel—and a hallmark of all your trips—is the people that you meet along the way.
It sort of throws the whole thing up in the air, because for me the trip was always about the storytelling together with the adventure. Now the whole experience is shifting to just pure adventure, which is awesome in its own right.
Where are you now?
I’m at Port Kelley, Washington, which is the Walla Walla Yacht Club. From here I’ll swing around into the Tri Cities. I have friends there that want to put me up, but it’s sort of a question mark because they could be carriers. And I don’t feel sick, but I could be a carrier too.
So you’re not getting invited in for showers and meals quite as often as before?
I stayed four days in Hood River with a friend, and I stopped at Rufus [Oregon] and stayed with some friends there, because it was snowing that weekend. So that was my last shower. That must have been, I guess, close to a week ago.
Last weekend my Oregon friends were saying, “This is what the Apocalypse looks like. The shelves are bare, we’re on lockdown, and it’s snowing in March.”
It became real then. That’s exactly when it became real.
When I’m on the water, though, like yesterday, it was just brilliant. The sun was out. No one was out and it was just gorgeous. The flip side would actually be going to shelter in place, in a house or with friends. And then you’re with people. So my thinking now is to absolutely carry on.
I’m thinking about my route now quite a bit. I have three choices from here. There’s the Snake, which would get me into Idaho sooner, where there are less cases. That portage is just absolutely crazy though, going over Lolo Pass. The second choice would be the Spokane River, which is what I did last time. And then the third choice—my preferred option actually—would be to continue up the Columbia across the border to the town of Trail B.C., and then catch the Pend Oreille River back into Washington and on to Idaho. But with the border closed, I found a forest road which is only a 22-mile portage and can take me right under the Canadian border. And that choice would be positively wild, where I’d just be out there in the wilds and away from people. [Ed. note: Moore opted for the Snake and Lolo Pass.]
Food-wise, I’m absolutely fine. I have two bear vaults full of snacks and I have some disaster food—a huge bucket full of, I don’t know, 120 freeze-dried meals. But the one big downside is that the restaurants are now closed. I just love greasy spoons, and in small towns these diners are where the old-timers congregate. This is where you might meet someone, make friends, pick up a story. Now, I can’t do that.
This is your second try at this. In 2018 you put in months of time and more than 1,700 miles of hard work, pushing upstream on the Columbia in a solo canoe. How do you keep going right now with this uncertainty that you’re that you’re facing?
Well, I mean, there’s no guarantees in life, right? It’s dangerous to be born.So I think the virus is just one more hurdle. I’m expecting that I’ll see flooding on the Missouri. I’m expecting the chance of a hurricane in the Gulf. I’m expecting snow to fly in upstate New York. This virus just blindsided me, but I see it sort of the same way. You have to try to live with it and move forward.
I get that, and as outdoor enthusiasts we’re all used to assessing risk to ourselves. But in this case your decision to continue could put others in peril. So what’s your answer to those who say you shouldn’t go to remote places with few services, because if you get sick or injured there you’re putting a strain on a community that doesn’t have the facilities to cope with it?
I haven’t vocalized this, but what I’ve been thinking the last few days is that when I put myself out there, I might not be able to call on emergency services.
For example, in 2011 there were two paddlers going cross-country. The Missouri was shut down with major flooding and one guy stopped his trip. He got off the river, and later he was really upset about it. And there was a second guy who decided to keep going. He was camping on barn roofs and whatnot, but he finished his trip and it was the right decision for him.
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I had the honor to meetup with Wilbur Slockish, Jr., Chief of the Klickitat people, a Native American tribe of the Pacific Northwest. We broke bread together and Wilbur told me of his love for the Columbia River, of his people’s history on these sacred waters, and of the need to cherish and protect it. Cheers to Bud Herrera for helping to set this story up. Stay tuned — I’m working on “The Undercurrent of America” and hope to have it out by this Sunday or Monday. #columbiariver #klickitat #celilo #nativeamerican #chasingrivers #alittlewake
But the point is, if you decide to do that you can’t call emergency services. You’re putting yourself out there and come what may, you have to bear the responsibility. And so my thinking is if I make the conscious choice to continue with the expedition I wouldn’t put that potential burden on a small community.
You can say that now, but if you do get sick and first responders know about it, they’ll take care of you—even if it puts them and the community at risk. You know that, right?
That’s true, I guess. Yeah, that’s true.
Where would you go if you decide to stop? Where’s home for you?
I’m from Los Angeles originally, but I’ve been an expatriate for over 20 years. I’m now based in Taipei, and every year I spend time in southern Africa and then recently in eastern Africa as well. And then I come back to the States for adventures.
So you don’t have a place to go. If some authority were to say, ‘Go home and shelter in place,’ you have no home to go to.
No, I have no home. I have no car. I’m essentially homeless and I have the tent and I have the canoe.
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Morning portage around McNary Dam, I expect to clear the state of Oregon later today, shooting for Port Kelley and the Walla Walla Yacht Club. I’ll paddle up and through Eastern Washington for the next few weeks, stopping in to the Tri Cities and Wenatchee, but mainly camping wild and keeping to myself, up around the bend.
Do you feel like you’re just one step ahead of the law right now? I just watched your video where you’re portaging around the last dam in Oregon to get to get into Washington, just hours ahead of the shelter-in-place order.
It just sort of happened that way. In Rufus there’s a really, really good restaurant called Bob’s Texas T-Bone and Frosty’s Lounge. One side’s the bar and then the other side’s a restaurant, and it’s just awesome. So my friends there invited me to dinner and for one last drink at the bar because it was closing down. So I was one step ahead there in Rufus, and then again just passing the border yesterday [March 22]. I started February 9th from Astoria, so I’ve been at this now a month and a half, and just had the timing to clear the state exactly the night before the order came down.
Has the virus, or fear of the virus affected the way people interact with you?
I stopped in at the town of Arlington, just up from Rufus. There’s a pay campground there, ten bucks a night, and the lady at the Port Authority who takes the money said, “We have our first our first case. It’s a teenager, and the whole town’s talking about it.” We had a little conversation, and it wasn’t six feet distance, it was like 20 feet. She said, “I’m so sorry. I’d love to talk to you. I’d love to get to know you, but . . . maybe next time around.”
These intimate relationships I’m used to developing along the way are now going to be really difficult. And then how to chronicle stories—you know, to paddle up to a town and hide your canoe and your stuff and then walk into a town looking for a story. To do that you have to build that relationship to have the trust so that people talk to you and open up. It’s a huge question mark now whether that’s going to be a possibility or not.
So now your focus changes from a trip that’s about connecting with people and telling their stories, to avoiding contact. Where to next?
Kennewick, Washington. My friend there said they just lost somebody to the virus. And there are two others who are critical or expected to die as well.
And if you have to leave the river, where would you go? Taiwan has closed its borders.
Everything I own is in the canoe. So the rivers and islands and stories, this expedition — it’s quite literally my home, my shelter for the next two years.
Top Photo: Courtesy Neal Moore.
If you’re looking for a good paddle-based yarn, author and lifelong padder Peter Heller’s “The River” is an eery, beautiful, page-turner about two friends on a backcountry canoe trip that encounter, let’s just say, difficulties. One of our favorite books of 2019.