Eric Straw is a 30-year old North Texan, a former SCA crew leader, and an avid paddler. He’s currently on a six-month mission to canoe in each of the 50 U.S. states. We caught up to him in New Hampshire, his paddle still wet from the waters of Elbow Pond.
Where did this goal of yours come from?
I had the idea all the way back in college. I just love canoeing and I thought, gee, wouldn’t that be a neat idea for a book? And I looked it up and couldn’t find a book on it so… I know probably hundreds of people have already paddled in all fifty states, so I’m not a pioneer in that respect but I had the idea that I’d do it over time, maybe by the time I was sixty. And a decade went by and I’d done three states.
And you quit your job to pursue your dream…
I was listening to a radio station in Dallas one day, and the host was taking about Endless Summer, an old surfing movie, where the guy’s following summer around the planet, surfing in all these different, exotic locations, and he’s like sixty-two or sixty-three or something. That’s when it hit me, that I just have to do this in all one, big ‘go.’
Along the coast of Rhode Island
Where did you start?
My first stop was the Brazos [River] in Texas, and I did it with my dad. There’s a book from the 1960s called Goodbye to a River by John Graves. He writes about paddling the Brazos before five dams were put in. We’ve both read it, and did a section of the river called the John Graves section, named after him. My last paddle will likely be New Mexico, possibly the Rio Grande or the Upper Pecos. But part of me wants to end in Texas and go to Big Bend and do the Rio Grande there. We’ll see how my time and finances are at that point, but I wouldn’t feel terrible about doing Texas twice.
You’re twenty states in so far. Are you on schedule?
I budgeted for six months and right now I’m doing better than a five-month pace. I actually want to slow down. I budgeted for a longer time because I thought at some point, something’s going to happen to my car (knocks on the wooden table), or the canoe or my roof rack, or I’ll get sick for a week or I’ll get held up for weather reasons. I just need the Southwest to be in September. I can’t get there in mid-August because I will just wither away.
At Deerfield Rapids
Tell me about your experiences to date…
Some of the wildest stuff was in the Everglades. I was canoeing through the mangroves and it was three and a half miles to a little chickee tent platform and I thought: three and a half miles, I’ve still got three hours of light, there’s no problem there. But it was a narrow maze, only five to ten feet wide, and I’d get going fast and just crash into the mangroves and bounce off them and lose all momentum. I’ve experienced my own arrogance in terms of what I think I can do – “No, I don’t need to worry about that” and then all of sudden “Yeah, I should have thought about that.” So that’s been a little humbling.
I finally got to the end right at sunset, and the next morning I watched a pod of four dolphins hunt in the mangroves. This is ten miles from the gulf side of the ocean. It was salt water but I didn’t realize dolphins came all the way up through there. I got in my canoe and paddled around for about thirty minutes, watching them herd fish and full-on speed and thrash about and feed. That’s something I will never forget, for sure.
In the Florida Keys
Two days later, I paddled across Florida Bay and spent a night on one of the keys. The rangers had warned me about the American crocodile. That’s the only place they live in the continental United States. They said “they’re not going to bother you” but it was nesting season, so they told me just to beware. The next morning, I loaded all my equipment back into the canoe and the water was so shallow I had to walk out in my boots about twenty feet or so.
Just as I’m about to get into my boat, something catches my eye. I look over and it’s an eleven foot crocodile, mouth agate. A wave passes over and I see it, then another wave passes over and it’s gone. And I just stood there and looked for him and eventually climbed into the boat, tucked my arms in and paddled away, repeating in my head “he’s not going to do anything to me, he’s not doing to do anything to me.”
Why a canoe and not a kayak?
I get that a lot. A lot of people think well, you’re soloing, kayaks are smaller and lighter. I guess I have an inherent bias from the Boy Scouts and all my canoe trips with them. I also like the idea that I can just throw as much stuff in there as I could possibly want. It’s a sixteen foot green Winona. I’m told it’s a Kevlar/Duroflex composite. Very light but very tough. I’ve already banged it up in Tennessee and I tipped it on the Deerfield in Massachusetts when I hit some rocks. It’s not taking on water yet but the bottom is pretty scraped up. And I’ll tell you, in the south, where there are a lot of alligators, I was happy to be that extra foot above the water.
This planet is 70% water – how do you decide where to paddle?
A lot of it is looking on Google Maps. My parameters are I want to find a place that’s a natural body of water; I want to canoe on something an Indian probably canoed on. I look for national or state parks, rivers or lakes. If it’s in the mountains, I look to see if there are rapids. If there are, I’ll look for somewhere else. I do want to do some that are popular and well-known like the Everglades, and I want to do Voyageurs in Minnesota, but I’m also looking for some back corner woods places. I don’t want to Google “Ten Best Places to Canoe” in any given state because you’ll get the places where everyone else canoes. I also look at forums and blogs, and call outfitters for recommendations.
As you meet people along the way, what’s their reaction to your excursion?
You know, everyone has their favorite pond or river and they almost get upset when they find out I’m not doing it. I met a guy in Florida who said “you really need to paddle the St. Marys River,” and I said well, you know, I’m going to be doing the Everglades, and he said “but you have to do St. Marys. Here’s my number, I’ll paddle with you.” But I feel good about that, connecting.
What have you learned along the way?
I learned that although the environment is a political hot topic, people do seem to care about the land that they live on. Whether that’s in rural Virginia, or Mississippi or Maine. I had a guy say “well, I’m not a treehugger but I want to leave this river clean and good for my kids and my grandkids.” This was a guy chewing dip in Virginia. He said “bar” instead of “bear” and “war” instead of “wire.” A big old guy and we talked for thirty minutes. People who live on the land have an ingrained love for it. And that gives me hope.
Have you taken any “SCA” with you?
Other than my collection of SCA tee shirts? I certainly do bring the SCA with me. I still remember leader training in Mars, PA. There was an exercise where we raced for a dollar to the top a hill. But before we started, we all spread out on a line and took steps forward or backwards depending on how we answered a question like “Did your parents buy your first car for you?” and others things I’ve always taken for granted. And then we ran for the dollar and, of course, the more privileged got there first. I still visualize it when thinking about disparities between groups of Americans.
In Rhode Island
Are you looking for anything out there?
I’ve always loved “the road trip” but anyone can drive on the road. Most anyone can get in a canoe as well but few people do, and they allow you get out to the remote spots and be the only one out there. As much as I enjoy socializing I wanted to see how I could do alone and being able to paddle out alone in the wilderness and see how I do, see if I get scared at night, see if I just end up talking to myself like Tom Hanks in Castaway.
And how are you doing in that regard?
Honestly, it’s going a little better than I thought. There have been times when I’ve gone into town and struck up a conversation and probably held a stranger hostage just because it’s the first person I’ve seen in forty-eight hours.
But the first couple of nights I was definitely spooked. Not as much to put all my stuff in a car and drive away but… One night, in Mississippi, there was no moon out, there were no lights in the campground, kind of by a road, and I made the mistake of walking down to the river and I found a single sandal. I was shining my Maglite in this misty, hazy night. It looked like something out of a horror movie. So a lot of the first few nights were spent around the fire looking over my shoulder but that’s honestly gone away. We’ll see how things go when I get out West and have to deal with grizzlies.
Crossing the Delaware River
At the end of the day, what do you get out of all this?
Other than a big bragging point? (Pause.) I want to get a faith back in the American people, and that’s something that’s already happening. I want to talk to a lot of people from all different walks of life and I’m just hoping that by the end of it, when I see things on the news that I don’t agree with or hear things on the radio that upset me, I can think back to people I met in Mississippi who were kind to me or people from other places with whom I share similar views.
And what about the book?
I’ve told people a book is the moonshot idea. Currently, I’m doing my blog on ShamelessTravels.com. I’m about eight states behind by desperately trying to catch up. But I do plan to write a book one day – if I don’t get eaten by a bear in the next thirty states.