By Reinhard Zollitsch
September 2006

I occasionally get asked why I go solo on those god-awful long and lonely trips along the shores of the North Atlantic in my little 17’2” Kruger sea canoe. But even more often am I asked why I go at all.

Some of you readers might remember me from my solo trip from Lake Champlain down the Hudson to Manhattan, and some of you might have wondered why I took a left turn at Hell Gate and kept paddling till I reached Revere Beach north of Boston (see your hrwa web site under reports: “Closing the Gap”). Why did he do it? 200 miles are a nice long trip already - why go another 300 miles back to Boston?

In this case the answer is simple: it was the last piece of a bigger 4000 mile project, the circumnavigation of all New England States and the Maritime provinces. “So you see I had to do it, in order not to look like a failure,” I occasionally tell unbelievers with a smug smile, just to see their reaction.

Mountain climbers have been asked similar questions about why they wanted to climb mountain X,Y or Z, maybe even solo, and if possible on a new route. Their by now standard answer is: because it is there and because it has not been done. Most of us non- mountaineers by now have accepted their answer with a smile and maybe a gentle headshake. Most of us manage to suppress the words: “But you know you are crazy!”, because we know it would not make any difference anyway.

Dreaming of/planning yet another trip (winter 2006/06)
Dreaming of/planning yet another trip (Winter 2005/06)

So why do I paddle solo out on the ocean for 500 or even 1000 miles all by myself? Am I running away from something in life, don’t I have any friends or am I a psychological basket case or a terror to be around? None of the above, my friends. I have been happily married for 42 years, have 4 kids, a home, had a full-time job as a university professor till I retired two years ago at age 65. (Careful now with statements about a 67-year-old geezer!)

My answer is a very simple one: I love doing it; I love coming up with a great idea for a trip, researching the area as well as its history and geology, and then carefully planning each 25-mile stage on my beloved NOAA nautical charts (no GPS). I even love the physical challenge that each day presents, and enjoy the satisfaction I get from successfully finishing each stage and on time.

You see, I am not a free-spirited floater following his whims, basically going where tide and wind are headed. On those longer trips I paddle with a purpose. For the same reason, I maintain success is no accident but is carefully planned. I have been in tight situations over the past 12 years, but never lost control (tipped the boat or crash landed) or needed outside help, except for my dear wife’s cheerful and supportive car shuttles to the starting and eventual pick-up points. THANKS, Nancy; I could not have done these trips without you.

So how did I get started in the sport of ocean canoeing? I had never canoed till I built my own canoe at age 35, the year I also started sailing up and down the coast of Maine with my family (just 4 of us then) in a minimal 22 footer, like a month each summer. Even today I go on shorter canoe camping trips of up to a week with my wife or any other member of my family, on backcountry lakes and rivers in my neck of the woods, along the Maine coast or in the Florida Everglades. I also do a lot of day tripping like most of you do, but once or twice each year I need a “real trip” of some kind of significance, preferably alone, where I can push myself to the limit. A trip like this for me is the ultimate test, with the ultimate satisfaction and gratification upon completion.

And this is exactly what I needed after my operation in September of 1994: a reaffirmation and celebration of life and something that would strip life down to its most essential part, the simple joy of living - a personal “pursuit of happiness”.

I needed to move out of the strife of everyday life for a while, maybe a tad towards the edge, where the raw feeling of living gets heightened, but only to return, as Robert Frost so succinctly put it in his poem on bending birches. I was not lily-dipping in the puddle of life, but doing something “significant”, at least for me.

I started this new phase in 1995 by paddling around some of the biggest New England lakes (Moosehead and Winnipesaukee, among others) and big islands like Mount Desert and Deer Isle. The following year I felt ready to do the entire 300-mile Maine Island Trail and then aimed for my first 1000-miler in 1999. For this I chose a historic trail which Samuel de Champlain did in 1609 in his quest from Québec up the St. Lawrence and the Richelieu River into Lake Champlain, only I reversed the direction and kept on going around the Gaspé and back to New Brunswick.

That 1999 trip, my 60th birthday present from my family (their confidence in letting me go was the present!), set the stage and was the beginning of my quest that I came up with when I read LONE VOYAGER, the story of the indomitable dory fisherman Howard Blackburn, who survived a snowstorm off the Grand Banks by rowing back to shore, never giving up, even when his hands froze to the oars.
Years later he was intrigued by sailing “the inner loop”, as he called it, from New York up the Hudson, through the NY canal system into the Great Lakes to Chicago, down the Illinois River into the Mississippi and eventually back home to Boston.

What if he had gone straight at Troy, NY, I thought to myself when I read his story, into the Champlain Canal, instead of the Erie Canal, and into Lake Champlain, then down the Richelieu River into the St. Lawrence, and there hung a right, forever right around the Gaspé, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut back to New York and the Hudson River. I had not heard of anybody doing this loop, but I am sure I was not the first to have done it.

Anyway, that’s what I was going to do, I decided, do an “outer loop”, and I did, finishing the last 500 miles between Boston and Lake Champlain via the Atlantic, the Hudson River and the Champlain Canal in the summer of 2005, in 20 days, as planned. And what did I learn: all New England States and the Canadian maritime provinces form an island - what a cool 4000 mile thought, for an islander like me, who has lived on an island in Orono, ME and summered on an island in Corea, ME since 1962. But that is not all, believe me.

And to keep my mind busy during those long paddling days, mostly between 6-8 hours in the boat, I had read up on all the early explorers from John Cabot to Jacques Cartier and especially the numerous trips of Samuel de Champlain to what he called “Acadia” or “New France”. I even found a copy of his trip logs with charts, VOYAGES, in our library, so I could follow in his exact footsteps in 2004, reliving his arrival in the new world, during the big Acadian 400-year-celebration in that part of Nova Scotia and Maine.

And then there is the physical challenge. Names like “Hell Gate” (in downtown NY - where the East and Harlem Rivers gush into Long Island Sound; there is another Hell’s Gate and Hell Reef in Nova Scotia), Cap Enragé and Lands/Worlds End always excite me and challenge me more intellectually than physically.

And here I go again (Whitehall, NY, 2005)
And here I go again (Whitehall, NY, 2005)

I never wonder whether I am strong and good enough to buck the flow and make it through, but rather think how I can best avoid the hellish conditions, i.e. which tide do I have to choose to slip through there without a hitch. The same is true with the significant Fundy Bay tides and rips around headlands. I always plan to go with the flow rather than fighting my way against the elements. I am not out to conquer anything, least of all nature, but rather am smart enough to have nature help me in my ultimate endeavor. On the other hand, I do not mind paddling for up to 8 hours, or till I get to my planned overnight spot.

So what kind of an encore did I have in store for this year, 2006? It was the year of coming home after several summers away, including fulfilling my boyhood dream of paddling along the entire German coast of the Baltic Sea from Denmark to Poland (440 mi - in 2002), as well as paddling 200 miles of the Upper Missouri River below Great Falls, MT during the Lewis and Clark 200th anniversary years 2003-06. (I went in June 2003.)

It felt good looking back on twelve great cancer-free years with memories I will never forget. And yes, I started writing up my trips so I could share them better with my family and friends and all of you out there. This will be my 50th such report, in my non-native language, mind you. I hope some of you have enjoyed my ramblings, got some new ideas and learned something for your own trips, both technically as well as in the attitude department.
(Sorry, once a teacher, always a teacher.)

In 2006 I enjoyed visiting some “old friends” back home in Maine, like the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, where I was the first through-paddler this year. I also paddled the entire Maine Island Trail again, from its new southern extension at Cape Porpoise to Machias (260 miles in 13 days). Early morning ebb tides kept me from going up the many narrow rivers and tidal estuaries, forcing me to straight-line the trail a bit and paddling more off shore than in more sheltered areas.

I was back where it all started after my operation - I had come full circle.
Anything new for the coming years, you might ask? There is always Cape Breton in Nova Scotia with the Bras d’Or Lakes, and the tantalizingly beautiful western as well as northeastern bays on Newfoundland... So far I have always had more projects than I have time for. I only hope I never reach the point where I do not know what to do next - when I stop dreaming that is. Life is much too precious to waste.

By the way, have you ever seen a Hawaiian-style solo outrigger? See you at the Blackburn Challenge in Gloucester, MA next year, my friends.
Warm greetings from an often cold Maine.

© Reinhard Zollitsch