Kayaking Alone is a story about just that. We’ve all likely done it, just not to the extent author Mike Barenti has as recounted in this tale of his whopping 900-mile solo trip from the headwaters of the Salmon River down to the Pacific. Barenti, a journalist of 14 years, uses his experience to relay the stories of the people he encountered during his two months on the river—stories of compassion, hardship and environmental history. The book flows from cover to cover like the rivers traveled within its pages, and the story is never the same for long. Barenti takes readers on a ride deep into the personality of the West, shedding light on the culture of the region every time he eddies out.
PL caught up with him to find out more about his trip and his experiences paddling alone.
PL: You mention that your kayak is a large foreign one. Can you clarify?
Barenti: I was paddling a Prijon Rocket. Like a lot of European boats, it doesn’t have any pillars in the bow or stern, so it can hold a lot of gear.
PL: Boating alone is controversial, though it seems that it was the best way to conduct your investigation from the river. Did you boat other rivers solo to prepare?
Barenti: I figured I’d hear some comments on paddling solo, and it’s not something I’d normally recommend. But it was the best way for me on that trip. I didn’t boat a lot of rivers solo in preparation, but I did boat the same one over and over. When I lived near Yakima, Washington, the middle White Salmon became my home river. I paddled it a lot, and you know how that is – you start trying new lines. So while I was getting ready for the trip, I made quite a few solo runs from BZ Corner down to Husum Falls. The river was well within my capabilities, but it was interesting to learn how being alone changed the way I looked at a rapid. I found myself going back to the standard, easiest lines.
PL: Can you describe the experience of making it to the ocean after weeks on the river?
Barenti: Once I‘d fallen into the rhythm, it didn’t seem like I was doing this epic river journey. And I still hate to categorize the trip that way. I’m just an average boater, but I think one of the great things about kayaking is that no matter what your skill level, you can go out and do something that’s different from your everyday life that’s an adventure to you. Once I was on the trip I just got up and paddled. I didn’t think much about how unusual it was to be doing such a long trip. When I finally made it to the Columbia River’s estuary,though, I camped at Jim Crow Point (where Lewis and Clark camped in 1805). It’s close to the spot where Clark made that famous diary entry “Ocian in view! O! the joy.” It was the fiftieth day of my trip, and from my campsite I could see the high bridge that runs between Astoria and Washington. I knew the ocean wasn’t too many miles west of the bridge. I’d look downriver at that bridge and realized I had actually accomplished something.
PL: Has spending so much time alone on the water changed your outlook on life?
Barenti: I get that question a lot. Sometimes I feel bad I can’t point to some clear way this trip has changed my life. Maybe it didn’t because I didn’t set out to have a life changing experience. Or maybe it didn’t because I succeeded, and I suspect we tend to learn more from failure than success. But I do think that anytime you challenge yourself and accomplish a goal, it’s going to be a positive. Again, one of the great things about paddling is that it lets us step outside and challenge ourselves, and then we can bring what we learn back to everyday life. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard for me to point to some way the trip changed me – those changes stretch all the way back to the first time I put on a spray skirt.
PL: Did you meet anyone who did something exceptional to help you out?
Barent: I met so many great people, and I was awed by their willingness to share their time and knowledge. My book is as much a piece of journalism as anything else, and journalism is by its very nature, somewhat intrusive. But I met people who didn’t hesitate to open up and talk to me even though they didn’t have to. The book would be very different without that input. Also, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wouldn’t let me go through the locks on the Snake and Columbia rivers, but I only had to portage once and pay someone to drive me around once. Three corps’ lockmasters broke agency rules to help. One sent me through the lock with a barge taking salmon smolt downstream, and two drove me around in trucks. Two people I met at random drove me past two dams, and one couple let me put my kayak on their sailboat so I could get past Bonneville Dam. Then there was the retired chemistry professor from Astoria. He was a serious sea kayaker and we camped together on one of the islands in the Columbia Estuary. Before we went our separate ways, he gave me his phone number, and when I reached town, he let me stay at his house for three or four days and drove me all over town.
PL: What were the most important things you learned?
Barenti: I’ve been a reporter for 14 years, so it’s strange for me to be answering questions instead of asking them. On a personal level, the trip was a chance to live in the moment. I think it’s an occupational hazard for writers and journalist to over think whatever is happening. But because of the trip’s physicality, there were times where I could stop thinking through everything and just exist in the moment.
On a societal level, I realized that people aren’t separate from nature. We are part of our environment and just as we shape the world around us, the world shapes us. I think we need to keep that in mind as we work through some of these major social-environmental issues facing us.
– Sam Weiss
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