In 2014, I paddled a paper canoe 200 miles down the Hudson River. And it was awesome. This is that story.
When people find out that I’m a travel writer, everyone expects stories like the sentence I just wrote. Everyone always asks “What’s the best/coolest/most exciting place you’ve been to?” It’s a fair question, but I usually shrug and give a pat answer—Peru, Iceland, New Zealand—it varies. Don’t get me wrong—I love all the places I’ve been and all the people I’ve met along the way, but when people ask me about my favorite spot, I never have the heart to tell them the truth.
I don’t have a favorite place
Travel isn’t about where you go, it’s about what you do and how those experiences change who you are. The trips you tell stories about years later don’t have anything to do with places you visit or the pictures you take. The best travel stories are all about purpose.
Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those “travel can change the world” articles. It’s just a story about a wacky little canoe trip I took a few years ago, and how that adventure in my own backyard changed the way I see travel.
I still don’t have a favorite destination, but I’ve got a few favorite tales from the road. Here’s the story of how I found myself paddling a paper canoe 200 miles down the Hudson River. Enjoy.
Paddling 200 Miles Down the Hudson River: In a Paper Canoe
In 2014, I got an email about a boat building class at the North Brooklyn Boat Club. I figured, “Why not? Boats are sweet.” Little did I know that we’d be making paper canoes. Full-size ones. For a real river expedition. Down a real river. For days on end. It was a strange first conversation:
“Wait. We’re making paper boats? Like little origami decorative ones?” I asked, curious why I’d biked to a “boat-building workshop” that was beginning to look like an origami arts and crafts class.
“No. We’re making paper boats. Like regular ‘boats” — canoes actually — to paddle down the Hudson River. They’re fully functional two-person canoes that just happened to be made out of paper,” replied Jean Barberis, member of the art collective Mare Liberum, and the Frenchman currently leading the boat building workshop in the narrow outdoor alley space at the mouth of Newtown Creek in Brooklyn.
Jean noticed my blank, but polite expression and continued (a little more slowly). “We’re making full-sized paper boats. For people. They’re like any other boats, they’re just made out of paper,” he explained for what must have been the twentieth time that day. I can still hear the exhaustion in his voice.
I glanced at the upturned canoe shell covered in reams of paper. I quickly discovered that we were using the (perfectly functional) REI canoe as a mold for our fleet of paper boats. I looked back at Jean, “So, it’s like a big origami boat?”
Jean’s shoulders slumped, and he gestured for me to follow him back to the construction project taking place on a series of wooden A-frames in the boat yard.
Building a Paper Boat: Papier Mache Crash Course
Making a paper boat isn’t actually all that hard. All you need is a few rolls of craft paper, some wood glue, varnish or sealant, a canoe to use as a mold, and time. Lots and lots of time. So, so, so, so, much time.
Here’s a printable set of instructions if you feel like making your own. I highly recommend it if you have a few weeks to kill.
Basically, all you do is cut the rolls of paper into arm length, four-inch wide strips. Then you dip each strip into a trough of watered-down wood glue, wipe the excess glue from the paper, place the strip on the canoe overlapping the previous piece by about two inches. Dip. Wipe. Place. Repeat. Layer after layer. The process is hypnotic, and the regular V-shaped herringbone pattern that emerges is kind of impressive, even if you don’t know what you’re doing.
It’s not 100% paper though. We added two simple wooden gunwales (the “lips” of the boat), a few staves for support at the bow, midship, and stern, a platform for a seat, and you’re ready to hit the high seas, sailor. Or at least the river.
https://vimeo.com/hypergeist/seachange2014 Click to continue…