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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

paper canoe river trip
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.

paper canoe river trip

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If you’re traveling to China, expect a few hiccups.

Not just in the language department; Mandarin is consistently rated as one of the hardest languages for native English speakers to learn.

I’m talking about hiccups in accessing the internet while you’re traveling in China. You won’t be able to simply type in Facebook.com and voila, there’s Facebook.

Or Twitter. Or Instagram.

Oh no, if you navigate to those sites that like you’d normally do at home, expect a big fat “Page blocked” error. Except that error is displayed in Mandarin and you won’t have a clue as to what it says.

And no matter how hard you hit your device or laptop — the well-known ultimate way to solve any technology meltdown — it won’t make a difference.

Let me explain.

What’s the Deal with China’s Internet?

The Chinese government has enacted several pieces of legislation and projects designed to censor internet usage in China. More than 60 internet regulations have been created by the Chinese government, specifically to block people in China from using social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, to name a few.

This censorship is part of a large crackdown on free speech and social liberties. This large crackdown is called the Golden Shield Project and it’s been around for two decades. When the internet arrived in China in January 1996, the Chinese government began blocking foreign websites by August 1996.

That censorship hasn’t stopped or slowed down since then.

In 1997, Wired magazine coined the term “the Great Firewall” and it’s stuck ever since.
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The first year we spent in San Diego, I thought it would be a good idea to try to spend the long weekend of Memorial Day at Yosemite National Park. This brilliant idea came to me in late March and came to discover I wasn’t alone in my camping desires. Hundreds, if not thousands of other travelers had the same idea. With one quick swipe of the keyboard I learned that only minutes after the campsites’ booking availability opened in the wee hours of the 1st of January – everything was booked. Lesson learned!

As a former high school social studies teacher, I can tell you that when teaching American History to sixteen year olds, there’s often a strong focus on the early 1900s, the time of Theodore Roosevelt, his Square Deal domestic policy and the four categories it entailed. One of those, was conservation – specifically, the formation of National Parks. Perhaps we should each thank Mr. Roosevelt every time we are lucky enough to set foot in these spectacular settings. Whether you’ve heard about them, visited once or are proud owners of your annual park pass, the national parks of the United States are significant, inspiring, educational and offer experiences far wider than their borders.

Whether you’re planning the epic American road trip, like my husband and I have done twice -in different seasons and on different routes- or using an urban center for your home base and then doing day, or weekend, trips to explore the national parks, you’ll find options here.

The planners amongst your crowd can find the most visited sites in the past year, by checking out National Geographic’s listing.

Fourth graders, can visit for free. Follow the Going to the Sun road in Glacier, the Scenic Loop in the Badlands, and the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway in Yellowstone. See your first moose, be a spectator on a bear’s home turf, and be transported to far away lands with the wind of a trail. Channel your inner explorer and go in search of mindfulness and meditation, triumphs and trails, wildlife and wonder, geocaches and golden light, exploration and experience.

Whether you base yourself in a nearby urban center or take a few days to venture out of the city and into the country – a visit to any of our national parks is nothing short of spectacular.

Although travel, adventure, and accommodation style vary – the rules in the parks are the same for everyone.

  • All are equal and welcome on the trails
  • Take only pictures, leave only footprints
  • Pick up your own trash
  • Follow sign and trail guidelines – they’re there for a reason
  • You are a visitor – this is the animal’s home turf
  • DO NOT disturb/touch/harm/pet/snuggle/rescue/grope/feed wildlife-This is not a zoo
  • Find out rules and restrictions for bear spray
  • Follow regulations for permitting
  • Always tell someone where you’re going
  • In winter, keep your extremities covered
  • Respect nature, wildlife and rangers

Listed below are some of the hundreds of spots the US has to offer. Keep in mind there are always new sites being added to the listings. Also, remember that there are many state parks, monuments, and local historical spaces to see nearby the national parks – be sure to research the entire surrounding area of visitor sites, state landmarks and more before you book your journey.

For more detailed information about all of the national parks, monuments, memorials, historic parks and newly added spaces, head over to the national parks website.

Daypack Packing List

Even if you’re just taking a day trip to the national park nearest your city, you’ll want to pack a daypack with the essentials. Include the following for a fun, safe day in the great outdoors:

  • A small trash bag: Pack out what you pack in, and pick up any other trash you see
  • Bring more water than you think you need
  • A hat
  • Snacks
  • First aid items to treat minor injuries
  • Don’t forget bug spray
  • Sunscreen

Northeast

Known for some of the country’s best blueberries, bagels and batsh*t crazy politicians, the northeast shares it’s love of constitution with love of conservation. Although there are fewer full scale national parks set in this region, those that are present ignite the senses and stir the same sense of wonder as their western counterparts.

Check out the waterfront views of Acadia and grab some lobster roll and clam chowder in nearby Bar Harbor. Listen to the deafening noise as the falls crash and spray flies at Niagara Falls. Hike the trails at Shenandoah and immerse your fears and anxieties in the solace of nature. Spend a few days experiencing the quick pace of Manhattan, or the history in every street in Washington DC.

If you’re headed north, pack layers and rain gear and keep in mind that Acadia is still cold and snowy in April and comes to life a bit later in the spring. If you’re so inclined, don’t forget to stop a bit further south in Maine for a special sweet treat of Wicked Whoopie Pies.

New York

Maine

Pennsylvania

Maryland

Virginia

Washington DC

All of these are right in town and accessible via public transportation.

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