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.
The Age of Paper: A Brief History Lesson
Making a boat out of something as hydrophobic as paper may seem absurd (it is), but done properly, paper is a fantastic boat building material. Paper is cheap, light, immensely pliable, and you can repair any holes or dings along the way with some Gorilla Tape.
Paper Canoe Pro Tip: Gorilla Tape fixes all.
Seriously though, it’s easy to forget that there was a time before carbon fiber, aluminum, and fiberglass. Heck, even boring old paper as we know it didn’t become common until after pulp advancements (that’s a real thing) in the 1860’s.
When your only option was wood, cheap strong paper was practically a space age material. Literally.
Paper Dome Observatories
The decades after the American Civil War are known in some circles as “The Age of Paper” due to these advancements in paper quality, and the subsequent drop in price. People started making paper boxes, paper hats, even paper collars for men’s shirts. Paper was everywhere, including buildings.
Due to paper’s light weight and flexibility, several universities and astronomical observatories from West Point to Greenwich, England (yeah, Greenwich “mean time” England) commissioned paper dome observatories. Laid over an iron lattice, paper domes were cheap to build, easy to maintain, and light enough for massive domes.
But enough about the stars. We made a paper boat. Let’s get back to that.
Paper Boats: Better than Wood (Apparently)
In the 1860’s, wooden racing sculls were the lightest thing on the water, but thanks to one crazy father son duo—Elisha and George Waters—paper racing boats, canoes, and even 45-foot pleasure boats began to ply the waters of the Northeast, winning competitions and leading ambitious expeditions. One guy, Nathaniel Bishop, even traded in his 18-foot wooden canoe for a paper one, ditched his assistant and sailed that paper canoe from Troy, NY to the freaking Gulf Coast of Florida. On the ocean. Alone.
He even wrote about it in a book called The Voyage of the Paper Canoe. Still haven’t read it…
Bridge On the River Why Not
Fascinating, right? I know. I’m just another link in the long chain of morons paddling down the river in a paper canoe. It’s a pretty exclusive club.
Our river expedition was a whirlwind of paddling, sleeping, paddling, and then more paddling. We watched little towns crawl by, ate bbq, and talked about our little paper fleet a lot. We had plans for where to stay each night, but when the river makes the rules, you camp wherever you are when the tide changes—public parks, boat clubs, even uninhabited islands in the middle of the river became our home for the night.
Fun fact: Did you know the Hudson has a significant shifting diurnal tide? We didn’t. Did you know you have to cross multiple shipping lanes packed with oil freighters all the time? Us either. Did you know that paper boats don’t go that fast? Samesies.
“Mastering” the tides was mind-numbingly frustrating until one morning we realized that the shifting tide wasn’t an obstacle to our journey—it was the most important part. The river literally told us when to take a break, when to push on to the next cove, and even when to call it a day and light a fire in time for a leisurely sunset cup of cocoa. It was like having your own personal coxswain.
River travel isn’t a linear voyage—it’s an ever-changing relationship—and if you ignore that, it quickly becomes apparent who’s got the final say. After just a few days, the rhythm of the river became as natural as breathing.
I actually still miss planning my day around something as unrelenting as the tide.
A Note About Paper Canoe Maintenance
Spoiler alert: Paper canoes are delicate.
You’d think this would be obvious to anyone on a weeks long canoe voyage, but after the second time I sunk my canoe, I figured I couldn’t ignore the inherent design flaws of my vessel.
Yeah, that’s right—twice. I sunk two canoes. The first time was on the very first day of the trip. I put my ass right through the hull. I literally went ass first into adventure. And it was chilly. I bailed out most of the water, limped my little canoe to shore, but it was a rough day of patching and sealing and praying we wouldn’t be down a canoe for the rest of the trip.
The second sinking happened at a particularly busy freighter ship crossing. Like I said earlier, the Hudson River is a fickle mistress. When the tide shifts, the depth changes, the wind is howling, or shipping lanes change you have to cross to the other side of the river. It’s not awesome, but usually it’s no worries. You just put the pedal to the metal, paddle your ass off for five minutes and haul across before you get plowed by an oil tanker that can’t turn or slow down.
I however, took the slightly more interesting approach of back paddling at just the wrong time and getting swamped by a nice little bit of wake. My canoe sank and all our stuff floated away or sank, but luckily we managed to flip the canoe over, hang on tight and right our waterlogged vessel. No casualties but our pride.
Distances are Different on the River
And that’s the funny thing about a river voyage—pride goes out the window pretty quickly when you’re at the mercy of the powerful, yet subtle currents of a great river. Things might seem tranquil, but every stroke takes a little out of your body. And it adds up.
You use muscles you’ve forgotten about, and you use those muscles a lot. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Pull. Pull. Pull. Shoulders, back, stomach, wrist, neck, arms, all working in concert to inch you forward just a little more. The worst part is that despite your Herculean efforts, you don’t really go very far; at least not as far or as fast as you’re used to.
River travel is slow. Your body thinks you’ve run a marathon, but when you pull out the map and plot the next day’s route by the light of the campfire, you realize you’ve only gone a few miles—the equivalent of a trip to the grocery store or a quick visit to a friend’s house. Distances that seemed trivial a week ago become triumphs. The pace of the river slows you down and recalibrates your concept of “far.”
It’s a Big World After All
That was my biggest takeaway from my insane trip down the Hudson River in my fragile little paper canoe. This world is impossibly big.
People are constantly talking about how the world is shrinking, becoming more connected, fast-paced and homogenized—and I agree. But before you start thinking that this world is a quaint little village where everyone is a stone’s throw away, take a trip down the river for a few days. I guarantee you’ll come away with a deeper respect for distance and all the things in your little corner of the world.
We’ve been connected to rivers since human beings first came into… well, “being.” Water, transportation, food, spirituality, hygiene, recreation—rivers provide everything we need. Today’s top travelers are jet-setters that can rattle off the best places to spend a layover in Dubai and twenty great thai restaurants in Belize, but not many of them can tell you what it’s like to just be somewhere for a while, drifting along at a pace you have little control over.
The next time someone asks me about my favorite place to visit, I think I’ll tell them about the time I paddled 200 miles down the Hudson River in a paper canoe.
River Trip Packing List
If you want to actually take a trip down a river (any river!) you totally should! Here are a few things I recommend packing for your next river trip:
Even if you don’t flip the canoe, your clothes are going to get wet. Every paddle stroke leaks a little bit of water into the bottom of your boat, and no matter what you do there will be puddles. Invest in a 35L dry bag as your main bag for a river expedition and enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing that your skills on the river don’t determine if your sleeping bag will get soaked.
You’ve got your big dry bag for your clothes and sleeping bag, but you definitely need another smaller dry bag for your camera, phone, and other less water-resistant gear. An 8L dry bag is smaller than you think once you clip it and roll it down to seal your goods away from the elements, so if you have a DSLR, battery charger, phone, GPS, and a bunch of other tech, invest in something big enough to keep it all safe and dry.
Sound carries over water, but you’d be surprised how hard it is to communicate with a friend in a boat just thirty feet away. Waterproof walkie talkies come in all shapes, sizes, and budgets, but try to find one that you can either easily charge or that has a long battery life.
Motorola makes a great set of waterproof walkie talkies with 35-mile range (in case you get separated), belt clips, earphone jacks (hands free use), and the rugged reputation of decades of experience.
It’s not a river trip unless you’re wearing boat shoes. Boat shoes are the best. I love boat shoes. These have 24 karat gold eyelets.
A frisbee is a surprisingly useful tool on any river trip. Aside from the obvious recreation it provides, a frisbee make a GREAT bailer if you take on water, and doubles as an impromptu cutting board and/or plate for prepping meals in the woods. I never hit the river without a frisbee.
Up your river frisbee game with a glow-in-the-dark frisbee. The one from Nite Ize is water-resistant, floats (a big deal on the river!) and can double as a flashlight or even a way to unwind in camp once the lights have gone out. Plus, if you find yourself on the river early or after dark, a little extra visibility never hurts!
Bring more sunscreen than you would bring to the beach. And make it strong (your inner thighs will thank you).
Sitting in a canoe is an unnatural position. You’re frozen at one angle for most of the day, meaning that certain parts of you—your neck, nose, shoulders, tops of your feet, and inner thighs—will see more steady sunlight than they’re used to. Slather sunscreen on in the morning. Add some during the day. Put more on at lunch. Add a dab every 30 minutes and you’ll be the only one not complaining on day 3.
Supplement your sunscreen game with a straw gardening hat. Seriously. These hats are absolutely perfect for prolonged sun exposure, they’re waterproof, and they look awesome. A wide-brimmed gardening hat is a tool on the river, and one that you won’t care about getting wet or ruined. Beat it up. I promise you’ll love that hat by the time your river trip is over.
You can’t always tie everything down, but clip the important stuff to the inside of your canoe with carabiners. You don’t need climbing approved, load-bearing clips, just something to keep everything in place. You can’t a 4-pack of serviceable clips on Amazon for $8, which is enough to keep your dry bag, water bottle, day bag, and anything else secured.
I love BUFFS. These versatile bandanas are the perfect hiking, biking, and make a great river accessory.
The soft cloth is comfortable for all-day wear, has sweat wicking for when you really dig in with your paddle, and can do a lot. BUFF carries a UV/insect protection bandana, a slim fit, headband, thermal, windproof, and a variety of other weather specific options for winter, summer wind, snow, rain, and shine.
Turn it inside out and tie a knot to make an impromptu sack for your snacks or discarded t-shirt. Wipe your sunglasses dry, wipe the sweat from your face, wipe the guck off your paddle handle. Bring at least one (you’ll wipe a lot of stuff on any river trip).
You’ve already got your dry bag for your clothes, and your mini dry bag for your tech, but what about the day to day stuff? The last thing you want to do is open up a dry bag on the river, but sometimes you need frequent access to certain items. Take them out of your main bag and keep them within arms reach at your hip so you don’t have to search for stuff like sunscreen, chap stick, or your extra BUFF while you’re paddling.
Running or dog walker fanny packs are great for river trips because they’re typically small, comfortable, functional as hell, and prioritize hands free use. The MyCarbon fanny pack even has a collapsible water bottle holder, elastic straps, and a reflective strip for high visibility. Perfect for the river.
I always kept a few granola bars, chapstick, mini tripod, and sunscreen in my fanny pack, and I used them all every single day.
I read somewhere that you’re not allowed to write about a river trip without quoting Mark Twain, so, just to cover my bases, here are all the “river quotes” you can pull up on the internet in five minutes. You’re welcome.
“No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” — Heraclitus
“I chatter, chatter, as I flow / To join the brimming river / For men may come and men may go / But I go on forever.” — Tennyson
“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.” — Herman Hesse, Siddartha
“It is a strange study—a singular phenomenon, if you please, that the only real, independent & genuine gentlemen in the world go quietly up and down the Mississippi river, asking no homage of any one, seeking no popularity, no notoriety, & not caring a damn whether school keeps or not.” — Mark Twain, 1866