Seven years ago, Edmonds’ Hank Landau put his kayak in the water at the mouth of the Columbia River, intending to paddle 145 miles upstream to Bonneville Dam.
A retired professional engineer, the 74-year-old Landau has a natural affinity for large, monumental structures of steel and concrete, but it was more than just that.
“As an engineer I didn’t study much history,” he remarked. “But when I became semi-retired I had the chance to read about Lewis and Clark and their amazing journey. I became very curious about how difficult it was. So after getting my family’s permission, I started planning to retrace the last leg of Lewis and Clark’s journey along the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam.”
And that was supposed to be it.
But somewhere along the way, the wanderlust bug bit him. By the time he got to Bonneville, Landau was already thinking about what lay beyond.
After spending the winter poring over maps, studying the accounts left by Lewis and Clark, and identifying critical points for put-in, take-out and portage, Landau and his son launched their kayaks just upstream of Bonneville Dam, beginning the second year of what would become a 4,000-mile, seven-year coast-to-coast odyssey along 12 of America’s most iconic rivers.
“I really had no idea it was going to end up like this,” laughed Landau. “But I just kept paddling and one section of river just led into the next.”
But it wasn’t all paddling. Many sections required portaging the boat for miles, an effort frequently completed by bicycle.
“I’d just put wheels under the kayak and pull it along,” he remarked.
The second year took Landau further up the Columbia, where his first major portage at The Dalles required some creative thinking to get around a mistakenly locked gate. Back on the water, he fought wind and current all the way to the Tri-Cities, where he called it quits for the season.
Year three was a big one for portages. Putting in at the Tri-Cities, Landau paddled upstream along the Snake to Lewiston and Clarkston, Idaho, where he pulled out and began the long trek across the continental divide tracing Lewis and Clark’s path to Fort Benton, Montana, on the Missouri River.
Back on the water the next spring, Landau put in at Fort Benton and followed the Missouri, ending the year’s journey in Pierre, South Dakota.
Year five took him from Pierre to the St. Louis Peace Arch. “At one time I thought this would be the end of journey, since that’s where Lewis and Clark set out,” he laughed. “But hey, I’d gone this far already, and wouldn’t it be great to make it to the Atlantic Ocean.”
Year six brought Landau back to St. Louis and down the Mississippi to the confluence of the Ohio, where flood conditions on both rivers forced a change of plans.
“I originally wanted to go up the Ohio to the Allegheny, then portage to the Erie Barge Canal and down the Hudson to New York City, but there was just too much water. Going with the current was great for covering lots of miles, but river conditions were just too hazardous to stick with that route,” he said. “So instead I picked up the Tennessee River at Paducah and took it south to Mobile, Alabama where I called it quits for the year.”
The final season began at Mobile Bay, and continued along the Gulf Coast inland waterway to the Florida panhandle, where Landau picked up the Suwannee River and headed inland toward the Okefenokee Swamp.
A 90-mile bicycle portage brought him through the swamp to Georgia’s Saint Marys River. The Saint Marys borders the Okefenokee on the east, and provided some of the most challenging episodes of the journey, including being attacked by floating colonies of fire ants, chased by alligators and pursued by swimming rattlesnakes. But the biggest challenge proved to be navigation.
“As long as I could see a current, I knew I was heading in the right direction, but the swamp and the river just merge in some places, and for a while I totally lost the current and didn’t know where I was,” he said. “After paddling around for a few hours I was able to detect a trickle of water moving in one direction, followed it, and luckily got back on course.”
Three days later, after 4,000 miles, 12 rivers and seven years, Landau reached the mouth of the river at Saint Marys, Georgia, only a few days ahead of the backwash from Hurricane Harvey.
“It was the adventure of a lifetime,” he said. “But the biggest joy to me at every stage of the trip was the incredible warmth, generosity and helpfulness of the people I met along the way. The people who invited me for meals, let me camp in their yards, provided me with transportation, directions and so much more will live in my memory as the high point of this adventure.
“But more than that, I can honestly say that I never would have been able to do this without the support of my friends, my children and especially my wife of 52 years, Joyce. She’s been patient with me all through this, and more supportive than I could ever have dreamed possible. She’s been making a list of things I can do to pay her back, and I plan to spend my next few years doing that.”
— By Larry Vogel