John Connelly became the first person to link the Northern Forest Canoe Trail with the Maine Island Trail during a 1,500 mile, 75-day solo expedition. Paddle Quest 1500 began as an “expedition to inspire outdoor desire.” He wanted to encourage people to spend more time outdoors, get involved with conservation efforts and decrease time in front of computer screens. Followers were able to track his progress in real time and now Connelly has completed the first draft of a book about the expedition. He was just packing for another kayak trip when I caught up with him to ask him about his adventure of a lifetime.
WHY CONNECT A CANOE AND A KAYAK WATER TRAIL?
I was encouraged to do something special for my 60th birthday and I knew nobody had canoed the entire Northern Forest Canoe Trail and also kayaked the Maine Island Trail. Doing both of those would have been pretty big, but it wouldn’t have been epic. Connecting them, I thought, would be epic. It took me months to plan this trip. I wanted to go light enough that I could do all of my portages and carries making one trip. I got the lightest equipment that I could find, including my boats. My Wenonah Voyager canoe is 17.5 feet long and weighs only 32 pounds and my Stellar S18R kayak is 18 feet long and weighs just 38 pounds. I didn’t cut the handle off my toothbrush, but I came pretty darn close.
WHAT STANDS OUT THE MOST FROM THIS TRIP?
I paddled in more days of small craft warnings than you can believe. When I went around the gap between Cushing Island and Peak’s Island in Casco Bay, Maine, NOAA was wrong. The waves were already at four feet and starting to jack up. The wind had to be 20 to 25 mph and it was actually pretty gnarly. I realized that if one little thing went wrong, I’d be okay, but if two little things went wrong… not so sure. To say it was bumpy is an understatement. As it turns out, it really was a deadly storm. There was another sea kayaking party further back up the coast that ran into trouble. The guide and the two guests all went over and came out of their boats. Two of them died, including the guide.
WHO SAW THE IRONY OF USING TRACKING TECHNOLOGY?
I had a VHF radio, my iPhone 6S, my iPad Air 2 and I had my InReach Explorer. I would just set the tracking and forget about it. For me it was like it wasn’t happening. I didn’t interact with my devices except for navigation each day. I really enjoyed sharing the journey, inspiring people to get outdoors. I hoped that people would want to get out and paddle the waterways near them and get to know them. I had an interesting phenomenon on this trip and I call it the, Are You John Connelly Phenomenon. I ran into people in absolutely the middle of nowhere, people I knew. I learned that if I want to drop out of sight and be reclusive, I better not go to the woods.
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO GO SOLO?
From the beginning I thought it would be easier and be faster. Even when I’m recreational paddling, it’s just shy of race pace. And it was easier to plan for just one person. The only support team I had was my wife, Nicole. She actually met me nine times along the way. She brought me all my re-provisions and my supplies, for the most part. She was really my trail angel in that way, making sure I got my stuff. I really didn’t enjoy a lot of time away from Nicole, so I’m kind of thinking I want to do more expeditions, but I want her to come along. It’s got to be the right expedition in the right place. She doesn’t want to experience polar bears or crocodiles.
WHERE DO YOU GO AFTER COMPLETING THE TRIP OF A LIFETIME?
The next really big trip is our 16-day Colorado River trip in September. When I was dating Nicole, I promised that I’d take her down the Grand Canyon on a raft, and it’s time to make good on that promise, especially after abandoning her for 75 days on my expedition. I’d also really like to get to New Zealand, which of course has neither crocodiles nor polar bears. No matter where we go, I really loved being able to choose where I spent the night, having the freedom to live out of my boat and camp where I wanted to camp. There’s nothing better than living out of your boat for days and days at a time. I felt alone out there, but I never felt lonely.