Source to sea, the standup paddling edition
Dave Cornthwaite is a British adventure traveler and founder of the Expedition1000 project, the goal of which is to raise over a million British pounds for charities. To do so, Cornthwaite is undertaking 25 separate, nonmotorized journeys of 1,000 miles or longer around the globe. Expedition1000 has so far taken him 3,618 miles across Australia on a longboard skateboard, 1,479 miles down the Murray River in Australia by kayak and 1,396 miles from Vancouver to Las Vegas on a tandem bicycle. His future plans include cycling across North America and paragliding over through the Himalayans.
Cornthwaite is currently travelling the entire 2,300-mile length of the Mississippi River on a standup paddleboard (SUP). On June 20, he put in at the Mississippi Headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota and began his journey south. Silent Sports contributor Scott Mark caught up with Cornthwaite on a short break in the Twin Cities to talk about standup paddleboarding, gear choices, expedition planning and life on the Big River.
Silent Sports: Why paddleboarding?
Dave Cornthwaite: When I was sent a paddleboard for the first time by a guy that knew I had this curse upon me, he was completely right. Within five minutes I knew I had to do a journey on it. It's just beautifully simple. You've got a much better view than you do in a kayak or a canoe. It's better for your body. It works out everything from the ankles up, whereas in a kayak you'll finish a journey and you'll be like "Where have my legs gone?" And I just find it more fun, there's more freedom. I can just move around. In a kayak you need to separate your stuff into different bulkheads. In this, I pack my bags, I put one in the front, one in the back, I strap them on and I'm on my way. It's simple. It's beautiful. I really can say I've never had as much fun as I am on this journey. And I feel fitter than I ever have before.
SS: And you find it easier than you would in a kayak?
DC: Oh, for sure, yeah. Because you're straining just half your body in a kayak. I can put my whole body into it. I'm actually paddleboarding faster than I could kayak, I think.
SS: I suppose you can reposition more, and your not stuck in one position all day.
DC: I'm an awful dancer. I've got no rhythm at all. But I feel like I'm dancing on a standup paddleboard. I'm just jumping around and moving my feet. I'm really enjoying exercising every part of me. You feel like you're putting everything into it, and there's reward for it.
SS: You've been on a few different long distance expeditions by now. How do you feel standup paddling the Mississippi is going compared to BoardFree UK, your first long distance outing?
DC: Yeah, that was 34 days on the road in the UK, which was probably just the worst place to travel on a road in the world. So that was my warm up, that was my first endurance expedition. I was pretty green and naive. I had the same determination, I knew I was going to make it, but it was a lot more painful for me because I didn't know how to look after my body. My blisters got enormous. There's a lot more impact travelling by skateboard than there is by paddleboard.
So the big difference is I'm enjoying this one a lot more because it's on water. For my first two skateboard journeys, in the UK and Australia, I had a team with me, which is brilliant in some aspects but also a lot harder. You lose the freedom that an individual solo journey affords you, and that's what I truly love about these things. You get away, you know? There's no mailman posting me tax returns. I am completely out of the way, doing everything.
I've mellowed since BoardFree. I was very determined and pretty uptight, mainly because I decided to do it because I was unhappy. I still had a shred of that unhappiness in me back then, I am perfectly happy right now.
SS: So what is a typical day like?
DC: Every day brings its own surprises and challenges, but I'll wake up in the morning in my tent. Usually I'll press snooze twice because I can. Six o'clock usually, unless I've got a really big day ahead and maybe I need to get to a talk, which is rare, I haven't put too many deadlines in my schedule. I'll be on the water by half past seven. I love that I know exactly where everything is in my two dry bags now. If I need something I'll just put my hand in with my eyes closed and I'll come out with it. Yeah, so I know my home. Its been three weeks on the river and it feels like I'm Kevin Costner in "Waterworld" now.
At the beginning of the day, I'll just go hard for two hours and get 10 miles under the belt. Then I'll pull over, make a quick coffee on the Jetboil and maybe sit for 15 to 20 minutes. I'll check emails and make sure there's nothing outstanding to do.
There's two sides to this project. There's the journey, which is almost completely for me. And then there's the "sharing the journey," the administrative side, looking after my sponsors who've made it possible. And yeah, just letting people know what's going on and trying to be funny with it. I don't want to be too boring and you know, "Look, I saw some trees today." I cook up some little jokes and share some interesting things.
That's what makes a journey, right? It's not the day-to-day stuff, it's the "Wow! An otter just grunted at me for five minutes and then got up on my board! What the hell does it think its doing?"
SS: Is that a true story?
DC: Yeah! Incredible. I think this is maybe where I let myself down, only slightly in terms of knowledge. I just enjoy being with wildlife but I learn as I go along on a journey. So I've never seen beaver or otter in the fur before, so this otter was playing and I was doing (a little filming) and I was like "It's a beaver!" I didn't post it! I just realized what I fool I was later on when I was editing it. And I was like "That's clearly an otter, Dave." I just got too excited.
SS: Can you run through a short list of some of the key items you've got with you and how you carry them on a paddle board?
DC: First of all, the paddleboard is the key ingredient here. It's a Lakeshore River Rover board that's 14-foot long and 32-inches wide, which is for me about three inches wider than your average 14 footer. It's excellent for carrying kit and its really stable and high up in the water. It's got a displacement hull so it flies me along. Also, because of its width and stability, its less strain on my legs. Standing up for three months is the big challenge here. And its a brilliantly simple way to travel. You've got your board, your paddle and then all of your kit literally just on top of the board. It's beautiful. Its just a real pleasure to camp that way.
Then I've got my dry bags. I've got two big ones, a 75 liter and a 50 liter, one in the front, one in the back. The heavier one is slightly towards the back. All of my kit within those dry bags is within a smaller dry bag so everything has got double moisture protection.
I've got my tent, my hammock, my sleeping bag, roll mat. I've even got a little travel pillow. I hate being absolutely exhausted and then sleeping on a folded up jumper with creases. Getting a good night of sleep is more important than pretty much anything else.
SS: What are you doing for food and cookware?
DC: I've got a little stove, a Jetboil. They are just brilliant. They save time and I really try to make my time as efficient as possible. I pick up my food and resupply in towns, so I'm carrying 10 days worth of food at any given time. No dehydrated foods. Just don't need it. There's no point. I mean, just pick up a packet of pasta in the supermarket and its no lighter or heavier than anything I could pay four times as much for just because it has "Expedition" written on the packet.
I have a big meal at the end of each day, but just snack from when I wake up all the way through. I'm burning, depending on the heat and the headwinds, anywhere between 5,000 and 9,000 calories a day so I need to keep eating. And a variety is really important. There's nothing worse than snacking for two months on exactly the same food. It's horrible. It makes you feel like you never want to eat again.
SS: What about any clothing that has worked particularly well? Do you have rain gear?
DC: Obviously its very hot and humid, and conditions are going to worsen I suppose as the river goes down. I've got one waterproof paddling top, long sleeve. I have a slightly heavier jacket if its really stormy and cold. I don't expect to use that too much. I don't have anything über technical. I've got four T-shirts and cut the sleeves off two of them, so I still have something appropriate if I'm talking to children in schools. I have two pairs of boardshorts. I live in my boardshorts.
SS: How about footwear?
DC: I've been going barefoot. I've got some flip flops and, again, some proper shoes, and a pair of jeans as well, if I'm giving a talk in an upmarket place. When I'm on my board, I'm barefoot and I tend to be barefoot just tromping around, setting up camp as well. I've got skin like a rhino down there.
SS: What about electronics. Is there any tech gear you are relying on?
DC: I try to travel as light as possible but my kit, my tech, doubles my weight basically. I carry a MacBook Pro with me, a 13-incher. It is my office and goes absolutely everywhere with me. I love the creativity that these journeys allow. Every single day there's new content. So I'll pull over and I'll edit videos, I'll film. I've written three books on that computer.
My phone is an HTC Evo. It doubles as my wireless router so I can do the little Twitter and Facebook as I go and check my emails, too. Then I've got an SLR camera, a Canon 500D. It's not the biggest or the best, but it's how you use it. That's got HD footage capabilities, too. That's what I use for most of my filming.
I've got a GoPro, which is also 1080 HD. And if anyone is traveling and they want to film their stuff, GoPro is the way to go. If I'd have one choice, I'd take it over anything. The GoPro is absolutely marvelous. A nice wide angle fish eye lens, but if your just at arm's length, you can do a perfectly good piece to camera with it, too. So that's absolutely magic; its invaluable.
I need to charge it all, so I've got a few little things from a company called Power Traveler. One's a clamshell solar panel that charges up another large ion battery. One full charge of that battery can power 100 percent of my MacBook Pro, it can charge my phone, it can charge all of my cameras. Absolutely everything. So that's nice - and light, considering what it does. I also have a smaller thing, also by Power Traveler, called a PowerChimp, which will recharge AAA batteries. I put those in my GPS, which marks down exactly how far I've traveled each day, and my average speed, etc. So I try to keep focused with that so I don't get lazy.
I've got a Spot Tracker, which just pings a little satellite tracker on my website so people can follow pretty much where I am. It's good for my Mum as well so she knows I'm alive if I press the button at night.
All in all, its a lovely setup. I don't carry anything I don't need. The only things I carry just in case are a roll of duct tape and cable ties. You can pretty much fix anything with cable ties and duct tape.
SS: What's something you've had to do on your trip so far with cable ties?
DC: On previous trips I've had the end of a hammock tree line break, so just used a cable tie instead. Incredible. They can hold 300 pounds.
SS: Are there any milestones downriver you are anticipating?
DC: I visualize myself reaching the Gulf. I have no idea what it looks like, but its part of the process to get psychologically prepared for a distance like this. I know that's going to happen in a couple of months. I'm looking forward to Memphis and New Orleans, you know. The big towns.
Apart from that, I haven't done a huge amount of research about the river on the way down. I prefer to do that day to day. Otherwise I've just got the whole thing mapped out and its not an adventure. If I know where I'm going to stay, that takes away from it. I'd rather wake up each morning and not know where I'm going to rest my head that night. That turns it into a proper journey for me. So I'm just looking forward to every day. I honestly can't say that there's one thing I'm driving to. That tends to make me think about a week ahead and keeps me focused.
SS: You've been around the world at this point on some of these expeditions. What are some exciting locations you would recommend other outdoor enthusiasts check out?
DC: Australia is a real challenge once you get into the Outback. If someone wanted to have a maiden kayaking journey, I'd recommend Murray River in Australia. It's very slow. When I paddled it, it had been in drought so I paddled every single inch of that 1,500 miles. There was no current. But its a great river. Very simple.
Uganda in East Africa is possibly the most beautiful country I've ever been to, and the people are amazing. Its fairly arid up north and you've got some amazing lake systems, the River Nile, the mountains, the deepest lake in the world and the biggest lake in Africa. It's just a stunning spot and you can do all kinds of stuff there.
I'm going to come back to Minnesota in a summer, for sure. I try not to double up on places because there's too many places to go. Maybe in the summer I've been spoiled. I haven't seen Minnesota in the winter.
SS: You might want to check out the winter. It's kind of exciting.
DC: Well, I've got to dogsled, snowshoe, snow kite. I've got a few snow-driven options for my Expedition1000 project. So maybe I can bring one here. I'm cycling across the states next year from Vancouver, British Columbia, to New York, so I think I'm going to pull into Minnesota if I can. That would be nice.
SS: Tells us a bit about the charities you are supporting for this expedition and how people can help support those.
DC: I draw a really thick line between the cost of the expedition and the charitable donations. At any point if anyone donates, 100 percent goes straight to the charities. I support two and I've worked with them so I know that they use their money well. A huge chunk doesn't go on admin.
One is The AV Foundation, and I've been involved with them since I was 19. They basically work on infrastructure and drinking water systems in Eastern African communities and schools. And then CoppaFeel. A friend of mine, Chris, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 23 and she was misdiagnosed twice in the year leading up to that. By the time they caught it she was at Stage IV. So she set up CoppaFeel (to encourage people to) understand their bodies and if there are any abnormalities, make sure they are treated. It doesn't matter how busy a doctor is, your life is at stake here. And they are very quirky and clever with the way they do it. They have saved lives already and they continue to do more.
They're both really brilliant causes and very close to my heart.
SS: And what's the best way for people to help out?
DC: Directly online. If people just want to make a flat donation, there are links straight from the front page of my website. If you'd like to participate in a little game, either buy a section of my journey for a dollar a mile, or I've got a thing called "Dare Dave." You can dare me to do something on the river in return for a donation as equally severe as the dare.
SS: And who sets the price of the dare? Or is it a negotiation?
DC: My only rule is that it doesn't get in the way of the ethics of the journey. Someone dared me to eat curry in the middle of nowhere on the river cooked up on my Jetboil whilst listening to Indian music. I make a video or take a photo of each one of these challenges. They're quite funny. People should make an offer. There's a form on my website where they can say, "This is the dare and this is how much we're offering." I'll come back and say, "I'll do it if you give me another 15 bucks," you know, bang. So it's a bit of fun. that's another way to donate as well.
SS: Thanks for your time, and best of luck down the river.
Scott Mark is a trail ultrarunner and open water swimmer who lives in Roseville, Minnesota, with his wife and two boys. He can be found online at www.runlikemonkey.com. Dave Cornthwaite is keeping track of his Expedition1000 adventures on his website www.davecornthwaite.com. Links to the charities for which he's raising funds can be found there. You can also see his updates on Facebook (www.facebook.com/expedition1000) and Twitter (@DaveCorn).