Coast To Coast
A Wallingford Kayaker Takes The Long Way, 4,500 Miles Along The Shore From Washington To Maine
June 05, 2001|By MICHAEL KODAS; Courant Staff Writer
PORTLAND, Maine — With more than 4,500 miles behind him and only one to go, a headwind blasting off the waterfront tries to blow Mike Falconeri back out into the Atlantic Ocean.
“It’s the last puff in my face,” he says, wrestling his paddle into the gusts to drive his kayak through the chop and spray. “This trip just doesn’t want to let go of me.”
But for two years, it has been Falconeri — a kayaking instructor from Wallingford — who wouldn’t let go of his trip, a first-ever paddle from Washington state to Maine along the Pacific, Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States.
His first attempt, in 1999, ended in a whirlpool, just weeks into his paddle off the Washington coast.
“I thought for sure I was dead on that one,” he says. “I was trying to get into shore and the surf was huge. I couldn’t see where I was going to land or anything.”
He paddled toward a cliff, hoping it would break up the relentless 20-foot seas. Instead he found himself in a swirling collision of currents that sucked his boat straight down into the roiling surf, spat it back out, then sucked it in again.
“[A boat] 18 feet long, cartwheeling,” he recalls. “Then I rolled back up and I was still surfing, then I rolled back up and I was going backward back into the hole.”
Dizzy from the cartwheels and Eskimo rolls, Falconeri was forced to abandon the kayak. He held onto his paddle as the current began to drag him out to sea. In a dumping wave that nearly pulled the paddle from his hands, he learned he could paddle himself shoreward inside the curls of the crashing waves.
It took half an hour to paddle and swim to shore. His kayak eventually washed up a few hundred feet away.
After several days paddling the 20-foot seas and nights camped between the crashing surf and the sea cliffs, Falconeri reached the Quinault Indian Reservation on Cape Elizabeth, Wash. He ended his trip there.
Nineteen months later, on May 30, as he rounds Cape Elizabeth, Maine, at the end of his second attempt, a lobster boat pulls alongside him in the blowing surf.
“I just wanted to ask you how bad it had to get for it to stop being fun?” the skipper shouts down.
“That happened a while ago,” the paddler shouts back, chuckling, but he doesn’t seem too eager to move any faster.
Falconeri, 41, bought his first kayak more than 20 years ago as a way to stay fit for motocross racing. He soon found himself spending more time in his slow boat than on his fast motorcycles.
“I realized there was a lot to see out here that I had been missing ’cause I was going so fast,” he says. He founded his own company, Urban Eskimo Kayaking, to teach kayaking skills and guide paddlers.
The goal of his Sea America Expedition, the name he gave his circumnavigation of the United States, was to take an in-depth look at the condition of the country’s oceans and coastline, and to promote their protection.
“A kayak travels slow and is about as low an impact as you can make,” he says. “The only way you know I have been somewhere is from the imprint left by my tent on the sand.”
Last July, Falconeri was back on the Washington coast. This time, he was better prepared. The American Oceans Campaign, an environmental organization, agreed to help promote his cause. In Connecticut, Nancy Lovelace, his business partner, assisted with planning and logistics. (Falconeri received donations of supplies and equipment and spent about $30,000 of his own money.)
On July 2, amid the dances and ceremonies of Chief Tahola Day, his friends on the Quinault reservation gave him a tribal sendoff back into the surf.
He finds it appropriate that the Native Americans gave him his first lessons about America’s coastline.
He visited the Makah Indians in Washington before their controversial hunt of gray whales in May 1999, and the Quinault during their struggle to maintain the traditional salmon fishery that has been depleted by the dams upstream from the reservation.
“A lot of the younger people in the tribes don’t want to hunt the whale anymore. They don’t want to fish anymore. It’s too much work. They just want to set up a casino,” he laments. “But the fishing nets are passed down through generations. It’s how they have passed on their way of life.”
In Northern California, he mistook humpback whales broaching the water behind him for an incoming thunderstorm. In the great-white breeding ground there, a shark swallowed a pelican near his boat.
His trip continued with occasional breaks, none lasting longer than a few days. When Falconeri reached Mexico, Lovelace brought him his truck, and they traveled overland with the kayak to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he entered the Gulf of Mexico. He reached Connecticut about a month ago, took a two-week hiatus and began the last leg of his expedition.