Often when paddlers buy their first kayak or canoe, they squeeze in a few miles on their local creek on weekends until being on the water becomes a full blown addiction with hours spent pouring over gear and training. But not one self proclaimed “Water Nomad” by the name Rich Brand. Able to count all of his paddling trips on one hand, he has over 7,000 miles of paddling under his PFD. Hailing from Clearwater Florida and making a life in Denver Colorado, Rich is more or less your average guy with a passion for life and a drive to meet and beat challenges. Starting on a 3 mile “random” paddle trip in New Zealand, Rich has only paddled a total of 4 times prior to 2017. Starting in 2014 he made the wholly rational choice to paddle the full length of the mighty Mississippi River .
Currently Rich is set to embark on the last leg of his most recent challenge, kayaking the Great Loop. The Great Loop is a 5000 to 6000 mile route often taken by sailboat or yacht that circumnavigates the East coast through a series of natural and man made waterways. Starting on January 3rd of 2016, Rich pulled out of New Orleans and paddled north along the East coast and with winter aproaching in the North East, finished up the first leg of the expedition in Portland, Maine in October of 2016. On April 28 2017, Rich will again be primed to set out on this final leg of the Great Loop. Picking up where he left off only 6 short months ago, Rich will paddle out of Portland, Maine and completing this gruelling trek in New Orleans, with the “possibility of finishing up in Key West”. An expedition that all but the hardiest of paddlers would shy away from, Rich is well aware of the challenges that lay ahead.
Rich will be leaving Portland, Maine and heading north where weather and wildlife aside, he may face his first major challenge, The Bay of Fundy. This bay which covers New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Canada, and a piece of Maine, USA is known for having some of the highest tidal ranges in the world. In 1975, the Guinness Book of World Records recorded that Burntcoat Head, Nova Scotia has the highest tides in the world. (Wikipedia) From here, things don’t get much easier. While the temperatures will be on the rise in the Northeast, the waters will still be cold, providing ample opportunity for thunderstorms and a possible Nor’easter. After rounding Nova Scotia Rich will head up the St. Lawrence river.
After braving massive ocean waves, strong currents, and unexpected storms, The St. Lawrence may seem like it will provide a respite from the ocean, however this will be 744 long miles covering 245ft of elevation of paddling that will be upstream fighting heavy currents. And more often than not he will be paddling into the prevailing winds. Spring storms and the start of boating season will bring their own challenges. Along the island of Montreal, there is about 3 miles of whitewater known as the Lachine Rapids that may need to be portaged. Along his trip up the St Lawrence, Rich will be stopping at Montreal and in Ottawa to visit his sponsors, the good folks over at Level Six.
As he finishes the St Lawrence river section, he enters the first of the great lakes, Lake Ontario. He will follow the Canadian coasts along Lake Ontario and Lake Erie with various stops along the way. The only route between Lake Ontario and Erie is the ever powerful Niagara River. As Rich approaches the mouth of the lower Niagara River, he will quickly be overpowered by a river discharging about 200,000cfs of water. Should he be able to muster up the super human strength required to paddle up the river, within a few short miles he would encounter the runout from some of the world’s largest rapids in the world. And should he make it past these rapids, he would still be faced with a 190ft climb up the world famous Niagara Falls. Unfortunately for Rich, he is not super human. Though as of now Rich has no solid plan as of yet, he has assured me that he will “not take any unnecessary risks” on this stretch.
But this is the 21st century and fortunately there are number of options such as the Welland canal in Canada or the Erie canal in New York State. These would bypass all 36 miles and 395 ft of the Niagara River sending him on his way near the mouth of Lake Erie. From here his route keeps him along the Canadian side of the lake.
However, he has no set route yet for Lake Huron. It’s likely that he will follow the Detroit River to the St. Claire river. He does have plans to take in the sights at Pictured Rock National Lakeshore before heading down Lake Michigan on the Wisconsin side. When reaching the city of Chicago, Illinois Rich will be taking a few well deserved days off. This will also mark the end of the great lake stretch. And for those unfamiliar with the greatest lakes, this is no easy stretch. Storms out here form fast, drop buckets of water, and turn these lakes into angry seas.
From Chicago he’ll set out on the last stretch of the Great Loop and for the first time in over 2000 miles, Rich will finally have a chance to let the water do some of the work, paddling the Illinois River south to St Louis where he will catch up with the mighty Mississippi River. From here he just follows the river to New Orleans sometime around January of 2018, completing nearly 4000 miles on this trip alone.
I recently had the pleasure to talk with Rich a bit about his past experiences. This is what he had to say.
—Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I am a lot of things. I don’t like to pigeon hole myself by one definition. I am an adventurer, a motivator, a photographer, a designer, a mountain man, the oldest son and brother, a best friend, and a romantic with a touch of driven passion for getting the absolute best out of this little life we get to live. I created my own design company and photography company out of college. I wanted to do something to make a difference in this world. I created cycling jerseys for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the teams that rode their Bike MS events. My best friend, Jennifer, has MS. I created my company to do my part through designs, to help raise more money to help the MS Society out. If they do well, hopefully they can help my friend in the long term. My photography has been a passion since high school. I looked to capture the images or scenes rarely seen in people and events.
In 2010, I motorcycled the western part of the US. I was living in Colorado at the time. In 2013, I motorcycled all states north, south, and east of Colorado. I finished up in Oklahoma completing my trip through all the lower 48 states on my Suzuki RF900. In 2014, I took on the Mississippi River. I paddled from source to sea in over 4 months. In 2015, I paddled from Seattle to San Diego on the Pacific Ocean. That was challenging and taught me many life lessons. Last January 03, I left New Orleans and set out on the journey I am currently on. I made it to Portland, Maine on October 15th. I called it there because I did not want to risk the weather in the northeast with winter approaching.
—Have you had any specialized training or skills that prepared you for such expeditions?
I grew up on the water in Florida. I learned you have to have an absolute respect for the water or it will take you in the blink of an eye. I did not have any specialized water training. I did have mental training through a lifetime of endurance events including 5 marathons. The distance did not phase me. I just looked at it as a start and finish line. I learned a lot just by paddling. All the physical skills can be learned. I found that the emotional, mental, and psychological games were much tougher.
—So tell us a bit about the 7000+ miles you have already paddled.
This really began on the Mississippi River. I had not taken on a task like that before and all my friends and family thought I was crazy. I simply believed I could do it. I was fortunate to get sponsored with some gear as I was beginning to do talks with a younger generation and I was working to raise money for the Children’s Hospital in Colorado. When I was in Prescott, Wisconsin, I remember talking with the local dock master. He asked me if I had heard of the Great Loop. I had not and he began to tell me about it. He told me that sailors and yachts usually did it. I told him I had a kayak. He told me kayakers do not do that. I looked at him and then said, “Well then, I will do it”. I paddled the rest of the Mississippi River. I remember being bittersweet when I reached the Gulf of Mexico. I knew that paddling the Great Loop would take some time planning and raising the funds.
I was not ready for it the following summer, but I craved adventure. I did not want to sit around that summer and not do anything. I got on Google Maps and began to look around. I was looking at the Great Loop route. I realized I would be doing it. I looked to the west coast. I thought it would be fun to paddle that coast too. So, I committed to doing the west coast then. I was going to self fund my trip and use the gear I had from the Mississippi River. I was in an “expedition” kayak, but I don’t think it was meant to take the beating the Pacific Ocean can hand to you. I picked up all the safety gear, including a dry suit and tracker/beacon. I had no ocean experience, but I believed I could do it.
The Pacific was rough. I would not do it again. I nearly lost my life 5 different times due to not being able to breath under water. I faced beat down days, isolation, depression, and hard times as I struggled with the gear and my own lack of experience. I acknowledge that I probably should not have done it, but I did. Along with the hard times, I had some of the most beautiful experiences one can have. I met the most amazing people, I danced on the water with dolphins, seals, whales, otters, and big fish (including big men in grey suits). My struggles developed my grit, my perseverance, my fight, and will to survive. I had some of the largest adrenaline rushes of my life on the waters of the Pacific. I would not trade those experiences or lessons for anything
The latest expedition brought me along the Gulf of Mexico, through the Everglades, the Keys, and up the east coast of the United States. Again, I met the best people and experienced this country in a way most never will. I do not take that for granted and I appreciate each and every day.
—I know you finished 3000+ mile trip about 6 months ago. Tell us a bit about that.
I paddled out of New Orleans on Jan. 03, 2016 and finished up in Portland, Maine on Oct. 15th. I don’t know if I have even had the time to wrap my head around it yet. I met some of the most amazing people. I was hosted by over 70 strangers, invited into many family bbq’s and was able to see the east coast in an amazing way. Each state had its own unique attributes. Each new day was a new opportunity for amazement and it did not disappoint. I saw more wildlife, large and small. Each day felt like a gift. The miles just seemed to pass easily as I moved north. I took off time to meet up with friends in Mobile, Clearwater, Miami, Jacksonville, Savannah, Camp Lejeune, DC, NYC, and Boston. I knew a lot of old friends, but I made so many more along my journey. That became the highlight of all the miles. I know that there is a lot more, I just have not had time to reflect on it.
-This being such a long paddle, do you have plans to make any stops?
I chose this route instead of paddling up the Hudson River out of NYC because of my friends along the route. I will be stopping in Maine, Halifax, Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Buffalo, Watertown (NY), Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago. I have friends in all those cities. It will be good to see them and any new friends I make along the way.—And why you’ve taken up such a hardcore paddle?
I do not look at it as much as a “hard core paddle” as much as it is an opportunity to see our planet via the waterways. I see the opportunity to inspire other paddlers by showing them what is possible. I hope to be an inspiration to a younger generation. You can not inspire from sitting on the couch.
—Are you promoting any cause?
Specifically, no. I am promoting the upsides to getting out to explore our world. I want to show other what it is like out there, to show the amazing locations, and the amazing people that are everywhere. Ultimately, I would like to be able to travel the country talking to kids. I am trying to be the male role model I wish I would have known when I was a kid. I have been through challenging times in life and learned to overcome them. I believe anything is possible. You just have to figure out the ‘how’.
—Is this just to challenge yourself?
It is not just a challenge to myself. I am looking at the bigger picture in life. Completing the next 4,400 miles (give or take who cares) will come with its own challenges. I will have the opportunity to reach young kids, teenagers, and adults to share not only my stories of life on the water, but the life lessons you get on long term expeditions. My aquatic nomad lifestyle provides an unique opportunity to inspire from a completely different perspective.
—After paddling 7000 miles you must have learned some lessons. And maybe some tricks. Tell us about a few
Of the harder lessons you’ve learned that will help you out on this new adventure of yours.
•I have learned I am still not good at breathing under water. The Pacific Ocean tested me a lot on that with the surf and big waves.
•I have learned, if it has more teeth and is bigger than I am to leave it alone.
•I have learned that regardless of how tough things can be, they will pass and to NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER GIVE UP!!
• I have learned that a big smile, good eye contact and a firm handshake goes a long way.
•I have learned that 99.9% of the people out there are good and are kind with their time, knowledge, and support. That and there are heroes out there everywhere. You just have to be able to talk with strangers to find this out.
—Any tricks you’ve found that has improved your long distance paddling?
I was not a big paddler before these expeditions. I have found that proper nutrition and caloric intake is essential.
Knowing you are in for a long haul is so much easier when you break down the days, miles, and daily goals. I have not paddled just 7,000 miles, but rather hundreds of 20-30 mile paddles.
Keep your eye on the prize. Stay dedicated. There will be bad days or zero mile days and that is OK. Sometimes life sets you up for success in ways you do not understand. That makes each day a gift.
—Any issues that you’re anticipating on this trip?
Here is a list of the issues I am preparing myself for handle:
• Lack of landing zones with the potential to have to paddle further than expected
• The tides in the Bay of Fundy
• Wildlife (friendly and not so friendly)
• Paddling against heavy currents on the St. Lawrence River
• Weekend boat traffic on the Great Lakes
• Getting in and through the big cities
• Potential early winter on Lake Michigan
• Violent fall and early winter weather along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.
That being said, I am as fully prepared as I can be. I have a grit and resilience second to none. I keep up to date on tides and the weather. I know when to get off the water. I have a Level Six dry suit, a great PDF, marine radio, and satellite tracker if I was to get in a real bad spot. I am also one that will take responsibility for my choices and actions. I believe I can do this and am going after it.
-Any hazards or concerns with weather in the north Atlantic?
I am aware that there could be a Nor’easter that could get me in the early stages. I will adjust accordingly. I will be mindful of the tides and how the ocean is acting as I move north. While it may warm up, the water can still kill you. I will be in proper layers and a dry suit most of this next journey. You truly have to dress for the water, not the air. I know that the St. Lawrence River has the opportunity to provide some challenging areas. I will make sure I listen to sound local advise as I move up it.
—Anything you’d like say to young paddlers out there?
Everything is possible. You just have to figure out the “how”. Chasing your dreams is not always the easiest, but, I promise you, it is worth it. Just because something has not been done, does NOT mean it can not be done. Wear sunscreen. You will thank yourself in 30 years. Trust yourself with this journey in life. Your strength comes from more than your muscles, it comes from with in your guts. Your smarts come from more than books. Experience is something you can not read about. Your tenacity and attitude will determine your true success in life. Be ready to help someone in a time of need. Just because today is not your day, does not mean tomorrow will not be.
—And any websites or a go fund me page that you me to add.
A paddle expedition of a lifetime. Rich will be passing rather close to my “backyard” along the Niagara River. I hope to catch up with Rich in person and get an update on this epic journey.