5 Long Distance Paddle Routes

Long-distance adventures have steadily gained allure as travelers seek out new ways to test their strength, dedication, and endurance. Hiking and biking tend to be the most popular ultra-distance excursions, but canoeing and kayaking are quickly becoming a destination to spend weeks or months away from the buzzing urban centers that most of us call home. The dream for some of these rambling cruisers is to load up the old canoe with camping gear, food, beer, and other necessities, then let the river carry them downstream for a couple of months while leaning back and lazily plunging their paddles into the water every few minutes.

It might seem easy to not have to worry about pack-weight, blisters, water access, or flat tires, but long-distance paddling presents a whole new set of challenges. Wind alone can delay paddlers for days and a lot of river routes require boaters to go through locks that raise and lower water levels. Aside from that, boaters must find a way to secure all of their gear whenever they need to go in to town to re-supply. The thru-paddling world isn’t a booze-cruise like some prospective adventurers hope, but rather, an endurance event like any other. In case you’re getting starry-eyed, here are a few of the more popular long distance paddle routes in the US.

The Northern Forest Trail
Typically referred to as the water-version of the Appalachian Trail, The Northern Forest Trail traces early Native American and settler history for 740 miles through the Adirondacks and Northern New England. Paddlers usually start in the west and head east so that the majority of their paddling is downstream. It’s not all an easy float though. The NFT cuts through 56 lakes and ponds, 22 rivers and streams, and requires paddlers to make 62 portages which total about 55 miles. People are drawn to this route for its scenery as well as the accommodations along the banks, having either a campsite or lodging every 15 miles. The route starts in New York, then crosses through Vermont, Quebec, New Hampshire, and finally ends in Maine.

The Missouri
Paddlers of the Missouri normally don’t follow the river all the way from its source in northern Montana to the Mississippi and onward to the Gulf of Mexico, but it has been done by a very select few. Rather, explorers of the Missouri are usually out to follow the 149 miles of the Katy Trail which is a protected wilderness that also boasts a bike trail parallel to the river. Along the way, paddlers camp next to old homesteads, fur trade sites, and steamboat landings. Being the same river that led Lewis and Clark further west, the Missouri is quite attractive to the modern explorer, but most choose to take the easy route and cruise downstream instead.

The Mississippi
At 2,320 miles in length, the Mississippi is the paragon river for ultra-distance thru-paddling in the US. The Mississippi is the 5th largest river in the world by volume and ranges in width from 5 feet to over a mile. True thru-paddlers will start at Lake Itasca in Minnesota (the source of the Mississippi) and cover every mile by boat until they reach the Gulf of Mexico. Since the river starts out so small, paddlers have to deal with a lot of obstacles before clear pastures of flowing water are before them. Ducking through culverts and dragging canoes through marshy channels is not uncommon in the upper Mississippi. Once the river finally opens up, the challenge is the headwinds. Hardened, barrel-chested paddlers will arrive in the southern bayous about 4 to 5 months after their initial departure, fully prepared to slap gators with their paddles and enter the warm Gulf waters.

The Florida Circumnavigational Trail
This route is often referred to as a 1,515 mile kayaking paradise. Paddlers of the Circumnavigational Trail float through 37 aquatic preserves, 47 state parks, 20 national parks, and countless seashores, wildlife refuges, and marine sanctuaries. The CT takes kayakers east from Alabama, around the peninsula of Florida, and north to the border of South Carolina. Following the shoreline, the CT also passes through a variety of urban centers, so the weary traveler will be able to enjoy a warm beach town between campsites. This tropical thru-paddle route features barrier island dune systems, salt marshes, mangroves and tours the everglades. For the sun-loving kayaker, it is the quintessential paddle route.

The Tanana
Paddling the Tanana’s 600 miles is mostly a feat undertaken by both enthusiasts of wildlife and curious socialites. This Alaskan tributary of the Yukon runs 600 miles from Northway to the small village of Tanana. Daily Wildlife sightings are almost a guarantee on this remote route and include a lot of bear and moose. The route vacillates between mucky, hilly or mountainous and passes through a variety of different indigenous communities. Natives are typically excited to see these adventurers and native elders are known for being eager to share their cultural history and relationship with the river. The Tanana is a cultural experience as well as a test of endurance. Traveling at 7 to 15 miles an hour, this trail takes about 4 weeks to complete.

By Robin Johnson