Hank Landau often wishes he’d been born during the age of exploration.
Oh, to have been a member of the Lewis and Clark party headed west to the Pacific Ocean, he said. “A trip of magnificent accomplishment.”
To get a feel for what it was like, Landau, 71, spent the past several years kayaking and bicycling the route of Meriwether Lewis’ return from the mouth of the Columbia River to St. Louis, Mo.
The mostly retired engineer prepared physically. He researched and studied Army Corps of Engineers maps. He calculated his camping needs for the journey, which he took in five phases.
He invited his sons and an old friend to join him at certain points of the trip. His wife, Joyce, helped out from their home in Woodway, sending packages and keeping him informed.
“The idea was selfish at first,” said Landau, who has biked across the country, from west to east and from north to south and kayaked for more than 20 years.
“Then it evolved into a greater purpose. It forced me to rethink the history of Native Americans and to bring to light the immense changes to the rivers of our country.
“As you get older, your capacity to learn actually increases because you rely on your knowledge and your background,” he said.
In the summer of 2008, Landau’s goal was simple: Start out from Fort Clatsop near Astoria and kayak about 130 miles to the Bonneville Dam.
“I picked a week with rain and a head wind to paddle up river,” he said. “I wasn’t particularly optimistic as I encountered two-foot waves. But with my adrenaline pumping, I made it past the Astoria-Megler Bridge. I was very tired that first day.”
As he continued up the Columbia, he was struck by the absence of people along the river.
“These were areas where Lewis and Clark had encountered villages of people who helped them get out to the ocean. The river also was populated by fur traders, fishermen and then loggers,” Landau said.
“But for 40 miles, I saw almost no human activity. This was the sort of thing I reflected on for most of the trip.”
Early in his engineering career, Landau was involved in dam construction.
“I don’t remember thinking then about the impact we would have on fish and the native people,” he said. “There is a certain amount of guilt involved.”
At a recent engineering conference, Landau spoke to an audience about his kayak travels.
“I was surprised in the interest people took in what I had to say about the unintended consequences passed on to others.”
In the summer of 2009, Landau was back on the river in the beautiful Columbia Gorge. At the Dalles, his son Mike Landau helped with the portage around the dam. Landau’s double kayak is equipped with wheels, but it’s still an extra effort.
Landau rescued a windsurfer who took a dip in the river near the Tri-Cities. From there Landau headed up the Snake River, portaging around numerous dams, to Lewiston, Idaho, and the Clearwater River.
“This was the land of the Nez Perce tribe, who befriended Lewis and Clark and made their mission a success,” Landau said. “And then I reflected on Chief Joseph, resisting a forced move to a reservation and trying to get his people to Canada. The U.S. Cavalry killed 300 Nez Perce.”
He pulled off in the Clearwater River until the following summer, 2010, when he and son Mike did an extended 670-mile portage by bicycle over the Continental Divide following Lewis’ route to Fort Benton, Mont.
“When my children, Greg, Amy and Mike, were kids, I would encourage them on trips with cheers that we had only so many more miles to ride on our bikes,” Landau said.
“This time it was Mike saying, ‘it’s only another 1,000 feet, Dad, and I am so proud of you.’ That was my favorite moment of the trip.”
In 2011, Landau, a Vietnam veteran, took a break. “I have two artificial hips and a plate in my skull that I got when I was hit by a distracted driver while biking in New Jersey. I also had 15 broken bones and 750 stitches.”
Landau started up the journey again in the summer of 2012, heading down the Missouri River to Pierre, S.D., a stretch of about 1,000 miles over the course of about 28 days.
“It was remote, with great stretches of large reservoirs made difficult to traverse because of high wind and waves and scorching temperatures,” Landau said.
“I was followed by swimming rattlesnakes trying to get into the kayak and kept awake at night by beavers. It helps to be an old guy when you pull into a camp spot. Everybody wants to help.”
He had lost 25 pounds by the time he stopped at the Oahe Marina near Pierre.
The summer of 2013 marked the final 1,100-mile leg of the trip to St. Louis, just south of where the Missouri empties into the Mississippi River.
He saw deer and coyotes on the banks and swallows and pelicans in the air. His arms were bruised by Asian carp jumping out of the water. In Jefferson City, he had a near-hazardous encounter with a grumpy tugboat captain.
“This part of the Missouri (River) was used for commerce, but the towns are dying now with their industry,” Landau said. “Native habitat is being re-created, but the tribes no longer live here.”
At last, as he followed the river across the state of Missouri, it seemed to Landau that he would make it to St. Louis.
His final challenge, however, was maneuvering over a submerged dam north of the city, where Lewis and Clark had begun their trip in 1804. On the advice of a river guide, Landau decided to go over the spill. He managed to stay afloat in the rapids.
“The anticipation was the most frightening.”
When he got to St. Louis an hour later, Landau pulled his kayak up onto the old bricks that line the river bank below the Gateway Arch and the Jefferson Memorial.
“No one was there to greet me, but I felt good that I had finished a trip that included five rivers, 15 dams and 2,560 river miles,” he said.
“This summer, I am staying home.”
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.