Hank Landau, 74, of Woodway, has crisscrossed the country, and all of it at ground- or water-level.
He’d previously biked across the states from north to south and from west to east and had been a longtime kayaker. But since retirement from his engineering firm in Edmonds, Landau has spent much of his time planning for and executing a cross-country kayak and bicycle trip. The journey began in 2008 on the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River and ended this past summer at the mouth of the St. Marys River at the Atlantic Ocean.
He paddled through seven summers with only three breaks — in 2011 because of flooding on the Missouri River, in 2014 to prepare for the journey’s second half and in 2016 because of health issues. Landau plans to compile his journals for a book on the journey. The story of the first half of the trip ran in The Herald in 2014.
Landau is proud of his journey and is enjoying a rest.
“I had started and ended at sea level and reached a height of more than 7,000 feet during the portage of the Bitterroot Mountains. While retracing the route of Lewis and Clark, I observed real purple mountain majesties in Idaho and endless waves of grain in Montana and the Dakotas. While on the Missouri River, I came within 50 miles of Canada and this year I entered the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
“Along the way I had paddled and portaged (including around dams) from sea to shining sea — almost 4,800 miles on 19 waterways and rivers. I had touched 18 states and was touched by the history and beauty I encountered and by the gracious hospitality of many people.”
When you were a young man, did you ever think you might spend your retirement years kayaking and biking across the country?
Yes. As a teenager living in Hicksville, New York, I traveled to southern New Jersey by bicycle with a friend, a distance of 165 miles in one day. Later, my brother, a friend and I did a one-day trip in an old boat I’d bought with earnings from a paper route. We traveled past Hellsgate, down the East River, past the Statue of Liberty, out into the Atlantic Ocean, and down the Intercoastal Waterway.
The first half of your journey to St. Louis, was about Lewis and Clark and Native American tribes. What was the second half about?
I never intended a second half, but the first half hooked me. I enjoyed the adventure, the history and the beauty of our country and, curiously, both the solitude and the meeting of many interesting people along the way. I wanted more.
Why were your kids reluctant for you to keep going?
As my wife, Joyce, and I age we try to stay active. We find that the roles of parent and child are now reversed. Just as we wanted our children to seek adventure as long as it didn’t involve unreasonable risk, our children want the same for us. As you might expect, we sometimes differ on the definition of “reasonable.”
What were the prettiest and ugliest stretches of the journey?
The segments of the rivers I most enjoyed were the Snake River between the Tri-Cities and Clarkston/Lewiston, the Wild and Scenic part of the Missouri River below Fort Benton, the Tennessee River near the Land Between the Lakes, and the Suwannee River. I least enjoyed the Ohio River, although traveling upstream during flood stage and camping among dead and dying fish had something to do with that.
Worst day? Scariest? Best?
My worst day was on the St. Marys River when I became lost in a swamp for 10 hours with fire ants biting me as they climbed up my legs. My scariest days included when I mistakenly went over a dam on the Mississippi and had a near collision with a grumpy tug boat driver, then on the Tombigbee River when a rather large and agitated alligator charged me from the riverbank and, last, on the Suwannee River when I capsized, lost my glasses and couldn’t distinguish between tree roots and water moccasins. I had many best days — the quality of the day having much to do with the beauty I observed and the people I met.
Did you camp most of the journey or stay in lodging?
I slept in a tent or in my kayak, Whisper, most nights. It was nice to occasionally have a soft bed, a warm shower, good food and people to visit.
Talk about the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in Mississippi and Alabama.
Given that the Tenn-Tom Waterway is the largest earth-moving project ever undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers, larger even than the Panama Canal, surprisingly few people know about it. Before I started this journey I didn’t know, and I’m a civil engineer and was an officer with the corps during the Vietnam War. The Ten-Tom Waterway is a chain of natural and mad-made bodies of water along which there are 10 dams. It eliminates the need to travel on the Mississippi River when moving goods and people from the Midwest to the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The cost effectiveness of the Tenn-Tom is still questioned today.
How did you deal with the muggy heat?
I much prefer heat to cold and can tolerate hot muggy days up to the point when I run out of drinking water or when I am blinded by sweat dripping from my forehead.
How was kayaking in the Gulf?
I paddled about 330 miles in salt water from Mobile to the Econfina River at the western end of the Big Bend. The first 255 miles were in semi-protected waters along the Intercoastal Waterway. Along the way, the landscape changed from mostly high-end residences to sleepy fishing villages in the east. My time on salt water was not without some risks from waves, strong currents near inlets and almost daily rain and lightning storms.
Was it strange that people on the East Coast didn’t have a grasp on the enormity of your journey or how you did it?
I’m not sure if this was an East-West issue as much as it is an age and lifestyle issue. It seems to me that most people, especially the young, are wedded to their smart phones. I don’t expect people to be interested in what I am doing unless they are explorers themselves or enjoy using their imaginations to explore.
Who were some of the most interesting people you met on the journey?
While portaging near the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation, a Native American woman stopped her pick-up truck and offered to haul my kayak for me. Without being judgmental, she told me that white settlers had murdered her great grandfather. In contrast, I met a white man in Mississippi who used the “N” word to complain that it was black people who made him poor. In further contrast I stayed overnight with another poor white man in Tennessee who admitted he was poor because he had been lazy, but who vowed to pull himself out of poverty for the sake of his daughter.
Have you always been interested in history?
I wish I had been. It would have made me a better engineer and I never would have kidded my wife for being a history major.
If you could dine with anyone from American history, who would it be and why?
I figuratively crossed paths with many famous and infamous people on this trip, some whose bravery rivaled or even exceeded that of Lewis and Clark. I literally crossed paths with Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce, in both Idaho and Montana where he and his band tried unsuccessfully to escape the pursuing U.S. Cavalry. I wish I could have learned from him how he acted with such bravery and dignity as his world crumbled around him.
What local food from the trip would you like to eat again and what trail food would you never like to see again?
I developed a taste for grits, especially when served with spicy shrimp. I know Cliff Bars are supposed to be good for me, but I almost gagged whenever I ate them.
Do you still have Whisper? Why did you name her that?
The first Whisper, a double kayak actually was named by Eddyline, the Burlington kayak manufacturer. It served me very well from the Pacific Ocean to St. Louis, and is safe and sound on Lopez Island. Whisper II, a single-man kayak built by Current Designs, took me from St. Louis to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s in storage with the gracious people at St. Marys Boat Service near the Atlantic. I retained the name Whisper because of the music my kayak makes when it glides through the water.
What question should we have asked?
You didn’t ask about my wife. Joyce was very supportive and helped tremendously by advising me of upcoming weather and contacting places where I needed to stop along the way. But she was not above extracting concessions. This was my most difficult year and helping me placed Joyce under a lot of stress. When on the phone with her I would often hear, “You owe me big time.” I know I do.
Hank Landau’s Journey
2008: Fort Clatsop, Oregon, up the Columbia River to Bonneville Dam.
2009: From Bonneville to the Tri-Cities, then on the Snake River to Lewiston, Idaho.
2010: A bicycle “portage” of 670 miles with son Mike from the Clearwater River to Fort Benton, Montana.
2011: Off because of flooding on the Missouri River.
2012: Down the Missouri River to Pierre, South Dakota.
2013: Pierre down the Missouri to St. Louis.
2014: Planning the next leg.
2015: Down the Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois, up Ohio River, down Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers, waterway to Mobile, Alabama.
2016: Summer off for health reasons.
2017: Mobile along the Gulf of Mexico to the Ecofina River, by bike to the Suwannee River and another portage by bike to the St. Marys River and down to the coast.