After 70 days of paddling, through storms and sun, John Connelly of Falmouth kayaked into Kittery Harbor last week to celebrate the completion of PaddleQuest 1500, a 1,500-mile odyssey that linked four major water routes in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada.
The voyage, starting April 16 and ending June 24, may be the first time a paddler has connected the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, Saint John River, Bay of Fundy and Maine Island Trail, paddling all four in one continuous journey and traveling between waterways by portaging.
The trip took him through two countries, four states, 22 streams and 58 lakes.
“I experienced so many splendid, beautiful sunsets and sunrises,” Connelly said in a phone interview a few days after completing the voyage. “And I will never tire of the cry of the loon, to hear that in the night and to wake up to it is a beautiful thing.”
Connelly, who turned 60 in February, said the big trip was greatly inspired by the milestone birthday.
“I’m big on experiences as opposed to things,” Connelly said. “A hot tub [for my birthday] would have been nice, but I decided I’d like to do something truly epic.”
A highly experienced paddler, Connelly is the former leader of L.L.Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Schools, a former member of the US Canoe & Kayak team and has accomplished numerous whitewater first descents.
For years, Connelly had wanted to canoe the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail, as well as the Maine Island Trail, a 375-mile recreational waterway that spans the entire coast of Maine.
“I’d never had the time for it,” he explained. “In life, it’s always about timing.”
As his 60th birthday approached, the timing seemed to be perfect for the long and ambitious journey. His health was great, and his job as president and CEO of Adventurous Joe Coffee would allow him to take the months off he needed for the journey.
“I was thinking, ‘Well, I could paddle the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, then go to paddle the Maine Island Trail. … But wouldn’t it be far more epic to just keep going on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, switch over to a kayak and do the length of the Saint John River, paddle through the Reversing Falls of the Saint John and into the Bay of Fundy, then do the Maine Island Trail?’”
“That got me excited,” Connelly said.
As Connelly planned PaddleQuest 1500, it morphed into more than just a personal trip. It became what he calls “an expedition to inspire outdoor desire.” By sharing his trip through social media and on his website, paddlequest1500.com, Connelly hopes to inspire people to spend more time outdoors, citing the growing body of evidence that physical and mental health benefits can come from time spent in nature. Connelly also points out that outdoor experiences can lead people to develop a sense of stewardship for natural resources, such as clean, free-flowing rivers.
“I was really motivated to tell the story as I went,” said Connelly, who paddled the vast majority of the trip solo, calling for companionship only the most dangerous sections.
To support the expedition, Connelly lined up an extensive list of corporate sponsors, including Cascade Designs, Garmin, GrandyOats, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, NRS, Shipyard Brewing Company, Stellar Kayaks, Wenonah Canoes and Werner Paddles, among others.
“Every time I looked down at my boat … [I] saw the logos of my sponsors. Between that and knowing I had people following me in real time on the web with my satellite tracking and knowing I had an engaged community following this, I never felt — I felt alone, but I never felt lonely,” Connelly said.
Using the Delorme inReach satellite communication and navigation technology, paired with the Delorme mobile application EarthMate, Connelly was able to lay out his entire route, complete with waypoints and notations. The technology allowed him to identify camping options as well as safe landing spots along the route, where he could land in event of bad weather.
This technology also allowed the public to follow his progress on a map displayed on paddlequest1500.com. In addition, Connelly posted photos and blogged about his daily experiences on the water on a regular basis.
“I typically arrived where I was going to camp late in the day, got the campsite up and my wet clothes hung up to —- at least drip. Seldom did they dry,” Connelly said with a laugh. “I’d make dinner, and I was pretty tired by then. But I’d crawl into my tent with my headlamp and do some journaling.”
Connelly plans to write a book about his adventure, as well as produce a film using footage he took throughout the trip on his GoPro camera, iPhone 6S and Canon G10.
“John’s expedition has been tremendously inspiring to watch,” Karrie Thomas, executive director of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, said in a prepared statement. “The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is grateful to be a part of his awareness campaign to get people to spend more time outside. He has certainly shared how beautiful and accessible the waterways of the Northeast are to all of us.”
“Watching John develop and execute this plan has been truly inspiring,” Doug Welch, executive director of the Maine Island Trail Association, said in a prepared statement. “Being able to watch John’s GPS dot moving along in real time has made this journey so compelling. John has brought these recreational water trails home to so many people and hopefully inspired others to tackle an outdoor challenge of their own.”
During the journey, Connelly switched off between two boats — a S18R kayak by Stellar Kayaks and his Voyager canoe by Wenonah Canoe — selecting the boat that worked best on the type of water he was paddling. Both crafts held up well throughout the entire journey, though both needed to be patched once. To navigate, he mounted an iPad Air 2, protected by a waterproof case, on his boat. And he charged batteries with a Goal Zero solar panel mounted on the back deck of his boats.
As with all long journeys, PaddleQuest wasn’t without its challenges. An intestinal bug laid Connelly low for 72 hours in the Adirondacks, and when it came to weather, Connelly often battled wind and rain.
“There was one time when I had an Armageddon-style thunderstorm chase me down the Saint John River to Grand Isle, Maine,” Connelly recalled.
There, while trying to find shelter, Connelly came across a woman sitting on her front porch, watching the storm. She and her husband asked Connelly to stay for dinner and suggested he camp in their gazebo by the river.
“That was awesome,” Connelly said. “I was sitting at their dinner table having a wonderful meal with them, with the light going out, lighting flashing and thunder crashing.”
It being so early in the paddling season, Connelly met few people on the water, but he spoke with many people about his journey in the communities he stopped at along the way.
“My faith in people has really been renewed through this experience,” Connelly said. “I had so many people offering their help.”
To read about Connelly’s adventures, visit paddlequest1500.com, where he plans to post updates about his future book, film and any public presentations about the journey.