The Great Loop Journey: View from a Small Boat

View from a Small Boat is a visual exploration of the ethereal landscapes and the people that exist at water’s edge. The images are a product of a 6500-mile solo journey that was intent on capturing a face of America that is not easily seen and so often overlooked.

In the spring of 2009, I launched a small wooden rowboat equipped with only oars and a sail into the Cumberland River about a mile from my home in Nashville, TN and headed to the Gulf of Mexico via the Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Two months and about 1200 river miles later, I arrived at the ocean. That began my circumnavigation of the route known as the Great Loop. For the next six years I went out for two months in the summer following a course that would take me along the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Key West, Florida, then up the East Coast to New York Harbor, up the Hudson River and Erie Canal to cross the Great Lakes, down Lake Michigan to Chicago to then travel the entirety of the Illinois River to Saint Louis and then back down the Mississippi to regain the Ohio at Cairo, Illinois.

The genesis of the journey originated in my own hands, building the craft to act as my personal ark. The boat, which measures just over14’, is smaller than many of the creatures that have surrounded it. Without a motor I acted as a fellow participant in a world where nothing is guaranteed, including my survival.  My view a foot or two above the water was as if nature were peering back at itself. My life at 2 miles per hour permitted ample time for me to reflect on that which I observed. Every day became a leap of faith. Nature was in such control of my forward progress; I could never be certain where I might end up when evening’s darkness set in.

The boat was light enough to land on remote bits of coastline accessible no other way. I found sand among the cord grass marshes and slept on small patches of land barely above the waterline in the great cedar swamps. I contrasted these experiences to my encounters with the major port cities along with the highly developed coastline that defines most of modern Florida. Sometimes I camped on the ribbons of islands that laced the ocean shores. The artist, Walter Anderson once tied himself to a palm tree on an island 5 miles off the Mississippi coast so that he could feel the raw force of an advancing hurricane. I had a similar mindset when I chose to row 35 miles all night long across Florida Bay on a pitch black moonless night. I wanted to create a sense of floating through the vast emptiness of space and experience the magic and power that comes by simply living in the moment. That moment was greatly enhanced when a large shark bit at the oar and hit the boat with such force I was spun 180º before it left me alone to ponder my fate.

At one point in my journey, during a few days of severe weather, I took shelter in a marina and spent the time worrying about the dangers of my 30-mile ocean approach to New York City, all the time wondering if I had the courage to go forward. In the boaters lounge I found a weathered copy of Herman Wouk’s novel, The Caine Mutiny. Inside its pages I discovered the inspiration I was looking for. The verse from Ecclesiastes 9:10 was especially fitting. “Whatsoever the hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave, whether though goest.”

Mine is a story of adventure and wonder, one in which nature was the force in control, not man. The stories are incredible.

Sailing my tiny, fragile craft down the Mississippi and into the profoundly mysterious abyss that surrounds our continent has hardened my body, softened my heart and opened my eyes to a world beyond my imagination. I met people so generous, they plucked me out of the water, fed and sheltered me until I had the strength to go on. Their humanity raised my spirits and quieted the cynicism I had felt most of my adult life.

The images presented are meant as much to be poetic responses to the emotions I felt as I raised my camera in celebration of the wonders that appeared before me. My journey was uniquely, an authentic American Experience. 

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