By Roger McKinney
SENECA, Mo. —
Will Hembree on Tuesday completed the adventure of a lifetime — so far, anyway.
Hembree, 31, paddled his kayak — alone — from his home in Cold Spring, N.Y., to Twin Bridges State Park, near Miami, Okla. The 2,350-mile journey began May 6 and ended Tuesday.
On Wednesday, he was spending time with family at a Joplin pool.
His route took him up the Hudson River, to the Erie Canal, across the Great Lakes, to the Fox River at Chicago and halfway down the Illinois River. He said he had to skip the Mississippi River because of flooding. He got portage to the Arkansas River. He paddled to Muskogee, Okla., then Lake Fort Gibson, Lake Hudson and Grand Lake, paddling rivers to his destination.
Hembree grew up between Seneca and Neosho, and graduated in 2000 from Seneca High School. He volunteers at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, part of a morale, welfare and recreation program for military personnel. He said by doing the adventure, he hopes to bring attention to the MWR programs. He said the programs help soldiers escape the stress of military life. He said he started volunteering after his brother entered the Marines and returned home after being deployed to Iraq.
He also took lots of video and hopes to make a documentary to enter into outdoor film festivals.
“I started recreational kayaking five years ago, and I’ve been an instructor the last three years,” Hembree said by phone on Wednesday. He said he’s never before tried anything as extreme. He spent five to six days a week on the water to prepare physically. He spent two months before the start of the trip charting waterways and emailing yacht clubs and kayak clubs along his route to ask if they could help resupply him with food and water during his trip.
“I spent two months making a pretty good reach and a lot of people helped out,” he said.
He said he was well-prepared physically, but he wasn’t aware of how difficult the mental challenges would be.
“The weather was really bad the first month,” Hembree said. “I probably didn’t see the sun five days during the first month. On the days it snowed on me, it caused me to question my commitment.”
He said he endured the two days of snow and temperatures in the 20s in central New York, while it approached 100 in Oklahoma. He said he paddled through fog and thunderstorms and dodged logs floating down flooded rivers.
His days started about sunrise, he said. He would have a quick breakfast and paddle until about 1 p.m. He would find a river bank or a beach, and pull over for lunch and maybe a brief nap. After 30 minutes or so, he would set out again, and paddle until about 30 minutes before sunset. He would find a suitable camp site, set up his tent and have a meal before turning in for the night.
When a thunderstorm struck while he was paddling on Lake Erie, he landed on a beach and took shelter in a marina to wait for the storm to pass. When he returned to the beach after the storm, his kayak was no longer where he had left it. He said he could see on the sand that it had been dragged away. He thought it had been stolen, so he called the Port Clinton, Ohio, police.
His kayak was in the city impound lot. He hadn’t parked it illegally, but a city worker thought it had been abandoned, or that a kayaker was in trouble in the lake. When he contacted the police, he said they were making preparations to start a search.
“I reached them just in time,” he said.
Will Hembree said he wants to take another kayaking trip in the future, maybe a shorter one, with veterans or active-duty military personnel joining him.