If you spend Monday through Friday working in an office cubicle, spending an hour with Daniel Alvarez, 31, of Tallahassee is a good way of increasing the odds you won't go back on Monday. He's living a life that can make people go chase their dreams.
These days, Alvarez spends his days on a kayak, paddling his way from Minnesota's Northwest Angle to Key West, Florida. He started in June at Lake of the Woods, paddled the Boundary Waters, the highway of the fur traders to Voyageurs National Park to Lake Superior, Isle Royale, the Apostle Islands and this week arrived in the Twin Cities.
This isn't his first wilderness adventure. He's hiked the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail. This is his first water excursion, however.
"I was just feeling antsy" after those experiences, he said this afternoon about the reasons for the trip. He'd considered an adventure in New Zealand but settled on a "northernmost to southernmost" route across this country, instead.
He had been to the Boundary Waters once before, invited by a local friend. "I think she just wanted me to carry her canoe," he said at the time.
This morning, Tom stopped again, not to attach mud flaps for a dirt road or to give me a ride to the northern tip of Minnesota, but just to share a jelly donut, say hello, and introduce me to his three grandkids before they all headed up to go hiking near Grand Portage.
"He's going to paddle that kayak all the way to Florida," Tom told them. "Think you guys would ever try something like that?"
The kids stared at me like I was crazy and shook there heads. I smiled back at them.
"You guys could do it," I said.
I believe it too. I think that is what Tom wanted them to see, he wanted them to know that any spark in their imagination is possible, that if I could do a trip like this, they could do it too.
I hope one day they do, but when they're sitting around a campfire at the start of the Appalachian Trail, setting off to canoe to Hudson Bay, or riding a bike across America and someone asks why, I don't think they will say it was because they stopped in Duluth for jelly donuts and met some crazy person with a kayak.
No, I think they'll say it's because their grandpa took them hiking every summer when they were kids. (Duluth - September 1)
Alvarez already knows more about the portages of Minnesota than some of the locals. Some people in Floodwood, he said, insisted that he couldn't portage to the Mississippi from the St. Louis River by the route he intended in Savanna Portage State Park. But he tried anyway, ran into swamps, hiked through hip-high mud for miles, and finally made it, partly because he didn't want to give Floodwood the satisfaction.
After five miles of walking, after gravel turned to pavement and back to gravel again, one last man stopped. He knew where I was going. He'd lived at the end of the road for forty years and seen it before. He'd watched men come and go and always come back beaten.
"No one makes it through," he said. "It's impossible."
"There has to be a way somehow," I said. "It's an old voyageur route."
He laughed at me, laughed at the idea that men who lived two-hundred years ago made anything possible today. (Floodwood - September 8th)
He acknowledges that he thought he'd reach the Twin Cities earlier than now. When he headed north from the Twin Cities, he told his friends, "see you in a month." That was three months ago. But time is still on his side. The frost has taken out the mosquitoes, providing some relief until he reaches their survival zones, probably soon. Still, he says, "you have to have some momentum."
Alvarez understands well that he's living the life of which others dream, but he says he doesn't have a lot of sympathy for the cubicle-bound. "People just have to be willing to sacrifice something," he says. He's not married, he doesn't have kids, and he doesn't have a job he needs to get to. He was laid off from his job as an attorney in financial services last year.
He's learned, too, that a kayak can introduce you to some splendid people. "It's easier to meet people with a kayak," he says. "When you're hiking, people think you're homeless and they don't want to talk to you because they think you'll ask for money. No one thinks you're homeless in a kayak."
But, technically, he is. He figures he'll head back to the river on Sunday, stay at some campsites along the river in Minnesota, and then on some of the river's sandbars downstream. He's anxious to find out where exactly the geographic point is where the Minnesota accent gives way to a southern drawl.
Can I hold a paddle and a fish in one hand? Which is more important if I can't? Weren't those rocks far away a moment ago? Is that fish head looking at me? Try not to stab yourself with that knife, please. Eew, what is that oozing? That's gross. This looks so much cleaner in a tuna packet. Wow, those rocks are close. That wasn't lightning, was it? How the hell am I going to cook this thing? Cook it? How am I going to get to shore? Probably should have thought this through a bit better. Where'd my paddle go? I can't believe I caught a fish! This is awesome! There's the paddle. So about those rocks? (New Baptism River, MN - August 15)
He became an adventurer when he was 11, he figures. That's when he agreed to hike from the Grand Canyon's North Rim to the South Rim at his mother's behest. But then he saw the Grand Canyon and decided it was too much for him.
"My mom handed me the keys to the car and $100," he writes on his blog. 'I'm going,' she said. 'If you don't want to come with me, here's some money for food. Sleep in the car. I'll be back in a few days.'"
"I looked at a map and saw how far three months has brought me from the Angle and how far I've got to go to Key West. It looks like I've barely moved, like I've been lost and drawing some great circle around Minnesota.
I laughed at winter once, but not any more. It hangs in the cool night. I see it coming in the trees. Every day feels shorter." (Duluth - September 2nd)
The hardest part of the trip is probably over, allowing him to think that arriving in Key West on New Year's Eve is a possibility if he's able to paddle just fast enough to stay ahead of winter.
(All images courtesy of Daniel Alvarez)
Thanks Bob. His blog is very fun to read, and I spent way too much of this beautiful day reading about the Savannah portage...what an interesting piece of MN history. I had no idea.
While catching up on his blog yesterday I realized that the dates that he was at Isle Royale this summer lined up with the dates I was at Isle Royale this summer. Then I remembered the lone kayaker I had seen out touring near Amygdaloid Island while we were hiking there. I pulled up my video from the trip last night and sure enough it's Daniel Alvarez. Small world I guess.
Yesterday, while driving over the Wakota Bridge in Newport/South St. Paul, I looked down. Guess who I saw paddling south in the water below? Daniel.
He'd a kayaking jedi.
Thanks for the great interview. I had the pleasure of spending time with Daniel over the weekend and he is a great guy. Very unassuming for being a hardcore adventurer.
That's too wild about you seeing him yesterday -- I'm hoping to be able to rendezvous with him again as he makes his way down Minnesota's stretch of the Mississippi.