Julia Holmes arriving in New Orleans. Photo by Kate Diago
Five years ago, writer Julia Holmes had never built a boat, had never done any serious rowing or even spent much time on the water. But she had read a memoir penned by her great, great, great, great, great grandfather. In it he described his 1814 voyage from his family farm in New York State to New Orleans via the young nation's waterways.
Inspired, Holmes ordered a kit for a Northeaster Dory and set to work building the boat in her Brooklyn, NY, apartment. In this boat she would embark on an epic multi-stage adventure spanning four years and culminating with an arrival in the Crescent City on October 15 of this year.
"I chose the Northeaster Dory originally for its traditional design, something close to the 19th-century skiff my ancestor described using for part of his expedition," Holmes said. "But over the course of the trip, I fell in love with the design and feel of the boat, which was perfect for a longer haul and handled everything beautifully."
Holmes built her 17-foot dory in a modest city apartment during three or four months of evenings and weekends, with live-in landlords just upstairs, mostly unaware of what was taking shape below them. "A really big box arrived one day," Holmes said with a laugh. "And then, a few months later, a boat came out the back door."
Although the stitching, filleting, and fiberglassing took place in the plastic-sheeted apartment, painting and finishing details were done outdoors. The months Holmes spent with the dory dominating her living space meant the project had become a significant feature in nearly every part of her daily life, long before the boat ever met the water. She named the dory Richard Price Morgan, after her adventurous ancestor.
Before starting the voyage in Waterford, NY, Holmes tried rowing her new craft on a local lake and discovered she would need a bit more than rudimentary skills and equipment to make any real distance. "I found out it was going to be a lot of work that way," she said. Fortunately, a friend and former collegiate oarsman living nearby had an old sliding seat unit stashed away in his garage. Together they bolted it into the dory and made a few other adjustments, greatly improving performance. Then, in September 2013, she said, "I was genuinely surprised to find myself actually in the Hudson River."
Holmes was able to cover the 350 miles of that first leg through the New York State Canal System in three weeks, including the time spent learning to row efficiently and to navigate more than 60 locks. She averaged a respectable 20 miles a day. She had to get used to the slower pace of the waterway. "The Canal is pretty close to the Thruway in places, so sometimes I could see the cars going by at 80 miles an hour, and there I was going along at pretty close to a walking pace," she said. "Then your sense of time changes. Once you adjust to that, it feels strange to go faster than that."
Holmes wrote eloquently of that first leg in a piece for the New York Times Magazine, chronicling not only the physical aspects but also the emotional journey she made that first season on the waterway.
"I lay in my tent that night and listened to another storm roll in: I’d rowed past days of farmland, past shuttered factories with smokestacks coiled in ivy, past taciturn men fishing by firelight, through massive century-old locks and under the medieval-looking floodgates of the Mohawk River. I thought about all the people I’d met along the canal so far and how wildly generous they’d been — I thought back to a particularly long day of fighting the current in frustrated silence, when a freight train rumbled down the tracks beside the canal and the engineer waved and blasted his horn, and then everything was good. I was deep in a strange kingdom, sheltered by strangers.
"A bolt of lightning filled the tent with an eerie orange light, and I was listening to the unfamiliar sounds of the marsh, and I suddenly realized: I was just 270 miles from my apartment, an afternoon’s drive away. It would’ve blown my ancestor’s mind that the country it had taken him (and me) weeks to cover could now be conquered in hours. But the rest of it, weirdly, I think he’d recognize."
The following summer, she picked up the quest again. How did she measure out the legs of the trip to New Orleans? "I went whenever I could take four or five weeks off," she explained. That year, she rowed the Allegheny from northwestern Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, but she was halted by a restriction on recreational boating through the locks and dam north of the Steel City.
Rowing with the strong currents of the Allegheny using skills honed by the prior year's adventure, Holmes was able to cover much more distance in less time, but portaging around the restricted dam would have been nearly impossible, so she put the trip on hold again until the summer of 2015, when the locks and dam reopened to recreational boats. That summer she made it the length of the Ohio River to Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence with the Mississippi.
Photo by Kate Diago
This year she took on the final leg, 860 miles of the lower Mississippi from Cairo to New Orleans, arriving to champagne and the cheers and congratulations of family and friends old and new.
Camping all along the way except for an occasional night in a hotel in a big city, Holmes carried food and water for up to 10 days at a time along with safety and camping gear. By the time she tackled the Mississippi, she was more heavily laden than before, including carrying 10 to 12 gallons of drinking water, to stay hydrated in summer heat. Towns along the Mississippi tend to sit well back from the river's edge, often behind a levee, making it harder to resupply as frequently as on previous legs.
On every leg, there were stretches where she went mile after mile, sometimes days at a time, in a riverscape not all that different from what Richard Price Morgan saw in 1814. By the time she reached Baton Rouge, however, the busy industrialized river with its bustling commercial traffic carried her the rest of the distance past sights that would have amazed him.
What's Julia Holmes' next adventure? Right now she thinks that next summer she'll probably take the dory on a Hudson River trip between her home in New York City and the place she started in September 2013, completing the circle in a way. She's also started thinking about the next boat she wants to build, though maybe not in her apartment this time.
"I feel impatient to build more boats," she said. "This has really opened up this whole fascination for me."
Photo by Kate Diago