The idea started nagging Graham Montgomery ’15 about two years ago at Cornell. He went on plenty of backpacking and field research trips at school, but he was often stuck in a lab “doing something with a pipette,” he said.
Montgomery had crossed the Mississippi River plenty of times on his way to visit family in St. Louis but now he had an idea — to paddle 2,300 miles down the river in a kayak.
“Once the idea was planted in my mind, it grew on me over time,” he said. “I knew that I had to do it at some point.”
Now, he’s steadily making his way down the Mississippi River in his lime green kayak — 33 miles each day — as he travels from state to state, spotting birds in the day and finding islands to sleep on at night.
Montgomery, who grew up in Houston, began his trip from Lake Itasca in Minnesota on Aug. 28 and plans to reach Venice, La. by early November.
An avid birder, Montgomery has already identified nearly 200 different species of birds and spotted hundreds of bald eagles. He said he appreciates the river’s serenity and enjoys seeing rare feats of nature, like when 500 broadwing hawks flew overhead one day in late September.
Montgomery added that he has also seen dozens of monarch butterflies flying across the river.
“They’re going faster than me, and I’m realizing that they’re going farther than me too,” he said. “They’re going to Mexico, this tiny little bug.”
However, the trip isn’t just butterflies and birds. It requires avoiding barges, finding a place to sleep and more than 16,500 paddles each day — one million by the time he’s done, Montgomery estimated.
“Some of my friends seem to think that I’m just on this nice relaxing river tour — which I am, it’s so relaxing to just be able to clear your mind like this — but it’s also grueling sometimes,” he explained.
At night, Montgomery said he finds refuge in tiny riverside beaches. Sometimes the beaches are owned by the National Wildlife Refuge, while other times, he’s not sure whose property he’s pitching a tent on.
“There’s no campsite here, just your standard beach,” he said. “Usually forested. A little poison ivy. Lots of mosquitos.”
Montgomery said he starts each day shortly after dawn, unlocking and climbing into his 16-foot kayak to begin the day’s trip, making sure to avoid barges as he passes small towns and marshes. He said he is less concerned with hitting a certain daily mileage than he is with enjoying the river and the wildlife around him.
“I’m constantly putting paddle down and drifting,” he said. “I make an effort to just stop and look at anything that’s interesting whether a deer or bug or scenery. This is definitely a trip where it’s about the journey, not the destination.”
Montgomery said he made sure to have an absentee ballot sent to his relatives in St. Louis. He filled the ballot out earlier in October and mailed it to his home state of Texas.
Other than voting and visiting his family and a few friends along the way, Montgomery said he is largely alone on the second largest river in the country. The Mississippi River is 200 miles shorter than the Missouri River, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“I definitely do feel a bit small,” he said. “It’s a long trip by myself.”
The solitude has taught him things that will last long after he carries his kayak out of the river for the last time, Montgomery said.
“It’s really nice to have one goal every single day, which is to get as far as I can while also enjoying the journey,” he said. “Having that single-minded goal, it simplifies things.”
“Working every day towards a long-term goal, you really do make progress,” he added. “Just keep chipping away at it, and obviously everybody knows that, but doing this trip has really emphasized that.”
Once Montgomery makes it to Louisiana, he said he plans to stay with his family in Houston for about a month before heading to Ecuador to work with researchers who are studying how birds compete with each other by noting how they respond to different songs.
When asked if there was anything else he had learned from the trip so far, Montgomery did not hesitate.
“I’m a much better paddler than I was when I started out,” he said.