Neosho Daily News - Neosho, MO
  • Paddling the USA

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  • TWIN BRIDGES STATE PARK, Okla. — 2,350 miles. That is how far Will Hembree, formerly of the Neosho-Seneca area who now lives in New York, has traveled by kayak.
    His journey began on May 4 in West Point, N.Y., traveling the waterways and came into Twin Bridges State Park around noon on Tuesday, with family and friends standing by.
    "I wanted to first of all make an outdoor film to enter the Reel Film Festival, so I wanted to make a pretty fun trip to make a short documentary and enter in some of the outdoor films," said Will. "Secondly, I wanted to raise awareness about the MWR programs. The MWR programs are for American military personnel and veterans. It stands for Morale, Welfare and Recreation. At West Point, I am a recreation specialist. I just take militarypersonnel out skiing and it is a lot of fun. There is a huge need for volunteers and programs like this."
    Will had his camping gear along with food and water inside his kayak. He also had a camera on board to record what he does for the documentary.
    "So when I left West Point, I paddled up the Hudson River, across the old Erie Canal to the Great Lakes and then paddled the shorelines of the Great Lakes all of the way over to Chicago," he said. "When I arrived in Chicago, there was a lot of flooding going on and my original plan was to go through the Chicago shipping and sanitation canal, down to the Illinois River. There was a lot of flooding and about seven barges broke loose from their mooring stations and crashed through a locking dam and then sank. The Army Corps of Engineers actually had a section of the Illinois River closed when I got there, so I had to detour around that. Fortunately, some of my brother's friends from the Marine Corps live in the Chicago area and they were able to help me out and get me over to the Fox River, where I paddled down the Fox River."
    He paddled a couple of days on the Illinois River.
    "And once again, thunderstorms every day, had the rivers flooding out quite a lot so I ended up getting down to the Arkansas River and paddled up the Arkansas River to Muskogee, Okla., where I got into the Grand River system, which took me past Lake Fort Gibson, Lake Hudson, Grand Lake and now Twin Bridges State Park."
    As far as why he opted to choose to kayak this trek, Will said, "I personally believe that water is very therapeutic. I have spent the last three years working as a certified kayak instructor as well and when I started looking at options of something fun to do this summer, kayaking was one of the first things that came into my mind. And I wanted to come back and visit my family. I started looking at the waterways to do that and this trip, I don't think, has ever been attempted before. I thought that it was going to be fun, challenging, and it would really test my skills as a kayak instructor and just as an individual overall."
    Page 2 of 2 - His biggest obstacle along the way could be summed up in one word: Weather.
    "There were days that I had snow, there were days that I had winds so strong that I could paddle as hard as I could and wouldn't move anywhere but backwards, no matter how hard I tried," Will related. "The heat, the last week and a half, has been unbearable."
    But ultimately, it was a dream come true for him.
    "He is following his dreams," said Wesley Hembree, Will's father. "I asked him, 'what are your plans after this?' he said, 'Dad, when you done one of your dreams, you just start dreaming for another one. I don't know yet.'"
    During the more than two-month trek, he would average between 45-50 miles a day, and camp or staying with a host family.
    "I have not slept in a hotel this entire time," Will added.
    Will has met a lot of people along the way.
    "The one thing that I have found that everybody has in common, is everybody has this little need for adventure, they want to hear my stories about my trip," said Will. "When I start talking about my trip, they start talking about trips that they want to do. And I think that I have inspired a few people to finally go out and do some of the trips that they have been dreaming about their entire lifetime. America is adventurous."
    Asked what he thought about seeing his family and friends welcoming him at Twin Bridges, Will said, "that was great, that was very overwhelming. I am amazed at my family, I really am, they are great people."
    So the question remains, how will he get back to New York, will he kayak back?
    Laughing, he said 'no.'
    "I am actually going to raffle this kayak away and my plan right now is try to buy an old cheap car and drive back to New York," he said.
    Information can be sent about how to purchase a raffle ticket on his website (www.rediscoveramerica-kayak.com). You can find additional information about his trip there as well.
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