A Big Trip for a Big Cause

  Mac Levine was looking for an endurance challenge. But when a fellow standup paddler 
suggested a several-day voyage from Albany all the way to Inwood, she laughed.
     “At first I thought it was the craziest thing I’d ever heard,” she said last summer, shortly after finishing the trip. “It just seemed so long and far. And then I thought, why not?”
     It’s a distance of nearly 140 miles. She’d only have as much gear as she could carry on her board. She would be the first female standup paddler to do the trip solo. Without a support team, she’d have to figure out and execute all the logistics herself.
     “The way groups do this is very different from the way individuals do it. A group will get permits to camp in parks that otherwise you can’t camp in. They may also have backup cars,” she explained.
     “A lot of the camping areas along the river aren’t actually on the river,” she added, and those require a car to get to. “I didn’t realize that until a few weeks before I was going to leave. I had to rework different sections of the plan.”
     Levine threw herself into the preparations with her characteristic intensity. She combed through maps and scoured the pages of the Hudson River Water Trail Guide. She called boat clubs all along the route.
     “I hadn’t really realized what an enormous network of yacht clubs there is. There seems to always be a retired someone at a yacht club at any given hour,” she recalled. “The amount of kindness I received from total strangers—that was unexpected but very helpful.”
     One night she stayed at a local museum. The woman who arranged the sleepover came back a couple of hours after closing time with an air mattress to make her more comfortable. Others offered her shelter from the heavy rains that came most days.
     She had conservatively planned for a 10-day trip, but she ended up completing it in nine. “I think I could have done it in eight, because the last day was 45 minutes,” she added.
     What was the single most useful item Levine took with her? The answer may seem surprising for a standup paddler: a chair.
     “Because of the tides and currents you don’t paddle all day,” she explained. “I really didn’t want to be sitting on the ground. Every day I took time to read my book and write in my journal and look at the maps, and all that was done in that amazing chair.”
     Sometimes she even napped under her tarp in the chair.
     “Now I just take the chair everywhere, because you never know when you’ll need a chair!” she laughed.
     Another key item was a foam roller—the kind used for physical therapy. “Before I left I had extreme right-shoulder pain,” Levine recalled. “I was having nightmares for months that I was going to fail, and every day they got worse and worse. I started rolling my back and shoulders and it just turned out to be knots—like, hundreds of billions of knots—in my shoulders.”
     By the end of the trip she was pain-free.
     Which items turned out to be superfluous? Happily, she never touched her first-aid kit. Also happily, she didn’t end up needing the backup fin for her board, brought along in case the fin she was using snapped off somewhere on the river.
     “Also I bought a solar charger that really did not work,” she recalled. “That was a really big waste of energy and money.”
      What advice does she have for fellow paddlers planning a big trip? “It’s not to be taken lightly how much work goes into something like this, both in terms of training and preparation,” she said. “I just think educating yourself about what you’re about to experience is really important, and not depending on someone else to tell you when and where to go.”
     Levine did the trip to raise awareness of the need for outdoor adventures for kids. As the founder and Executive Director of Concrete Safaris, which offers outdoor learning programs for kids in East Harlem, she feels strongly that children grow in many ways through experiencing nature.
      “My dream is to open a standup paddle school for kids,” she added. “There’s crazy percentages of kids who do not know how to swim. If they can be taught to swim and also gain an on-water skill, that can lead to all kinds of things. I would like to educate kids in how to do this stuff.”