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Photo: Peggy Schmidt

Will Schmidt On His Canada to Mexico Paddle

Will Schmidt, a former US Marine, first got hooked on distance paddling crossing the Catalina Channel from Avalon to Dana Point, California. He then paddled the California Channel Islands chain, a distance of 225.6 miles. This spring, Schmidt paddled 1,386 miles in 58 days from Canada to Mexico encountering 45 knot winds, big seas and severe isolation. Schmidt, previously depressed and anxious after serving in the military, credits standup with saving his life. His journeys raise funds and benefit the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps aid US military service vets. We got Schmidt on the phone to talk about his mission.

How's the journey back to normal life?

The trip changed me and how I operate on a daily basis. I'm less picky. I'll stand for a little more. I use less, I waste less. I haven't worn shoes in three months. It showed me how little I need to get by on a day-to-day basis. I walk more than use my car. I'm real conscious about what I buy, what I eat, what I use, without overdoing it. It's less cluttered and a little more free.

Why Canada to Mexico?

It was something no one had ever done before (on a standup). I wanted to do something that made a statement. It's a big accomplishment that not many have done on any kind of craft. It's treacherous. In this day in age, when everything has been done, how exclusive is it to be the first?

Tell us about the support you had on land.

I did most of Washington and Oregon completely unassisted. I sent three food resupply and packages to people along the coast. Other than that, I was completely by myself. I found gear that was the lightest weight, then weighed everything out and went with half of it. Instead of an iPod I brought an iPod shuffle, instead of a tent with poles, I got a tent that blew up. On the California coast my 88-year-old grandma and mom supported me by car. In remote areas like Big Sur or the Lost Coast, I’d take three or four days of supplies and then we'd connect.

What was the most logistically challenging portion of the trip?

The hardest part of the trip was the King Range National Conservation Area. It’s 70 miles from Cape Mendocino to Fort Bragg area. It was the worst part of the trip. Cape Mendocino is the westernmost point of California and one of the most windy parts of California. I had 45 knot sustained wind at my back that was so overpowering I got thrown off the front of the board. The next day I fought the Humboldt current, then fog, then rain, wind from all directions. I made it to the only town in King Range, Shelter Cove. I'd lost my last pair of shoes, I was wet, I was miserable. I coerced a bed-and-breakfast owner into letting me stay. The next day I paddled for 12 hours and only made in 26 miles and landed in Westport just north of Fort Bragg. It was a tough, upwind-style paddle. I ate while I was paddling. The fog cleared for about ten minutes and it was the most beautiful piece of coast I've ever seen. And in ten minutes it was gone again.

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Photo: Peggy Schmidt

How do you feel when you finish a mission like this?
Kind of lost. I was so used to getting up and moving that taking it easy and not having a schedule was kind of odd. Throughout the trip I felt better when I was paddling. Halfway through the first day my body started to seize up and throb. My body decided, “You’re done, we're going to repair.” That was pretty brutal.

How about mentally?
Mentally I was wiped. My mother and grandmother were having a conversation with me and I didn't know what I was saying to them. I was happy to be done but a lot paddling that I do is my history with anxiety and depression. Finishing and not having something moving forward my mind brings up those depressive anxious thought patterns.

How do you work through that?
I believe that standup paddling saved my life. I found a purpose for what I was doing. The big thing I did was get right back on the water. A lot of people said, “Aren't you going to take a break from paddling?” No. If I ate a big dinner, it’s not like I'm going to eat tomorrow.

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