story and photos by Derek Doeffinger
As you might expect, stand-up paddleboarders are a common sight on the Erie Canal. But the one I spotted while out on my bicycle was decidedly not common. Looking more like a mountain climber than a typical bikini paddleboarder, he was hauling enough gear to stagger a Sherpa.
Those three bulging bags of gear tied down on his board told me this was a man on a mission. But what kind of mission? Spiritual? Athletic? Repentance? Rejuvenation?
When I got closer, I stopped and called out to him: “Where are you going? What’s in those big packs? Where did you start and where are you from”?
Quiet and calm, he stroked his way over to talk to me. He was outfitted head to toe in what looked like all new gear. He wore sunglasses and a long-brimmed beige sun hat with neck flap extended; a whistle and signal mirror dangled from his neck. He wore gloves with sun glove liners, black water shoes over black socks over black tights under black shorts, a red PFD vest over a hydration bladder and a long-sleeved red Rashguard jersey. Spreading across his face was a scruffy, scraggly beard.
Was he really a ready and rugged guy, or a promotion ambassador of adventure gear? As it turned out, he knew exactly what he was doing and was fully prepared for an extended solo paddleboard excursion during the changeable weather of early autumn in the northern Finger Lakes. It was late morning on September 24 when I saw him; he was four days into his trip, halfway between Fairport and Macedon, with several weeks still to go.
A few minutes into our conversation, the man explained what he was up to, but only hinted at why. He slipped in an element of intrigue, teasing cinematic undercurrents by uttering his name with a tiny eyebrow lift: “Montoya.” He paused to see if I would process that. I smiled. Montoya was a name reverberating with cult-movie echoes, more suited for a man not on a mission but a quest.
To the End of the Canal–and Beyond
Between jobs as an international music marketer, the 46-year-old Montoya had time for a quest. Big labels with big names in big cities served him well as a marketer on LinkedIn, but he had stepped away from that hectic, intense, ambitious and territorial world to undertake challenges and obstacles that he could manage on his own. Something away from the business world. Something outdoors. Something that had been stirring his imagination for several years: a paddleboard adventure.
For the past four years, paddleboarding had become Montoya’s past time and passion, his release valve. As he became adept in all sorts of waters, conditions and distances, he decided to put his skills to the test by propelling his paddleboard the entire length of the Erie Canal. If successful, he would be the first person to do it. He was already likely the first person to even think of doing it.
That this native of New York City chose the Erie Canal for his big adventure may seem odd, but Montoya explained that he first felt the pull of the canal in eighth grade, when he learned how its creation propelled New York City, New York State and eventually the country into world prominence. “I learned about the importance of the canal at school, and then reading about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, I wanted the romance of being on the water,” he explained.
While reaching the eastern end of the canal would conclude his primary paddling goal, it wasn’t his final destination. From the east end of the canal, he planned to enter the Hudson River and paddle 152 more miles to Manhattan.
Self-reliance Is Key
Montoya’s trip was an act of persistence and self-reliance.
He acknowledged the inspiration provided by the persistence of his medieval cinematic namesake, Inigo Montoya from the movie The Princess Bride. Movie Montoya relentlessly pursued the man who killed his father, at long last confronting the villain with his famous quote: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Modern Montoya had only time to kill. His first name is not Inigo, but Paris.
“I wanted to push myself and test myself, and as an experienced paddle boarder felt I could do this,” he recalls. Over the course of six weeks, he plotted his trip in meticulous detail, including an extensive packing list and detailed schedule.
Montoya’s 60 pounds of gear included a satellite messenger for two-way texting and weather/navigation information; battery-powered, waterproof lights for paddling in the dark; a VHF marine radio for contacting lockmasters; a dromedary to store extra water; purification tablets; a PFD knife; a stove; an emergency paddle; an air pump; a patch kit; assorted cables, locks and ropes; a first aid kit; and a variety of clothing and camping gear to cover contingencies from cold spells to heat waves to downpours.
For stability and portability, he used an inflatable stand-up paddleboard (SUP) that measured 14 feet by 28 inches and inflated 15 to 18 pounds per square inch (taking less than 10 minutes to pump up).
Although Montoya was outfitted to accommodate nearly any occurrence, he didn’t fully know what surprises the canal itself and the length of the trip might spring. Among them were long stretches of the day where he was the only person on the water, that few people spend time enjoying their backyard docks and the challenges of boat wakes in shallow water. “Paddling and the mental aspects were easier than I expected,” he says. He describes the canal as “essentially a long, thin wildlife reservation. It almost felt like I was on the Jungle Cruise at Disney, going through different habitats, swamps, lakes.”
What surprised him most was how time-consuming housekeeping could be. After a long, hard day, he couldn’t just kick back and crack open a beer. “I spent a lot of time taking care of my gear, finding and cooking food, unpacking and repacking, setting up and tearing down camp, preparing for the next day, doing social posts, charging devices, checking weather forecasts, paying bills, stretching my legs,” Montoya explains. With girlfriend Eva back home helping out, he had peace of mind.
In our extensive discussions, he gave me a big surprise: In his 500-mile trip, he fell off the board only once – and that happened while he was standing still, talking to a female kayaker.
Breaking Down the Trip
At 6:25 a.m. on Monday, September 20, 2021, Montoya slipped his board into the Buffalo River and paddled 13 miles to enter the western most point of the canal at Lockport. At 11:55 a.m. on Monday, October 4–339 miles later–he exited the canal at the Waterford lock to transition to the Hudson River. At 5:18 p.m. on Friday October 10, 152 miles later, he stepped from his paddleboard onto Pier 84 in Manhattan, five blocks from Times Square and two miles from his home.
On a typical day, Montoya would paddle for approximately 7 hours and travel about 24 miles, averaging 3.5 miles per hour. He’d wake shortly after sunrise, retrieve his suspended food (“bear”) bag, have breakfast and then prepare for travel. He’d check his satellite messenger, set his phone to low power mode, check the weather forecast and dress accordingly. He’d then pack his lunch, snacks and water for quick accessibility during on-board breaks. Before getting on the water, he’d text that day’s float plan to his trusted contact, pack up camp, stretch and apply sunscreen. Finally, he’d check the air pressure of his inflatable SUP and fasten his packs to it.
Then off he’d go.
The wind had a big impact on Montoya’s mileage and his mental state. “The head winds were like being stuck in the molasses,” he explains. “A tail wind made a massive difference. There were some tail winds I could put my paddle up in the air and it was like being pulled by a tow rope.” As he paddled, he carefully monitored his progress using hard copy Erie Heritage Corridor maps.
Montoya was careful to apportion (and fuel) his energy output. “On a hot day, I’d take a break every 45 to 60 minutes,” he says. “On a cooler, more relaxed day, 90 minutes. During the break, I ate energy bars and snacks.” A tour paddleboarder can burn 600-700 calories per hour, or close to 5000 calories per day; in comparison, an “average” marathoner burns 3000-4000 calories during a race. At the end of the day, Montoya gulped down a protein shake. Even more important than food was hydrating sufficiently. Wearing a hydration pack, he drank up to a gallon a day while paddling.
He tried to end the day with a couple hours of daylight to spare, but as a schedule fanatic, he more than once found himself paddling in the dark. The day we met, Montoya was leaving Bushnell’s Basin and hoping to make the 39 miles to Clyde before dark. He ended up paddling for two hours in the dark. He was prepared, of course, and before dusk set in he had attached his battery-powered lights to the stern and bow and put on his head lamp. At the end of each day, he essentially reversed the camp breakdown procedure.
The Pain of Paddling
Since forced standing has long been used by interrogators to extract information, it’s no surprise that a long day of stand-up paddleboarding might inflict a few aches and pains. “My feet were really sore and swollen,” Montoya shares, noting that he wore compression calf sleeves each night to help. He also did yoga and stretching exercises a few times each day. “Hand blisters were inevitable, but they quickly turned to calluses,” he says. You can imagine what other muscles might get sore if you were to raise your arms 15,000 times a day, tightly clutch the paddle and then stretch it out and pull it back.
How can you speed up recovery after three weeks of standing on a paddleboard all day? “After I finished my trip, I did a restorative hour in a sensory deprivation tank here in Manhattan,” Montoya explains. “Warm water, neutral body position and no stimulus.”
Montoya expects to continue enjoying the outdoors, but he doesn’t envision having enough time to undertake another grand adventure any time soon. Although he’s said little about it, you can feel he takes a quiet pride in being the first person to paddleboard the entire Erie Canal. In person, he’s a quiet, modest guy who, when his job was eliminated, saw an opportunity for personal adventure. He not only jumped at the chance, but in just a few weeks he organized and pulled off a unique, complex adventure that may not be awe inspiring like Lindbergh or Slocum, but is amazing in its own way.