It's never too late for a cross-country kayak

Woodway resident Hank Landau writes a book about his experiences


Last updated 2/1/2023 at 1:01pm

Photo courtesy of Denny Tillman

Kayaker Hank Landau takes a break from his cross-country journey in Mobile Bay, Alabama.

When Hank Landau had the idea to take a long kayak trip at age 65, he just wanted to see if he could pull it off. Turns out he could.

"At first, I just wanted to see if it was possible to paddle upstream on a free flowing part of the Columbia River," he said. "Lewis and Clark have done it."

Once he started asking other kayakers to see if it was possible, they all had the same reaction: Why would anyone want to do something like that?

The answer: Hank Landau wanted to.

After facing a serious bicycle accident and declining health in 2008, Landau set out to do what many have not done before. Landau kayaked, biked, and walked – trailing his kayak behind him – over 4,700 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean with no motorized assistance.

It wasn't a short trip. It took him until 2017. He finished the voyage at age 74.

"I haven't met anybody who did the route I did entirely by kayak, although I've met people who have done parts of it," said Landau, who lives in Woodway.

On Oct. 25, Landau's book, "The Misadventures of a Cross-America Kayaker" (koehlerbooks), which highlights the successes, dangers, and ruminations of his kayak journey, landed in bookstores.

"Initially, my trip was essentially a selfish one," he said. "It was for me."

But something started to change in Landau during the long hours kayaking alone and meeting strangers who became friends along the way.

"I learned more and more about how our nation treated Native Americans, and the farther I went the more I realized that these injustices were even greater than I understood them to be. It was extreme racism."

Landau has dedicated the last few years to fighting racism and volunteering for local organizations. In fact, he's donating all the royalties from his new book to Native American nonprofit organizations.

Writing the book was an expression of his experience on the water and one that he hopes brings awareness to racism in all forms – including racism that people of color experience today.

"If we are going to survive as a world, we've got to eliminate racism on every front and acknowledge our past racist behavior, and we've got to eliminate contemporary racism that we see everywhere," he said.

Karin Redmond is Landau's book editor and former executive editor of Sea Kayaker Magazine. "I appreciate the moments throughout (the book) where he looks inward to his impressions and biases and reflects on the people he meets," she said.

During the trip, Landau met many people who offered to help him and learned their stories.

Landau's wife, Joyce Landau, was impressed with all the people who went out of their way to assist him on his journey.

"It was amazing that he would pull in some place, and they'd see him and offer him dinner," she said. "He had nonstop help all along the way ... especially with the divisiveness in our country. So many people – total strangers – went out of their way to help."

The trip didn't come without dangers, however. Alone on his kayak, Landau faced everything from fire ants in his kayak, charging alligators, snakes, and a few capsizes and near-collisions with barges and boats.

One thing he didn't pack with him at the beginning of his adventure? A cellphone.

After having some "close calls" with a few wild creatures, he decided to pack one about halfway through the trip. Not that it helped him much anyway, with spotty phone service in the areas he was kayaking.

A typical day

When he wasn't dodging alligators and snakes, a typical day for Landau consisted of an eight- to 11-hour paddle during the day, then stopping on dry ground to pitch his tent, eat a quick meal, plan for the next day, write in his log book, and read a bit of a book before going to sleep.

During these long stretches, Landau was typically alone, but sometimes had either one of his sons or his friend join him.

Landau first started to get involved with trips like this as a teen on Long Island where he would bike, hike, and boat with friends or his brother.

"I always wanted to do things like this," he said.

Once he retired and sold his business, he said he finally had time to realize his dream.

"This was on the life agenda, but it didn't come to reality until I fully retired so I could be more flexible," he said.

Year by year on these longer kayaking trips, he extended his goal until he thought about making it to the Atlantic.

"When I finally made it to St. Louis, I thought I was finished. Then I got home and thought maybe I could make it to the Atlantic because both my wife and I are from the East Coast."

"After being married for so many years, you kind of get used to some things," Joyce Landau said. "I knew as soon as he did the first trip he was not going to stop. I could just tell."

The couple has been married for 57 years and have lived in the Edmonds area since 1974. The business they both started was based in Edmonds for 40 years.

"We really enjoy the area," Joyce said. "It's so beautiful, with a temperate climate, and a small-town feel. We both enjoy it very much."

The couple occasionally kayak with each other in local spots, but she never joined him during his seven-year kayak trip.

"It was not my idea of fun," she said. "I like to eat, and he always lost so much weight on these trips. It was pretty amazing. He exercised so much and was too tired to eat because of the very long days. That's just not me."

During his long days kayaking with little to no communication, Landau said his wife was the one who bore a lot of the pain of the trip.

She is the true "hero" of his kayak trip, said Landau, echoing what a reviewer said of his book.

"A lot of people in the area know my wife and I, and my family. I couldn't have done this without them and the support I got along the way," he said.

"I'm grateful to Hank's family, and Joyce in particular, for rallying around to support him, and helping him coordinate so many details so he could safely achieve this amazing journey," said Redmond, his book editor.

Today, Edmonds residents might see Landau kayaking along the Puget Sound near Edmonds, although his favorite local place to paddle is the San Juan Islands, where he and Joyce had a close encounter with a pod of orcas recently. One orca swam directly under their kayaks and physically lifted them up.

"I like kayaking along the Puget Sound where you can see the bottom and see the plants, the fish, crab, starfish," he said. "It makes it far more interesting."

He hopes his new book will inspire people his age to overcome daily obstacles and explore their own adventures.

"You can often think you're too old to do things, but you're not."

In 2018, just as Landau had plans to go up the East Coast with a friend, his kayak was stolen from storage.

"When his kayak was stolen, I was quite happy," Joyce Landau said with a laugh. "Enough is enough, Hank. Someone is telling you that this has got to stop."

Despite that, she wonders what his next adventure will be. "He's never going to stop."

Shortly after the theft, Landau experienced health problems that prevented him from going up the East Coast, but he said it's on his list of what he's going to do next.

"I got better now. I have a new heart valve and more energy. It's on the list to do something like that."


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