This month Ellen Falterman finished a 2,700-mile trip down the Mississippi and along the Gulf Coast to her home in East Texas, rowing an old aluminum canoe she rescued from her uncle’s chicken coop.
“I asked him, ‘Does it float?’ and he said, ‘Well it’s full of water,’” Falterman told Adventure Journal. “So I said, ‘If water can’t get out, that means water can’t get in. I’m coming over.’”
Falterman dropped a sliding-seat rowing station into the old Grumman and named it Edna, after the grandmother who brought it into the family decades ago. Then she proceeded to row it down the Mississippi, starting at the source in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, in the summer of 2019. She’d planned to run Big Muddy all in one go, but when her other grandmother, Evelyn Lalonde, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, Falterman left the river to spend time with her before she passed.
Falterman picked up the thread this summer, rowing from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico, then continuing west along the Intracoastal waterway to her parents’ home in Tarkington, on the Trinity River in southeast Texas.
There she rowed her parents across the river to place a cross on an oak tree near the spot where her brother Patrick died in 2016. Patrick was piloting a two-seat aerobatic plane when the engine cut out unexpectedly and the aircraft crashed into the Trinity River, killing Patrick and a friend.
A year later, in 2017, Falterman kayaked the length of the Missouri River in his memory. Then she rowed the Mississippi, traveling in the style she learned from her brother on a gloriously disastrous river trip in the jungles of Brazil. She kept no strict itinerary on the Mississippi, camping free on islands and cow pastures and half-sunken barges and resupplying at grocery stores along the way. She spent about $300 a month on the river but still managed to end up broke, having poured her life savings into a down payment on an ocean-going rowboat. She named it Eve, after her grandmother, and plans to row it around the world.
Adventure Journal: How would you describe your style of river travel?
Ellen Falterman: Seat-of-the-pants. I don’t like knowing too much ahead. When I did the Missouri, I had Dave Miller’s book, The Complete Paddler, and I didn’t read it before I left. While I was doing the trip I’d just read a couple pages ahead.
When my brother ran into [source-to-sea paddler] West Hansen and his team on the Amazon, West looks at my brother in this wooden canoe, and he goes, ‘How you’re navigating, man?’ And my brother’s like, ‘It’s a river. If you’re going against the current you’re going the wrong way.’”
That’s a great story. You know I edited West’s book, The Amazon From Source To Sea, and West wrote a wonderful chapter about that meeting, these Texans running into each other way up on the Amazon. You’ve dedicated your expeditions to your brother Patrick, and he was the one who introduced you to river travel. Can you tell me about that first trip?
I appreciate you asking, because that really is where it started. When my brother Patrick was 19 he just started hitchhiking south from Texas. He travelled all around South America for six years, picking up odd jobs, learning Spanish, learning Portuguese. He ended up in the Amazon basin and he built a 400-pound wooden canoe. I went down there during a summer when I was 19 or 18, and we spent three months paddling around the Amazon Basin, exploring.
The Rio Negro is the largest tributary of the Amazon, and if you paddle upstream and take some other tributaries, each river gets smaller and smaller and eventually you get to this plateau in southern Venezuela called the Serra da Arada. It has waterfalls coming off it, they call it El Dorado and there’s supposed to be buried treasure there—the whole thing.
So we paddled upstream for weeks, and three days before we made it to the plateau we were caught in a flash flood, and our boat got swamped. We lost all our food gear and we almost didn’t make it back alive. We hadn’t seen people for two weeks at that point. Of course, no cell phones, no GPS tracker, none of that. We had to go into the jungle and cut down poles, because we’d lost our paddles.
So file that under ‘Type-2 Fun.’
You know, he’s five years older than me. He’s my older brother and I’m the little sister and we really hadn’t got to bond as adults. I’m so glad we got to share that.
I kind of got the adventure bug after that, so a few years later I took a tandem bicycle with a partner I was dating at the time from England to Greece. It was a four-month trip and I just wanted to go kind of do something similar to what Patrick did, but I didn’t want to be on the water because I was still a little shell shocked by our incident in the Amazon.
I remember sitting on the porch, actually the porch I’m sitting on right now at my parents’ house, and Patrick goes, ‘So did you sleep in hostels and stuff?’ And I was like, ‘Nah, man, we wild-camped.’ And he just smiled. He approved.
That trip was in 2016, and two months after I got back Patrick died.
He died in September in an airplane crash, and I’m a flight instructor. I told myself I’m never going to get in a little airplane ever again. But I did. I took some time off for my mental health and then I went back to work for six or seven months.
The one-year anniversary was coming up, and I was like, what am I going to be doing that day? So I just kind of woke up one morning and said I’m going to do the Mississippi. I decided to face my fears of fast-moving currents and do a river trip for him, and when the anniversary came I’d be in the middle of it.
So I called up West Hanson, the only other person I knew that did stuff like this, and I said, ‘Hey, man, I’m thinking about doing the Mississippi for Patrick.’ He said, ‘How about you check out the Missouri?’ I said that’s awesome but I don’t have a boat, and he said, ‘Well, you can borrow mine.’
River people love to help each other out. It’s funny you mention West because his Amazon expedition was super-choreographed in order to get the first descent. Then he came across Patrick who had this completely different approach, and it blew him away.
If I was not exposed to the way that Patrick traveled, I would think that I had to do it the other way. I would think that I have to have all this fancy gear, I have to have a cause or a sponsor, because that’s what everyone else is doing. If I wasn’t exposed to Patrick and his way of navigating the world, I wouldn’t even know that’s an option.
Is there an adventurous streak in your family?
No one else in our family has really done stuff like this. My parents say when they were our age, people just didn’t do stuff like that. And I say, ‘No, they did.’ People have always done this sort of thing. You just didn’t hear about it because we didn’t have the Internet.
Take me back to the Rio Negro debacle, because as a river-runner I’m curious how you got out of it.
We had spent the last two months drying and salting meat, monkeys and fish or whatever, so that because we were planning on hiking on the Serra da Arada for two weeks and we didn’t have enough food to hike around up there . . .
Wait, I have to stop you. You were catching monkeys and salting them down to eat?
Okay. I just want to make sure I heard that right. You’re 18 years old, just out of high school in Texas. When Patrick told you, ‘Hey let’s go catch some monkeys and salt them down,’ what did you think?
Well, I mean, I was raised in a really rural area, so it wasn’t a big transition for me. It’s like, ‘Oh, now it’s a monkey instead of a hog.’ It’s not like I grew up in Houston. I grew up in rural east Texas in the piney woods. And I was with my older brother, and I trusted him completely to take care of me. He had already been traveling and paddling around the Amazon Basin for two years at that point. I’d heard all his stories so I knew what to expect.
The two of you were paddling upstream in a 400-pound boat. That must have been some hard going.
Yeah, we didn’t go very fast. It took us 18 days upstream to get almost to the Serra da Arada and then four days to float downstream to the first village. It’s lucky that we were going upstream because we didn’t have paddles to come downstream.
Since we were so close to the Serra, if it rains even a little bit up there it comes immediately down the plateau and creates flash flood levels. That morning I was standing in the river washing dishes and the water was up to my knees, and by the time I was done washing dishes, it was almost to my waist. That should have been a warning sign for us, that maybe we should just sit this one out, but we were like, ‘All right. Time to hit the river.’
The river was tiny, about 15 feet wide and there was a tree fallen across it. We went underneath it, but when we got on the other side, the current was so strong it grabbed the nose of the canoe pulled us broadside into that log. Then it was just a matter of the water coming over the side and the canoe went under.
I grabbed the bag with my passport in it and jumped in the river, and a submerged branch caught me around the middle and stopped me. So I held on to that branch and whatever gear I could until I hear Patrick shouting upstream. He said, ‘The boat is underwater, but I have the line. I tied it to a tree.’
We walked back to the boat and all you can see is the bow line disappearing into the water. The current’s so strong it’s pinning the boat underwater. All we could do was wait for the water to go down. And we opened up that one bag I grabbed and in it was a deck of cards. So we played cards.
Gin rummy. We didn’t have gin or rummy, but we had cards.
That afternoon the water started going down enough that the boat popped up, just the bow. We got the canoe floating again, and there was a hatchet tied underneath the seat. So we went into the jungle and cut down poles and started floating downstream.
I can see how you’d think twice before going back to rivers.
I was scarred a little bit from that incident because we definitely could have died. I remember getting on the Missouri by myself for the first time, and this surge of adrenaline from some kind of PTSD, I guess. But I wanted I wanted to face that. I wanted to get over it.
Well, I have a very healthy respect for the water. And I think that no matter how many river trips I do, I always will. I’ve made friends. Let’s say that. I’ve made friends.
Was the Missouri River trip your first time back in a canoe or a kayak since Brazil?
Actually, I’d never been on a kayak before.
Did you have a chance to practice before you set out on that 2,300-mile river trip?
I did enough. I’m a pilot, so I wanted to practice my emergency procedures. I literally just had enough so that I could punch out an emergency and get back into the boat, in the water. I didn’t go out training or anything. I just learned enough to be safe.
So you paddled the Missouri from Montana to St. Louis in 2017, and two years later you started down the Mississippi. What brought you back?
Well, when you get to St. Louis you get dumped into the Mississippi and I’m looking at this river, and I think, ‘Well, now I got to do this one.’ But I couldn’t start there. I’d been talking to the Missouri for so long that this river, the Mississippi, was like a brand new person. I didn’t feel right going down to the Gulf at that point because there’s all this water upstream that doesn’t know me. I don’t know it.
Only this time you weren’t in a kayak. You were in an old Grumman canoe with a rowing rig. How did you decide on that setup?
Well the oars made me feel safe because they’re nine feet long and the act kind of like outriggers. And the canoe was free because it was in the family. My dad paddled it around the Atchafalaya Basin with his brothers growing up. We were talking about the Mississippi trip and what kind of boat I was going to use, and my dad was like, ‘Hey I think that that Grumman is at George’s house.’
So I called up my Uncle George and I said, ‘Hey, man, you got that Grumman? He said, ‘Yeah it’s in my chicken coop.’
I asked him, ‘Does it float?’ and he said, ‘Well it’s got water in it.’
So I said, ‘Well great. If water can’t get out, that means water can’t get in. I’m coming over.’
What did you use for navigation?
Paper maps. And that’s how I fly too, and how I teach my students. I’m a flight instructor, and I don’t let them use GPS until they learn how to use maps.
I just I like to be able to touch the maps and fold them and turn them and write on them. My whole journal is on the maps. Any time I had a thought, I’d just write it directly down on the map where I was. I put X’s where my campsites were, a Maltese cross. I just really like being able to write on maps, look at them, touch them.
That’s great. Twenty years from now you’ll unfold that map and go right back to that place and time.
That’s right. With maps I might not know as accurately where I am, but I am more where I want to be.
You’ve shared some of your journal entries on social media, and much of it is poetry or free verse. How did that style come to you?
From the heart. I mean, I got a lot of time to think about it.
I was just looking at one of your entries about an endless straightaway on the Intracoastal Waterway, and the last lines are “I have enough time/to make this poem rhyme.” Do you compose as you row?
Absolutely. I write in my head all day. If it’s good, you’re not going to lose it. So I write in my head as I’m going, and then when I have a chance, I’ll write it down on my map.
You’ve named two boats now after your grandmothers—the old Grumman canoe you saved from the chicken coop is named for your Grandmother Edna who passed away when you were young, and the other is named for a grandmother Eve, who you knew well.
That’s right. Eve is the name of my next boat. I actually don’t own her fully; I only own 25 percent percent of her. She’s in England right now, and she’s an ocean rowboat. So that’s the next adventure.
I understand you’re planning to row around the world. Your friend Dale Sanders tipped me to that.
Yeah, he was so excited. I stayed at his house when I came down the Mississippi and I told him about this circumnavigation and I said, ‘You gotta keep it a secret.’ He couldn’t wait to post about it.
Now that cat is out of the bag. Six years you think it will take?
Six years would be great. Might be more like eight, I don’t know.
You’ll do it in sections, yeah?
I would like to do it all in one go. I would like to leave and never come back until I row back.
I don’t know about money or times I have to wait for a hurricane season to pass, or if you can’t stay in the country that long. I don’t know what sort of logistic might keep me from doing it all in one go, but I’d like to try.
That’s refreshing to hear, because so many long adventures these days are cut up into pieces.
It makes it more of a journey, I think. You don’t see home for that long and then you literally row home.
What’s the boat’s story? Has it been across oceans already?
No. It’s a used boat, but I think it’s only been across a bay somewhere in England and then ended up back at Rannoch, the boat-building company. Someone else was slated to buy it when I got there but hadn’t given them any money yet. I said, ‘I’ll give you money right now.’
This is the perfect boat for my trip, because it’s actually a two-person rowboat, but they’re going to convert it for a solo rower and that extra room is going to be storage because I need a year’s worth of supplies to cross the Pacific.
Have you thought about what is going to be like on that little boat for a year?
I’ve thought a lot about it. I can’t wait.
I’m actually planning on living in the boat before I leave, since I spent all my money on it already. I’m 25, so I thought it’s about time I settle down and buy a house. My house just happens to be a rowboat. I have plans to park it at the marina on Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans, and there’s a small airport right next to the marina with the little flight school. So I can live at the marina in my boat, work at the flight school and leave when I have enough money.
What do you think your brother Patrick would think of your plans?
Jealous. He’d be green with envy, but in a really proud sort of way.
All photos courtesy of Ellen Falterman.
For a lovely read about one woman’s journey paddling across an ocean, pick up a copy of A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean, by Tori Murden McClure.