I’m going to build a boat – from rubbish I find on the streets of Manhattan – that I can take to the source of the Hudson, and make a descent of the river, 315 miles back to New York. I want to make a connection between the environment we live in and the environments around us that support us – cities, basically. And to encourage people to see those supposedly different things not as opposites, but as being interconnected.
The river is quite a handy connecting metaphor between the ‘wilderness’ at the source of the river, and the city at the mouth of the river. I’ve done this in London already, about five years ago, but I wanted to find a river that had wilderness at the source and a great city at the end. I realised New York was probably the best, because it’s the archetypal wilderness and archetypal city. There’s white water and hundreds of miles of really interesting river and mountains – but it’s also an international shipping lane. The more I looked into the Hudson, and New York, the more it felt right.
The Hudson river gorge is 20 miles of white water, so traversing that in a boat made out of rubbish will be interesting. I’m sure I’ll be doing running repairs.
Whether you’re on a bike or on foot – or, I suppose, in a small boat – you are quite vulnerable. But I’ve found that people are genuinely interested in what you’re doing if it’s something different. I imagine the police will stop me once or twice.
We’ll be shooting a film the whole time, building the boat in the city over a period of two weeks – hopefully finding a bike to tow the boat behind. Then making that road journey from Manhattan to as close as you can get to the headwaters, a 12-mile hike with the boat to the source of the river, and then a five-week descent of the river back to New York.
It’s not a campaign film, because I think people tend to respond better to interesting stories. It’s more finding these little narratives and connecting them to the larger one, which is determined by that quite simple, if challenging, journey.
When I cycled around the world in 2009, we had a website on which you were able to see exactly where I was, get an idea of what I was seeing from photographs, and what I was thinking from Twitter. The idea is to expand that and integrate data from river sampling I can do once or twice a day from the boat – so you have this parallel story with the health of the Hudson at the same time. Because there’s huge amounts of industry on the river and although it’s been cleaned up enormously since the 1970s, which was probably the worst time for its health, there is still sewage runoff, for example.
I want to turn waste into an opportunity, turn it into a challenge and something that’s exciting. I’m not saying that we should take all of our rubbish and turn it into boats, but I’m doing this project in part to explore those ideas for myself, so I can figure out how to live my life as well.
I’ve found New Yorkers are very protective of their river, but they’re obviously up against huge demands from people wanting to use it for other things.
When I was 18, I was working in Vancouver as a labourer on wooden-framed houses. I bought a bicycle and cycled up to Haida Gwaii – the Queen Charlotte Islands. That sparked off two things: one was just really enjoying that self-propelled adventure on the cheap and taking time to really look at things on a journey, rather than rushing through. And second was that very North American idea of ‘wilderness’ – cycling along a road which looked like it had endless forest on each side, but actually getting to a pass and looking back and seeing huge amounts of clear-cut land. So I started thinking about our perception of what we think of as ‘untouched’.
Through my university I went on trips in the summer holidays. One of those was cycling from Alaska to LA, visiting national parks and asking people who worked there and visited how they felt about the wilderness and what that meant to them. I learnt a lot about how national parks work, and how they are highly-managed places.
I think that people consider the idea of adventure or exploration as something that happens somewhere over a distant horizon to a small group of people. I’d like people to take away from this project that it need not necessarily be like that. If you have the will, and a bit of time, you can do something that is adventurous and explores inwards, rather than trying to find answers very far away.
1977 Born in Taunton, Somerset
1997 Cycled over the Himalayas
1998 Cycled from Alaska to LA
2000 Graduated from the University of Edinburgh
2009 Broke the world record for fastest bicycled circumnavigation of the globe, in just 176 days
2010 Travelled down the Thames in a boat made of waste
This article was published in the November 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine.