ILWACO - Pushing his sleek 15-foot kayak up the boat ramp at Cape Disappointment State Park at 7 p.m. Wednesday evening, 62-year-old Richard Silvestri looked more like a tourist on a day trip than a man who had just completed a three-year, 4,200-mile odyssey that began in Elizabeth, Penn.
Silvestri's trip of a lifetime actually started in 1997 when he read "Undaunted Courage" by Stephen Ambrose. The exceptionally detailed chronicle focusing on Capt. Meriwether Lewis' role with the Corps of Discovery's trip across America left Silvestri smitten with the idea of re-tracing their travels in his kayak, appropriately named Forever Young.
The narrow craft also has inscribed on the bow "1st US Inf Regmt" which was the infantry regiment Lewis was in when President Thomas Jefferson commissioned he and William Clark in 1803.
"Ambrose's book did more to further the popularity of Lewis and Clark than Lewis and Clark did when they made their original journey," Silvestri quipped about the words that shaped his last three years. "There is evidence that Lewis began the journey in Pennsylvania," Silvestri explained as he checked in to a campsite at Cape D. "I spoke with relatives of the original boat builders there."
From Elizabeth the intrepid Silvestri made his way to the mouth of the Missouri River, having paddled through the east, traveling 200 miles up the Mississippi, and then to Washburn, N.D. where he began the final leg of his journey May 9, 2005. He propelled his kayak an unthinkable 2,700 miles upstream during the first two summers of his quest and throughout the journey usually slept at the side of whatever river he was on rather than at established campsites.
"My goal was to put every inch of water under my kayak that Lewis and Clark had done." He launched from Washburn because it was the closest he could get to Fort Mandan from where the Corps of Discovery had departed April 1805 and where Sacajawea joined the expedition.
Silvestri, who used his cell phone to keep in contact with his wife in Florida "every night there was service," was delayed about a month when two hurricanes caused tidal surges that severely damaged the condominium where he lives. "I was a local hero because I repaired several units and the recreation center," Silvestri said.
The modern-day explorer's arrival at Cape D State Park marked the 121st day of the final leg of his journey, with the final jaunt to Oregon's Fort Clatsop to be completed Saturday. He was welcomed by Ragan Andrew, Long Beach's economic activities coordinator, and Terri Purcell, Washington's Lewis and Clark field liaison. A couple Silvestri struck up a conversation with while landing prepared him a camp dinner of ham and eggs.
"I wasn't swamped by any boats or anything," Silvestri explained of his time on the river. "The worst danger I was in happened when I tried to land in what turned out to be quicksand on the Mississippi. Luckily I was still holding on to my kayak." He only tipped over once during the three-year voyage. "I was hot-dogging it through some pilings and the side current caught me and tipped me over," Silvestri related with his shy grin. "These were lessons well learned."
The highlight of Silvestri's expedition occurred while not in his kayak. "I met Stephanie Ambrose (author Stephen's daughter) and told her what I was attempting. You could tell that meant a great deal to her." The elder Ambrose had recently passed away just prior to Silvestri's meeting with his daughter.
"There is so much beauty out there," the kayaker explained as another high point of his excursion. "This is something every high school kid should do before they graduate," the 62-year-old said. His remark led to an invitation to speak with three classes at Ilwaco High School Friday.
The low point in Silvestri's adventure happened in a reservoir in North Dakota where the barren silt was blowing continually into his eyes and the weather was well below freezing even in May. "I was ready to quit, but decided to stick it out because I didn't want my grandkids to think I was a failure."
Silvestri had visited Ilwaco before making his epic voyage across the United States. He was in a film the Army Corps of Engineers made in 2002 about the Discovery Expedition. "I paddled a dugout canoe and wore period clothing for the movie. I didn't even get my name in the credits, but I can point to me in the film," he explained with his dry sense of humor.
Silvestri retired after 26 years of fire service, where he attained the rank of Chief, and has also spent several years as a general contractor. He first rode in a kayak at age eight "before I could swim and I was scared," again at 22, and then took up kayaking as a passion when he was 50 years old.
He plans to write a book about his journey and will title it, "A Paddle Across America." Silvestri has already self-published a book about his kayaking experiences around Statton Island, N.Y. called "Statton Island Diary." Much of the debris from 9/11 was dumped there and one of Silvestri's duties included sifting through it, which he admits was a very solemn task.
As Silvestri unpacked his kayak for his final night of camping, he said "I wasn't sure I could do it (his odyssey) and I was still holding my breath coming across the Columbia when the wind picked up today," he chuckled. It took him over four hours to make the crossing in winds that reached 20 knots. "The elements fought me to the very end just like they did to Lewis and Clark 200 years ago."
With ocean in view and while enjoying his ham and eggs around the crackling campfire Silvestri light-heartedly summed up his campaign, "I have been able to eat all I want, exercise all I want, and see a beautiful country."