Tarkington native Ellen Falterman completed a four-month, 2,700-mile rowing trip on Monday, Oct. 12, that began in Kansas City, Mo., in July, and ended at the Trinity River Bridge in Moss Hill.
Ellen, 25, set out on the journey in a 17-foot Grumman canoe she salvaged from her uncle’s chicken coop. The boat, named Edna for her late paternal grandmother, had sat unmoved in the coop for the last two decades. It was holding water, which Ellen took as a promising sign that the hull was intact.
“You can’t find canoes like this anymore,” Ellen said. “Back in the day, they made canoes from the same metal used in airplanes. If this had been a knock-off canoe, it would have already sprung a leak. My grandmother Edna died when I was 1 year old, so I never knew her. She bought the boat, so I named it after her.”
The trip was inspired by the death of her beloved oldest brother, Patrick, who died in a tragic plane crash in September 2016. Patrick was a fellow adventurer who took Ellen on her first river canoeing expedition in 2014. The two took a two-month, 400-mile trip on the Amazon River basin.
“Patrick was the one who started all of this. If he had been just a normal-schnormal kind of guy, I might not have tried this. He traveled on rivers, not the same rivers. I was 18 when we paddled the Amazon River basin together,” she said. “After he died, I felt like I had the foundation for other trips, so I just started on my own.”
In 2017, Ellen took a solo kayaking trip down the Missouri River, from Montana to St. Louis, where the river converges with the Mississippi River. The trip was cut short when Ellen’s maternal grandmother, Evelyn, was diagnosed with cancer.
“I was planning to row all the way home then but I got off the water when my grandmother got sick. I am glad I went to be with her,” she said. “This year, I came back and picked up where I left off. I came all the way down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico and then up the Trinity River.”
The endpoint for the recent trip had a special meaning for Ellen. It was near the spot where Patrick’s plane crashed.
Being on the water has given her plenty of time to remember the happy times and grieve his loss.
“The trip has been absolutely healing. I’ve had a lot of time to think. I started doing this four years ago because I was looking for Patrick in some way. I was trying to better understand him and I ended up understanding myself better,” she said. “It’s been a very interesting time of change for me.”
The trip had its share of perils, from mosquitoes to alligators, navigating through the Houston Ship Channel and Mississippi River ports, and weathering rough seas in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I got into some big water with big waves. It was a scary storm. My route had me canoeing on open waters and my canoe is not made for open water,” Ellen said.
She learned how to avoid alligators by keeping a watchful eye on the water and steering the canoe to the opposite shore when she spotted a big gator that might pose a threat. Rowing in reverse presented its own challenge.
“People ask me about gators a lot. I know there have been random attacks of animals eating people but personally I feel safer around animals than people,” she said with a laugh. “I would rather deal with feral hogs coming up on my tent in the middle of the night than a person.”
Ellen says she avoided camping near cities for just that reason.
“I am much more scared of sleeping in a city by myself than in the woods,” she said. “I do take a lot of precautions when I am camping. I hide when I camp and I camp further up the shore if I am worried about alligators.”
Along the way, she restocked her food and water supplies through friends or by walking to stores nearby.
“I carry about two weeks worth of water with me. I just have to find places to resupply my water. I carry enough food to survive for weeks. If I don’t know anyone in a town I am passing through that can drop off supplies, I just stop and walk to a Dollar General and buy supplies,” she said.
In a phone interview last week, Ellen told Bluebonnet News that she was having quinoa, veggies and deviled ham for dinner, a meal she prepared on her campfire.
Crossing the Houston Ship Channel was a bit harrowing. She describes the ships as looking like islands in the water compared to her little canoe.
“I had a marine radio and could talk to the people on the ships, but they can’t slow down or they will lose directional control. You just have to time it right to get out of their path,” she said.
When she isn’t off on a rowing adventure, Ellen works as a flight instructor for an airport in Lafayette, La. The passion for flying that Ellen and Patrick shared came from their father, Pat, an Air Force veteran and pilot for Southwest Airlines.
“What is really good about working at the flight school is that I can take time off for trips like this. These trips aren’t very expensive. My only expense is groceries. Money is just a piece of paper out here on the water. I spend more money when I am living in town,” she said.
Ellen says her recent trip is “small potatoes” for what she has in mind next.
“I was thinking that all rivers end in the ocean, so my next trip will take me across oceans. I went to England in January and put a 25 percent down-payment on an ocean rowboat that costs around $60,000. It was my entire life savings, so I am very serious about it,” she said. “The rowboat has a cabin where I can live. There is a lot of other gear I have to get. Once I have enough supplies and money to survive, I will leave. I will start heading around the world in it.”
The new boat will be called “Eve,” a shorter version of her maternal grandmother’s name, Evelyn.
Ellen plans to row southwest to the Panama Canal. She will venture on to Peru and row across the South Pacific Ocean to Australia. From there, the trip will take her across the Indian Ocean to South Africa, and then on to the Atlantic Ocean. The last leg of the journey will be through the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.
She estimates the trip will take about six years.
“It depends on visas and if I am allowed to stay in a country. I might run out of money. You have to be flexible to do stuff like this,” she said.
Her advice to others considering an adventure is to start planning and motivating your body.
“So many people talk about these things. I don’t talk about them a lot ahead of time. I just start planning. You will find all the questions you need to ask once you get started,” she said.
For more on Ellen, follow her blog: https://ellenmagellanexpeditions.com/