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Going Solo - Cathy Mumford
10/31/2010 - By Tobi Drucker Tesoriero

Going Solo - Cathy Mumford

Photo: Linda Rowe (lindarowephotography)

Colts Neck resident Cathy Mumford takes the journey of her life

Don’t let her petite frame and feminine appearance fool you. Cathy Mumford is a dynamo of strength, perseverance and focus. Proof positive of that power,  determination and drive is Cathy’s recent completion of a 740-mile kayak trip – solo!  Cathy paddled, camped, trudged through mud, challenged rapids, traversed hills, and  lugged her boat across land when she hit dry spots. Through it all she endured both  the blazing sun and torrential downpours of rain. She rode along in quick currents  and paddled upstream in her quest to complete the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.

And complete it she did, thus becoming the first woman to do it solo!

Although her journey was spent testing nature and her own limits, Cathy also took time to have her quiet moments. She basked in the beauty and splendor of her trip, jotting down her thoughts daily in a journal and taking breathtaking photographs to capture the moments of grandeur and exquisite beauty.

Cathy, a Colts Neck native, first found her love of the water literally in her own backyard, where she paddled on the reservoir in town. She has also been a diver and has taken life- saving courses. Despite being brought to everyone’s attention as a solo kayaker, Cathy does not view her sport as a solitary pastime. In fact, she would love to share her knowledge and enthusiasm with others, in particular young women and girls. She has hinted that she would love to arrange a trip with others to share her expertise. Living in Colts Neck fittingly had the opportunity to interview Cathy outdoors on a beautiful end-of-summer day with the serene and picturesque reservoir as our backdrop.

LICN: You are the first woman to complete the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Correct?

CM: Solo, correct. There may have been a couple of other women who were through-paddlers. The trail was designed to be done in segments, like three to four to five day trips. So it is kind of unusual to do the entire trail. People who do the entire trail are called “through-paddlers”. There have only been a few women through-paddlers and I am the first one to do it alone.

LICN: What prompted you do to this?

CM: I was at a cross roads in life. I had moved back to Colts Neck after being away for thirty years. I had been at the same company that I absolutely loved for ten years and - it was nothing personal - but they downsized. It was a series of  downsizings – downsize, downsize, downsize; I kept making the cut, then finally I was let go.

LICN: What kind of company was it?

CM: It was the Renaissance Center. It was an art and technology center. So the whole idea was the melding of the left side of the brain and the right side of the brain. I was a computer teacher and a graphic designer. So, it was a perfect fit for me. I was a creative person with a tech leaning. I would teach classes in digital photography and computer workshops. Also, I would do the graphic design for the company, all their marketing materials.

LICN: So did you take a lot of photographs on your trip?

CM: Yes, I took a lot of pictures. Because when teaching photography, I started teaching a variety of art classes, but photography just took off at the center. So I spent ten years teaching photography and learning along with my students. One of the things I always told them was to find a passion in photography – like if you love kids, take pictures of children; if you love nature, go out. So I decided it was time to take my own advice. My passion is, of course, paddling and camping.

LICN: How did you become aware of this particular trail?

CM: My sister, Beth Martin. I was living in Tennessee at the time. My sister told me about it. She said, “You can do this!”

LICN: Had you done other trails prior to this one?

CM: At this point, I had been canoeing all my life. I grew up in boats and I had been taking weekend trips in Tennessee, camping, and paddling and doing white water, which was actually more challenging than any white water I hit on this trail. I had been doing it by myself. My boat is 35 pounds. I don’t need anyone to help me put it on the top of my car or stuff it in the van. I have been doing that for around five years. But, nothing as extended as this.

LICN: Now that you have accomplished this, is there anyplace else you would want to solo kayak?

CM: I would love to go to Costa Rica; they have fantastic spots.

Is there anything special you look for in a good kayak trail?

CM: Um, beauty and a little bit of danger, but not too much (laughs).

LICN: Just enough for an adrenaline rush?

CM: Yes, correct (laughs).

LICN: Any special rules or regulations that you had to follow for the trip to be considered “official”? Do you have to let them know you are doing it in advance?

CM: I did not let them know I was doing it in advance, as I was afraid of jinxing myself.  I wanted the option to opt out if I felt that I couldn’t, without being embarrassed. I told very few people. Actually I did not even know I would be the first woman to do this solo when I first began planning it. So that was not even part of the original goal. I did find out along the way that I would be the first person -- female -- to do it. I often thought, of course -- 'cause this is crazy (laughs). No one else would do this.  Now I forgot the original question.

LICN: Where there any rules or procedures?

CM: Yes, you get officially recognized as a through- paddler. I had a spot tracker, which is a transponder. It is not like a GPS in that I could not see where I was. But I had friends and family following me on the computer. Have you ever followed a flight across the map online? It is just like that. All you have to do is see sky. It does not rely on cell phone service, which was extremely spotty. My friends could track me and those are a matter of official record of where I was. I did have to accept a few rides because there was no water at a few spots in the river. I never solicited a ride but I didn’t refuse one either.

LICN: So your friends and family could see you and if you paddled the wrong they could be yelling at the computer screen "Turn back!"?

CM: That actually did happen a few times. It would have been great if I had cell phone service. The funny thing is, my brother would call my sister and say, “I think Cathy is going the wrong way”. Then my sister calls my ex-husband and says, “Scott, Cathy is going the wrong way”. And of course there is no cell phone service so I am just paddling along. I got lost maybe four times, which is pretty good for me.

Photo: Linda Rowe (lindarowephotography.com)LICN: Did you do any kind of special training for the trip?

CM: I was a lifeguard when I was a teenager; I was re-certified when I was forty. I had CPR, first aid, and wilderness training.  I have always been athletic; the one thing I did not have was a lot of hiking or navigation experience. Other than that I was pretty confident of my skills in the woods.

LICN: What do you learn in wilderness training?

CM: You learn basic first aid, what to do until help arrives. You learn how to use a compass and a map, which I do know how to do. You learn different carries – how to carry people out if they are injured -- how to read the weather and the skies.

LICN: Did you do any special conditioning? Workout routines? Diet?

CM: I hurt my knee skiing three or four months before this trip. I was really worried. My plan was to be at the gym and be really buff by the time this whole thing started and I found by going to the gym I was aggravating the knee. The doctor kept saying you need to be still for six weeks. I kept saying that is not going to be happening. So I didn’t go to the gym, I totally took it easy, I paddled.  I paddled maybe four hours a day towards the end. I was trying to maintain my knee.

LICN: I would think even stationary in the boat you would be using your leg muscles and affecting the knee.

CM: Yeah, I never was sore.

LICN: That’s great. So how many hours you paddled depended on the day?

CM: As a matter of fact I had a two-mile day and I had a thirty-mile day. It usually fell somewhere between the two. I always wanted to make ten miles if I could and I probably averaged from 12 to 15 a day. But the conditions were always constantly changing. Wind, high wind, I would have to get off the water if I was on big lakes – too dangerous.

LICN: What was your worst day?

CM: My worst day was when I had to pull the boat through some upstream water. There were people on the bridge looking down at me. I said to myself they are going to call 911 and I am fine. But there I was in chest high water carrying the boat. I probably looked like I was about to die, but I was fine.  That was the daytime. So I got to the point where I was going to camp. There were more upstream rapids and I thought, this is a good spot. I will make my decision tomorrow on where to go rather than just pulling through rapids again. This spot was by a dam. And I know that the dam releases every once in a while, but it was a beautiful campsite, with a big fire pit. It was all sandy. Sand, by the way, turns to gritty mud!

LICN: So I guess you know that first hand (laughs)?

CM: Yes, I know that (smiles). I scouted. So you either go through the water or a path in the woods. I scouted three quarters of that path. I said, “You know what, if I can’t go via water I will be able to go by the path.” So I camped out and it rained six inches that night, which is a lot of rain. So …they released the dam. When I woke up the water was considerably higher. But I had a twenty-foot beach.

LICN: Wow. That is like you see in the cartoons when the character falls asleep, the water rises, and he is bobbing along in his sleep floating away!

CM: I thought the river was up because of the rain. So I went and made myself my little cup of coffee and I went to my clothes line and all of a sudden the water was up to my knees under the clothes line. The water was rising very fast. At that point I had to get off and get going. And that was not even the worst.

LICN: What was next?

CM: That sand is now gritty mud. I cannot go via water ‘cause now it is raging, it is a whole different river today, so I go through the woods and it is weeds and rocks, and it had rained so it is muddy and the bugs were awful. I was sweating and I was almost out of water. I was really nervous about the whole thing. I said, this is it, after two hours of pulling my boat. You also have to unload the boat and take all your stuff out.

LICN: So when you are hiking is the boat in a backpack-type apparatus or do you have a trailer of some kind?

CM: I have wheels. Sometimes you can use them and sometimes you can’t. So you have to unload the boat, then you carry the boat, then you go back and get half your gear then you go back and get the other half. So a two-mile portage becomes a six-mile portage.

LICN:  Portage for the layman means?

CM: That is when you go on land with your boat. So in other words, when you get to a dam you have to portage around a dam. They can be long or short, hard or easy. So here I did this two hours in the woods, running out of water; I was a little nervous about that.

LICN: Understandably!

CM: I remember reading that if you are running out of water, don’t sweat. And here I was sweating like crazy. Any rate, I was almost done, almost there and I get to this hill, the only hill in the entire trip that I looked at and said just no way. I couldn't do it. So the boat was literally stuck in the middle of the woods. It was so steep that I knew I could get my gear up, but barely. You were going through the mud. So I had to walk three miles to town. I went and found a kid with a truck who said he would pull the boat out for fifty bucks and I was, like, it is going to take three guys. He brought me back. By that time two guys on ATVs were there. I got on the back of the ATV and went down a giant hill.

LICN: Yet another adventure!

CM: It was. No one day was completely horrible.  That was fun. Then we pulled the boat out. That was an awful day. Muddy and … ick.

LICN: So the next question is, obviously, what was the best day?

CM: Well again, little moments. There was so many of them - especially the people. I had a great time when I had breakfast in Canada with this couple.

LICN: Was that in the beginning? Did you start north and work your way down?

CM: No, it actually starts in New York. I will show you the map.  Then you got through New York up to Vermont.

LICN: Where in New York?

CM: Old Forge is where you start in New York - I think that is in the center of the state. Then you go up into Vermont, dip into Canada - I was only there for two day - then come back down into Vermont then into New Hampshire then straight up to Maine. Almost half the trail is in Maine.

LICN: Interesting. I always pictured it as starting north and working your way down, not this up and down kind of trail. So you go upstream and downstream?

CM: That’s why people don’t through paddle (laughs)! Because there is upstream paddling, especially in the middle. That tests your strength.

LICN: Is there any special diet?

CM: I brought all food that I could store easy. Nuts, power bars, Ramen noodles. Anything that just required boiling water. Oatmeal was a great thing. I carried that with me. For the most part every three to four days I would hit a general store. At that point I would have to eat like crazy 'cause I was losing too much weight. You cannot eat enough when you are paddling eight hours a day.

LICN: You can write a new diet book as well.

CM: My joke is that at my age all you have to do is paddle for 8 – 10 hours a day for two months and eat granola bars. No problem – two months!

LICN: Is there a special time of year that is optimum to do this?

CM: Most people do this in the spring. Because there is more water. By the time I was finishing up there it was dry. Spring run-off is really important because you have water in the rivers. However, despite all the snow we got in Jersey this past winter, apparently they got nothing. They also had very little rain. There was very little spring runoff and my biggest nemesis was low water. The best time is early spring. For a while I was kicking myself that I should have left earlier, but it wouldn’t have mattered; it was just a dry spring. Optimum time to go is when there is water.

LICN: Would you do it again?

CM: Yes, I would. With a group if I could be the boss!

LICN: Well, I think you have earned it. You mentioned equipment that you took. Was there any specific maintenance that was required?

CM: You know, it was pretty sturdy stuff. I had to wash the compression bags. You fill them and they are this big and then you squeeze them and they become smaller when there is less stuff in them. They are waterproof. It was really important to keep everything working because I used every single thing. So if I lost one thing it would be bad. My wheels broke several times. I had to bang them together; I had tools. At one point I had to go to a mechanic in town. Every once in awhile I had to shower the tent and stakes down. You had to keep everything clean –ish.

LICN: So a brief inventory of what you carry on the trip would be?

CM: Brought a tent, backpacker’s thin sleeping pad, sleeping bag, multipurpose tool, a tiny camp stove called a pocket rocket, propane. For protection I had mace and an air horn and a knife. They took my mace in Canada. They asked “Do you have any weapons?” and I said, “Well, I have mace,” and she said, “Well, that is not acceptable.” When I got back into Vermont I bought some mace again.

LICN: In terms of when you are traveling, are there any days or stretches that you don’t see people?

CM: Yes, there were several days when I didn’t see people. My mom loves people. When I would call she would ask, “Are you meeting lots of people?”  And I was like “Um....” In New York and Vermont, the Allagash in Maine is supposed to be the most remote. When they mean remote they mean there are no hotels or restaurants. It is about 120 miles where there is no established town.  I was nervous about that as there would be no one to ask directions! My friend who did this before said you would be amazed. And I saw more people in the Allagash than anywhere else! You might go all day, but as soon as you went to the campsite, there was someone there. Mainers use their outdoors. I could not believe how few people were out in New York, Vermont and New Hampshire on their rivers - amazingly empty.

LICN: Do you find any differences between men and women in doing this sport?

CM: Just strength. Guys can handle bigger boats. Paddling is not a muscle sport, it is more about knowing water. My sister told me about this trip. The reason she found out about it was because a guy in New Jersey, Mike Stavola, did it solo last year in half the time I did it. I don’t know if that is the difference between a man and a woman but he was really fast doing it. I knew from the beginning I was not going to rush it. It was going to be quiet time for me, taking pictures. He did it in an amazing amount of time. He accepted no rides. He truly was amazing. Another thing about the guys are, I think they are a little more competitive about finishing the trip, setting records. There were four guys on a canoe ahead of me. They were going to do the whole thing without wheels - but they had four guys so you had someone to carry each end. It is not a muscle sport.

LICN: Are there any other sports in which you participate?

CM: Competitive diver as a kid.

LICN: Any other interests?

CM: When I was in Tennessee - I was there for fifteen years - photography. I was a photography teacher and I also went into the schools and gave third graders cameras and we had a whole mini-course. I was a board member of an organization for businesswomen, board member of American Institute of Graphic Arts in Dickson, Tennessee.

LICN: Any other professional pursuits?

CM: Well, I am an illustrator as well. I do freelance illustrating.

LICN: You mentioned you were born and bred here. Did you go to school in town?

CM: I went to St. Leo’s and Red Bank Catholic then Marlboro High School. It was in Marlboro where I got the art. The art department in Marlboro was amazing.

LICN: Any other family information?

CM: I have two children. I have a son who is 25 and married and he is a web designer in Washington D.C. And, my 20-year-old daughter is living in Dickson still and is a nurse’s assistant. And my ex lives in Nashville. We are still close.

LICN: Anything else that would complete the profile of you or the trip that we have not discussed?

CM: I think that this is great for girls. That it is very empowering for young women. Somehow I would like to work with teenage girls and maybe get them out into the woods. I think that it builds confidence.


Favorite Restaurant
Mumford’s Culinary Center

Favorite Music
Big Bands - Old Cole Porter stuff, Ella Fitzgerald

Favorite Movies
“After Hours”

Pet Peeve

Three people you would like to have dinner with
Amelia Earhart, Carl Jung, Jon Stewart


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