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Photos courtesy Julie Elkins and Mike Dulin / photo illustration by Steve Hedberg
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It was in the spring of 2011 when the wheels first began coming off of Julie Elkins and Mike Dulin's old life.
Elkins lost her job with a local gourmet-mushroom grower. Then the young married couple lost the lease on their rented house in Richmond. Rather than wait for the next misfortune, they decided to cut their ties with their old life and moved into a ramshackle barn in Hanover County. They took with them the basics.
And Dulin's canoe.
Within months, that 16-foot aluminum Mohawk canoe, outfitted with a makeshift outrigger and a Viking-style square-sailed mast, would become their whole world.
to Key West
"When we were talking about making a change in life, we had this boat," says Dulin, who'd brought the dinged-up canoe to Richmond from his Tidewater home when he came here to attend Virginia Commonwealth University more than a decade ago. "Imagine that — looking around and realizing you can change your life with something so small. It's not so much what you've got but what you do with it." So, in a sinking economy that has cast so many adrift on rough waters, the pair chose to grab a couple of paddles and ride the wave of life's convenient if corny nautical metaphors to see where it took them. In that old canoe, they set off last Aug. 1 on a Huck Finn-style adventure subject to the wilds and whims of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The 3,000-mile expanse of linked rivers, canals, inlets, bays and sounds rambles and flows the length of the East Coast.
Elkins is a painter and sculptor who, under the moniker Gaptoothstudios, crafts meticulously detailed porcelain dioramas often laden with imagery that somehow verges on both cheerful and vaguely sinister. Dulin, a writer with a degree in anthropology, has taught English composition at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College for years, all the while contributing art reviews to local publications and writing plays for the couple's DIY surrealist-theater company, Punk Sinatra.
The journey was something the couple says they hoped would help them grow as individuals, even as they grew closer. Though how close, they never anticipated as they paddled away from Ancarrow's Landing on the south bank of the James River across from Rocketts Landing.
Passing through storms, shark-infested waters, swamps and the strange seafaring communities that endure along the route, it took them 81 days to travel the 1,200 miles between Richmond and Key West, Fla.
In the temporary refuge of their Hanover barn, they became amateur shipwrights, studying indigenous boat building.
"This boat just grew before us," Dulin says, who marveled as they breathed life back into the canoe, a relic of childhood days spent with his dad, who died about seven years ago.
"Ever since, I really cherished the boat," Dulin says. Now, "[I] wanted to take my dad on an adventure."
Elkins recalls vividly the day she "heard a voice" coming from the boat as she did chores around the couple's isolated barn refuge: "It freaked me out. The voice said simply, ‘Suji-Loo.' "
"If a boat names itself, you listen," she says, figuring the Suji-Loo named herself the same way any new friend shares their name with you.
For their big sendoff, Elkins decided they needed a little bit of ceremony. After all, they were entrusting themselves to the elements, and it was best to acknowledge those elements and the power they carry.
"We looked up a boat-naming ceremony — an old one seafaring folks would use," Dulin says. A bottle of champagne was passed around — including a bit poured on the boat — and Julie offered a toast taken from an ancient marine ritual: "Here's to the sea, to the sailors of old, and here's to the Suji-Loo."
Elkins took a snip of a green branch from a nearby tree and placed it in the stern — "so you can find land again."
With that, the couple waved goodbye to the gathering of friends who'd come to see them away and cast off.
"It was slow and hard at first," Dulin says. "We were like, ‘We're supposed to do this for how long?' Just completing the James River was huge, and that was only six days."
Boat trips on the Intracoastal are nothing new. In fact, they're a time-honored pleasure among the East Coast's boating community. But making the trip by canoe is nothing normal at all, says Tom Botzenhart, a Coast Guard retiree who now works as a civilian search-and-rescue controller with the guard's 5th District in Portsmouth.
"Holy mackerel, that's awfully ambitious," says Botzenhart, who has never heard of anyone attempting the trip in such a tiny open boat. "I'm glad they made it safe and sound."
But in for an inch and you're in for 5,000 contiguous miles of waterway, says Elkins, adding that her husband's determination had set them on their drifting course, and after so many months of preparation, both were ready to see it through — even if their route wasn't anything akin to what she thought she'd signed on for.
"Mike tricked me," Elkins says, a wide conspiratorial grin revealing the gap in her teeth that inspired her studio's name. "He told me it's a canal. Not true.
"Albemarle Sound is 25 miles wide, and you can't see the other side," Elkins says. "We were dealing with 7-foot waves, sharks, winds, currents, crazy tides."
In those sorts of open waters, Dulin says, "Our North Star was ignorance. It guided us all the way. If we knew what the inland waterway was, we never would have left."
He says he was equally unprepared for the reality of the trip. "On paper, Albemarle Sound is only four inches wide, and then when you get there you're like, ‘Holy crap.' "
Crossing the sound forced them not only to let go of their old lives, but also to have faith that the water and wind would carry them somewhere new.
"People work so hard to keep control of their life," Dulin says, but in a canoe on open waters, "as long as you're floating, you're doing the best you possibly can."
The couple made the harrowing crossing in about four and a half hours, using the small sail they'd constructed for the trip.
After that, nothing became easier, but they knew that what they'd set out to do wasn't impossible after all.
Averaging not much more than 15 miles a day, they started making serious progress — 100 miles, 300 miles, 500 miles. For 81 days.
The reactions they got from people along the way were priceless — sliding up to docks to re-provision or to take a scenic break and soak up the local atmosphere, the two were skimming just nine or so inches above the waterline. They were always looking up at whoever greeted them.
"Everybody thought wherever we went that we took our canoe with us on vacation and had just put it in the water," Dulin says. "It's almost like a magic trick."
Even so, the couple discovered that while their canoe was unique, the course they followed wasn't.
Dulin remembers one fellow traveler, a "train-hopping punk-rock kid" named Stephan they met in Oriental, N.C. "We come sailing in there, and we paddle past this boat, and he looked like some kid you'd see in Richmond. It was rare you'd see someone younger on a boat."
The profile tends to be older men clad in boat shoes and Bermuda shorts. Stephan had been sailing for about three years. "He had more knowledge than most people I'd come across in the entire trip," Dulin says. "He had that idea that it's like the last frontier when you're living on a boat. Houses that were supposed to be home are becoming problems as people are being forced out by mortgages. We found we could drop our anchor in front of a million-dollar home, and nobody was going to say anything."
And then there was Mike in Bellhaven, N.C., a resort town at the mouth of the Pungo River near the Outer Banks. "His boat was half-sunk," Dulin says. "We pulled in next to him because we figured nobody's going to look at us if we're next to a half-sunk boat."
As they paddled the roughly 50 miles of waterway that fronts Camp Lejeune, also in North Carolina, the couple found themselves truly outclassed when six boats full of U.S. Marines began "buzzing around us, kicking up a wake and waving at us," Dulin says. The Marines were friendly, not trying to scare them off, but "it was almost like we were a practice target for a bit."
In Daytona Beach, the couple finally found mean people.
"They were very unfriendly," Elkins recalls. The dock master forced them out during a lightning storm.
The pair fell in love with their next stop, quirky Titusville, Fla.
"We met this older couple that just took us in like we were their children," Julie says. "His name was Bob, and he was this burly guy with tattoos and a beard."
Bob spends six weeks each year as Santa Claus. Eschewing the North Pole, Bob lives on a three-story houseboat with no working motors.
Titusville introduced the travelers to "all kinds of crazy people," Elkins says.
Like the retiree who claimed to be a former kung-fu master with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Jairus Purcell of Savannah, Ga., met the pair over a weekend boat outing with her sister and brother-in-law to Daufuskie Island, S.C.
Purcell first mistook the tiny canoe tied up at the dock for a kid's play boat, thinking, "it must be for fun just around the dock."
Later, at a bar swimming in music and beers, her brother-in-law bumped into Julie and Mike: "He says, ‘Jairus, you've got to come over here and meet these people!' We were in awe."
Over the coming days and weeks, the two sets of sailors got to know one another, as Elkins and Dulin's route eventually brought them through Savannah.
For Purcell, an active woman who recently had double hip-replacement surgery, the meeting proved inspirational.
"It proved to me that if you have a love in your life or a journey that you want to venture on, go for it," she says. "Because before you know it, your life is over, and maybe you missed a part of what you're here for."
In Richmond Hill, Ga., Frank Parson sat at a picnic table at the local marina working on a bid for the construction company in Savannah, where he's a division manager.
"And up walks Julie and Mike, and I start talking with them a little bit," Parson remembers.
Affected by their story, he took Elkins to town to buy groceries and then to his house to meet his wife and two teenage daughters. Dulin insisted on staying behind with the canoe.
"They were on a journey, and I wanted to help them," Parson says with his thick, pleasant Georgia drawl. "I wanted to hear the stories."
After enjoying Elkins' tales of 5-foot waves, towering cypresses and black water, Parson returned her to the dock, much to his twin 14-year-old daughters' disappointment.
The next day, he asked the dock operator if the couple were the most unusual travelers he'd ever had tie up. "He said that one guy came up from way up north on a surfboard paddling it down there," says Parson, who plans to put a bumper sticker the two gave him on the back of his boat: "Everything's alright in Dudetown, Va."
Elkins and Dulin had two brief shark encounters and spotted one alligator. "But the main danger was the vicious motor-boaters in Florida," Dulin says. "They'd drive by you kicking up these 5-foot waves — you're like, ‘What is wrong with you?' We saw dolphins every day. We got to see otters playing all around us. Racoons would come out at night almost hanging out with us."
And then there were the near-disasters.
As the couple prepared to cross Port Royal Sound in South Carolina, they made a serious error by misreading a floating marker. It sent them on a course that nearly took them out into the open ocean before they realized their mistake.
That was a really bad night," Elkins recalls, joking that it almost became an Atlantic crossing. "I lost my chart privileges after that."
Rowing furiously against the current, they finally found a beach, but as the tide came in, the beach became a small island, and then even the island began to disappear.
"It was complete blackness, and we had to get back into the boat," Dulin says. "We never wanted to go on black water like that — especially with crashing waves. Julie had a headlamp on, and I'm just steering to her voice. All of a sudden this rock jetty appears before us, and we barely steered around it."
They found another bit of land, a steeply graded beach where they thought they were safe — until Elkins noticed "Suji looked worried." When they checked the boat, they realized that the steep angle of the beach was allowing the crashing waves to dump gallons of water over the prow. The canoe was slowly filling up and getting sucked back into the water.
They managed to bail out the boat and carried it over a low rock wall to an adjacent private beach where they collapsed, exhausted, until morning.
To avoid other disasters, Elkins says, they found themselves relying on old superstitions, like not talking on open water.
"The water thinks you're lazy if you talk," she says.
"It's true," Dulin agrees, recalling their trip across the Albemarle Sound where all would be calm and the couple would let their guard down for a few minutes of idle chatter. "Then, bam, it was like the water would smack you in the face. You had to stay focused. We saw water doing all sorts of things we never thought it could do — popping and bubbling."
At an ominously named place called Alligator-Pungo Canal in North Carolina, the pair encountered their first real weather.
"At first it was like it's off in the distance, and then it turned on us," Dulin says. "Then boom, lightning strikes and we've got to get off the water."
Earlier along they way, they'd been warned of something called ‘snake balls,' clusters of water moccasins that would gather together in clumps when the temperature dropped. As they pulled the canoe as close to land as they could and jumped into the waist-deep water to hack their way through thick water grass toward land, they worried. And they couldn't leave the canoe, so the pair ended up standing in the brush holding their small craft through 20 minutes of violent rain and lightning.
And then there were other people's disasters.
Near Beaufort, N.C., they saved a man's life.
"It was a really nice night, and we were like, "Let's sleep out on the boat,' " Elkins says. It was to be the first time they'd slept on the boat rather than camping on land. They found a quiet area and tied off to a piling near some other boats.
Elkins watched a man and his dog in a dinghy leaving a nearby boat. "I'm about to go asleep, and all of a sudden I hear this splash," she says. "I look over and I see the dinghy, and it's upside-down in the water."
The man was fine, on shore with his dog, but now he was drunkenly shouting at them to turn their music down. They weren't playing any, but they decided to do him a favor by chasing his dinghy, which was quickly floating away.
"We headed back toward the shoreline, and we're looking for the guy and his dog, and we didn't see them," Elkins remembers. "We're getting closer to his boat, and I see these two little tiny heads, and they were making these quiet little splashes."
The next 10 minutes were all drama: pulling the man and his dog into the canoe. The dog cooperated, but the man nearly slipped away. They managed to pull him back to his boat. Stan — that was his name — sat for a long time, shaking, with a thousand-yard stare. Finally, Elkins says, Stan looked up at them.
"You guys know something?" he asked. "I'm a search-and-rescue diver for the sheriff's office. What do you think of that?"
The pair's adventure taught them about more than water, nature and the people they met. It also taught them about themselves.
"We'd get angry at each other sometimes," Dulin admits. It's hard not to when you're sharing 16 feet of cramped space surrounded by acres of open water. But the pair also grew closer.
"If something's bothering you, you talk about it — you become clear and concise," he says. With him in the aft steering, and Elkins in the bow providing steady rowing and a set of eyes, they'd made it this far. "We realized we both had a set role to play in this thing."
The couple celebrated their third wedding anniversary on the trip. Emerging from the Great Dismal Swamp after days of paddling past 37 miles of decay and renewal, towering trees draped in wisps and tufts of Spanish moss, they came to an abandoned camping platform in the middle of the waterway.
They made camp and celebrated another beginning.
By this time, the couple's closeness had brought them to a deeper understanding not only of nature, but also of the nature of how they fit together as a family.
"It was almost like we had to barely communicate sometimes," Elkins says. "We would have like these psychic moments."
The journey finally ended on Oct. 20 as the Suji-Loo pulled up to a dock in Key West, Fla., the farthest point south in the contiguous United States.
"Nothing brings you together like almost dying all the time," Dulin wrote in one of the journals he kept religiously throughout their travels. "We did this to bring awareness of life, its purpose and potential."
And that potential now seems endless, says Elkins.
"We'd talked about having a farm," she says of the couple's previous ambition that'd seemed so far from likely as to be little more than a dream. Instead, they've decided to stay on the water.
They've bought a used 25-foot O'Day sailboat, christened the Betty Jane, and they're outfitting it to allow them to split their time between Richmond and Key West. And they're focused on remembering that just as important as getting there are the adventures along the way.
"Now it seems like we can say just any absurd thing and it's going to happen," Elkins laughs as her husband groans. "We have absurd credibility."