A Hull of a Challenge

For this mom and eco-activist, a leisurely summer canoe trip didn’t cut it. She’s paddling all the way from Miami to Maine.

Margo Pellegrino has been canoeing and kayak­ing since she was twelve, but the Medford Lakes resident didn’t paddle the ocean until 2004, when her hometown received 13 inches of rain in six hours. The system of dams broke, leaving Aetna Lake, near her home, a wetland marsh with little more than a stream running through it.

“It was fate,” Pellegrino says. “I had to find somewhere to paddle, and being in the ocean was just amazing.”

Since then, she has taken up canoeing on the open ocean. On May 7, Pellegrino was set to begin a 2,000-mile voyage from Miami to Maine, a route she chose out of sentiment. Her father, who died in 2004, used to sing “Moon over Miami,” and her family used to vacation in Camden, Maine. So instead of spending this summer at home with her husband, Carl, and their children, Billy, 5, and Julia, 2, she’s paddling an average of 25 to 35 miles per day. She plans to complete the trip before August 1.

The idea of paddling up the coast first occurred to  her in 2005 “after reading all these articles about the ocean and the collapsing fisheries…. I decided that the time is now, while we have a chance to do something about the state of the ocean and all its environments,” she says.

Pellegrino is collecting pledges from sponsors for each mile she paddles. At press time, she had collected $1,800 of a planned goal of $10,000. All proceeds will be donated to East Coast chapters of the Surfrider Foundation, a grassroots organization headquartered in Southern California that works to protect the world’s oceans, waves, and beaches. 

The journey will be grueling. Pellegrino will be dealing with every type of hardship the Atlantic Ocean can dish out. She is traveling in a 20-foot, 22-pound Fuse outrigger canoe less than 18 inches wide, navigated by steering cables. “For some reason, I just love the canoe stroke,” Pellegrino says. “Maybe it’s because that’s what I’ve grown up doing. Rowing would mean some two thousand miles facing backwards.”

There are no full meals on the canoe—Pellegrino eats three to four Organic Food Bars a day, providing 900 to 1,200 calories, but spends nights on dry land, where various hosts will provide meals and a bed. Her hydration system is a CamelPak and backpack, with tubes for sipping water. She keeps three water packs onboard: one on her back (for long stretches), one under her seat, and one behind her, lashed to the deck. Each holds two to three liters of water.

Weather is less of a concern than narrow, tricky inlets, where she will have to contend with rough, moving water—and boat traffic. Back in April, she says, “I almost got clocked on the Mullica [River]. There were two boats, and I headed for the one that wasn’t moving. But they were pulling a wakeboarder. They started up and accelerated right past me. I almost got hit by the boat and then by the wakeboarder.”

During the winter and spring, the 5-foot-4-inch Pellegrino trained six days a week six hours a day. When the rivers were frozen, she had a steady routine of running, swimming, and using the rowing machine. On weekends, she’d paddle 20 to 30 miles against the strong Mullica current. Housekeeping took a back seat to the project, she notes.

“We lived with mini-mountains of laundry and dust bunnies the size of kittens.  We ate a lot of salmon salad and omelets, and did pizza way more than I’d like. Never McDonalds, though!” she says with a laugh.

The months of networking and training while keeping up her responsibilities as a mother proved quite a challenge. If she wasn’t training, she was tied to the phone and computer, mapping her route, conferring with regional paddling groups, and arranging Coast Guard clearance.  Her canoe, a fiberglass version of the traditional Polynesian design, has barely enough room for her essentials—VHF radio, personal location beacon, and hydration system. She mailed food and supplies to various contacts before she set out, similar to hikers who walk the Appalachian Trail. She arranged flotillas of boats to accompany her in each region.

A low budget forced her to build a network of people to rely on each day of the trip. Getting more people involved further spread the green ethos.

The Pellegrino family is fortunate that Carl, an emergency response coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency, has a job that allows some flexibility to take care of the kids during Margo’s absence.  

“While this whole thing kept growing to the point where she was able to generate enough support to really make it work,” Carl says, “the bottom line is that I support this because I believe in what she is doing.”

“It’s our project,” says Margo. “He’s as into this as I am.”

Though she will see Billy and Julia only a few times between now and late July, she says, “My kids have inspired me. There’s no way that they will be able to enjoy a healthy ocean, clean beaches, and an abundance of seafood if we continue to degrade the ocean at the rate we’re going. Like any parent, I want what’s best for them.”

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