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The 2,400-mile Confidence Course
Specialists Dan Holderegger and Frederick Schlabach were all of two nights into their 51-day paddle when they first thought they could die. It was a fear they would revisit more than once on their cross-country journey from Wyoming to New Orleans.
As the two Wyoming National Guard Soldiers camped alongside the North Platte River in Nebraska, a thunderstorm ripped through the area. The wind whipped so hard and howled so loud that Schlabach felt compelled to text their coordinates to two friends, along with a plea to contact the authorities if he didn’t send an “all clear” text by 5 o’clock the next morning.
The weather didn’t calm down much, but they survived it, and, as planned, Schlabach sent that follow-up text to his buddies saying he was fine. He then shut off his phone, dropped it in its waterproof case, took down his tent, climbed into Big Yellow (as he and Holderegger called their tandem kayak, which they sold before GX could photograph it) and set off for another day of endless paddling.
A short while later, a plane flew overhead, lower than usual. It tipped its wings, as if to say, Hello, I see you. The plane followed them for a while, long enough for them to wonder what the heck it was doing. Then they saw a man walking through a cornfield toward the river. He signaled them to come to the bank and talk to him. They thought he was a farmer about to warn them not to camp on his property. He ended up being a ranger with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and he had startling news.
“So you’re our two lost kayakers,” he said to them.
What the …? they thought. We’re not lost.
Turns out, one of Schlabach’s follow-up texts never went through. And that friend had alerted authorities, just as Schlabach had asked. That had been a search plane following them, and there had been a team of dogs at their campsite sniffing for them after they left. Schlabach pulled his phone from the case—it had been out of juice earlier, so he had left it off all day. When he turned it back on, it was full of messages from concerned family members and friends.
“We were laughing about it … eventually,” Schlabach says. “But when it actually happened, we were like, We cost the state of Nebraska a lot of money. The ranger was like, ‘At least I’m out of the office today.’ ”
That episode of endurance was just the beginning. Schlabach and Holderegger traveled some 2,400 miles, down four rivers and through 11 states. They fought exhaustion, dehydration and boredom. They broke gear, lost equipment and made wrong turns. Lightning and rain chased them from north to south, from mountains to prairies, from water to shore. They saw so much lightning, in fact, that they became expert at counting the seconds until the thunder clapped … and then paddling like mad for the riverbank when the storm got too close.
Somewhere along the way, overcoming obstacles became the point of the trip. Holderegger and Schlabach, both 22, would prove to themselves and others that they could set an outlandish goal and achieve it. They emerged from the river with a newfound confidence that they can tackle just about anything life throws at them.
And none of it would have been conceivable or bearable without skills they learned in the National Guard.
FLOATING THE IDEA
Even the longest journeys start with a single step … or paddle stroke. For Holderegger and Schlabach, the voyage started with a joke.
While the two Soldiers were responding to a flood mission in Wyoming in 2014, Schlabach observed that all that water would eventually flow through New Orleans and wind up in the Gulf of Mexico. He cracked that they should follow it and grab an adult beverage at the end. The more they talked about it, the more it evolved from a dream into a challenge. They were both young, unmarried college students, with more freedom than they would ever have again. Finally, they decided to go for it. And when their Split Unit Training Assembly request forms were approved, they were squared away to do just that.
When Schlabach told his plan to First Lieutenant Terrance Bell, with whom he serves in Wyoming’s 133rd Engineer Company, Bell’s reaction was similar to everybody else’s: “Are you crazy?” But Bell knew that if Schlabach was serious, he could pull it off.
“He’s a Soldier’s Soldier. He’s one you want on your team all the time,” Bell says. “He’s a hard worker. He never complains. He’s just low maintenance. He does everything the way he’s supposed to do it. … If I could have a whole company of Schlabachs, I would take it.”
Sergeant Terry Smith, with whom Holderegger has served in Wyoming’s A Company, 960th Brigade Sup-port Battalion, mentors young Soldiers. “Usually you hear goals like ‘I want to get married’ or ‘I want to buy a car by next summer,’ ” he says. “But when somebody comes up with, ‘I’d like to paddle along the river all the way to the other end of the country,’ it’s like, All right!”
Smith says the training Soldiers receive in the Guard prepares them to accomplish goals as radical as a cross-country river trip. “I have no doubt in my mind that if [Holderegger] chooses to stay in the Guard after his enlistment’s up, he’s going to go a long way,” he says. “He knows what it’s like to set a goal and attain it. And he knows how to think on his feet. There aren’t too many goals you can set that are going to be as hard as what they just did.”
Smith kept up with Holderegger and Schlabach’s journey by reading their posts on Facebook. He saw in those accounts proof that the two possess many of the attributes that make great Soldiers: preparation, determination, perseverance and wisdom on when to ask for help.
There are many parallels between their trip and a military mission, from conception to planning to execution. “Being in the Guard definitely helped us with goal achievement,” Schlabach says a few weeks after their journey. “There are different steps you have to take to reach your goal. A lot of it is planning and recon and such. We thought of every aspect—the speed of the river, food, [harnessing] energy from the sun and how we were going to use that. We thought of how tired we’d be, how much we could practically do given the amount of daylight we’d have.”
Of course, it wasn’t a perfectly planned and executed military operation because, well, there’s no such thing as a perfectly planned and executed military operation, and this trip in particular was too long and complex to unfold without a hitch.
Holderegger says that before he joined the Guard, he was the adventurous type, but if something got too hard, he quit. He could’ve quit that night during the storm or during any of the other calamities they faced out on the water. But the Guard has taught him and Schlabach how to adjust to problems, and they applied that skill day after day, from June 26, when they put Big Yellow into the North Platte River in Torrington, WY, until Aug. 15, when they took it out of the Mississippi River in New Orleans.
MAJESTY AND MENACE
For all but 12 hours of the journey, Schlabach, a 12N heavy equipment operator, sat in the back of the tandem kayak and Holderegger, a 12C bridge crewmember, sat up front. They mostly got along and now describe their relationship on the water as like that of an old married couple.
They loved the freedom of the river. There were no bosses, no sergeants, no tests to study for, no responsibilities. There was also nothing to do but paddle, and by the second day they started singing Christmas carols to pass the time. They found they didn’t know the words. They told each other their life stories within two weeks, and burned through their entire music collection in short order. Hours often passed without a word between them.
They listened to e-books and became enthralled by the tales they chose. Every book they selected featured a real-life protagonist who overcame obstacles that made their journey seem tame by comparison. They didn’t do this on purpose, but it was a happy coincidence because those stories inspired them to keep going.
Their favorite was Unbroken, the biography of Louis Zamperini, who survived being captured and tortured in a Japanese prison camp during WWII after spending 47 days at sea following a plane crash in the Pacific. “[Those stories] really got us motivated,” Schlabach says. “If these guys did all this—and a lot of them had more trouble than us—we thought, We don’t have it too bad.”
They had it plenty bad, though. Vicious storms plagued them throughout their trip. With three days left, they spent a dark, miserably wet night on an island where the weather got so bad they decided to call Holderegger’s father, who was already waiting for them in New Orleans, for help. He drove to their location and picked up their gear and most of their food so the kayak would be lighter and thus easier to maneuver along the mile-wide and fast-flowing Mississippi River.
But nature didn’t always punish them. Sometimes it rewarded them. Schlabach kept a running list of the wildlife they saw, and by two weeks in, it read like the roster on Noah’s Ark. One special memory in Nebraska: being followed by dozens of bald eagles.
Their arrival in Missouri coincided with the MR340, an annual paddling race across the state on the Missouri River. They floated alongside competitors, and twice “pulled night ops.” One evening, the moon rose blood-red and huge, signaling the start of the trip’s most memorable evening (of the non-life-threatening variety). “The moon was right above the river in front of us, illuminating our path,” Schlabach says.
As they paddled along, they talked about the majesty of what they had witnessed. Of all the people on Earth, only these two Citizen-Soldiers and the MR340 racers had seen it. “It was like a painting of someone trying to portray how beautiful nature can be,” Holderegger says. “The sky was filled with stars, and you could see the reflections of all the stars on the water. It was one of the coolest moments of my life.”
At about 2:30 that morning, they noticed a light in the distance. As they drew nearer, it took on a much-welcomed shape. “It was a beer sign,” Holderegger says. “Oh man, we paddled faster.”
When they reached the sign, they found a pop-up Thai restaurant that was feeding MR340 competitors, and even though they weren’t technically in the race, they got fed, too, and enjoyed a cold beer.
Holderegger calls Schlabach (and Schlabach doesn’t deny being) the biggest hippie in the Wyoming National Guard, by which he means that hitchhiking is nothing new to him. But it was new to Holderegger. About once a week, they parked Big Yellow and made their way to a town for supplies and to find a hotel at which to grab a hot shower and sleep in an actual bed. The first few times a driver on the highway offered them a ride, Holderegger got nervous; it was hard not to after a lifetime of warnings. But soon he came to rely upon the generosity of strangers.
In Caruthersville, MO, a farmer filled up a flat tire on Big Yellow’s transport cart, then someone gave them a lift to the grocery store, then someone else drove them to a pizza joint, where yet another someone bought their meal, for which the owner provided a discount. That’s five separate acts of kindness, all in a matter of hours.
The Soldiers had a delightful evening on the banks of Lake McConaughy in Nebraska, where a man named Randy Hiatt had parked his camper. Holderegger and Schlabach told him all about their crazy journey, and Hiatt did not think it was crazy at all. He was, in fact, a bit jealous. An adventure seeker himself, he’s forever out on some backcountry trail or leading a hunting or fishing trip. Hiatt insisted his two new friends sleep in his camper, drink his beer and eat burritos he bought at a local restaurant.
“You’ve got to have something about you to even attempt a trip like they were doing,” says Hiatt, whose uncle served in the National Guard. “I just liked them right from the start. It was an honor to meet them.”
Hiatt enjoyed reading their trip updates on Facebook so much that he was disappointed when they ended. Only a scheduling conflict kept him from flying from Nebraska to New Orleans to greet them when they finally came off the river. “That’s the impression those two boys put on me,” he says. “They’re living something that I would love to have lived. They’re doing something I would absolutely love to have done.”
Then he pauses ever so slightly and laughs. “But I wasn’t smart enough to stay single long enough.”
GOING WITH THE FLOW
One last near-death-on-the-river story, again back in Nebraska. After the encounter with the ranger, Holderegger and Schlabach endured more severe weather that very night—even worse, actually, than the night before. High winds ripped Schlabach’s tent pegs out of the ground; the only reason it didn’t blow away is because he was inside, anchoring it down. Holderegger was sleeping in a bivy sack. Or trying to. Nobody could sleep through that.
Holderegger peeked out of his bivy and saw Big Yellow sliding toward the water. The wind was blowing their precious boat away, which was shocking because it was very heavy. Holderegger needed to act fast … only he couldn’t because he was in a bivy in the middle of a monstrous thunderstorm and getting out would have been a terrible idea. So he wriggled along the ground inside his bivy, inchworm-style, until he was able to grab Big Yellow and pull it back to safety.
From inside the tent, Schlabach’s voice rang out: “Whatever you do, do NOT text the coordinates!”
Check out posts and photos from SPC Holderegger and SPC Schlabach’s epic journey at Facebook.com/yakwy2no
TRAVEL LIGHT? EAT RIGHT.
SPC Dan Holderegger and SPC Frederick Schlabach’s epic trip was physically tough in more ways than one. With limited space, no refrigeration and unpredictable chances to replenish supplies, fueling their bodies felt like swimming upstream. If you plan to tackle an event with such tricky conditions, these tips from GX’s nutrition expert, CPT Holly Di Giovine, can help:
- Up your intake of healthy fats—avocados, nuts and coconut products, for example—and cut out sugar and processed foods. This will shift your metabolism, allowing you to burn fat more efficiently than carbs. The benefit: Your body will need less fuel, so you can carry less.
- Determine your basal metabolic rate using an online calculator like the one at BMI-Calculator.net/bmr-calculator. Knowing your BMR beforehand will help you understand your daily caloric requirements. As a general rule, half your calories should come from fats, 25 percent from protein and 25 percent from carbs.
- Invest in a reliable water filter, plus a few collapsible water bottles and iodine tablets for backup.
- Be sure to pack an electrolyte solution to help preserve bodily functions, prevent muscle cramps and promote hydration.
- Fuel with fats. The increased caloric density of fats—9 calories per gram vs. 4 calories per gram for carbs/protein—means they’ll add less weight to your load. Great options include nut butters, almonds, walnuts, cashews and a small container of olive oil to add to meals.
- Aid muscle recovery by consuming about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight each day. Protein powder supplements and chia seeds are excellent choices.
- Choose carbs wisely. Calorie density is key—pack muesli, rice, quinoa, tortillas and even instant mashed potatoes. Bring packets of sea salt for flavor, plus greens powder for an extra nutrition boost with almost no added weight.
- Drink lots of water. How much you need depends on your size and sweat rate, but a baseline is 2–3 liters per day. Remember: Temperature, fatigue and illness/injury affect hydration.
After running his fifth marathon in May, Schlabach immediately started training for a marathon of a different sort: a 51-day kayak trip from Wyoming to New Orleans. Schlabach keeps himself in great shape—he has scored 300-plus on every APFT since he joined the Guard in 2012—but he knew this epic journey would place unusual demands on his body.
In preparation, he drew up a fitness plan for the muscle groups he expected to endure the most punishment: upper body and core. “This definitely helped me out,” he says. “I wasn’t as tired and had decent endurance to start off with.” Here’s what made the difference in those sink-or-swim moments:
ARMS, SHOULDERS AND BACK (three times a week):
- Pull-ups, 10–15 mins. (mix of wide, regular, close-hand and chin-ups)
- Push-ups, 1 hr. (mix of wide, regular and diamond)
- Rowing, 30 mins. (on a rowing machine)
CORE (three times a week):
- Crossed-leg sit-ups, 1 min. x 2
- Leg climbs/Fifer scissors, 1 min. x 4
- Ab wheel roll-outs, 1 min. x 2
- V-ups, 1 min.
- Mason twists, 1 min.
Between each set in the core workout, rest for 4 minutes and do 1 minute of push-ups. The entire routine should take 45–60 minutes to complete.