Kayaking for a cause: Solomon paddles the length of the Ohio River to create awareness about mental health

Photo by Alan Warren, Messenger-Inquirer | awarren@messenger-inquirer.com Joe Solomon poses next to his kayak as he takes a rest day in Owensboro on the way to Fort Defiance Park in Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio meets the Mississippi during his kayak trip on the Ohio River to create awareness about mental health.

Joe Solomon is on the trip of a lifetime.

On Aug. 1 -- at Point State Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is the headwaters of the Ohio River -- he stepped into a kayak and started paddling. His journey will end later this month at Fort Defiance Park in Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio meets the Mississippi.

Solomon, 38, of Cincinnati, Ohio, will kayak a total of 981 miles, or the length of the Ohio River, for a cause.

In 2012, a bad reaction to anesthesia during surgery left the former nurse in a catatonic state for 15 days. As a result of medications he received during that time, he now lives with permanent brain damage.

Solomon kayaks to bring awareness to mental health issues.

"Nature, to me, is very therapeutic," he said. "(Kayaking) was how I was able to regain myself."

After Solomon recovered his physical strength, he kayaked eight miles a day for four months. Suddenly, one day, inspiration hit. "I thought I could do a big river."

Solomon raised $1,300 last year to buy a kayak.

During his weeks on the Ohio, he's raised up to $1,000 in a GoFundMe account. He hopes to raise $5,000 for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Santa Maria's Youth Development Program in Cincinnati, where he served as an AmeriCorps worker for 11 months before taking off on his big adventure.

Donations can be made through his Facebook page or by going to www.gofundme.com/kayaking4acause.

He records his trip with a GoPro camera on his hat or the front of his kayak. About 850 people are following his journey online.

And, with talk-to-text on his phone, he's good to answer anyone who private messages him from his Facebook page.

Solomon stopped at English Park Tuesday night and is resting at the Holiday Inn downtown until Friday morning, when he plans to take off again. Before stopping in Owensboro, Solomon had kayaked 15 days without a break.

His kayak is loaded with 150 pounds of gear, including 13 liters of water, 9 pounds of dried food, a tent and clothes. At this point in the trip, he paddles 25 to 30 miles a day.

He's on the river eight to 13 hours a day, depending on wind and weather. He paddles rain or shine, but stays off the water when lightning strikes.

"It's extremely strenuous," Solomon said. "It takes a toll on your psyche, for sure."

The first two weeks proved brutal. He has learned a lot about the river. For example, the hot-water exhaust in front of power plants is strong enough to roll a kayak. Any discharge into the river can prove dangerous.

Solomon knows of two others navigating the Ohio River alone right now. One left the headwaters in Pittsburgh seven days after him, and one recently left from Louisville.

Solomon stops in towns along the way every night. About 50% of the time, he pitches his tent along some riverbank or goes to a nearby campground.

He has stayed at bed-'n'-breakfasts, hotels and strangers' homes.

Although he carries water, he likes to paddle up to boats on the river and bum Gatorade or water. His water is hot. Theirs is cold and more refreshing.

He's met many "river angels," who have offered him a place to sleep or a free meal.

Solomon found one at the Holiday Inn in Owensboro. The manager gave him breakfast for free Wednesday morning.

So far, wind has been his biggest foe.

"The Ohio is a lot bigger than I expected," he said. "When you get down this far, it's massive."

After the trip ends, Solomon would like to buy a pontoon boat so he can revisit every town and river angel again.

"I've made lifelong friends out here doing this," he said.

Many people tell him they envy the freedom of being able to paddle one of the nation's great rivers like a modern-day Huck Finn.

Solomon reminds everyone he's doing it for a cause.

"People with mental illness are not alone. I am here representing them," he said. "More people need to talk about (mental illness). I think I've done a good of getting people to talk about it."

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com.

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