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Will Hembree tightens screws while getting some minor maintenance work done on his kayak while staying in Peoria on Monday at the Peoria Boat Club. Photo by Nick Schnelle/Journal Star.

Kayaker stops in Peoria during his journey across country while chronicling the American Dream

June 26, 2013 at 07:11 AM

Peoria Journal Star

Will Hembree paddled unannounced into the Peoria Boat Club on Sunday afternoon ahead of summer storms, slightly sunburnt and more than 1,000 miles from home, his kayak in need of repairs.

The 31-year-old launched May 6 from Cold Spring, N.Y., in a 14-foot kayak, navigated the Hudson River to the Erie Canal and through two of the Great Lakes before making his way down the Illinois River to Peoria.

There, he approached Jeff Ledbetter, who was spending the afternoon working on his houseboat at the dock, and asked permission to pitch his tent while he repaired his kayak.

“About 30 seconds in I realized he wasn’t just some bum hanging around,” Ledbetter said. “I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ It was about six more hours of conversation after that.”

In those hours Hembree recounted his nearly two-month adventure on America’s waterways, his childhood dreams of floating the river like Huckleberry Finn, his plans to create recreation programs for veterans in the Midwest and the documentary he’s filming about the American Dream along the way, as Ledbetter offered his houseboat as refuge until waters recede to a safer level.

“Once I start explaining my trip to people, their sense of adventure comes out,” said Hembree, a ski and kayak instructor. “Just by relating my dream to them.”
Hembree has filmed hours of footage of his adventures on the waterways and casual conversations he’s had along the way. He explains his dream — kayaking across America — and asks people to share their dreams.

He’s heard dreams about education and health care reform, boaters who want to complete the Great Loop, a triathlete paralyzed in a biking accident working to improve handicap accessibility in his city and a father who wants to do his own long distance kayak trip to raise awareness for his son’s rare disability.

“Maybe there isn’t a typical American Dream, but every American has dreams,” Hembree said.

For Ledbetter, his chance meeting with the kayaker was a kickstart for the trip he and his brother have been planning.

Next spring, they plan to launch their own expedition through the Great Loop — following the Illinois and the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, up the eastern coastline to St.

Lawrence Seaway and back through the Great Lakes — a trip they plan to complete in stages over the course of several years.

“He’s actually doing the things most of us sit around and dream about ... You don’t meet people like him every day,” Ledbetter said. “Reminds you that through life you’ve got to make time for the things that are most important to you, and this is something he’s wanted to do for his whole life and he didn’t let any of the adversity stop him.”

Hembree can testify that on the river he’s had good days — paddling more than 60 miles in 12 hours under perfect conditions — and bad days — like the afternoon he battled six- and eight-foot waves on Lake Michigan before he capsized and swam toward the shore.

There, a vacationer walking his dog found the water-logged Hembree catching his breath on the beach and struck up a conversation.

After about a half hour, Tom Ingersoll decided to bring Hembree back to the South Haven lakehouse he and his wife frequent on their weekends away from Peoria.

“The first thing you said was, ‘This is not how I usually look,’” Marianne Ingersoll said of the day nearly two weeks ago when she first met Hembree.

The couple shared a meal with Hembree in their North Peoria home Monday evening, one of the few occasions Hembree has seen a familiar face on his trek, and recounted their first evening together, when they ate mint chocolate chip ice cream before Hembree pitched his tent in the yard.

Hembree told them of his family in southwest Missouri — that part of his parents’ home was ripped away by recent tornadoes as his father escaped injury under a mattress a few yards away — and how he plans to start recreation programs for military service members like his brother, a Marine who was injured in Iraq.

“Out of something bad that happened to Will, like capsizing, something good has happened to us,” Tom said.

“I think he’s changed us in a way, I really do. We haven’t stopped talking about him and wondering about his adventures,” Marianne said.

And the payoff, Hembree says, is twofold.

“This trip is about the human interactions along the way,” Hembree said. “The generosity that has been given to me is really, really enlightening feeling, and I hope more people can have that level of generosity in their lives. The world would be a better place.”

Laura Nightengale can be reached at 686-3181 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow her on Twitter @lauranight.

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