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Boatyard worker paddles to Bar Harbor

Jimmy Smith lives in a boat shed — but is truly alive when he’s traveling the countryBy

Jimmy Smith lives in a boat shed — but is truly alive when he’s traveling the countryBy

Jimmy S. Smith already knew about “trail magic” when, for the first time in his life, he stepped into a kayak, prepared that very minute to begin the long aquatic trek from Rock Hall, Md., to Bar Harbor, Maine. He knew absolutely nothing about kayaking, however, and had never before been in one of the tippy craft. He shifted his full weight into the little wooden boat he had built, capsized it and fell into Chesapeake Bay.

He tried again, and again he splashed. But by the end of that May day in 2003, Smith had circumnavigated the peninsula on which Rock Hall sits and his daring voyage had officially begun. It would take several doses of “trail magic” to cover the 400-plus-mile route Smith planned to travel. But then, he had come to rely upon — and expect — this form of mystical assistance. In two hikes that, in prior years, took him the 2,160-mile length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, the 43-year-old had never been let down.

This spring, Smith, now 45, plans another terrestrial expedition, this one along the Pacific Crest Trail, 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. He has prepared for the adventure the same way he had readied himself for the voyage of the Blue Blaze, his Chesapeake Light Craft kit kayak — by working at and living in a Maryland boat shed that he has called home for the last three years. His tent is pitched on a plywood loft high in the dark, cavernous shed. Below this lair, an ancient cast iron, belt-driven wood plane stands in the shavings and sawdust near its modern steel counterpart, two of myriad boatbuilding tools. Directly under the loft is a new, narrow wooden kayak that Smith is building. Pieces of exotic timber litter the shed inside and out. The halved trunk of an angelique tree lies along the south side of the shed, where it is being sawed into parts for a Delaware Bay oyster schooner that Smith’s boss, Ed Farley, is restoring.

Smith came to the Chesapeake to scrape and paint that schooner for Farley when the boat was still floating at a Baltimore dock. He found the flexible employer he needed for his adventures when Farley brought Smith back for a second year. Now they have an understanding: The summer comes, Smith is gone.

That pattern began in 1996, before Smith had ever been aboard a boat, when the Texan truck driver decided that at 100 degrees F in April, his home state had gotten too hot. He looked at the weather map one day. Springfield, Mass., was the coldest place in the nation. He went to REI —a supplier of specialty outdoor gear and clothing — bought a pack and some camping gear, and got to Springfield. There Smith found a lightly traveled road and headed north on foot; his destination: Canada.

One after another, motorists stopped and asked Smith if he wanted a ride. Finally, when a long-haired fellow in a beat-up Volvo with Grateful Dead stickers offered a ride, Smith had had enough.

“If I wanted a ride, I’d have my thumb out,” he snapped.

Perhaps, the fellow suggested, Smith would be better off on the Appalachian Trail. Smith had never heard of it, but now he considers that suggestion his first piece of “trail magic.” The man took him to a place where the trail crossed the highway. There were two signs. One pointed north to Maine. The other was aimed the other direction, to Georgia.

“Ever since I saw those signs, I knew I was changed,” recalled Smith, taking a break recently from woodworking in the shed. “The trail has, like, a spirit.”

He headed north and walked until he ran out of food money in Gorham, N.H. He returned to Texas and worked until, in April 1998, with $8,000 in his pack, he began hiking the trail in Georgia. The magic along the way often involved gifts from strangers of free beer. Smith acquired a “trail name” — King Alabar. It somehow fit his vagabond nature.

Smith wears the uniform of the wandering Deadhead. His hair is in dreadlocks, bunched in an effusive ponytail held in place by a broad, knitted band. His beard is not noticeably trimmed. His face is a composite. Youthful exuberance lights his eyes. But like an old oak plank, he is nicked and creased by the years and experiences. Once estranged from his father, a retired military man, he has reconciled. Last year, on his third Appalachian Trail trek, he called him from the trail regularly and noted the locations of the calls on a trail map.

In the winter, Farley discovered that Smith is an eager learner, a man willing to admit when he is ignorant — a valued asset for his employer. On the job, his clothing is tattered and paint spattered. His choices are unconventional, at times causing folks around him to keep their distance. But those who know him see a man who can go the distance.

Smith made it to the end of the Appalachian Trail in Maine on that first complete hike in 1998. Broke, he got a job harvesting blueberries. When that work ended, he followed the migrant laborers to Bar Harbor, where he was told there was plenty of work. He found a job on a steel schooner owned by Steve Pagels, a business partner of Ed Farley. It was the first time he had been on a sailboat, but he recalled Pagels was in desperate need of help.

Three years later, Smith was again working for Pagels, who sent him to Baltimore to scrape and paint the Katheryn M. Lee, the schooner Pagels and Farley had bought to dredge oysters on the Chesapeake. The next year, 2002, Smith hiked the entire trail a second time and then negotiated his deal with Farley in Rock Hall — wages that suited them both and free room in the shed. He built the loft and, inspired by a woman who had kayaked the entire East Coast, began work on the kayak.

Whether any novice kayaker could boat successfully across even the mouth of Swan Creek, north of Rock Hall, would be a debatable question. But on his second day at sea, Smith not only made it across the creek but paddled 20 miles north along the Eastern Shore before stopping to camp for the night. His fourth day, he reached the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, caught the change of tidal current and flashed through to the Delaware River.

Any boat trip to Maine from the Chesapeake requires the navigator to turn right at the eastern end of the canal, and descend the Delaware Bay. But Smith’s route through life is apparently not that predictable.

He turned left.

Someone had told him about the Delaware and Raritan Canal that was built in the 1800s to carry barge traffic across New Jersey from Trenton on the Delaware to the Raritan Bay near New York City. Smith had that canal in his sights, and he thought he would also touch base with the Appalachian Trail where it crosses the river at the Delaware Water Gap. He had not planned on the rapids at Trenton. There he changed his plans, deciding to forget the trail and begin his next canal voyage. But his information was wrong. The canal had, in many places, been filled with dirt for some time. So he turned back down the Delaware, headed for Cape May.

As he paddled along the New Jersey side of the Delaware near Philadelphia, he saw a large petroleum tanker moored to pilings offshore, unloading its cargo. Rather than skirt out into the river to pass the ship, he steered between it and the shore. Once on the other side, Smith had an unexpected greeting. The Coast Guard arrived, took him aboard, put him in handcuffs and balanced his kayak across the bow of their boat.

Whisked across the river to Philadelphia, he was interrogated by Homeland Security officials while others searched his vessel for, he would later guess, bioterrorist weapons. He told them to call Ed Farley.

“They called me and I called them back,” Farley recalled. “I said: ‘Who, Jimmy Smith? He may look wild but he’s a good guy.’ ”

By this time, Farley had seen clear through his employee. His assessment was entirely positive. But he recognizes not everyone reaches the same conclusion. “Because of his hair, and he doesn’t live in a normal apartment or home. He did have it at one time in his life and it didn’t work out, so he said: To hell with it. Anybody who stops to talk with him ends up entranced with his tales, and they are tall tales, but they are true.”

Deciding the homeland was safe from Smith, his captors released him and the trek continued. Foul weather slowed his trip to Cape May. Later, he was stopped in Ventnor, N.J., on the bank of the Intracoastal Waterway to look for a deli. A cop took one look at him and told him to move on. The next town was Atlantic City. There was no place to camp there, and then there was nothing for miles but marsh. It was after dark when he found a beach where he could camp.

At Sandy Hook, the northern tip of the New Jersey shore, Smith made his first surf landing and wrecked his canoe. The Gateway National Park rangers there told him it was illegal to camp. But, they pointed out, there was a place where they never patrolled and if anyone should pitch a tent there, they probably wouldn’t be bothered. Smith accepted their wink and nod, and spent the next few days there.

He found a hospitable bar nearby where he partied when he wasn’t repairing Blue Blaze, named for the trail markings on hiking trails that lead to the Appalachian Trail (The AT’s trail markings are white blazes).

It took four attempts before the little kayak made it across the rough water of New York Harbor. Then Smith shot through Hells Gate in the East River, surrounded by ships and tugboats in pouring rain, before making the paddle east on Long Island Sound.

He was arrested when he camped on the wrong Connecticut island. He was told he could not transit the Cape Cod Canal, so like the little pigs outfoxing the wolf, he got there early and was halfway through before the authorities noticed. He promised never to do it again, and they let him go. He stopped for a sandwich in Sandwich, Mass., then paddled on up the coast.

Trail magic met him all along the way, helping him across the terror of paddling the Merrimack River inlet chop, providing him with beer and good companionship in many places. He was made unofficial honorary mayor at one beach. He got some bad advice along the way, but he also got some good advice.

The magic was assisted by Smith’s trail experience. He carried an NOAA weather radio and never ventured in seas when they reached 3 feet.

It took the same frame of mind as the Appalachian Trail, Smith said. “I knew how long I could go without water,” and had experience providing himself with the necessary nutrition.

Unlike the trail, the ocean never left Smith cold. The novice never once got dunked after he left Rock Hall. In four months, with many delays for foul weather, he reached Bar Harbor. That was about 18 months ago. In that time, Farley has seen his employee go “from nominal skills with a hammer and saw” to building another pretty little boat.

“He didn’t give up. He said: ‘I’m going to master this thing,’ ” Farley said. Some time, Smith has told his boss, he wants to begin paddling south, following the magic, perhaps all the way back to Texas.