For most folks, spending almost two months in an open canoe paddling some of the most scenic waters in all the United States would be the adventure of a lifetime. For Trevor Clark, it was nearly 60 days in the most wonderful classroom he could ever imagine.
Wait a minute. Canoeing, adventure, classroom — those things don’t mix!
They did for Clark, who in late July completed the 650-mile journey down the length of the Alabama Scenic River Trail (ASRT), en route covering dozens of miles on the waters of the Coosa River managed by Alabama Power.
Clark put in on Weiss Lake near Cedar Bluff, just a few miles from the Alabama-Georgia border, on May 20, and on July 15 he paddled into Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay at the Gulf of Mexico, his trek complete and his mind electrified with the knowledge he collected along the way.
“I wasn’t on the river (trail) to conquer it,” said Clark, who laughs when asked if he is an adventurer. “I had not been in a canoe in probably seven years before I went on this trip. I just really like to study plants, especially medicinal plants.
“I like being outdoors, but my interest for the last eight years or so has been studying medicinal plants after my life was saved by a medicinal plant.”
How it all began
Rewind to when Clark, now 29, was a 17-year-old senior at Hoover High School and his car was rear-ended along the interstate and slammed into the back of a heavy-duty Ford F-450 pickup.
Clark didn’t go to the hospital because he didn’t think he was badly hurt. His neck was a little stiff, but he thought it was just a little whiplash that would soon get better on its own.
What he didn’t know until over a year later, when he started experiencing agonizing pain, was that he had suffered a complete fracture through his L-3 vertebra that day, a break that would change his life.
First came spinal fusion surgery from which he struggled to recover. Then came chronic pain conditions like neuropathy, which caused numbness and extreme burning in his hands and feet, and the syndrome fibromyalgia. Muscle inflammation. Joint inflammation. His adrenal glands shut down. Then there were the medications, 11 different kinds a day at one point.
The pain and the prescriptions engulfed Clark. In the midst of the fog, he went to bed and stayed there for almost four years, struggling to rise, let alone walk, and subsisting mostly on Ensure milkshakes and a little Grape-Nuts cereal. Then came even more startling news.
“My rheumatologist told me, ‘This is only going to get worse,’” Clark said. “He said, ‘I have you on 11 medications and with the narcotics, the thyroid medication and the adrenal medication, you have to keep increasing the dosage because you get used to it. So we’re looking at liver failure in probably 10 to 15 years because the medications are so rough.’”
Fortunately for Clark, his doctor had grown up the son of a missionary in Guatemala, and he told how he had seen people using herbs in place of medicines. He suggested that Clark look there for possible relief.
“I think he was just trying to give me some kind of hope,” Clark said.
Coming out of the fog
Still, Clark began reading ethno botany reports and by what even he describes as “dumb luck” found something that worked almost immediately.
The third remedy he tried was from the bark of the pau d’arco tree and after using it a short time, he regained his appetite and his mobility, quit all his meds (without asking his doctor beforehand), and finally one day strolled into the doctor’s office without a walking cane.
Now, almost a decade later, he’s one of just two dozen people known to have paddled the entire ASRT – along the way sleeping in a hammock under the stars; shooting at copperheads with his .38-caliber pistol; having his campsite flooded in the middle of the night when a dam was opened and being detained in handcuffs by sheriff’s deputies while they checked his ID and determined what he was doing.
Still, it was the experience of studying herbs like the basswood – or American linden tree – the tulip poplar, the perennial flowering bloodroot and many others found along the way that Clark will remember most.
“It was a perfect opportunity to study in a bunch of different ecosystems,” Clark said. “Just to be able to paddle from the foothills of the mountains down through all those ecosystems is a really unique thing. It is an amazing resource we have.”
Another thing that impressed Clark was Alabama Power’s commitment to the ASRT.
“They went out of their way to help with the portage trails,” said Clark, referring to the paths paddlers take to move canoes and gear around APC dams on the trail. “For groups like Alabama Power and the Army Corps of Engineers to open up access on their land for portage and camping is very important.”
ASRT Executive Director Jim Felder agrees that APC’s support over the years to help develop, maintain and enhance the trail has played a great part in making a “life event” like Clark’s possible.
“A lot of the success of the trail in the northeast part of the state has to do with our relationship with Alabama Power,” Felder said. “They have a done a lot for us on a lot of fronts. We likewise think we are doing a lot for them. We are being good stewards. We are promoting it.”
A larger purpose
Felder is proud the ASRT brought someone like Clark, with a unique purpose and mission in life, to see and enjoy what Alabama has to offer.
“This is the kind of story that needs to be at the top of people’s minds when they see or hear the word ‘Alabama,’” Felder said. “It was a tremendous story in itself with his personal health aspect, but for us it’s the pinnacle of how a trail like the one we have created can be used as a platform for a story like his. And we’re proud to be a backdrop for a story that big.”
Clark earned an undergraduate degree in herbal medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle in 2011. He left the country just days after his journey ended to visit his father, a nondenominational missionary, in Brazil and study plants and herbs. Then he went on to Peru for more study. Upon his return to the U.S., he hopes to enroll in the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy to specialize in pharmacognosy, which is the “study of bioactive natural substances found in terrestrial and marine organisms.”
Clark certainly achieved much with his trip. He recruited national sponsors like Old Town Canoes & Kayaks and ENO Camping Gear to finance it. He publicized it worldwide through social media and a blog that now has about 132,000 readers. He joined the select group of 24 that, according to the ASRT’s president and founder, Fred Couch, has conquered the entire trail since its inception. In Clark’s mind, however, his greatest achievement was the simplest.
“The accomplishment for me is just that I kept going,” he said.