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Consumer Reports

Cancer survivor celebrates life by canoeing around country | (KRT) FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - When Joe Kolodziejski made his incredible announcement that he, a middle-aged fat guy, was going to canoe around the entire perimeter of the 48 contiguous United States, those who didn't snicker told him all the ways he'd surely die.

He'd drown. He'd be killed by a grizzly bear. He'd die of hypothermia. He'd break a leg and be lost forever on the frozen Canadian border. He'd be beaten to death by thrill-seeking, Yankee-hating ruffians. He'd

Philadelphia-born "Philly Joe" smiled and recounted all the ways he would not perish. "I'm not going to get shot in a drive-by shooting. I'm not going to die of secondhand smoke " He ran through the whole litany, ending with perhaps the most telling: "I'm not going to die of boredom."

Fifteen months after first pushing off from his homeport in Port Aransas, Texas - after being tormented by high winds, freezing temperatures, a capsizing and the destruction of one canoe - this 56-year-old admirer of mountain men is as determined as ever to whittle away the miles on his 24,000-mile (more or less) canoe trip.

"It's just a matter of wanting to do it. What I learned the first year is it wasn't about the destination any more," the 6-foot-2-inch, 225-pound retired seaman says during a layover in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "It doesn't matter whether I finish it, but that I stick with it. If I don't live long enough to complete it, it doesn't matter. If I'm 85 and I do a couple miles and just keep going, that's enough."

Whatever the challenges before him, they are nothing compared to the fight Philly Joe faced six years ago. It was then, on his 50th birthday, he was diagnosed with Stage 4b Hodgkin's disease. That's the stage, he says, "just before they put your name in the paper and people gather 'round to say what a swell guy you had been."

A Vietnam combat vet, Joe thinks the cancer was linked to his wartime exposure to Agent Orange.

Whatever the cause, he beat Hodgkin's. He never doubted he would, he says. He tackled it head-on, the way he does most things. Between rounds of chemotherapy, he sweated in the gym three times a week for up to two hours a day, keeping body and spirit strong.

At the same time, he began to plot, conjuring up a feat in celebration of life, a challenge no one, as far as he knew, had ever attempted. Hence the canoe trip, beginning in Texas and taking him along the Gulf Coast, around the southern tip of Florida and then northward via the Intracoastal Waterway to New York, and farther north still to the Canadian border, then westward and down the Pacific Coast to the Panama Canal, and back home to Texas.

Taking time off in fall and winter, it's a passage, he figures, of years, maybe five or six or longer.

After a seven-month break and approximately 1,700 miles of rowing, Philly Joe was overnighting in Fort Lauderdale two weeks ago on the eve of his Key West, Fla., push. In March, he set his oars in the water off Cedar Key, Fla., where the journey ended last July. He slipped down the Gulf, up the Caloosahatchee River and into Lake Okeechobee, then worked his way down to the North New River Canal and finally into the New River.

In contrast to last year's frustrating start, the trip this year has been "almost like a vacation," says the affable canoeist, whose progress can be tracked on his Web site, "It's been a good experience."

To finance this venture, Joe, who is on a military disability pension, sold the sailboat he was living on and "everything else I had at far less than they were worth."

Dedicating his trip to American heroes past and present, including those of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Joe refused to buy any equipment not made in the United States. That meant no global positioning system, binoculars or marine radio, he says.

He wound up buying a second-hand canoe for $1,300. He also bought a rowing machine that would allow him to row while facing forward. "The night before I left I was still shopping," he says.

He got in shape, he quips, "by hanging out and chasing women."

With well-wishers, TV cameras and reporters crowded round, Joe launched his "American Victory Tour" on Feb. 2, 2002, in a 21-foot canoe with a 60-pound dog named Gracie (who would leave the trip after a couple of months) and close to 500 pounds of gear, including 120 pounds of water, a canvas tent and duffle bags, a machete, hammock, sleeping bag and one-burner stove. It was not an auspicious beginning.

"The day I left there were 20- to 30-mph winds on my nose and the temperature dropped to 40." The winds would dog him for 23 of the next 28 days. One day he rowed 11 hours and covered only nine miles. The first month was as much a mental challenge as anything else.

"Every day was a battle," he says. "I was wet, I was cold, I was hungry, I was thirsty."

He finally stopped thinking about the long haul, and focused instead on small increments of the next two miles or four miles, or making a particular nearby port. From that point, he says, "there were never defeats or setbacks; everything was a victory or a learning experience."

He's fought off bugs, cruised among sharks, gators and dolphins, and been freed from the mundane worries of the common life, things such as mortgages, car payments, insurance and all the rest.

"It's very peaceful," he says. "When you separate yourself from civilization you have no worries, only problems. And problems have solutions. I'm good at problem solving."

Helping to buoy his spirit is the consistent goodwill and generosity he encounters along the way.

In Louisiana, Cajuns on the shoreline invited him to join in their cookout.

While he was searching for a campground, an Alabama couple offered their dock, and later brought him a dinner of barbecued shrimp wrapped in ham. They also donated generously to his trip fund.

In Mississippi, the commodore of a yacht club drove him into town for supplies and then took him home for dinner.

"I've had people give me the keys to their house," he says, sounding incredulous.

Toward the end of last May, Philly Joe had serious cause to question his wisdom, if not his sanity. He had been rowing about two hours and was just outside Destin, Fla., in Choctawhatchee Bay. The water looked like mashed potatoes for all the whitecaps. As he got halfway across, the wind and seas kicked up furiously. The canoe began taking water. A thunderstorm rose from the east, and seas swelled to five feet. Philly Joe cinched up his life vest and prepared for the worst. A wave started to roll the canoe. Joe righted it. A second wave followed, this time taking the canoe over.

"I began laughing," he says. "The idea I could lose everything and not get upset made me feel good. It was a test of what my reserves were. I was alive. And this was an adventure."

A few minutes later a boat nearly slammed into the overturned canoe, never stopping to look for Joe, who was bobbing just feet away. Later, three powerboats, manned by personnel from a nearby Air Force base, rescued Joe and towed the canoe to a nearby marina.

The canoe and the rowing machine suffered serious damage. Most of Joe's gear and equipment were lost. His only clothes were those he was wearing. He did manage to salvage his credit card, though, and two deputy sheriffs took him to a Wal-Mart for clothes and supplies. The deputies also arranged for free meals at a restaurant, and that night, the fire department fed him and provided overnight lodging.

In June, Cathy Cloud, a friend who had been looking after Joe's mail back home, took a Greyhound bus to Panama City, Fla., to join in the adventure for a few days. Though neither had planned on it, they fell in love. A short time later they were married.

"I swore I'd never get married again," says Joe, adding that secretly he'd been in love with Cathy a long time.

The Victory tour ended abruptly in July, nearly six months after it began, after airboaters blew Joe's canoe out of the water and onto the rocks near Horseshoe Bay, near Cedar Key. The Stars and Stripes he'd been flying lay in the mud. He was tented in a nearby campground when the mischief occurred.

"That was the low point," he says. "It was the first time I'd had anything deliberately damaged. In Louisiana, I left my boat with everything in it for four days unattended and nobody touched anything."

With the canoe destroyed, Joe returned to Port Aransas. On Aug. 13, he and Cathy married. During the next several months, he'd rethink his equipment.

In March, he picked up the journey where he'd left off. This time, Cathy follows in a van, pulling a trailer and carrying a second canoe that she occasionally puts in the water to paddle alongside Joe. Most nights they rendezvous at a campground along the route. Cathy's participation allows Joe to travel lighter.

Joe's new canoe, made of Kevlar and bought new for $2,300, is much like last year's, only shorter. A Wenonah Itasca, it measures 18 ½ feet long, 35 inches wide and weighs about 58 pounds.

Joe replaced the heavy canvas tent with a high-quality nylon dome tent. And instead of stowing gear in canvas duffle bags, he has proper dry bags.

Though his shorter canoe is supposed to be slower, "I'm going twice as far these days as last year," he says. He averages 20 miles a day, and on at least one occasion logged as many as 28.

Unchanged is the unrelenting discomfort. "Every part of my body hurts." His hands, back, butt. He keeps experimenting with different seats. "I've gotten good with pain management," he jokes.

He was hoping to row into New York this year before his winter break and in time for the Sept. 11 observances. Now, he says, "That's really going to be a stretch." But however far he gets, he gets.

He expects the most difficult leg of his circumnavigation to be a stretch off Cape Mendocino in California. "There's 87 miles and no beach," he says. "If the water picks up, the only option is to go to sea." For the Pacific run, he'll lash two canoes together and add a sail to create a catamaran, a more stable and seaworthy vessel.

To understand Philly Joe's commitment to this remarkable undertaking, you have to understand his take on life.

"We have a tendency to measure things quantitatively, by how much money you have, or how famous you might be. For me, life is not about that. It's an adventure, as long as you're living the adventure, taking the risks and living the adventure that's success."

So if you notice passing on the Intracoastal a brawny fellow in a canoe, wave and wish him luck, for he has thousands of miles and years to go before his rowing's done.

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