By Michael Gutschenritter
On September 3, we scraped two Mohawk canoes and two old Grumman canoes off the shore of Lake Itasca, Minnesota, and into the two-foot wide Mississippi River. We stood by the boats with the clear, crisp water splitting at our ankles the way the muddy water would, months later, around the piers of the Frisco Bridge at Memphis. Eight of us pushed the boats down the first several yards of the river while tourists took pictures of us for their family scrapbooks.
After five months of organizing sponsorship, developing the charity, and planning fundraisers, we had a paddle in hand and felt progress.
We had two goals. One was the Gulf of Mexico. The other was to raise money for The Lambi Fund of Haiti, a grassroots non-profit supporting social civility, sound democracy, and sustainable society. At Itasca, we were 2,300 miles away from the Gulf, but $2,000 ahead. There was a lot of water ahead of us.
In the north, the crew members’ dispositions were quiet. We stood to see our progress but saw only endless Minnesota wetlands with calm water and tall reeds. Once a day, we found land and camped. The evening sun dropped late, shedding expansive layers of deep red and orange over the land and the thin ribbon of water. Our evening fires burned much the same with popping wood and embers vibrantly throbbing, lighting our faces, the guitar, and a sparkling bottle of whiskey. The crew joked and began poking fun at each other. The harmonicas glimmered and tooted.
In St. Paul, Minnesota, the quaint Mississippi River became the Big Muddy. Mist shrouded our entrance into the first big city. Barges lined the cement shores. Cranes swung shrapnel through the air and into metal mounds next to dilapidated brick buildings. In a few miles, and after our first locks, we pulled to shore to meet our friend Adam Johnson who had set up for us a fundraising event in the city. Rain fell throughout the morning of our outdoor event but, by the time the musicians showed up, the sun busted through and burned off the moisture. The event was an all-day success, raising over $2,500.
People came from all over the Midwest to support our cause and dance with cups of chicken soup and beer in hand. Leaving St. Paul was as hard to do as it was to accept the wasteland entrance.
But the country called, the river beckoned, and we heeded. The designated campsites with fire rings and Adirondack shelters were behind us. We now planned our mileage according to daylight and how much time we’d have to make a campsite in the woods. The River was high and wide from the autumn’s rain, which meant we had a hard time finding dry land to camp on. Often, we ended up on the lawns of riverfront owners who would come out after dark to feed us or give us cold beer, a luxury after sipping from sun baked cans with sand caked around the rim.
Our mileage escalated from 20 miles per day to over 35 — a fair average, considering the gale force headwinds. Our vagrant family grew close and realized our dependence on each other. We began talking about where everyone would live after the River and what we’d do, though we were only coming up on the halfway point. It remained unclear whether that was because people were ready to be done or we wanted to be together afterwards.
The St. Louis arch showed from a couple miles north. We expected the Missouri River to roar into the Mississippi, like the convergence of our own veins, doubling the current and sailing us to the Gulf with ease. It was supposedly larger than the Mississippi and its history instigated unfounded expectations. As we entered a two-mile channel of flat water through which all boats were to travel, we looked to the shore, then to each other, and asked whether the gap in the bank was the Missouri. Sure enough, we were passing the quiet confluence of the two mightiest Rivers in North America.
Our friend, Brett Arndt, set up an all-night fundraiser at a local, popular venue, where we raised several hundred dollars for the Lambi Fund. We were able to share our story and our cause with the people of St. Louis for the next few days. After some time, anxiety came over us. Cars cruised by on the network of highways, more quickly than any barges we watched from the woods while on the river. It was time to head south.
The locks and dams would no longer be obstacles. The remainder of the River flowed freely. North of St. Louis, while the River was at flood stage, we paddled straight through the dams with the Army Corps of Engineers cheering us on and the occasional DNR worker yelling futile demands for us to come to shore.
We didn’t have a schedule anymore because our Baton Rouge event was cancelled. It was disappointing to know that we wouldn’t make an extra chunk of money, but the prior events put enough stress on our itinerary to make us grateful for the opportunity to relax during the second half of the River. Our only deadline was to be back in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for the ski season.
We made it to Memphis for Halloween and New Orleans for a Haiti cultural celebration, an event at which we spoke to a sea of attentive people.
Days began blending together and much of the river looked like the previous day’s river. The difference was the numbers on the mileage markers, homing in on zero, though we never saw that last marker. We spent just short of a week with some friends in New Orleans, one of the greatest cities in the world, exploring the multi-faceted culture. We felt like we were done at that point and while it was difficult to leave towns like Wabasha, LaCrosse, and Alexandria, it felt downright wrong to leave New Orleans and the close friends we acquired. But, a few paddle strokes later, we were traveling with the barges, southbound to whatever came next.
By the time we pulled out at Port Sulphur, Louisiana, we had raised about $10,000 from events, pledges, and T-shirt sales. And, apparently, a question had been answered as seven of us headed to Steamboat together for the winter.