The Mississippi River has been more than a means of transportation in America’s history and literature. It is a gateway to adventure.
Adam Larson and Cooper Reff have been friends since the seventh grade and are now entering their junior years at separate colleges and wanted to have an adventure of their own this summer.
From Aug. 5 to 9, they paddled 103 miles down the mighty Mississippi from the Coon Rapids Dam to Wabasha. Although they had some experience, the farthest either had canoed was a two-day trip on the Mississippi between St. Cloud and Coon Rapids in late July.
They found out on the St. Cloud to Coon Rapids training trip that they had a lot to learn. Although they had been involved in the outdoors adventure class before graduating from Andover High School in 2010, they had never done extensive canoeing and overnight camping on random islands. They each brought less than a gallon of water. Thankfully, a nice person drove them a few miles into Monticello so they could buy more water.
They brought a massive tent that probably could have held 17 people, Reff said. Most of their gear was not water proof or adequately protected from the water. They did not think they needed sunscreen because the weather forecast predicted a mostly cloudy sky, yet the clouds parted and the sun baked their skin. Reff was burned so badly that he could hardly move when he went to work later that week at his construction job.
With these lessons in mind, they set out from the Coon Rapids Dam some time after 9 a.m. Aug. 5 with eight gallons of water, gear in waterproof bags, lots of sunscreen and a two-person tent that could be set up in about five minutes.
There were still some extra precautions they could have taken though. None of their gear was tied down so if they had capsized, their belongings could have sunk or floated away. Thankfully, the closest they got to tipping over was when Reff tried to climb a buoy and fell backwards into the canoe.
There was no technology except their cell phones, which they only used at night to call their parents or to take a few pictures during the day. They talked about anything to pass the time. Sometimes they would just focus on paddling. Each ran cross country and were in cross country skiing, so they have good endurance, but this trip really tested them in ways they had never been before. By the third day, Reff could barely move his hands.
The river current was not strong enough to make too much of a difference.
When Larson thinks about the Mississippi River, he will remember how “very alive” it is. Because they were on the river during the weekdays, they saw a lot of barges and other boat traffic. They also saw a lot of traffic on shore.
Each night, they portaged on a random island in the middle of the Mississippi. One of their favorite memories was sitting on a fallen tree branch with their feet dangling in the water and watching the sun set. They dined on hot dogs, beans, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, cereal and canned SpaghettiO’s.
There were many fun moments on the trip that it was hard for Larson and Reff to only pick out a few. They remember swinging from a rope swing on shore into the river. They wanted to get to Red Wing for one stop so they canoed when it was pitch black and only knew they were getting close to the city because the lights from shore grew bigger and bigger as they approached. They grew to appreciate comforts of life that people take for granted like toilets and showers. The YMCA in Red Wing allowed them to take a shower.
“It makes you appreciate a toilet or a shower,” Larson said. “It makes you learn to appreciate things much more than people who haven’t lived away from it for a while.”
At one point they were in the middle of the wide Lake Pepin and Reff had dozed off. Larson looked in one direction and saw ominous storm clouds. He shouted at Reff to wake up and they started paddling to shore, which they guessed was a couple of miles away. Somebody spotted them and came over to tow them to shore with their boat.
They started out going out 10 to 15 mph, but picked up speed when the torrential downpour came. Water was splashing all around them from the waves caused by the boat and storm. They were shouting, “This is crazy!” But Reff was still paddling, loving every second of it, he said.
Larson said most people they came across on their trip were very skeptical. One lock and dam operator came out and asked where they were going. When they told him, he said, “A little dangerous, don’t you think?” He said a lot of people come through claiming they are going to the Gulf of Mexico and probably stop in Missouri.
Another guy said, “You better look out for them snakes. There are snakes all around here.”
“No one really had anything nice to say when we said where we were going,” Reff said.
Their parents were obviously a lot more supportive to let them take a trip like this, although Larson said his mother was very nervous.
Reff grinned and said that his mother was “jacked” when she heard about the trip and frequently came home with stuff he could take. She was probably more excited for the trip than he was, he said.
With this trip behind them, both are wrapping up the last few weeks of their summer before heading back to school. Reff is a student at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he is majoring in business and minoring in music. Larson is transferring from Bemidji State University to Gustavas Adolphus College in St. Peter where he will study religion.
With his proximity to Lake Bemidji, through which the Mississippi River flows, Larson heard many stories of people canoeing to the Gulf of Mexico. He and a college buddy were fishing on Lake Bemidji and saw a kayaker who said he was going all the way to the Gulf. Hearing these stories inspired Larson to buy his own canoe over three months ago and invite Reff on this 103-mile trip.
They would love to take the journey from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico themselves, but know that time is running out. They would like to go the summer after they graduate from college, but before starting their careers. It would be difficult to convince an employer to give them three to four months off for a canoe trip, they said.
For now, these longtime friends are very satisfied with their own summer of 2012 adventure that they can talk about for years to come.
“It’s cool to do something that you will never forget,” Reff said.
Eric Hagen is at firstname.lastname@example.org