Things Could Have Started Better


The very beginning of the trip was lovely. Both sets of parents, Dave’s brother Eric, sister in law Allison, and friends Dana and Jay came to Itasca to see us off and sip some champagne as we push off in Lake Itasca.

Then things got rough.

The high water on the river makes a number of things a challenge, in particular steering at the very beginning when the river is extremely narrow. The hairpin turns at the beginning of the river are nearly impossible to navigate with a fast current. Often we would make the turn only to careen into the branches of the plant on the opposite bank. We were clotheslined so hard a few times the canoe nearly went on without one of us. And some of this happened with a gang of tourists watching. With the water so high we were barely able to fit under the second bridge after the official headwaters marker. Some tourist helped us by holding our bow rope as we tried to fit underneath and after word that out that we were headed to New Orleans they started taking pictures of us as we ricocheted off banks on our way down the river.

Shortly after this came the three straight miles of rapids. The high water and breakneck current made the normally class 1 rapids a terrifying experience. Rocks sped up too fast to turn around them. We had maybe a 60 percent success rate in avoiding rocks and downed trees. And the wind storms from last summer left trees strewn across the stream and added six new portages to what was supposed to be a one portage day. The one bright spot was when we met a stranger named Mark who asked where we were going. When we said New Orleans he immediately took off his hat, what happened to say New Orleans French Quarter, and handed it to me. Then on the first of the surprise portages he helped us flip our canoe around so we could get past the fallen log.

Things seemed to look brighter once we were past the rapids area. The river wound through a marsh full of orioles, goldfinches and red-winged blackbirds. Everything seems to be going well until we realize the stream we were on was slowly getting smaller and reached a dead end. Somehow we had lost the Mississippi and we’re stuck in a trackless swamp. Getting back on track involved a (7th) 300-foot portage through mud and marsh grass.

The next day things got easier. We wound through more marshes but managed to get only minorly lost this time. We even managed to navigate a winding and shifting bog, about which the DNR says, “Caution: Call the regional DNR office to determine conditions before planning a trip.”

Yesterday, on day three, we got an earlier start. Now the river was beginning to have farmland and homes in places. This can be both good and bad, we found. Many people smiled and waved, but as we passed one house a pair of big dogs came tearing across the yard and even plunged into the water to swim after our canoe a few yards.

Despite more downed trees and other surprise challenges we made it to Bemidji by 1 PM. We had a lunch at a pizza buffet and were in good spirits, but we came back to find that the wind had picked up and our canoe was completey swamped. Everything was wet. Everything. We ended up calling a cab and staying in a Super 8, where we strung up a clothesline and did all the dishes in the bathroom.

This morning we took a cab back to the Bemidji tourism office, where we had left our canoe overnight. Thanks to the wonderful employees there who let us store it alongside their displays. Before we took off, a camera person from Valley News Live saw us and interviewed us for a segment on the nightly news. So watch for us if you can tune in Valley News Live. We are now 10 miles behind but we hope to catch up tomorrow.

Here’s the video of us on Valley News Live.

Valley News Live – KVLY/KXJB – Fargo/Grand Forks

22 thoughts on “Things Could Have Started Better

  1. This was a great post! I’m only sorry that it was highly entertaining at your expense. I never thought it would be this interesting to read right from the getgo! Take care, you guys!

  2. I am excited to keep track of your trip this year. I live in Onalaska, WI and am willing to provide any assistance you may need when you make it to my neck of the river. Take care and keep the post’s coming…..

  3. I remember those first few curves of the river last summer! I was a tourist attraction for “how not to kayak”. There were 15 year old kids everywhere laughing at me as I got stuck under the first footbridge next to the headwaters. I will be sure to follow the rest of your trip. Have a blast! It’s definitely making me want to hop in the delorean and go back to July 8th of last year to do it all over again!

  4. Hello,
    Sorry to here you about your difficulties. You’ll appreciate the better days more because of it. If you happen to stop in Nelson, Wi. they have a great little barbeque joint on the main street through town. I think the channel however is on the Wabasha side though. If I were closer to the river I’d be happy to assist you but I’m in Black River Falls, WI. about 50 miles northeast of Lacrosse.

    Mister Breeze

    Mister Breeze

  5. Are the flies out up there yet? They made their presence known here yesterday, and man do they suck.

    Sounds like the worst of the swampy confusion is over, for now at least. I’m no river expert though, that’s what y’all are here for. Keep us posted!

    • Black flies? They’re the worst. For us just mosquitos, but there are currently more than 100 attached to our tent.

  6. All these crazy experiences are what’s going to make this a trip to remember so cherish them. :-)

    Any sign of flying carp yet?

  7. Awesome adventure. For the next month or so; weigh those challenges with your desires and experienced advice only – toss aside ‘opinions,’ there will be many. Paddle through it.

    • Great advice, Tom. People so far have been super nice but I agree it’s best to trust in our own experience and instinct.

  8. We will be starting down the Mississippi River about August 12th from Bellevue, Iowa in a pontoon boat, traveling to the ohio river and then up the ohio and tennessee rivers to Florence, Al.

    see our website at for details.

    putting together the boat now after a year of planning, hope to have boat ready for 4th of July parade in Bellevue, Ia. maybe we will see you then or along the river in August. will follow your trip here.

    stan c

  9. i am sending good paddling mojo your way. so wish i could be in a canoe right now. would rather have a flat butt from a canoe seat than this office seat any day…

  10. Wow! Already a big adventure. Best of luck with what’s do come!!! Props to you both for this ambitious undertaking!


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