Life on the Mississippi

Interview: Three brothers and one new friend canoe the Mississippi River in 61 days

By Tim Mutrie

Peter, Dan and Paul Bragiel are brothers from the Chicagoland area whose combined canoeing experience, prior to this summer, amounted to three days total. They all live in California—Dan, 31, and Paul, 33, are Silicon Valley Internet entrepreneurs, and Peter, 29, is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker with a strong chi for adventure.

This summer, and thanks in part to a grant from YouTube, the trio recruited Tony Corella, a 25-year-old filmmaker from L.A., in order to attempt to canoe the length of the Mississippi River from source (Lake Itasca, Minn.) to sea (Gulf of Mexico). Last Monday, Sept. 12, the foursome—piloting two 18-and-a-half foot Clipper MacKenzies named “Pizza Ship” and “Techno Boat”—reached their destination, 61 days and 2,552 miles after setting out.

On Night 58 (Friday, Sept. 9), from a sandy beach campsite nearby some factories above New Orleams, C&K caught up with the whole crew via cell phone to discuss their expedition, and things like catching a case of pink eye, a chance encounter with an an unlikely prophet named Tank at a bus stop in Minneapolis, bouts of rigor mortis-esque claw hand, and DEET bug repellant-induced dementia. (Tune into to Peter’s Facebook page for forthcoming webisodes from the trip.)

PETER BRAGIEL

“This is gonna be our 58th night out. We started July 14, at the headwaters. … It’s been an idea of mine for a while. Back in the day, when I was in high school, I wanted to take a paddle boat down the Mississippi River. But, more recently, we kinda thought that maybe it would be best to take a canoe. This winter, my brothers really wanted to go, and that pushed us to make it happen this summer.”

“We got a grant from YouTube a couple of months ago, and we took this money to develop and produce this trip as a web series. …We haven’t made any videos yet, we’ve just been shooting the entire time. In our past trips, normally what we do is we shoot the content on the road, or the river, whatever, and then when we get back we’ll cut ‘em all together. So we’re anticipating around 10 to 20 episodes.”

YouTube gives grants? “They have a program where basically they help up-and-coming YouTubers … to better create content for their channels and help their audience grow. So 25 of us were selected to received the money. I took it and said, ‘OK, well, better put my money where my mouth is and canoe down the Mississippi River.’”

Are you following any threads of history as you go? “There aren’t any historic parallels that we’re following, no. It’s something we want to do on our own and create our own path, even though we do follow a lot of the different routes and we stop at historical places.”

So are you re-reading Huck Finn? “I was gonna bring it, but the funny thing is we really don’t much time to read. We’re paddling all day and then we camp at night. I was gonna bring Huck Finn, and we’ve got Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, and I’ve read a little bit of that. But like I said, we spend a lot of time paddling. Pretty much whenever we’re awake, we’re either looking for water or paddling or looking for a place to sleep.”

So you just pulled up to a sweet camp next to some factories? “Yeah, there’s three or four factories in our sights, and a bunch of big ocean vessels. We found a little patch of sand right after a boat ramp, and now we’re scoping out some dude who’s scoping us out. He’s like, checking us out from on top of this hill.”

What’s the closest town? “I guess New Orleans; we’re on the outskirts of New Orleans, 20 or 30 miles from the center of New Orleans, in an industrial area.”

And, if all goes according to plan, you’ll finish Monday, Sept. 12? “Yep. We’re hoping to do 50 miles tomorrow, and 50 the next, and maybe 30 Monday and end at the Gulf of Mexico, mile zero.”

What’s an average day? “Over 50 miles, with ten hours of paddling; wake up at 4:30, finish at 6. It all depends on the current obviously and which part of the river we’re on.”

Are you carrying solar gear to keep the cameras juiced up? “We have a couple solar panels that charge some batteries, and we use those to charge our equipment, phones, cameras, and all that. And whenever we get into town, or if we hit a restaurant, we usually bring all of our electronics and try to charge ‘em up.”

What’s have you encountered along the way—more urban, or more rural landscapes? “Let me pass the phone over to my brother for that one.”

PAUL BRAGIEL

“Most of the trip is rural. Minnesota down to St. Louis, it’s a lot of small cities, a couple a day. And after St. Louis, you see a city once every couple days, every 100 miles. It’s very, very rural—nothing after St. Louis.”

What are your backgrounds, in canoeing and otherwise? “Me and my brother Dan, we’ve started multiple companies together. We’re Internet entrepreneurs. We sold our most recent company last year, and since then we’ve been taking it pretty easy, doing a bunch of trips. So we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to do this trip now before we start our next company or whatever we do next.”

What’s the latest company?Lefora—a platform to help people build online communities. We have a couple million users a month.”

So who’s the fourth guy? “Tony Corella. We didn’t know him before the trip. Peter brought him on to film the trip.”

So canoeing experience? “The funny thing is, the collective experience of all of us canoeing is maybe three days total before this trip started. … But I’d say we’re pretty expert canoers nowadays. We’re not like amazing, but we definitely know how to navigate a river, we know how get around traffic and we know what we’re doing. I think we’re solid. I don’t know if we’re amazing, but I think we’re above average.”

Are you at least practicable campers? “I’ve done a lot of camping, but I wouldn’t say I’m the most hardcore guy. I can definitely get around, and all of us have had some experience building fires and stuff like that. But this, in camping style, is pretty average. It’s not like you’re going out hunting deer or anything like that.”

So it’s Day 58—wow are you guys all getting along? “At this point we’d like to get the trip over as soon as possible. It’s getting a little long in the tooth, because like I said, after St. Louis, there haven’t been too many cities so you don’t get to really experience a lot of stuff. It’s very monotonous. In the beginning, it was awesome.”

“But everyone’s in really good spirits, no real fights between anybody, and we’re kinda getting along. So we’re looking forward to the finish, but we have a common enemy: It’s the river. We just want to beat him. … People we’ve met along the way have been really great. What’s really nice about these trips, you get to see the country at a very slow pace. Normally you’d drive through these cities, get some gas and leave.”

“But not us—people have welcomed us with open arms: we’ve gotten free food and drink, people have bought us lunches, people have let us sleep in their houses… They’ve really welcomed us into their hearts. That’s what I really like about trips like this—you get to meet people and take it really slow.”

What are you eating? “When we’re camping, our food is pretty basic: Ramen and SpaghettiOs, stuff in cans, nothing too fancy. But whenever we have a chance, and in the beginning of the trip when we were in cities more often, we’d pop in and maybe do a lunch occasionally. But during the day now, we really don’t stop too often, so we’re eating tons of Clif Bars, granola bars, bread and honey, really basic stuff to keep us going.”

Have you lightened your load since starting out? “We’ve thrown some stuff away, like extra clothes. But we ended up picking up more gear; we bought a cooler for our food, more containers, and also we’ve had to pick up a lot more water. It’s so sparse down here in the bottom, so we pack it for three or four days. At the beginning, we’d have water just for one day. We’ve also had a string of 100-plus degree days in a row, so we have to compensate for that as well.”

How’s it work with the locks and large vessels out there? “In the beginning, the river starts really small; you’re the only one out there. Then you start seeing motorboats, people having fun, weekenders. Then you get to the whole lock and dam system and you’re navigating that and talking to all the Army Corps of Engineers people. That’s actually pretty fun. It kind of gives you a break and breaks up the pace.”

“But as you get to the mid Mississippi and lower Mississippi you start seeing really large boats, container ships, and you have to make sure you avoid ‘em. We definitely had ‘em honk at us and get really mad for being in their way, and we try to high tail it as quickly as possible. And now that we’re close to the ocean, you start seeing the ocean liners. These things are humongous. They’re pretty much buildings floating in water and you have to get the hell out of the way.”

What do people make of you guys? “People are very intrigued. They don’t know what to think of it. Lots of people think we’re crazy or we’re gonna die, but for the most part people are very curious and very excited to hear about our travels. They’ve heard about stuff like this historically maybe, Lewis and Clark stuff, but very rarely have people met someone who’s done something like this.”

What about your boats—how’d that work out? “Let me pass you over to Dan. He took care of all the equipment.”

DAN BRAGIEL

“I had no idea what to really look for. Google was our trusted companion for that. I actually did look at a couple canoe and kayak magazines, but mostly we had a couple of really good sources online. We started from there. In San Francisco, it’s not a canoe enthusiast kind of place; it’s mostly kayaking. So we pretty much had nothing in line a week before. We had the canoes purchased, but even that, I had to go through forums and message boards. And I must’ve fallen into a Canadian message board because they recommended a Canadian canoe—Clipper Canoes. We’ve got two 18.6 Clipper MacKenzies.

Have you named them, ala Kitty Clydes Sister, or what? “One’s called Pizza Ship; that’s Peter and Tony’s boat. And the other is Techno Boat. … We’ve been fueled by pizza. Really early on we had cravings for pizza and pretty much anywhere we went to we just ordered pizza. So we named it that.”

City slickers on the Mississippi—fair statement? “Yeah. [Laughter.] We have done trips like this in the past. A few years back, Paul and I biked across the United States. So we have these little weird spikes where we do these crazy endurance trips, but for the most part, yeah, we live in the city, we invest in tech companies, we’re pretty much Silicon Valley nerds. … And we’ve pretty much taught ourselves how to paddle.

Band of brothers? We’ve been very close, but this probably seals it even more, when you go through something like this. We’ve had some really hard times on this trip, and we’ve all been there for each other. We’ve had injuries and sicknesses, and we’ve been sticking with each other.”

How has Tony fit in? “Tony’s been a dream. You couldn’t have asked for someone better than him. He’s very positive, outgoing, and he didn’t really know anyone coming in. But he fit in perfectly.”

Are you guys planning another trip yet? “Personally [laughter], I may need some time to look back at this trip, but I think I want to do really luxurious trips from now on. Over 60 days, crazy weather, I can go for a break. We’ll see if I have a change of heart later on. But Peter, he’s gonna do more of these, he loves it. And I think Paul, he’ll get an itch at some point. Maybe in a different form, not as physically grueling but just as mentally challenging.”

How long did you think the trip was going to take? “Since we’re doing production, we weren’t exactly sure. I had a very conserative approach and I said 90 days. But then as we were looking at people’s finish times, we said 90 days is ridiculous. We’ll definitely do it in 60. Midway through the trip we were kicking ass, but then injuries came in play, and we had to take a couple days off. So it kind of fell into our expectations. Peter thought it’d be 58 days, I think I said 65, and Paul was hoping for 60.”

Injuries? “We had one day off for heat exhaustion. And Paul had some issues with his back from sitting on the seat; it kinda developed during his biking trip. So we had to take a couple days off with that.”

Any flood events? “Nothing like that. If anything, now the current slowed down to a very slow pace.”

What awaits you guys at the Gulf? “I have no idea, some crazy celebrating, jumping in the water. But we’re trying to figure that out, because we don’t know how fast the current is and if we can actually jump off the boats. We have these crazy dreams that it’s gonna be this beautiful serene paradise and music from the beach is gonna be playing. That’s our dream at least, our hope.”

So no plans then? “No. The Gulf is actually like 10 miles away from a city, so we have to backtrack as well. But we’re thinking of bringing some beers.”

Fishing and swimming along the way? “That was actually another one of the hiccups. Peter, he did some swimming early on—there’s some random bridges you can jump off of. People were doing it, and he did it. And I think he kind of developed a case of pink eye while in Minneapolis. So yeah, we realized maybe we shouldn’t jump in the water so much. But he still did a few other times. And fishing, we gave him a fishing pole for his birthday, but it was kind of a little too late. When you’re in the lower Mississippi they tell you do not eat the fish.”

TONY CORELLA

How’d you meet these brothers? “I had just quit my other job. I was working for a comedian, doing web video and traveling with him. I saw an ad that Peter had posted online [Craigslist/Hollywood] about the trip, and I checked out some of his videos, and I was interested. I did an interview and I got the job.”

Canoe background? “I had kayaked maybe two times, but no canoe experience at all. I’ve been fairly athletic throughout my life, but I was definitely intimidated, and excited, by the challenge of a trip like this.”

How are the three brothers? “It’s amazing because we all sort of work as a unit. One guy’s setting up the tent, another guy is cooking food, and I’m usually downloading the video from the day. It took a little while to get it into motion, but now it’s sort of become this machine. You get into this routine and without really even talking about it.”

How are your paddling skills now? “I gotta say the first day I was pretty exhausted and I was very intimidated. The idea, or the weight, of having to do it for two months straight was pretty heavy. So I sort of lost it at the beginning a little bit, just internally. And then for the first week or so I’d wake up in the middle of the night and my hand would kind of be in this claw position—half-clenched, like I was still holding the paddle. And in the morning I’d have to sort of bend of back with my other hand. It was just like rigor mortis essentially. But slowly you get the muscles, and since then everything’s been smooth sailing.”

Campsites. Are we going to be reading out any of these in Outside Magazine’s top 10 campsites of the world or what? “They’re not terrible. Lately, they’re actually sorta better than some of the ones on the upper Mississippi. In the upper Mississippi you have these canoe campsites and they’re sort of sectioned off, and they have picnic tables. But the bugs were just horrendous. You’d get to the campsites and get right in the tent and hide. And then get out of the tent in the morning and get on the water. The water was really the only place you felt comfortable. But here, you’ve these long streches of sand bars that are out in the open and yo’ve got these beautiful sunsets. There’s more industry, but at the same time it’s more comfortable too.”

How much bug spray have you gone through? “A lot, a lot. We actually got the stuff that’s 97 percent DEET at one point. But you put too much of that on and you start to get light headed. So we kind of stopped putting that on so much.”

Looking forward to finishing or not so much? “I’m excited to finish it. But you sorta get into the zone where you don’t even think about the end. Now it’s becoming a reality I guess, that we’re gonna finish it. I’m sure afterwards I’ll miss it, but right now nothing sounds better. … I keep having dreams that I’m home, I’m back, we’re finished, and then I’ll wake up and we’re still on the river. It sort of messes with your mind after a while.”

PETER BRAGIEL

When are you planning to start rolling out the video episodes? “It all depends on the editing process. I’m gonna go back to Los Angeles and transcode the footage and then start editing. We’ll probably start rolling out a month from when we finish, so tentatively mid-October.”

Any other crazy anecdotes? “In general, it’s the whole concept: We look at each other, are we still doing this? Is this really happening? … One thing that constantly happens to Tony and I is we wake up in our tent and we still think we’re on our canoes. We think our tent is floating on the water. We’ve had times where we both get up and we look at each other, and we’re both paddling with our arms. We’re sort of like in this half-state of sleep and we’re paddling our tent out of the water. We’re looking around convinced that our tent is floating away and we’re trying to get it back on shore. That’s constantly happening, because we paddle so much that even when we sleep we still feel like we’re on the river.”

“Other than that, just sort of losing our minds too—paddling for hours you just sort of go nuts, start singing, yelling at the top of lungs, just acting like imbeciles.”

Who’s the Chewbacca guy in the top video? “Tank. [Laughter] Tank’s hilarious. He’s some guy we met in Minneapolis on our first day. We were just walking over to an outdoor sporting goods store. He stopped us and was giving us all these tips on the river. I want to say, sadly, he was right about a lot of things; about the bugs up north; about the water and how dirty it is. He was just a character. And we reference him a lot, like throughout the whole upper Mississippi. Something would happen and we’d like, ‘Oh my God, that’s what Tank said.’ I’d like to say Tank is our mascot, or one of our mascots, on the upper Mississippi.”

Say what—you met him at a bus stop? “Yeah, he was at a bus stop. He needed 75 cents to go—I don’t know where he wanted to go. But he was gonna party like it was 1999 because his grandma just passed away and he was gonna get some inheritance money. So he was kind of in a party mode but he didn’t have enough money, because he was waiting on getting that check. So we met him at a bus stop and he just chewed our ear off for 30 minutes. We didn’t know it at the time, but he became a valuable asset.”

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Add a Comment

  • http://urbanhikers.com Vinnie Lauria

    WOW – that was an awesome interview – great stories guys, i got a tidbit of what it must have been like on the river. Kick ass for taking on the Mississippi!!!

  • B. D. Shanklin

    over 50 years ago ,my friend and I canoed the Mississippi River around St. Louis. It makes for a Tom Sawyer adventure. B. D.,deebeefl@yahoo.com

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