BY CONOR MIHELL
Every year, paddlers test their mettle on the longest river in North America. From its headwater streams in southern Canada, the Mississippi flows over 2,500 miles, splitting the United States in two before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. So many superlatives and a rich history make a journey down the Mississippi a rite of passage.
Amongst the paddlers making the trip this year, Lucas Willand Natalie Warren represent either ends of the spectrum. Will, a veteran of a 2010 sea kayak circumnavigation of Lake Superior, has been canoeing alone with his dog, Tischer. Warren—who along with partner Ann Raiho became the first women to recreate Eric Severeid’s historic “Canoeing with the Cree” route from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay in 2011—is a part of a 11-person team who are paddling in the name of outdoor education.
We caught up with Will just south of St. Louis, and Warren on a layover in Memphis.
CanoeKayak.com: Why are you doing this trip?
Lucas Will: I think there are two reasons. First, while on my previous paddling trip around Lake Superior, I realized the special connection that Minnesota has with two hugely important freshwater sources of water on this planet. I thought it fitting that if I was going to see the whole shoreline of one (Superior) that I should do the other. What intrigued me about the Mississippi was just how much it changes from the source to the sea. I’m not just talking about its width and size, but the human impact that you see along the way. I knew it would be stunning. People kept telling me that it was disgusting, “Why would I want to go from a wilderness waterway to a gross, urban one?” That’s exactly why, so I could see it for myself. What I’ve enjoyed is that I’m getting the same feeling paddling right now as I did back in elementary school looking at textbook pictures of the industry on the Mississippi, in awe at such commotion.
The other part to this is that when I returned from Superior, my dog, Tischer, had been with my parents for three months. She had gained a bunch of weight and was jaded toward me for leaving her. So I promised her that I would take her on the next long trip I went on. I wasn’t going to take her in a kayak, and the Mississippi seemed like a classic canoe route. So here we are.
Natalie Warren: This trip is very different from my expedition to Hudson Bay with Ann. Traveling with one other person allows for quicker travel and impulsive, immediate decision making. Traveling with 11 people has been fun but challenging. Everyone has different backgrounds and opinions on almost everything, which has opened our eyes to the challenges of working with such a large group. Personally, I have learned to really think about what I am going to say before I speak so that I am direct and concise. I have also learned how to back down as a leader and allow for other people to take charge in order to fill every role necessary to generate efficiency and productivity. If we notice that no one is worried about mileage, logistics, water, etc., then someone will step up and voice that concern. It is a constant game of figuring out what role isn’t being filled and taking action to fill that role for the greater good of the group. Having 11 people is nice because if someone needs to sit in the tent and have some alone time they know that everything will still get done in camp.
Has it been what you expected?
LW: Yes and no. This season has seemed a lot windier. I struggled into vicious headwinds often on the way upper portion, before reaching the Twin Cities. When I decided to do this in the fall, it was for work reasons and because I figured I’d skip the bugs and get to follow autumn all the way down, one of my favorite seasons. I also figured that it would more often be north winds blowing at my back. That hasn’t been the case. Because of this, I think I had the realization on the way upper that I couldn’t just Huck Finn it and float with my feet up (not that I was really expecting to do this). But now that I’m free of the dams and the river is untamed, the current is excellent and I could just float if I wanted. But the paddling is too good and the miles feel great as they fly by!
NW: We have learned so much about the Mississippi River on this expedition—it is our home. A big take away has been that very little of this world is truly wild or free of human manipulation. The Army Corps has destroyed and rebuilt ecosystems on the Mississippi for over 100 years and yet it is still one of the most beautiful rivers I have ever paddled. After talking to barge captains, the Coast Guard, the Army Corps, and many others we have learned that there is a delicate balance between industry and recreation on the Ol’ Muddy. It’s an amazing accomplishment to be able to transport goods, run cruise ships, canoe or kayak, and use the river as a resource for the American economy all at the same time. There are still things that could be improved on the water but, despite all of the uses of the Mississippi, it is a safe, beautiful, and educational river to paddle and more and more adventurers are making their way down to the gulf. Nothing makes me happier than hearing someone say, “You’re paddling the river? Who cares! People do that all the time.”
Natalie, tell me about your education slant on the trip.
NW: After my expedition to Hudson Bay, I returned to Minnesota and created Wild River Academy to introduce people to recreating on the Minnesota River. Over the past year I gained two business partners, Nick Ryan and Anna Johnson, to help build the organization. We had a successful first season in which we led 11 trips on the Minnesota as introduced over 60 people to recreating on its waters. We are working on building a semester school for college students to go on a “Paddle Forward” trip every fall to engage students through adventure learning. Students will learn how to plan, implement, and share their expedition with students all over the country. This Mississippi trip is the first of many expeditions of young adults down a major river in the U.S.
On this trip, each person chose a role to fill from marketing to packing food. One of our members was in charge of building a curriculum around our expedition so that K-12 schools could follow our trip and learn about the Mississippi River as part of our River Ambassadors program. We are practicing something called adventure learning in which students all over the country learn alongside us even though they are not on the expedition itself. We engage classrooms through blogs, discussion questions, videos, and external resources about the river. We have over 35 schools across the nation following our trip and we have been lucky to meet up with some students along our route to answer questions and share stories. I have always been an advocate of taking an expedition and adding a cause or educational goal to create a bigger impact in the community and to share the spirit of adventure. This trip has accomplished that goal in long-lasting ways.
Lucas, what’s been your most memorable part of the trip?
LW: Honestly, on the way upper river, above the Twin Cities, I fell in love with the small, meandering, incredibly personable stream that the Mississippi is. At the time, I was often wishing for current and the wideness that I’m now at. But being here, I realized how much I loved it up high [in the watershed]. The wildlife was incredible and so frequent it was like, “Oh, that’s just another baldy or blue heron.” And from the paddling standpoint, it was like being on a fun go-cart course compared to I-94 across North Dakota.
What do your schedules look like from here?
LW: I’ve got another 953 miles to go. With the current and our pace the last few days (my girlfriend has joined us in the boat for the remainder of the trip), we should be to the Gulf during the first week of December—right around my three-month mark.
NW: We are projected to arrive in New Orleans just before Thanksgiving. The river has changed drastically from its headwaters to Memphis. It feels like we have paddled three different rivers: the narrow, winding waters of Northern Minnesota; the slow, wide, dammed up waters from Minneapolis to St. Louis; and the fast, secluded but busy waters of the Lower Mississippi. Each leg of the trip has surprised us with its beauty and wildlife. People warned us that the Mississippi is not a peaceful body of water due to the industry along its banks and the barge traffic in its channel. We have found these things to be educational but not intrusive to our recreational river experience.