Winter on the Big Muddy

Reflections from the first leg of the Rediscover North America expedition

Photo: Bridgette Bennett/ Minneapolis Star Tribune
Photo: Bridgette Bennett/ Minneapolis Star Tribune

Winchell Delano was shocked when his four-man, 2,600-mile canoe trip across Canada's far north won Expedition of the Year at the 2013 Canoe & Kayak Awards. With the recognition came a $2,500 grant from helmet manufacturer Shred Ready, and the expectation, says Delano, "that people want to see more."

So Delano recruited five friends—Adam Trigg, Luke Kimmes, John Keaveny, Dan Flynn and Jarrad Moore—and hashed out an audacious plan to "double down." The 5,200-mile Rediscover North America expedition bisects the continent from south to north, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Completing the journey in a single season meant launching in January. "People all along the river have been telling us that we're going the wrong way," notes Delano, 30. "But the way the weather systems work, if you want to paddle from south to north across the continent, the itinerary sets itself."

For 29-year-old Trigg, the expedition mirrors wildlife migrations and captures the changing of the seasons. "We're seeing geese, ducks and swans flying north," says Trigg. "To be part of that migration and to be doing it under our own power is such a cool experience."

HIGHLIGHT "The other day, a guy in Wisconsin hailed us from shore," says Trigg. "He brought us in, gave us food, showers and a warm, dry place to sleep, and taught us how to make maple syrup. The next day, he sent us on our way with more food. That's the experience we've had with people all along the Mississippi."

LOWLIGHT "Not only do you fight the cold, wind and ice during the day, each morning we'd wake up covered in frost," says Delano. "When you pack all that stuff wet, you can be assured it will be nice and cold and icy when it comes time to make a new camp."

CRUX "Paddling upstream, our strategy is to stick to the slower water near shore," says Trigg. "But on the lower Mississippi, wing dams extend a quarter-mile into the river. We'd have to paddle out and around where the current is strongest—so strong we'd often have to pull the canoes over the dam. Another mile upriver we'd have to do this again."

ESSENTIAL SKILL "It's taken a lot of mental fortitude," says Delano. "I pick really small carrots of incentive during the day—things like moving onto dried apricots from prunes. Otherwise it's hard to get motivated for 10 hours of cold paddling."

ESSENTIAL GEAR "Our Hilleberg tents have been like sanctuaries," says Trigg. "They're our peace at the end of the day. Thoughts of 'Why did I ever say yes to this?' go away when you have a warm sleeping bag and tent to crawl into."

Video Update from Flin Flon on 6/13/15:

–Check out all the videos to go along with the adventure, here.

–This feature originally ran in the June 2015 issue.