My response: “Hmm. Maybe once…? In cub scouts... I think.”
What a great way to start our trip. Luckily, we both had about 2,200 miles left to practice as we began our trip down the fourth largest and tenth longest river in the world...
Eight Days, Mississippi Headwaters to Aitkin, MN
- Started at mile 1,312 (Bear Den Landing) on June 21st, 2010. Ended at mile 1,059 (Aitkin Campgrounds)
- Miles: 253
- Average: 32 miles per day
- Points of Interest: Bemidji, Lake Winnibigoshish, Grand Rapids, Aitkin
- Favorite spot: the rapids after Ottertail Power Dam
- Least favorite spot: the five miles before Lake Winnie
Rain and Naivety - Our first Days down the River
A couple of weeks later on the 21st of June 2010, Cole’s parents brought us to Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River. After walking across the source and taking a few pictures, we got back in the car and drove a few more miles downriver. Due to low water levels (and a fear of scratching the Cole’s dad’s canoe), we began our trip at Bear Den Landing.
As with many trips, our first few hours were casually spent, drunk off of the warm sun and ignorance of the trip ahead. Unfortunately, as we neared Lake Bemidji, our moods changed as quickly as the oncoming clouds loomed on the horizon. According to the radio weather report, there were 40+ mph winds just north of us and a tornado watch was reported. We found shelter immediately and waited out the storm as we made some rice for dinner. After an hour wait, the sky cleared up and we got back in the canoe.
Having successfully canoed 27 miles that day and luckily escaping a potential tornado, an inflated sense of confidence convinced us to make an attempt for a campsite seven miles downriver. Several paddles later, it quickly became apparent that we were in a race against nightfall. Inevitably, the sun disappeared, darkness snuck up on us, and we found ourselves canoeing in complete darkness. Equipped with a couple of cheap headlamps, we continued to strain our eyes for the Stump Lake campsite and strain our muscles to keep moving . At one point, we even turned the canoe around and paddled against the current, thinking that we had somehow already passed our goal. After an hour of frustration, we gave up, pulled the canoe off of the river, and set up camp on the flattest place we could find. We fell asleep immediately.
We woke up the next day to some unfortunate realizations: 1) we had set up our tent in a bed of poison ivy, and 2) the campsite we had spent an hour searching for was only about 50 yards away from us. Our lesson learned: don’t canoe in the dark.
On day two, after the fear of poison ivy rashes had subsided, both the beauty and the remoteness of this portion of the river continued to surprise us. These first 90 miles of the Mississippi meander slowly through lakebeds, rushes, and swamps. If one has the patience to put up with the occasional snag, beaver dam, and jutting rock, this portion of the river is perfect for those hoping to improve their canoeing skills.
After a few hours of paddling, our moods quickly changed again. Cole asked, “Do you know where we are?”
“No,” I responded. “But if we just keep following the current, we should be okay, right?”
Another hour passed. Cole: “Now do you know where we are?”
This wasn’t the Mississippi River we had expected. We never thought that getting lost would become a serious concern, but here we were in the middle of a large swamp and far away from any dry campsites as the sun once again seemed to begin its slow abandon. The river continued to spider in many different directions. Tall reeds and brush blocked our view for miles and made paddling very difficult. The idea of paddling for hours in the wrong direction haunted us. We persisted and after a few hours we luckily escaped the swamp of the Mississippi Meadows. The beast known as Lake Winnibigoshish was calmly waiting for us on the other side of the marshes. We set up camp for the night, hopeful to cross this lake early the next morning.
However, enough can’t be said about the feeling life on the river instills in a person. We loved the fact that we lived barefoot lives in the wilderness and never knew where we would sleep at night, or that we would sometimes go days without interacting with other people. Instead, the sound of howling coyotes and mischievous raccoons kept us company at night and during the day, hunting eagles and jumping fish entertained us. The river’s remote beauty and its untamed nature humbled us everyday.
After 253 miles and eight days of paddling, Cole's parents picked us up in Aitkin. We had jobs to get back to in the cities but we were already thinking about next year's trip down the river. Here are a few things that we learned in our first eight days:
Notes from Week 1:
- It's a LOT of work
We imagined that we could occasionally steer the canoe while lazily floating down river and sipping on a beer. This was definitely not the case. The upper Mississippi is regulated by 43 dams, which effectively slows down the entire current. This basically turns the river into something that more closely resembles a bunch of lakes (or as the locals sometimes call them, "pools") and not a river as most people imagine it. Don't expect to move very fast, as we canoed about 3mph and tried to travel about 30 miles a day.
- Expect Southern Winds... Almost everyday.
Not only does the current move surprisingly slow, but you can also expect Southern winds to slow you down even more. Anything over 10mph will make your day more difficult. Anything over 15mph is almost impossible to canoe in. There were many days where we thought it would be easier to paddle UP river, which is an incredibly frustrating feeling.
- Don't expect to see a lot of people
This portion of the river is fairly remote and you won't see many people, especially when you're off of the lakes.
- The Mississippi goes through MANY big lakes
This can get frustrating because you will feel like your going even slower and because you are more susceptible to brutal winds. NEVER try to cut straight across the lake--you never know when the winds will pick up and leave you surrounded by whitecaps and miles away from the safety of shore.
- Invest in good gear
Our tent had a bad habit of leaking. This was not fun.
- Getting lost is easier than you think
Throughout most of the river, you will be relatively close to civilization in case you run into any problems. However, the river often splits into many different--and misleading--paths and there's nothing worse than realizing that you unintentionally paddled 5+ miles in the wrong direction. The six river miles before Lake Winnie ( Mississippi Meadows) were particularly frustrating/terrifying for us. Don't use the topwater to judge the direction of the current (winds can often deceive you); instead, look under the water and try to follow the flow of the weeds.