‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain
This quote accurately captures the sentiment that we try to live by. It seemed fitting to start off our first journal for this trip in particular with a quote by one or for the icons of the Mississippi River.
Lake Itasca to Bemidji
Day 1: 6 Miles
Started at 4:30 after a long day of driving + other random things (Qball’s phone died and then the wheel on the trailer bubbled so we had to replace it). The river was too low at the beginning, so we just walked the canoes for the first half hour. Finally the river was consistently deep enough so we climbed in and paddled. The river shifted from ten feet wide and reed-free to quote indecipherable and just a sea of reeds with no odiscernableobvious path. Sometimes it felt like we were pushing or paddling so hard and barely moving an inch. These six miles felt like a victory.
Day 2: 14 Miles
It started to rain overnight and continued off and on through the day. Luckily it wasn’t very cold, so as long as we were moving, we didn’t mind being wet. It was a pretty hard day on the river. At times it felt like we were on a thru-hike instead of a thru-paddle. Lots of walking the canoe through long stretches of shallow or rocky water. Our feet hurt from sliding on rocks and scraping or stubbing our toes and ankle bones. We were constantly getting in and out of our boats. In the morning, we had our first portage. It was really short, but a steep up and down. We decided after that one that we will remove our gear from the boat in the future, as it is too heavy with all of our gear in it. In the afternoon, most of the time we were able to be in the canoe paddling, but the river constantly zigged and zagged, so there was no chance of keeping momentum going. The turns could be sharp, and often we were pushing ourselves away from the banks. Our mileage is currently dictated by where there are designated campsites, since we are still just going through swamps. Finding a different place to camp (than the designated spots) is nearly impossible with rarely any dry land around the river. Our options for mileage today were 14 or 27. Since we made it to the 14 mile campsite at 3:45, we knew there was no chance to go further. It has been sprinkling or misting most of the afternoon and evening.
We got up and on the river by 7:00am. It was grey and overcast as we packed up, and then it started to sprinkle as soon as we started to paddle. It never rained hard today, but it sprinkled off and on all day. The best part of today was not having to get out and walk our canoe at all! There was a section in the morning with lots of big rocks, but we just inched our way through and didn’t have to get out. The rest of the day was just continuous zigs and zags. At lunch, we realized we have paddled just over 30 miles in total, but we’re only 10 miles from the headwaters as the crow flies…definitely confirmed that we are just zig zagging constantly. It felt like the turns were a bit more gentle than yesterday, so we didn’t have to keep losing all of our momentum. In the afternoon, we took a break in our canoes, just holding the two boats together and floating. We stayed that way for probably 20 minutes…it was really nice to just float and let the river move us along, even if it was slow. Got to camp just before 4:00pm. We gave each other shoulder and arm massages, since we are really starting to feel the workout. It was nice to have time to hang out in the evening…even played some cards. Another thru-paddler came to the campsite tonight. He is kayaking by himself and seems even more unprepared than we do. We were surprised to see someone else out on the river since it has been so quiet since we left Lake Itasca.
Day 4 (Part 1): 15 Miles
We managed to pack up faster this morning and were on the water by 6:45am. The fog had rolled in overnight so everything was wet this morning. It was quite pretty on the water this morning as the fog started to lift. Everything felt so still. The only noise was the occasional birds that would get spooked and fly off as we rounded a corner…that happens a lot, especially in the morning. We started going by houses on the river this morning and could even see some corn fields from the canoe. Mid-morning we came to a section that is marked on the map as a “log jam.” We weren’t sure what that meant, but we didn’t like the sound of it. In fact, it was terrible. Not sure how long the section was, but felt like forever. There were numerous downed trees and stumps in the river, and it was incredibly nerve-wracking to make our way through what we called the “tree gauntlet.” Most of the time we weren’t really paddling…we just let the current move us (although that was even too fast most times), and mostly just steered to move around the obstacles. Needless to say, we were relieved when that section was over. Somehow, even with the painfully slow section through the tree gauntlet, we still made the 15 miles to Bemidji just after noon. We tied up our canoes near the statues of Paul Bunyan and Blue Babe then found some lunch. One of us stayed with the canoes since it wasn’t a secure spot. We also walked to the grocery store to resupply, filled up our big water jug and then headed back out on the canoes at 4:00pm.