• ksaunders1934

So It Begins...

After six months of planning, researching, training, gear buying and trying, and stressing, the time has finally come to put boat in the water. I woke up on the morning of the 15th with a huge feeling of excitement and adventure, then almost immediately that was eclipsed by a feeling of nervousness and anxiousness. I'm fixin to kayak the Mississippi Frickin River! Who DOES this?! I got my gear together while eating caramel and cheddar popcorn for breakfast, thanks Emily and Luke! James came by with his son, we loaded everything up and headed to the starting point, Lake Itasca State Park. It was 11 o'clock when we pulled up, a little later than I would have liked, but I think I was in a way stalling a bit. As soon as I started walking the kayak to the drop in spot about 20 people started asking questions about my trip and how far I was going and why I was doing it. I answered all the questions and told then about Mission 22 and veterans in need and everyone was so supportive and interested. It was nice to see that many people who I've never met, get almost as excited about the cause and mission as I am. As I packed up the gear and stood for a picture next to the infamous pole that marks the start of the Mississippi, parents were walking their kids over next to me so they could have pics as well. It was a very humbling and very cool moment; I was basically a river rat celebrity for an hour. I dropped the kayak in the water, got in, and paddled away to, at this point, about 40 people waving, cheering, and taking pictures. I was in awe that they were all cheering for a guy they've never met and for a cause they've never heard of. But they were at the start of my trip and in some small or large way, they felt connected toe and my mission. The first couple miles were extremely slow going as the water level was barely deep enough for the kayak, let alone me in the kayak. I had to get out and walk alongside the kayak a few times just to keep moving. At one point there were some low level rapids and I had a time and half trying to get through them. About every 50 yards, I'd get turned sideways, hit a rock I didn't see, and tip just enough for water to pour in the boat. I'd have to jump out and steady the boat, grab my bilge pump and start pumping water out as fast as I could. This happened three times in a row, when I finally got the bright idea to just walk through the rocky rapid portion. I did get to see 2 beavers though. Man! Those suckers are big! The river deepened just a bit and I was in somewhat of groove paddling downstream and I looked at my map and realized I would not make it to coffee pot landing, the first campsite, with much time left before night fall. With backpack camping, I have a sort of routine for setting up camp quickly when needed, but with the kayak and everything in different dry bags, I didn't have the routine dialed in just yet. So when I passed under a county road, I decided to just pull the kayak up under the bridge for the night and set up camp along side the road. I pitched the tent, got minimal gear I'd need just to sleep, and layed out ready for some much needed zzz’s. Around 12:30/1:00 in the morning, I heard a loud rustling sound coming from the wood line behind the tent. It woke me up but I didn't think much of it til I remembered that I was in northern Minnesota and they have animals in the wild I'm not used to dealing with. So I sat up a bit and listened. All of a sudden, I heard a loud stomp, followed by two more loud stomps, then a snort...a very deep, very growly type snort. I froze. No, I all but messed my drawers. That sound could only be one thing. A bear. A million thoughts went through my head cursing myself for being so unprepared and stupid for camping in this spot, movie scenes of bear attacks like the one in “Grizzly” or the Leonardo DiCaprio film. I heard the animal start to walk towards the road and I snuck a peek through the peep hole in the tent, yup, it's a bear. Just walking along. After waiting what seemed an eternity, but was actually only 15 minutes, I saw headlights coming down the road. I unzipped the tent as fast as I could, grabbed my headlamp, and raced up the bank to the road. Flashing the light on and off, waving it side to side, I flagged the car down to a stop. The driver rolled his window down half way and gave me a questionable look. I realized at that moment I was in nothing but my skivvies. I apologized for my dress, and explained the situation. He agreed to give me a ride to the campground just down the road. All was good when I got to the campground and I finally got to sleep around 3am. I woke up the next morning about 5:30, got dressed and remembered I left all my gear and kayak back at the bridge by the road. So I walked the 2 miles back barefooted and right as I was nearing the bridge, a truck stopped and they gave me a ride, helped me load up my gear, and drive me back to the camp ground. A state worker was there when I returned and he agreed to let me just hang out for a bit until I got myself right again. A thunderstorm popped up and I was stuck at the site so the worker, Gary, drove me to get the kayak and bring it back to the site in case the river raised it would take my kayak downstream without me. Once the storm passed, I tried to get back out on the water, but as soon as I did, another storm came through. I checked the weather and it said the storm would be overhead for another day and half. Feeling defeated and exhausted, I walked back to the campground, and asked someone for a ride to Bimidji. A nice couple from Fargo agreed to drive me, even though I could tell they really didn't want to. I got to Bemidji late evening and passed out on the bed. Two days in and the river is already winning. This trip is not starting out the way I had envisioned. If this is how the rest of the trip is going to be, it's going to be a VERY long summer.

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