Source to Sea

The Introduction
by Mark Downey -- June 4th, 2012

Minneapolis. We rolled across the country and back, in a week. Two of our friends had a wedding in Seattle. There were trains involved, and windmills, and lots of sitting. Mostly its all blurry now, but the soreness remains. I spent the Spring at Duke running and rowing and biking, really making an effort to fight all the sitting and muscle atrophy required to finish an MP. Before these travels, then, I was worried that 50-something hours of driving would be bad for my health. But, now I can see the hand of Providence at work and the actual usefulness of long drives: steeling my buns against two-months of canoe seats.

Moreover, John Denver knew, the wild Montana skies inspire daring introspection and meaningful conversations among old friends. We found this to be true on our drive, and also that those skies are void of radio signals. I think there is a correlation.

We’re at Jeff’s house now, outside Minneapolis, gathering last-minute supplies and eating food that isn’t peanut butter. The trip begins tomorrow. “We” are the Mississippi River Paddle expeditionary team from Holy Man Adventures, preparing to document the River and some human experiences on it in collaboration with Below the Surface’s Riverview campaign (see “About My Trip” and There are five of us in total, college friends who first met in the Great North Woods and bonded over a mutual love of story-making and food that isn’t peanut butter.

Here we are:

Jeff Nelson is our Director of Sponsorship Acquisition. He is also the team’s best chef. This didn’t always use to be the case. At communal dinners in our old apartment, Jeff was notorious for making artistic ingredient-substitutions in his dishes when a correct ingredient, like baking powder, could not be located immediately. Jeff loves dancing and yoga and is fluent in Spanish. He is passionate about serving marginalized communities.

Jonathan Sawyer is the Nutrition Specialist for Holy Man Adventures. Sometimes he makes menu choices without consulting the rest of the team, and we end up looking for canoe-space to stow 25 lbs of dried garbanzo beans. I am confident even Jeff won’t be able to use these. Jon is newly engaged. He has a master’s degree in urban planning, and he makes his own soaps and shampoos.

David Larson is our Technical Gear Consultant and Cabela’s Liaison. His mission is to make sure we have expensive, flashy alternatives to Jon’s homemade soaps. If only there was a middle way. Dave has extensive paddling experience in the North Woods and will be guiding the expedition from its start to Minneapolis, before leaving the team to return to his dog, his wife, his job, and med school. Maybe in that order.

Ben “Otter” Theimer is the Expedition Chaplain. Ben’s spiritual leadership stems from his eternal positivity and his mastery of something best described as “romantic theology”. He will be joining the others in St. Louis. With catchphrases like, “Let’s do it,” and “Just doing it,” and “Getting things done”, the Otter is sure to resuscitate the expedition’s second half. Ben is a teacher, a scholar, and is heading to Duke in the Fall.

Mark (that’s me) is the Director of Holy Man Adventures. He sees his role in this expedition as the “big picture guy” who “brings people together” and “delegates”. In preparation for the trip, Mark is using his Eagle Scout training to walk the team through the First Aid and Lifesaving merit badges. So far, this has amounted to one impromptu and unsolicited lecture about pine forests and the hidden benefits of clear-cutting.

And then there are the canoes – they deserve a separate post. Many thanks to Old Town Canoe Company. We loaded them today, Jeff and Jon and I, for a test run. No matter who you are, turns out it’s hard to pack for a two-month paddle through several distinct ecoregions. What to take, what to leave. Especially when the mission includes multimedia documentation. There’s only so much room in a canoe, and ours are necessarily filled with GoalZero solar packs, photography gear, and batteries. Our personal gear is sparse, then, though we each splurged in telling ways. Books for me, spices for Jeff, fuel cans for Dave, and dashikis for Jon.

That’s who we are, what we’re doing, what we have. What else is there? Everything, probably. This writing is too small, and so are the pictures. So it’s our goal to share glimpses, to remind people that our connection to the land, to each other, and to ourselves, lives beyond language. We have to show up to experience it. And that’s what we’re doing – more than trying to explain what we’re seeing and feeling, we want show up, and to listen.

But I’ll still try explaining.


  1. Marc
    Jun 4, 2012

    Fitting that a man named Sawyer is along for the paddle. Enjoy the North Woods, where the River is narrow and rocky, to the transition in southern Minnesota where the river is so wide it looks like a lake. I look forward to living vicariously through your posts–paddle strong!

  2. Ashley Pierce
    Jun 4, 2012

    Looking forward to following your trip via blogs! Good luck boys!

  3. Ginger
    Jun 4, 2012

    May the beauty and unpredictability of the river, land, and sky, ever remind you of Who is really guiding this paddle adventure….and have a blast!

  4. richard downey
    Jun 4, 2012

    If Allah wills it? Surely not. I don’t think that is what you believe

  5. Jared Criscuolo
    Jun 6, 2012


    We’re psyched for you guys, and cheering for you from the West Coast. Thanks again for partnering with our team at Below the Surface to paddle with a purpose.

    Here’s a favorite of mine from Robert Frost to poetically power you along your journey:

    Whose woods these are I think I know.
    His house is in the village though;
    He will not see me stopping here
    To watch his woods fill up with snow.

    My little horse must think it queer
    To stop without a farmhouse near
    Between the woods and frozen lake
    The darkest evening of the year.

    He gives his harness bells a shake
    To ask if there is some mistake.
    The only other sound’s the sweep
    Of easy wind and downy flake.

    The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.

    Paddle swiftly, hope you don’t encounter snow along the way, and the bugs aren’t too aggressive.


    • Ginger
      Jun 7, 2012

      Jared, that is an all-time favorite poem of mine . I remember illustraing it when I had to make a poetry book decades ago in 4th grade! Such appropriate sentiments for this journey.

  6. Ginger
    Jun 6, 2012

    Awesome pics of Lake Itasca and canoes “Leah” and “Rachel” on the water at
    What a priceless gift to have these 8 weeks of sharing life and lives!

  7. Justin Staker
    Jun 19, 2012

    Hi guys,

    Not sure where you are but wanted to let you know when you get to Lake Pepin and Frontenac you have dry land to camp on and a shower. I paddled solo from Red Wing to the Gulf 2 years ago and would be happy to help you however I can. Be sure to look up Mike Clark of bigmuddy adventures in St Louis. That’s a sketchy area to paddle through and his mission and yours match up really nicely

    Keep paddlin!

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