Source to Sea

Washing Away!
by Mark Downey -- June 12th, 2012

Grand Rapids, MN.

“Take care of each other,” called Jeff’s dad as we started paddling. He had helped us transport canoes and gear to the Mississippi’s headwaters. We intend to do as he said, to wear life jackets and keep each other in sight, but we’re looking to lose a few things and find some healthy destruction along the way, too. Ideas we brought with us, about the River, our native land, and our lives — these we think might be trimmed and recreated after two months afloat. We’ll keep each other safe, but we’ll also make sure each gets washed and purified in these muddy waters and finds out what lies beneath.

Jon, Mark, Dave (kneeling), and Jeff.

Turns out the Mississippi starts clear not muddy in northern Minnesota, on the placid Lake Itasca. We paddled across the lake as dawn was breaking and the pines looked blue. The only ripples were ours.
A tiny wooden dam marks the head of the River, a creek less than ten feet wide. It’s shallow, clear and cool, and fish darted back and forth under our prows. Jeff and Dave caught a few for dinner; Jon and I can’t fish.
It was slow going the first day. The current was unhurried, the channel was clogged with rocks and sandbars. We headed north at first, then east; it would still be several more days before we began really riding south.
Eventually, after the first ten miles or so, the forest gives way to marshland. The Mississippi here is a meandering path through wet reeds from which black mud seethes. Morale dips in the hot sun. We stop to gobble BNUTS — this mix of jumbo dried fruits and golden nuts many covered in chocolate — and get back in the flow. We haven’t even made a dent in the peanut butter yet.
Jon points and says, “An otter!” It’s bobbing twenty feet off the bow, now barking at us. I’m taking this as a good omen for the day when our own Otter joins the adventure. And there are others too, minks and beavers and bald eagles. The otter dives and we follow it’s bubbles for a while as we continue.
The River begins to wind harder and harder sometimes splitting into what might be a shortcut across an oxbow lake or a dead end into the mire. Several times we had to peer down into the murk to watch for underwater reeds leaning with a current we couldn’t feel. At one dead end, Jeff clambered up a rotting tree to scope an efficient escape. We escaped, but it wasn’t efficient.
The two canoes handled these conditions differently. We’ve named them Rachel and Leah. After characters in the Torah. The patriarch Jacob falls in love with his boss’s beautiful daughter, Rachel, and he works for seven years to win her hand. In the end, he gets her but only after being tricked into marrying her older sister, Leah, along the way. Leah is undesirable and has weak eyes.
Our Rachel is a seventeen-foot vision, the Old Town Penebscot 17 RX. Her smooth, Royalex hull is a deep green we playfully embellished with watermelon designs. She undulates on a gently curving bottom. Rachel is built to glide through open water and rock with the waves. These twisting maneuvers in a shallow creek don’t play to her strong suit.
Leah is shorter than Rachel. Her hull is dingy blue, and her bottom is flat. Her seats are unfortunately-molded plastic. We tagged her name in spray paint and let Jeff’s niece fingerpaint the bow. Like Jacob, Leah’s ours and we’re stuck with her. But, she’s agile, handling these tight corners like a drifting streetracer. Her shallow draw slides over the submerged obstacles that Rachel tends to find.
Appearances aside and only a few days in, we’ll let the canoes reveal their full natures in their own time.
Already I can feel the River breaking us down and rebuilding. First we learned to navigate its hidden snags, then to charge around its hairpin turns. By the end of day two, we had left the dead marshes and entered the hardwood forests surrounding Bemidji, MN. The River kept bending hard, but now we had to skirt deadfalls and beaver dams as well. Soon we would be ready to face the River’s bigger waters.
And they came quick enough, Lakes Bemidji, Cass, and Winnibigoshish. Cass was a rough ride. Winnie was easier, mostly. We’d been up since 4 a.m., crossed Cass Lake and paddled another twenty miles to reach Winnie. We napped and waited for her surface to calm. Our course spanned eight miles of her open, reportedly dangerous, waters. But that afternoon we crossed in peace. Jon and I paddled Leah together, and Jon’s colorful dashiki billowed like a flag. The sun was at our back, descending. Dave had brought a crank radio, so he and Jeff were moving Rachel to Ojibwe chants sputtering in from some local station. We approached the campsite, after three hours, and euphoria crept in. Jeff called out to dedicate a song to me. As he leaned forward to reach the radio, too far, Rachel gently dumped our men over the side. And gently rocked back into place. As they clambered back into her, dripping, Jeff and Dave were smiling big, not sheepishly. I think our purification has already begun.
The Celtic people knew about “thin places”, places where the distance between heaven and earth is especially small. Places of intense danger, or beauty, maybe both. I think our canoes might be thin, the same way a trail or friend’s eyes can be thin. But we’re going to have to lose some layers first. As the team works and lives together, pulling hard through fourteen-hour days, pride has been the first layer to waste away. A little more light is coming through. We’ll see what washes off next. By the end, we may even be a little thinner ourselves.
Taking pictures and notes for Below the Surface has been a great way to stay intentionally connected to our experience on the Mississippi. We’re hoping the products we’ll put together with Below the Surface later this summer will inspire others to think about their own connection to water, and to make their own explorations of this beautiful world.


  1. Sue
    Jun 12, 2012

    This is wonderful, Mark! I remember you told me about your plans for this adventure. Thanks for taking us all along…I’ll enjoy it vicariously.

  2. Ginger
    Jun 13, 2012

    Reading this entry was a glorious study break from my 14 hour days! I fondly remember river otters during my Alaska canoe adventures….your writing is resurrecting fond memories!

  3. Aunt Connie
    Jun 13, 2012

    Mark, you almost make me envious….but, I don’t like 14 hr days anymore! I am so enjoying your writing and all the pictures I’ve seen. The “thinning” of humanity would probably be a good thing. I like the concept!

  4. Dan
    Jun 19, 2012

    When I told Stape that you were paddling the Mississippi, this is his response:
    “No kidding!
    Is freedom inversely proportional to age?”

  5. meburke
    Jun 22, 2012

    i like the thin places…

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