canada africa partner reservation Orlando native canoes Mississippi from Minnesota to Louisiana

Orlando native canoes Mississippi from Minnesota to Louisiana

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Starting from when I was shorter than a canoe paddle, I grew up on Florida rivers such as the Suwannee and Silver to the north, the Myakka and Peace to the south and camping near home along the Wekiva.

Maybe that’s why this Orlando native was so fascinated that you can travel by canoe along America’s most famous river from near Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

Last fall, I finished a solo 92 days on the Mississippi River. It was epic: nearly impassable wetlands, numbing cold, oppressive heat, barge traffic, Mark Twain, angry druggies, a police rescue, inspiring nature, solitude, torturous headwinds, engaging drunks, flying carp, a companionable gator and kindly angels.

The Mississippi trickles to life from Lake Itasca in north Minnesota and flows 2,500 miles to the Gulf. That’s as far as driving from Orlando to Los Angeles.

The Mississippi River is as long as the drive from Orlando to Los Angeles. I met so many unforgettable people but also spent many days not seeing another soul except for tugboat crews in the far distance.
The Mississippi River is as long as the drive from Orlando to Los Angeles. I met so many unforgettable people but also spent many days not seeing another soul except for tugboat crews in the far distance. (Courtesy Lucas Spear)

There are nearly 30 sets of locks and dams. They turn the upper half of the Mississippi into more of a lake than a river. There was no current tugging my boat to its destination.

The lower half combines forceful current and barges as big as buildings. To someone else, the vessels might appear sluggish. To me, they were swift monsters out to smush my boat.

All but a handful of days ended camping at the river, tucked into a pocket of woods, reigning as emperor of a tiny island or dwarfed by the vastness of moonscape sandbars.

Driftwood campfires were doable most nights. There were fiery sunsets, dazzling stars and tugboat searchlights blazing for navigation.

I'll always remember campsites, sunsets and moonlight on the Mississippi River. (Photo/Lucas Spear)
I’ll always remember campsites, sunsets and moonlight on the Mississippi River. (Courtesy Lucas Spear)

Paddling a canoe one mile, the internet says, needs a thousand strokes. That equates to 2.5 million from Itasca to the Gulf. Maybe 90 percent were a rhythmic chop-chop-chop with a kayak paddle, requiring no more attention than breathing.

That left space for podcasts, girlfriend calls and scribbling reflections such as this one:

The wind rippled and wrinkled the surface of the water.

A thin, wispy white horizon leading to a cloudless crescendo of blue sky.

The sun perched high and flooded the day with a warm embrace.

A thousand dancing diamonds blazed brilliantly across the opaque, muddy water.

It is something that cannot be bought or commodified, only earned.

Three days prior, I flew to Minneapolis with only the gear I could carry, took an Uber to a bus, bused four hours north to Bemidji, walked to U-Haul, drove a rented truck to buy a Facebook Marketplace canoe, then supplies at Walmart and slept in the truck’s cargo box.

Using a U-Haul truck, I bought a used canoe and Walmart gear, and assembled them at Lake Itasca Park in northern Minnesota. The lake is where the Mississippi River begins. (Photo/Lucas Spear)
Using a U-Haul truck, I bought a used canoe and Walmart gear and assembled them at Lake Itasca Park in northern Minnesota. The lake is where the Mississippi River begins. (Courtesy Lucas Spear)

Day 1: At Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, I texted “starting trip” to family and friends.

Day 2: Tough going because of beaver dams and dense marsh. Saw an eagle and beaver close up. Slathered the boat with mud getting in and out to push it through water an inch deep.

The upper reaches of the Mississippi River were a real test of endurance for canoeing because of thick marshes and countless beaver dams, like this one I'm trying to push my canoe over. (Courtesy Lucas Spear)
The upper reaches of the Mississippi River were a real test of endurance for canoeing because of thick marshes and countless beaver dams, like this one I’m trying to push my canoe over. (Courtesy Lucas Spear)

Day 3: Damn beavers and their dams, dragging my canoe over them, one after another.

Day 5: Got emotional at the smell of a gas station’s hot food and thinking of a shower. Took a hotel room.

Day 6: After camping under a bear warning sign, I paddled six hours across Minnesota’s Lake Winnibigoshish, 104 square miles, the widest part of the Mississippi. It was calm.

I paddled six hours across Lake Winnibigoshish in Minnesota. It spans 104 square miles and is the widest part of the Mississippi. It was calm. (Photo/Lucas Spear)
I paddled six hours across Lake Winnibigoshish in Minnesota. It spans 104 square miles and is the widest part of the Mississippi. It was calm. (Courtesy Lucas Spear)

Day 20: Never paddled into wind so strong. It would turn my boat, leaving no choice but to paddle backward to a bank to turn the boat back into the wind. Lost my temper.

From here, the river evolved into reservoirs, bordered by towns, parks and marinas, which provided a cultural setting for people to reside and recreate.

Day 23: Passed through St. Anthony Falls Lock in Minnesota: very weird steering a teensy vessel into a gargantuan structure.

Dozens of locks and dams along the Mississippi River were their own little adventure. It always felt a little bizarre to paddle my little canoe into such a giant structure. (Courtesy Lucas Spear)
Dozens of locks and dams along the Mississippi River were their own little adventure. It always felt a little bizarre to paddle my little canoe into such a giant structure. (Courtesy Lucas Spear)

Day 24: Texted home: “It’s like Florida. Laying bare on my sleeping pad drenched in sweat. It’s 98 degrees. Low on food. Canned tuna with hot sauce for dinner.”

Day 26: An a-hole powerboater, its passenger gazing at me blandly, roared by and flipped my canoe onto a rocky bank. A gashed toe bled a bit; no boat damage.

Day 27: Went into Six String Saloon in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin and ended up staying there until 2 a.m. A fight almost broke out from some guy flipping out. Wound up with friends. A man named Dave cooked me eggs and tater tots for breakfast. Mouth-watering after a month of cold oatmeal.

I had a small stove and cook gear but they were such a hassle for fuel and cleaning that after several weeks I gave them away and relied on driftwood campfires to heat canned food for the rest of the voyage. (Photo/Lucas Spear)
I had a small stove and cook gear, but they were such a hassle for fuel and cleaning that after several weeks, I gave them away and relied on driftwood campfires to heat canned food for the rest of the voyage. (Courtesy Lucas Spear)

Day 29: Facebook post: “I’m not sure how I have the energy to slap the water with my paddle for 10 hours a day just to sleep on the ground without a shower.”

Day 32: Slept on a perfect beach near Guttenberg, Iowa, with a mass of driftwood for a big fire. Flames died as a super blue moon rose. Everything was vividly visible. It dropped to 48 degrees. I stayed warm, putting on all my clothes and using the tent’s rain fly as an extra blanket.

Day 43: Started a prescription of doxycycline because of a telltale rash of Lymes disease.

Day 46: Camped near an island above Fort Madison, Iowa, thick with white pelicans, too many to count. Huge wingspans, black-tipped wings, flying right over my head.

Day 49: At Hannibal, Missouri, locked the canoe to a tree. People veered from me. I reeked. Checked into a downtown hotel and dunked my clothes and self in a bath, making muddy water.

Day 50: Strolled through historic Hannibal for food and a beer, meeting all kinds of people, including in a dive bar eye-watering with cigarettes and accepting cash only. At closing, a woman invited everyone to her place. By 3 a.m., I was properly drunk as talk spun to raunchy hilariousness. Time to ease out.

Days on the river spanned eight or ten hours or more and hopeful dozens of miles. It helped to stand up and paddle now and then, using a kayak paddle. A lady along the shore took this picture of me and shared it. (Photo/Lucas Spear)
Days on the river spanned eight or 10 hours or more and hopefully dozens of miles. It helped to stand up and paddle now and then, using a kayak paddle. A lady along the shore took this picture of me and shared it. (Courtesy Julie Backes)

Day 51: Spent hours in Hannibel’s museum honoring Mark Twain, surely a kindred spirit, with an eye on the horizon and a wit and wonder for what the hell is out there.

Day 54: Stopped at a marina north of St. Louis. They said I could camp on their property near the river. I ate at their restaurant and went to sleep around 11 p.m. At 1:30 a.m., a man, then a woman, who I took to be in charge of the marina, screamed at me that my phone had hacked into their iPad. They were drug-crazed, judging from the amped, confused yelling that I was acting on behalf of someone they were feuding with. He displayed a gun, took my phone, ransacked my stuff and wouldn’t let up. At daybreak, I jumped into the canoe, paddled to an island and used a satellite tracker device, which has simple messaging, to send a jumbled plea to my parents in Florida: “Im in a situation meth heads r holding phone hostage. Need cops threats.” They figured out which cops to call, who arrived in force. Asked to press charges, I declined. The couple was imprisoned by their own misery. I took a selfie with the guys who got me out of the jam.

After a freaky encounter with crazed people at a marina near Memphis who claimed my phone had hacked into their iPad, I jumped into my canoe, paddled to an island and texted my parents to call the police. They showed up in force. I was grateful. (Photo/Lucas Spear)
After a freaky encounter with crazed people at a marina near Memphis who claimed my phone had hacked into their iPad, I jumped into my canoe, paddled to an island and texted my parents to call the police. Law enforcement showed up in force. I was grateful. (Courtesy Lucas Spear)

Day 56: Last dam on the Mississippi. Finally, some amazing, helpful current.

Day 58: Hiked to a gas station in a small town, Chester, Illinois, spending $100 on supplies. Walking back to my canoe, I snacked on a turkey wrap. A sheriff’s car appeared and, yep, stopped. “Do I look weird?” I asked with a grin. “Yeah,” the driver answered with a poker face. “This is gonna sound weird,” I responded, before describing my travels. They actually got pretty interested.

From here, the river acquired serious intention: flowing powerfully, busy with barges and fewer people and more industry. It was lonelier. Historic drought had shriveled the river, leaving incredibly wide sandy shorelines that kept civilization at bay.

Day 61: The mighty Ohio River joins the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois, for heavy congestion of barge traffic. Dove into the muddy river and dried by a bonfire. Glorious after 11 days without showering.

People were really interested in my trip, which made it easy to make friends. I was served a lot of meals and beers and occasionally a place to shower and sleep under clean sheets. I met these folks north of Memphis. (Courtesy Lucas Spear)
People were really interested in my trip, which made it easy to make friends. I was served a lot of meals and beers and occasionally a place to shower and sleep under clean sheets. I met these folks north of Memphis. (Courtesy Lucas Spear)

Day 67: Mud Island Marina! Friendly people at this Memphis stop gave me a ride to Walmart, a shower, a washing machine and a couch. The kind of people who make long solo trips seem not so lonely.

I didn't meet many other people paddling down the Mississippi River. These two guys had lashed two canoes together, put a deck over them and attached a sailing rig. It looked crazy but they made good time. (Photo/Lucas Spear)
I didn’t meet many other people paddling down the Mississippi River. These two guys lashed two canoes together, put a deck over them, and attached a sailing rig. It looked crazy, but they made good time. I met them at Mud Island Marina near Memphis. (Courtesy Lucas Spear)

Day 70: Howling cold wind blasted sand into my tent. Hell of a night.

Day 71: Spooked a school of carp. One jumped over my boat. The next landed in the boat for a dramatic, thrashing and slimy encounter. Lugged it, slippery and heavy, to the water. Added “clean boat” to the chore list.

Day 74: At Greenville, Mississippi, John Keen of Mississippi River Angels, dedicated to paddlers, drove me to supplies, a shower and fried tamales, then a cheeseburger. He paddled the river in 2016. We spent four hours together. He’s a kind man with much patience.

Day 75: A barge powered up the river toward me. Its wake collided with a downriver current, spawning violent waves. I relied on years of whitewater guiding in North Carolina to thread a survival needle. I feared I couldn’t. Finally, I launched over the last wave to be left in silence, broken by my laughter. A friendly reminder that it ain’t over till it’s over.

Day 79: Bad day: unrelenting headwinds, broken canoe seat, malfunctioning solar charger. It was the first time I didn’t want to paddle, didn’t want to look at the boat, didn’t want to be on this river. I beat a favored paddle to smithereens against a beach, then remembered a Facebook friend had warned me not to quit on the worst day. The sun set, and stars twinkled. Tension eased. It’s hard to hate the river.

Early on, it seemed impossible that I would ever get past Minnesota. Then I did. Then another state, and another. Seeing this iconic landmark felt like confirmation I was making progress. (Photo/Lucas Spear)
Early on, it seemed impossible that I would ever get past Minnesota. Then I did. Then another state, and another. Seeing this iconic landmark in St. Louis felt like confirmation I was making progress. (Courtesy Lucas Spear)

Day 80: I pulled up to a desolate sandbar that extended for miles. Poked around and walked up to a medium gator. Making camp didn’t bother it. I didn’t mind its company. It was still hanging out in the morning.

Day 86: Under heavy fog, north of Baton Rouge, I turned off the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya River, part of the Mississippi as a distributary or opposite of a tributary. Some geologists think this is where the full Mississippi would have gone if the government hadn’t forced the river through New Orleans. Paddling through Atchafalaya swamp — the largest wetland in the United States — in fog, listening to wildlife was fantastic.

Day 88: On the phone, river angel Danny Majors directed me to his cabin. He arrived later. We sat on the porch and swapped stories. I enjoyed his heavy Cajun accent, something I’ve never heard. He took me for Cajun cuisine, some cracklins and my first taste of boudin. Even half-starved, that was more calories than I knew what to do with. I slept on a bed in the cabin.

Day 89: Another carp encounter, one hitting the boat, one shooting under my left arm, across my lap and into the water. The swamp was divine, mosquitos ungodly.

The Gulf of Mexico greeted me kindly. Having fought headwinds for so much of the river trip, the wind had shifted generously and swept me across open water. It was the Mississippi's sendoff nod of well done. (Photo/Bill Steber)
The Gulf of Mexico greeted me kindly. Having fought headwinds for so much of the river trip, the wind had shifted generously and, as seen in this photo, swept me across open water. It was the Mississippi’s sendoff nod of well done. (Courtesy Bill Steber)

Day 92: Getting closer to the Gulf with each turn in the river, paddling insanely hard against the incoming tide. Rounding a bend, a vast expanse of water appeared. I sat hushed, surprised and unprepared for the moment, then screamed: “That’s the (swearing) Gulf of Mexico!” Then, laughed, cried a bit and laughed. The final stretch to the last camp on a Gulf beach, Burns Point Park, about 20 miles southeast of Morgan City, Louisiana, was surreal. Having fought headwinds for so much of the trip, the wind had shifted generously and swept me across open water. It was the Mississippi’s sendoff nod of well done.

I had gotten skinny, callused my hands, wrecked my clothes with rips and stains and took on a weathered tan and wild hair. Traveling the Mississippi was a mental and physical test. I will never forget its people, timelessness and peaceful solitude amid open waters and giant sand bars.

Lucas Spear, who graduated from Edgewater High and the University of South Florida, is pursuing a sales career.