- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

MANKATO, Minn. (AP) - If they reach their destination, the trip will cover nine months, the length of two nations, 5,200 miles (mostly against the current) and millions of stokes of the canoe paddle.

By the time the six men reached Mankato on Wednesday, 96 days after they launched their three canoes in the Gulf of Mexico, they’d already dealt with alligators, snow storms, freezing temperatures, plunges through thin ice and the relentless flow of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Ahead, still, is the bulk of the Minnesota River, then the Red River of the North and massive Lake Winnipeg.

Then comes the whitewater rivers of Canada, blackflies and mosquitoes, a 12-mile portage, wolves and grizzly bears, the looming threat of next winter’s arrival and some of the most isolated wilderness North America has to offer.

The four Minnesotans and two Iowans on the Rediscovering North America Expedition know the numbers and the obstacles, but they have only a rough guess as to how many times their sanity has been questioned so far. It started on day one, when Louisianans saw them paddling upstream and suggested they were crazy. The sentiment has also been expressed more than once by Mississippians, Arkansans, Tennesseans, Missourians, Iowans, Wisconsinites and, now, Minnesotans.

“‘Crazy’ and ‘You’re going the wrong way’ - probably a thousand,” said Adam Trigg of the number of times people have shared those opinions.

While they still haven’t reached the halfway point, there was no evidence of second thoughts during a brief stop at Sibley Park late Wednesday afternoon. Physically, none reported any issues beyond sore muscles and overworked tendons. Mentally, they said they’re not struggling to get motivated for another day of against-the-current paddling or getting on each other’s nerves to any great degree.

“For the most part, you’re hanging out with friends and doing something fun,” Trigg told The Free Press (http://bit.ly/1FFLQrU ).

Trigg is a St. Cloud native, as are Winchell Delano, John Keaveny and Daniel Flynn, who attended Gustavus Adolphus College. Luke Kimmes and Jarrad Moore are Iowans. All six have extensive wilderness experience, including with the Second Nature wilderness therapy program that helps troubled adolescents struggling with everything from eating disorders to drug dependence.

Kimmes, while an experienced climber and canyoneer, had never been on an overnight canoe trip before signing on to the current one. Now he’s been part of a voyage that started with alligators and water snakes, involved dragging canoes eight miles along an iced-over Mississippi north of St. Louis, and has included camping in weather that was below freezing for days on end.

As the crew has paddled north, it has consistently left spring behind. For a month, Kimmes said, they’ve watched the trees from Missouri to Mankato. In each place, the branches have been showing those first hints of buds. But by the time the new leaves arrive, the paddlers have propelled themselves into a colder climate.

“When Winchell sold the trip to me, it was like ‘We’ll be chasing spring the whole way,’” Kimmes said.

“I think we’ve kind of been chasing the cold weather,” Flynn agreed.

It’s been cold enough that Wednesday’s paddle from just west of Le Sueur to six or seven miles west of Mankato, done in 45-degree temperatures but with a light breeze, was beautiful in the eyes of the six.

And despite the frigid temperatures and icy Mississippi, the first major leg of the trip already has made lasting memories, Kimmes said.

“Just the Mississippi in itself was quite the experience,” he said. “It’s a big, big river.”

The lower portion of the river brought some stiff currents, along with endless series of wing dikes that jut out into the river to create a strong enough flow to scour out the main channel and make it navigable for huge barges. For canoeists, though, the wing dikes create a gauntlet of fierce flows that were so strong that they needed at times to drag their way around them with tethers.

The upper Mississippi brought more reasonable currents that allowed the group to cover as much as 34 miles in a day. So far on the Minnesota, the best has been 23 as the current has reminded them of their struggles down south.

Supplies have been put in place with volunteers along the route, and more will be heading north as the summer progresses. The most distant drop, done by family members and friends, will involve a 45-hour drive to Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

The next resupply is in New Ulm, where Keaveny’s parents now live and where the expedition will cease for a week of rest and relaxation and supply work.

“This is a special occasion, our big layover in New Ulm,” Delano said.

The prospect of beds and good food and visits with family may have played a role in the sunny attitudes on display Wednesday, but the six have been preparing for the mental toll of the trip along with all the other logistics.

“Before the trip, we talked about the importance of taking space,” Delano said.

On their resupply stops, they purposefully spend time alone rather than succumbing to the temptation of hanging out as a group at a local bar or restaurant. Those moments are like hitting the refresh button, Flynn agreed.

And when somebody’s feeling exhausted, the others help with inspiration.

“I think we do a pretty good job of motivating each other and making it fun,” Trigg said.

And at the end of each day, they look at the maps together and share in the progress, Keaveny said:

“What did we get done today?”

They were asked if the trip has a point-of-no-return - a last town before the wilderness where a member of the team would need to drop out if he didn’t think he had the endurance or will to travel to the end.

“In my opinion, we’re pretty much there already,” Trigg said.

Because the canoes need two paddlers, if one quit he’d been forcing another to do the same. So, it’s onward together - up the Minnesota to the Red and into Canada, where the rivers will get wilder and the human race will increasingly fade away. The final stop, hopefully by mid-September, will be where the Coppermine River reaches the Arctic Ocean, followed by a chartered plane flight back to civilization.

Some of those last rivers, along with the Red, will actually be flowing the same direction as the paddlers. For now, however, throughout the constant upstream days, navigation is the simplest task of all.

“If it’s hard to paddle,” Trigg said, “you’re going in the right direction.”

More details on the expedition, including photographs and an occasional journal, are available at www.rediscoverna.com.

___

Information from: The Free Press, http://www.mankatofreepress.com

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