Conquering the Mississippi from source to sea

Kayak duo
Bloomington kayakers Jesse Richard, left, and Matt Rens are navigating the Mississippi from its source, Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico. The 18-year-old Bloomington Jefferson High School graduates took a day off in the Twin Cities before continuing their journey on June 29. (Sun Current staff photo by Mike Hanks)

 

Long days soaking up the summer sun and enjoying a day on a river or lake are the stuff many students dream of during their summer vacation.

For Matt Rens, a Bloomington Jefferson High School class of 2016 graduate, and Jesse Richard, a 2017 Jefferson grad, their summer plans are providing plenty of both, although it’s mostly business that occupies their time.

The duo embarked on a kayak journey of more than 2,300 miles last month. Their goal: to navigate the Mississippi River from its source, Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, to the sea.

They took a break during their journey to the Gulf of Mexico last week as they passed through the Twin Cities. What was initially going to be a brief overnight stay at home with their families turned into a two-night break from sleeping in a tent or hammock on the shore of the river, thanks to a day of questionable weather during their arrival stop in the Twin Cities.

By June 29 they were back on the water, heading south of the Twin Cities in a pair of loaded kayaks filled with the food, the simplest of propane grills, a modest wardrobe and a few electronic devices to document their travels through the nine remaining states of their journey.

“So far I’m loving it,” Richard said.

Dreaming big

The idea of navigating the entire Mississippi by watercraft is not a new one, but Rens didn’t know that when he first imagined doing it five or six years ago. He received a kayak as a birthday present and would use it to paddle along the Mississippi River occasionally at Watergate Marina in St. Paul, where his grandparents dock a houseboat. It was during those excursions on the river that he imagined paddling the entire river, not knowing what it would take to accomplish such a feat.

But that didn’t deter Rens. Instead, he sought out information about his idea a few years ago and learned that many others have gone before him. Online videos provided glimpses into what awaited at points along the river, and those videos helped inspire him. Instead of simply dreaming of an adventure on the mighty Mississippi, he began telling people he would one day do it.

“They would laugh,” he recalled.

While some would laugh at the idea, Richard was fascinated by his best friend’s idea. Richard holds a similar dream of his own – hiking the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States – so a kayak adventure from north to south held great appeal, despite his lack of experience with the vessel of choice.

Richard was quick to sign on to Rens’ dream a couple of years ago, but that didn’t mean it was going to happen. The time commitment wasn’t the biggest obstacle standing in their way. It was the financial aspects of the trip that seemed the most insurmountable. Despite that, Rens received plenty of encouragement from his father Brad.

“He knew I would do the river,” Rens recalled.

The impetus to kayak the Mississippi was bolstered last year when Rens’ father passed away unexpectedly. Rens spoke of his father’s support and encouragement at the funeral, and those in attendance that day encouraged Rens to pursue his dream and offered to help support it, Rens explained.

Financial support

The one-time dream became a very real possibility. The duo began planning for their expedition and considered how they could overcome the obstacle standing in their way: money. They started a GoFundMe campaign to tap into the support that Rens was offered at his father’s funeral. They received numerous donations, including donors who offered to support the trip at the rate of $1 per mile, or more than $2,300, Rens explained.

Kayaking in St. Paul
Bloomington kayaker Matt Rens greets friends and family members gathered at Harriet Island in St. Paul on June 29. His mother and grandparents followed him down the river that morning on the houseboat behind him. (Sun Current staff photo by Mike Hanks)

But the windfall was not a blank checkbook.

“Every donation was vital,” according to Rens.

The generosity they received in support of the trip still required fiscal responsibility. For starters, the duo needed kayaks capable of navigating a major river. They ended up with 16-foot kayaks, boats large enough to stow supplies and gear and built for a long-distance expedition. The kayaks have a rudder system and compass to help the duo navigate, a skill that was required to traverse areas where the river passes through lakes, such as Lake Winnibigoshish, near Grand Rapids.

The kayaks cost about $2,000 each. The duo contacted approximately 30 kayak manufacturers, looking for financial assistance in outfitting their trip. One component of their expedition is fundraising on behalf of a charity, and the duo found a manufacturer willing to sell them a pair of kayaks at half the retail price, Rens explained.

The men have a modest inventory for their adventure. They have a small tent they share, hammocks they sleep in when they find a suitable area to hang them, the tiny gas grill and a pan to cook in, up to three weeks of food, two sets of clothing for day-to-day paddling, clothing to sleep in and a variety of electronic devices.

Besides personal cellphones, the duo has a marine radio for placing an emergency call or to contact a dam when they’re approaching a lock, a GoPro camera, a drone and a solar recharging pad that is strapped across the top of a kayak, generating enough power to recharge their electronic equipment. They duo started out with two of them, but Richard’s pad fell in the water and has stopped working, he noted.

The drone takes videos and pictures from above the river, showing the unseen landscape ahead of the kayakers from a viewpoint other than that of the kayakers themselves, Rens explained.

Bare necessities

With limited clothing, the duo plans to stop at riverside towns occasionally to do their laundry. Until laundry day arrives, the clothing is recycled. “We have to deal with the stench,” Rens said.

They carry food with them, but their meals are modest, and repetitive. Breakfast consists of instant oatmeal, lunch is either instant macaroni and cheese or Nutella or peanut butter on a tortilla shell. For dinner, they often eat ramen noodles and tuna, sometimes with a side of baked beans or instant rice. They also have a protein powder supplement and vitamins to subsidize their diet, Rens noted.

For drinking water, they turn to Mother Nature, filtering water from the river when they don’t have access to a fresh water source. “It doesn’t taste good,” Rens said. And it doesn’t smell very good, either, he noted.

The duo relies upon simple meals for their day-to-day nourishment, but they’ve already met up with friends and acquaintances during their journey from northern Minnesota, and those meet ups provided a dietary break from the redundancy of life on the river.

They also afforded themselves a couple of meals during their first two weeks of their journey. They stopped at a restaurant on Cass Lake and picked up Jimmy John’s sandwiches in Brainerd.

Modest beginning

The river’s current helps push the duo more than 40 miles most days. But at the river’s source, Lake Itasca, it’s easy to mistake the mighty Mississippi for a simple creek spilling from the lake, because that’s what it is.

Pulling out at Watergate Marina
Bloomington Kayaker Jesse Richard prepares to continue his trek down the Mississippi River after a day off in the Twin Cities. (Sun Current staff photo by Mike Hanks)

When they departed on June 11, a few days after Richard’s Jefferson High School commencement ceremony, they traveled a modest nine miles, which took more than eight hours to accomplish. That’s because the river’s humble beginnings make it difficult to weave through the woods of Itasca State Park. Their kayaks may be 16 feet long, but the river isn’t always that wide, making it difficult to navigate the curves of the river, according to Rens. The river is also shallow during those opening miles, which forced the kayakers to climb out of their vessels on numerous occasions and portage around rocks, beaver dams and fallen logs, he noted.

Most nights are spent sleeping along the shore of the river, wherever it appears easy and convenient to set up camp. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources provides modest campsites along the river, particularly in the isolated areas of the river, sometimes with simple log sheds for shelter, according to Richard.

Although the early days featured several challenging legs – either navigating through the creek-like beginnings of the river or fighting the wind and waves of an open lake – many of the most challenging days are behind them. Most days they are on the water by 8 a.m. and can paddle more than 40 miles. Their goal is to complete the trip in 60 days on the water, requiring an average of slightly less than 40 miles per day, Rens explained.

“We’re going to go as far as we can, every day that we can,” he said.

Fundraising

They raised enough money to cover their expenses for the summer, and now Rens and Richard have started their second wave of fundraising, this time to benefit Lifewater International, an organization that helps provide sanitation and clean water for villages in developing nations, according to Rens.

The trip wouldn’t happen without the support of their friends and family members, and the duo acknowledges that they’re fortunate to be able to spend this summer partaking in an adventure that many people couldn’t afford due to time or financial constraints.

“We don’t deserve to go on this trip,” Rens said.

The men want their trip to benefit others, as well. During their brief respite in Bloomington, they put together the online framework for their fundraising campaign and set a goal of $12,000 in donations for Lifewater. Having to filter and drink unpleasant river water on a daily basis has given them a greater appreciation for the value of clean drinking water.

“So, we want to give back to folks who don’t have clean water,” Rens said.

Coming home

At some point in August the duo will reach New Orleans. They’re both 18, and upon completion they think they’ll be the youngest people to have completed the trip. There’s no historical archive to sign, but online research has failed to turn up information about anyone who has completed the journey at a younger age. Although they are upbeat and optimistic about the journey ahead, they are also realists.

“We might not make it,” Rens said. “Not everybody makes it.”

Assuming they complete the trek, they have to arrange travel back to Minnesota, and transportation for their kayaks and gear. “That is the area of the trip that we are the least prepared for,” Rens noted.

Whenever, and however, they return to Minnesota, Rens will soon return to South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City while Richard will be enlisting in the Air Force, something he put off doing during his senior year at Jefferson in order to paddle the river.

Updates about their trip are available online at facebook.com/fromsourcetosea. Their donation page is available at tr.im/source2c.

Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.

 

Kayak preparation
Matt Rens makes final preparations before departing from Watergate Marina in St. Paul on June 29. (Sun Current staff photo by Mike Hanks)

 

Pulling up to Harriet Island
Jesse Richard pulls in front of the docked Jonathan Padelford riverboat as he makes his way to shore to greet friends and family members gathered at Harriet Island in St. Paul to see the kayaking duo off. (Sun Current staff photo by Mike Hanks)