Jan-Apr: Plan & Prep

Getting Started

Many of the people reading this have been exposed to my never-ending chatter over the past prep-year. The plan was developed with the help of discussions with many people, and  with the resources provided by Mike Gordon and others on the Mississippi River Paddlers website; he and those who post on that site provide excellent information and support for those who take on the challenge of the Mississippi.

In discussions about the trip, people typically ask “why” with a look of pity for my lack of mental ability.  Because the best answer is likely, “character flaw,” I think I will leave the rationale as “something big for a bucket list item.”

The next question is usually, “how many people do this?” I have always responded, “a lot.”  I now have better information based on the great resources of the Mississippi River Paddlers (a plug, in case this blog entices you to try the trip). Based on my review of the materials posted on that website:

The first boat to tackle the source-to-gulf trip in 2017, paddled by a solo canoeist, left Lake Itasca MN on 4/22/17.  Over the course of the year, 37 boats left from Lake Itasca intending to reach the Gulf of Mexico. About two-thirds, 25 of the 37 boats, or 67.5 percent, made it to the Gulf. There were 67 paddlers in the 37 boats, 41 of the paddlers (about 61.2 percent) made it to the gulf. Moral of the story? It is better to be a boat than a person!

Details & Invitation

The “Source to Gulf” trip will start from the river’s beginning at Lake Itasca, MN, and pass through 10-states to where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.  I plan to have a nice post-trip celebration in New Orleans at the end of the trip and hope many of my friends and family will join me there.

I encourage St. John’s alumni, friends in risk management programs throughout the Midwest, employees of sponsoring companies, and anyone else who likes, to join me for a bit of paddling when I am passing through their area. After Minneapolis, I expect to be moving at 5 to 6 MPH so, if you join me, expect that pace.

There are two things interfering with my ability to predict the start and end date and both things are weather-related.  Jeff Bromenschenkel, who lives on the Mississippi river in northern MN, will let me know when the ice is off of the river.  He notes that the lakes have a later ice-out date, but I told him that I can hug the shoreline in the lakes if necessary.

At the moment, I am estimating that I will drive from NY to MN in the last week of April and hope that my first day on the water will be around April 28. According to the plan, fifty-three days later, assuming no days with lightening-involved thunderstorms, I will paddle up to the boat ramp at Burns Point Park in Franklin, LA. Marie and Bill Ferguson (a friend from Louisiana State University, Lafayette) should meet me and be ready for the first party in Franklin.  After a night of recovery, I expect to be in New Orleans around June 21.

Of course, there will be some thunderstorm days that will cause a delay, but I may be able to go faster on some days to make up time. At present, how it all nets out is a mystery.

Planning & Preparation

A thank you is due in advance to my wife, Marie Cavanaugh, who will support this adventure in many ways. For example, others – who are typically younger, or who place a higher value than I on living in the rough as if it is a virtue – have camped near the banks of the river when they could, only sometimes taking refuge in a hotel, motel, or generous stranger’s accommodation (yes, the River Angels are an amazing group of people). I am not thrilled with the idea of camping in the freezing evening weather of Minnesota in April/May or a sweltering Louisiana in May/June with alligators in the neighborhood; I prefer to stay in a hotel every night and have a shower, real food, and clean sheets. Satisfying my preferences requires quite a bit of planning. With luck, Marie will find me near GPS coordinates I have identified using Google Maps. We will then drive to a nearby hotel that I have identified (thanks again Google and the fact that the Hilton and Wyndham hotel chains are frequently available). I have enormous respect for the many more rugged paddlers and, to honor them, I will cheer them with a glass of wine while I eat a warm dinner and they camp and enjoy their Ramen Noodles or Mac-and-Cheese. So, thanks again, Marie, for also dedicating two months to my adventure addiction.  If the readers of this blog are lucky, she will also contribute with information about the areas that I will see only from the surface of the river.

My initial thought was that I could shoot for 50 miles a day before resting.  If I was doing it with another person, and if I was willing to camp out when necessary, that would probably not be an uncomfortable target. But my paddling experience is on lakes in MA and NJ.  With little river experience and recognizing that there are many variables, I could not be certain that a 50-mile target is reasonable. After training this past summer for the distances, I know that I can relatively easily cover 30 miles on a lake in a day. How much does the downstream flow of a river help? I don’t know.  From my perusal of the Internet, I understand that the typical flow at Lake Itasca is about 1.2 MPH and near the gulf it can be 2 to 3 MPH. On the other hand (yes, I am an economist), the Internet also shows that the general wind direction at that time of year is coming from the south. If I find that I can do more, I will, but my plan is to average about 40 miles per day.

s2g bigmuddyOn occasion, I will have no choice but to go a distance that sounds impossible (for me). Bill Ferguson, sent the picture on the right (not me in the picture) and pointed out that “there’s a reason they call it the Big Muddy.” The muddy conditions, and the high banks in the lower Mississippi, provided an incentive to search for good boat launch locations; there is no way that I would willingly choose to end a day of paddling fighting with deep mud.  Not to mention the fact that Marie probably would not let me anywhere near the car if I looked like that. Unfortunately, in some stretches of the river, the absence of a good quality launch requires relatively long paddle days.

Of course, mud is not the only difficulty. Just for fun, and because Marie continues to voice concern about the sanity of going in a small boat where alligators are common, I offer a link to Gator Safety Tips for Kayaks and Canoes.  And thank you, PBS, for making sure that we don’t overlook the “rodents of unusual size.”

A plug for those who live in the northeastern US. To train, I spent a good deal of time making sure that I could sit in a kayak long enough to paddle 30 miles (see “gel cushion” below). To get a feel for passing through lock and Dam system, I went through the “Flight of Locks” on the nearby Erie Canal. The locks were easy and a nice day trip for anyone in the Albany NY area. That said, imagine being in a large bathtub as it drains down 35 feet. Now recall that the 100-year old tub has never been cleaned!  Yuk! That is why I will bring something to make sure I can keep the boat away from the walls of the Mississippi river locks.


The most important tool to plan the trip is a good map.  Unfortunately, there is no one source I found for the whole river. The best material is available for the Minnesota portion of the trip. The relative information content of the maps falls quite a bit for the portion below Minnesota.  Fortunately, Google Maps provides an ability to zoom in but not with the mileage precision or ramp information of the Minnesota maps. For example, using Google maps, you cannot see the shoreline, so it’s difficult to know if the shore is a nice beach or a ten-foot high wall.

Of course a good boat is next. I initially considered using an “Extra Fast Touring” boat (EFT) made by Doug Bushnell of Westside boats; my other boat is the kayak I started with, a much more stable, but much heavier EPIC 16 Touring Cruiser (not a 16X, an earlier EPIC boat).  Given my skill level, the EFT’s primary stability can be a challenge in wind and waves. It will not be better when I am tired after 6+ hours paddling and dodging barges.  I tried adding kayak stabilizers but, since the boat is made for racing, its Carbon deck is thin to conserve weight; I fear the bounce of the stabilizer would rip the deck apart.  In addition, because the stabilizer reduces the boat speed to the point that it is no better than the EPIC, I will use the EPIC.

I will be using Stellar carbon wing paddles to minimize the paddle weight and will carry an extra Epic flat paddle.  Because I will not need tents or other camping equipment in the boat, the primary weight to push on the river is from the boat, the relatively overweight paddler (I hate the BMI chart), and in the portage section of the river north of Minneapolis, a Seattle Sports All-Terrain cart. Jack Richiedei helped make sure all of the equipment is in good condition and that the motor had a good attitude.

Planning for Hydration and food is next. Hydration is always important and will be increasingly important as the temperature rises through May and June.  Toward the end, I will carry a 2 liter Camelback, filled each day filled with water and one Hammer Enduralytes Fizz tablet to ward off cramping (thanks to Kurt Kuehnel, a paddling acquaintance,  who recommended the Fizz). Required food is harder to determine in advance. A note posted on the Livestrong.com site states: “HealthStatus reports that a 175-pound person … burns around 735 calories canoeing at 4 mph for 60 minutes.”  To me, that sounds a bit too high. I weighed 230 at the start of this preparation (May 2018), in a “hope springs eternal” mode, I am on target to hit a weight of about 195-200 at the start of the trip (unfortunately, not an unusual annual fluctuation for me). During the trip, I expect that I will burn over 5,000 calories per day.  Kurt also recommended energy bars and I will keep a stock of cereal and protein bars available but will try to carry no more than 3 a day, about 600 calories, because I need to minimize boat weight. A good meal every night will help, but I expect to drop at least 10-15 pounds during the trip. Admittedly, that seems a bit unhealthy – I have not been that light since high school (50 years ago) when I passed through the weight between bites of  a bacon cheeseburger with fries and any other unhealthy stuff you can think of.  All I can say is that the trip has been done before (by others) and most have survived.

Among the most important things I will lug around for their occasional use are: kayak, paddles, portage wheels, cell phone, two-way marine radio, wet or dry suit, clothes, large Camelback, rope, hiking stick (to keep the boat away from the cruddy walls in the locks and dams and to help stabilize the boat when I try to get out after a day of paddling), about 60 downloaded audio books, an “egg-sitter gel cushion” – yes, sitting hurts after many hours paddling – and much more.  If I were camping, the list would be much longer and would include food, tents, and other things that I can happily avoid.

April has arrived

Not too long now. The weather is putting up one potential roadblock.  The winter in the Midwest saw record snowfalls and an early start to thawing. Flooding is predicted to be a “historic” issue until mid May or June but, consistent with my general behavior, I am likely to add ignoring warnings to my other list of foolish choices.

The ice is off of the NJ lakes so I was able to do an 8-mile lake practice in mid-March and 16-miles in late-March. Multi-day recovery periods were needed after those efforts. The practice also allows me to test my new equipment and discover problems to be dealt with. For example, a new spray-skirt works very well. But, with the skirt on, access to carried equipment becomes a problem.  So, I acquired a plastic crate, sawed it to half height (6 inches) and figured out how to mount it securely in the front of my boat.  After trying the equipment, I sawed off the corners closest to where I paddled to avoid hitting it every time I took a stroke. This way, I can easily carry water, food bars, and dry clothes; the plastic holes in the crate also make drainage easy and allow for mounting a GPS watch and a JBL Clip3 Bluetooth speaker (to hear my books).

Given my start date, clothing is another challenge.  The average low temperature in April is 27 for Lake Itasca.  The water flow is largely melting ice and snow so it should be wonderfully comfortable. A few weeks later, the average high temperature for June in New Orleans is 91 degrees. So the clothing choices present an interesting challenge. At the moment I am going with the wet suit for the start, with waterproof socks, Camaro 3.0 neoprene booties, neoprene gloves (I thought my pinkies were frostbitten in my first glove-less practice), and a paddling jacket. Together with the bubble of space created by the spray skirt, and an intention to tough-out the first few weeks, I hope to be fine. As the weather changes, the wet-suit will go into storage and White Sierra cargo pants will come into daily use.