September 27, 2020

Kayakers paddle their way down the Mississippi Trio moved by spirit of adventure

You might say that Jasper Walsh doesn’t let grass grow under his feet. The Newburgh man’s efforts to satisfy his wanderlust have taken him across country by bicycle with several friends (last year) and down the length of the Mississippi River (he just got back) with two other friends.

If you’re one of his friends, be prepared for another bicycle excursion next fall just before he gets married. He wants to ride from the Gulf Coast to Alaska. Start investing in tire patches now.

I like his attitude. The 24-year-old’s advice is “don’t wait, you never know when you’ll be able to do it again.” His advice for those of you contemplating an excursion? “Live every day, do what you want to do.” Perhaps the tattoo on his right arm sums it up best: “I will live life.”

On his cross country bicycle trip after graduating in 2004 from the University of Maine, he became infatuated with the Mississippi River. At Hannibal, Mo., the mile-wide river left an impression, and he said he decided then and there he wanted to be on it.

It’s not surprising that his infectious spirit of adventure caught on last winter with friends Darian Higgins, 22, and Rachel Knobloch, 23, of Eddington, both May graduates of the University of Maine. “I asked Darian what he thought [about being on the river – the whole length of the river] and he said ‘great,'” Walsh said. They talked about canoes but decided on kayaks.

The planning began. It didn’t hurt that Walsh worked for a while at Epic Sports and that Higgins was on staff at the time. They were able to purchase a Wilderness Systems North Star tandem and a Wilderness Systems Cape Horn as well as MSR cooking gear, an MSR Hubba Hubba tent, Thermarest sleeping pads, and a whole boatload of dehydrated Enertia Foods meals that can be prepared in their own pouches.

Knobloch wound up being the meal logistician. She planned on 20-day resupply drops, packed big cardboard boxes with the necessities and ready to be mailed out to pre-determined locations.

Interestingly, they opted to take water bladders with them and not filter river water. They told me this week it was just as easy to get water ashore from stores and faucets than to rely on filters removing all the nasties from the river water.

Planning complete, the trio enlisted Epic Sports manager MerriBeth Bumpus to chauffeur them and their gear and boats to Bemidji, Minn. – actually just west of Bemidji is Itasca State Park, home of Lake Itasca, headwaters of the Mississippi.

It was hard to imagine, Walsh said, that the shallow and narrow outlet of the lake (maybe 10 feet wide and less than a foot deep) could be the mighty Mississippi.

But there’s a post there that says this is the spot where the Mississippi begins its 2,552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

Itasca State Park was established in 1891 to preserve remnant stands of virgin pine and to protect the basin around the Mississippi’s source.

There, on Aug. 6, began the downstream voyage that would last 56 days and cover 2,242 miles of river – Walsh in the single kayak, Higgins and Knobloch in the tandem.

Most days were spent covering 30- to 50-mile stretches of river. They’d get up around 6:30 a.m., have breakfast, and pack up. Mornings were spent paddling – up to 25 miles. At lunch, usually on a sandbar or sandy riverbank, they’d haul out their tents and other gear to air while they ate. Then they’d repack and head back downstream. The longest mileage days came south of the confluence with the Missouri River.

They’d be off the water by late afternoon and in their sleeping bags by 8 p.m. Of the 10- to 11-hour paddling days, Walsh said, “It was work, but it was worth it.”

Despite having Army Corps of Engineers charts, they found that channels had changed due to sediment deposits, part of what makes the river trip a dynamic experience. Because of the season, water levels were down a bit, making it easy to find places to camp along the way, Walsh said. Most often they’d be on a sand bar or beach.

Daily wildlife (and some not-so-wildlife) sightings kept things interesting, they said. There were eagles, deer, otter, mink, bear (1), wolf (1), pelicans, geese, ducks. And then there was this garr fish that was flopping about on the surface. The 4-foot long needle-nosed fish appeared injured. But the prizewinner was a fish that jumped clear of the water several times, clearing each of the kayaks in single bounds.

The largest crossing, 14 miles, was a lake in Minnesota, Lake Winnibigoshish, formed in 1884 when a dam was built to control downstream water levels on the Mississippi.

Along the way Walsh learned that a tandem kayak can outpace a solo boat, so he ordered a rudder kit from Epic and had it shipped out. That helped a bit. With a rudder (or skeg) you can devote all of your energy into forward momentum. One day, in a good-natured effort to even matters, out he put a fairly large rock in the stern hatch of the tandem and didn’t say anything until later. Knobloch and Higgins were good about it, he said. They got a kick out of it.

At Minneapolis-St. Paul they encountered the first of many locks they had to traverse and so began the encounters with industry and commercial barge traffic, some tows so large, they said, they were the equivalent of 800 or more tractor-trailers.

One of the trip’s highlights was seeing the Mississippi Queen at New Madrid, Mo. The huge stern paddle vessel was headed up stream.

More unusual, however, was the Miss Rockaway Armada. Pictures of the phenomenon showed a rag-tag collection of several barges festooned with tarps and recycled materials of all sorts.

I checked the Internet and found this: Miss Rockaway Armada is “a group of 25 performers, artists and change-makers who formed a collective which [was] congregating in Minneapolis to construct a flotilla of rafts and sail down the Mississippi, stopping along the way to offer workshops, skill-shares and participatory theater about art, environmental issues, and constructive ways of living.

“Our flotilla is built green with precycled materials, rainwater collection, solar ovens, and steam calliopes. If we make it right everything will run on sunshine and French fry grease. We want a floating garden, a bicycle-powered sound system, and wind-powered lights. We want to steal hippie technology from the hippies.”

The theater group would hold workshops and perform along their downstream journey.

Like most of us would find after a few days out, the trio learned they’d packed way too much in the way of clothing, electronics, and cooking gear. The GPS got mailed home as did most cook pots (the dehydrated meals could be re-hydrated right in their packages and eaten from them as well). Binoculars and lots of extra clothes were sent home as well.

By trip’s end it was pretty much a set of raingear, a hat, a couple of T-shirts, a couple of pairs of shorts, and Crocs. If there was anything they thought they could have used more of it was food. Paddling all day kept their appetites stoked.

When all was said and done, Knobloch said, she came away believing in herself and her abilities. Before the trip, “I didn’t think I could do it,” she said. Afterward, “I learned I was stronger than I thought I was.”

Higgins came away thinking it was the smart thing to do at this point in his life. He echoed Walsh’s assessment of opportunities that present themselves: “Don’t wait, you’ll ever know when you’ll be able to do it again.”

If you don’t want to wait and would like these adventurers to come to your place for a presentation, give Walsh a call at 659-8690.

Wilderness First Responder

Acadia Mountain Guides will be offering a Wilderness Medical Associates Wilderness First Responder Course in Orono weekends starting Nov. 17. Jon Tierney, longtime paramedic, climbing ranger, mountain guide, and WMA Instructor, will teach the course.

The course meets Nov. 17-19, Dec. 1-3, and Dec. 9-10. The Friday classes are 1-9 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday the classes are 8:30 a.m.- 5:30p.m. The cost is $450, or $395 for students.

If you sign up a friend who has never taken a course with Acadia Mountain Guides, you can get the student rate. For more information, call 866-7562. Or check the course online at:

Sky-event notice

From Astronomy magazine comes this reminder for sky watchers. Turn your heads skyway and check out the Orionid meteor shower tonight around midnight.

Named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to radiate, the Orionids peak tonight, timed perfectly with new moon.

The radiant – the point in the sky where the meteors seem to come from – lies in northeastern Orion the Hunter, where that constellation borders Gemini the Twins. The Orionid’s radiant rises before midnight and stands high in the south by 4 a.m., a full two hours before dawn.

To access a digital version of this sky-event notice, download a finder chart, and learn more information about the Orionid meteor shower, visit:

Jeff Strout’s column on outdoor recreation is published each Saturday. He can be reached at 990-8202 or by e-mail at

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