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September 27, 2020

9/3/2020 2:40:00 PM
Anything can happen on the river...

For this 20-something guy from rural Taylors Falls, when he looks back on summer 2020 some things that will not come to mind are racial unrest, video of law enforcement shootings, or even covid-19.    

Jack Thibodeau graduated in spring from U of M-Crookston in northern Minnesota, and over the past two and a half months, he and a college friend carried out their plan to paddle the mighty Mississippi, from the Itasca headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico.

There’s a poem by Barbara DeCoursey Roy that reads in part, “...the river doesn’t see color or division, red or blue states, merely states of being...sundown trending garnet but turning midnight blue just before the dawn.”

For Thibodeau, over a span of 76 days anyway, his only anxiety of a red or blue nature,  had to do with avoiding canoe-busting wakes of the rusty red barges or keeping precious sapphire blue embers in the campfire lit, catching some R and R on sandbars.

In the bipartisan world according to the Mississippi, all throughout the journey, everybody that he and his paddle buddy Devin Brown met were nice, helpful and outgoing.  Jack says it was pleasant not to  be bombarded with politics and accusations on T.V.,  pushed to his phone, or being broadcast.   

His summer stories describe towns along the river where he and Brown pulled to shore, finding people who could not have been easier to get along with.  Whether there was a collection of plywood shacks or really nice houses, off a main street in Memphis or St. Louis, people were friendly and curious about these crazy fellas from

Minnesota.  They got invited to a barbecue, called over to local boats for a cold beer, got offers of a ride to a food store, or just given fresh water.  One man they’d befriended sent Jack a text as the hurricanes were being forecast-- and he offered to pick them up with his truck and a trailer.  Luckily, the two had completed their river trek, and been picked up by Jack’s Dad at a city park.  They were already driving back to Minnesota.  They missed hurricane “Laura” by about two days.
The journey started off in a 17 foot Old Town Tripper.  After clearing the Twin Cities, they finished the rest of the river in a 20 foot Winona MN #3.

For Jack; a major hurdle was eating enough calories to keep up with the physical exertion, plus finding food items that were tasty.  The Idahoan potato brand of dried products worked really well.  They also recommend boxed mac and cheese shells and soft tortillas with whatever you want, rolled up inside work great.  Airtight pouches of tuna came in quite handy.  

There wasn’t time to catch fish, Jack said.

Most of the time, after hours of paddling all they could do was locate a campsite, fix the tent and they’d be ready to crash.

The first part of the Mississippi was scenic, wild and the water level was surprisingly low.  “We were dragging our canoe the first few days it seemed,” said Jack.  The difficult stretch of the whole 2,000 miles proved to be towards the beginning. The larger lakes near Bemidji were exhausting and Lake Winnie, with a heavy headwind,  took three days.  

And, then there was the glitch nobody could have foreseen.  

Jack is in the National Guard and it was just a few days into the itinerary, early June, when Jack was summoned by cellphone to report. His Guard unit was called to restore order in the Twin Cities.  

The trip resumed right after this break.  And, then the worst thing to report downriver was when they were swamped by a brief, but vicious squall.  It came up while the canoe was well out in the middle of a very wide part of the river.  They recovered their senses after being dumped,  they bailed and managed to get the canoe sort of upright. They limped into a shallow spot with still probably a hundred pounds of water in the canoe bottom. Most of their goods were soaked through, hanging off the gunwales by a shoestring.  Sportsmen’s waterproof bags are not as fully waterproof as they claim, Jack advises.

Yet another better day, they will likely talk about for years, was saving the deer fawn.  

It was drowning and not doing itself any favors trying to get up a steep scraggly bank. The two floated the canoe up to it and steered it across river, got it onto a gentler slope and carried it onto land.  

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