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Canoeing the Mississippi River

Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico, 2001… Page 1 of 6

The story of my 2,300 mile solo adventure down the mighty Mississippi.

My Canoe on Lake ItascaLake Itasca
August 15, 2001, Source of the Mississippi

My name is Bruce Nelson. I fight wildfires for a living, based out of Fairbanks, Alaska, where my smokejumper friends call me Buck.In the fall of 2000, I’d been fighting wildfires for well over 20 years. I realized that it was time for me to take a summer off to recharge my batteries and to enjoy some of the adventures I’d been dreaming about. In August of 2000 I left for six weeks alone in the Alaska wilderness (see photos here.) During a fall and winter of travel, writing and planning, I decided that I’d attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. The “AT” proved to be one of the greatest adventures of my life. It went so well that I realized I would finish with nearly two months to spare. Along the trail in Maine one day, a hostel owner lent me his canoe.Out on the lake, I paddled along and gazed at Katahdin, the spectacular mountain marking what would be the end of my hike. It was then that it struck me that a long trip by water might a be perfect follow-up adventure. A canoe trip would be a totally different type of adventure, but where? How about the Mississippi? How long would it take to do the Mississippi? Can you even paddle the whole river in an open canoe? What kind of canoe would I need?I had a couple of days of rest in Millinocket, Maine, and there I had time to do a little research on the internet. From reading two or three accounts from other canoe trips, it looked like, if the river was high enough, (and therefore fast enough) I’d have time to make the journey in the 2 1/2 months left in my summer. Sounded good to me! Below you will find the beginning of some of my photos from the river. Included are some stories and information about the adventures I encountered along the way.

On the Way
Setting Out

My parents, and niece and nephew (Markus and Annelise,) drove me up to Lake Itasca. From the landing at the Lake, I canoed the short distance to the outlet that marked the official start of the Mississippi. Here people photograph themselves wading across the river or crossing on the stepping stones. After portaging through the crowds, I launched into the shallow waters and waved goodbye to the family. At first the canoe frequently brushed the bottom of the shallow “river.”
Trees Across the River
Sweepers
Although I didn’t run across the countless beaver dams I’d heard of, I did run across many trees across the river. It was obvious not many people canoed this stretch of river. Nearly always though, I could find a safe way through without having to portage.
Low Bridge!
Duck! Culvert!
There were a number of low bridges the first day or two, and even this culvert. Normally, you wouldn’t think of having to lay down in your canoe as the whole Mississippi River runs through a culvert!
Lost in the SwampsDragging to the Channel
The early part of the river was the most difficult, confusing, and interesting. Occasionally the river would “braid out” into several different channels, eventually disappearing into the alders or grasses. Here’s a spot where I was forced to drag my canoe cross-country to a better channel. There were other stretches between Itasca and Bemidji where it was even worse. The river would disappear into cattails and “floating bog” where it was too spongy to walk on and but still impossible to boat through. I spent hours floundering half-in and half-out of my boat, looking for the channel. At one time I resorted to taping a mirror to the end of my paddle, which I held aloft to look for the river!
Wildlife on the RiverMink!
I got extremely close to this mink! I also saw bands of otters and deer frequently on the upper river. One day I saw what I took to be a black lab swimming across the river. It turned out to be a black bear! I also saw raccoons swimming the river. Hundreds of miles downriver, I saw deer swimming across where it was a mile or more wide.
SunsetSunset at Bemidji
The wonderful light is what I’ll remember most about the river. I saw many awesome sunrises and sunsets, including this one as I approached Bemidji just as a storm ended.
Calm WatersEvening Reflection
I especially liked the river in the evening, with the beautiful low light reflecting off the glassy water.
Still WatersFinding a Campsite
The Mississippi in northern Minnesota flows through some stretches of beautiful wilderness country.
Inland Sea
Crossing Lake Winnibigoshish
3 More Pages of Photos and Stories Follow!
It was nearly 10 miles across as the crow flies. Crossing such a big lake in an open canoe is asking for trouble, and has killed many people through the years. Do as I say, and not as I did! I crossed after listening to the radio and watching the weather, and because it was the warmest time of year. By the way, I ALWAYS wore my life jacket when out on the water.
Click here for facts about planning a Mississippi adventure of your own.

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One of the best books about canoeing the river: Mississippi Solo: A River Quest


27 Responses to Canoeing the Mississippi River

  1. Cooper Reff

    Dear Bruce,

    My friends Adam and I are planning on canoeing the mississippi again but starting from lake itasca and ending at coon rapids dam completing our goal to canoe all of minnesota. Although our first trip was a little sketchy as far as we didnt really know how to properly pack our canoe. I felt like we had an overload of stuff! Also if you could pass down some advice to us that would be really appreciated. We are both juniors in college and once we graduate we have plans to canoe the minnesota river to the red river and then to hudson bay for a charity! If you could please get in contact with me that would be great!

    • Bruce "Buck" Nelson

      Hi Cooper,

      That sounds like a good plan. I’d recommend reading through my Mississippi canoe trip pages and the questions and answers on my blog.

      You’ll definitely want to wear your life jackets, and be aware that it is very dangerous crossing the middle of some of those huge lakes. Many people have drowned when the wind and waves came up when they were far from shore. If you are sensible it should be a fairly safe trip.

      There are numerous portages on that section so pack light. Bring plenty of mosquito repellent. Take lots of photos, it’s one of the best sections of the Mississippi. Have fun!

      Buck

  2. Andrew O'Brien

    Hi Bruce,
    I was planning on undertaking the Mississippi River expedition next year and I was wondering if you could e-mail me with some advice on what to bring and such. I’m just brimming with excitement in merely planning the adventure and can’t wait to hear from people who have already completed the trip. Thank you!

    • Bruce "Buck" Nelson

      Hi Andrew,
      You have good reason to be excited! I’ve spent many hours writing up what I consider to be some of the most important information to know on my website here, so please read through all the Mississippi pages to learn what you can, then read through all the questions and answers on my blog. I’ll be happy to answer any remaining questions you have here.
      Have a great trip!
      Buck

  3. Jay Friis

    Hi Buck,

    Would you please comment about the portage around Sartell dam, most especially “the put-back-in”?

    I’m thinking of going a little further overland to the Watab river (just south of the 1st St. N. and Hwy 1 intersection in Sartell) for a possible easier and safer “put-back-in,” but the satelite view might be showing a falls there where the Watab empties into the Mississippi. Thank you.

    • Bruce "Buck" Nelson

      Hi Jay,

      Thanks for the question. To be truthful, I cannot picture which portage that was in my head. That leads me to believe it wasn’t that big of a deal. If you haven’t seen it, here’s what this site said: The same day we had a second portage, around the Sartell Dam. This one was also described as a 300 yard portage, and was also longer than that, but was much less stressful. In fact, this walk passed right by a park and a bar/cafe called The Riverboat Depot.

      Sorry I couldn’t be of more help. If you need more information calling a local canoe rental business would probably get you your answer.

      Good luck!

      Buck

  4. Jay Friis

    Thanks very much Buck,

    I had seen the InTransit youtube episode by Peter Bragiel called “Portaging.” At Sartell they had one man chest deep in the water to “catch” the canoes on the way down over the rocks into the water. They called it the worst portage on the entire river, and it likely is at that particular spot!

    My guess is that Peter Bragiel and his brothers might have “put-back-in” too early, although they got it done. Gene and Barb, in the Paddle for a Purpose link you provided, went far south past the Watab river so my guess is that they did it the easier way, and that you did too.

    I’m feeling much better now, thanks again.

    Jay

  5. G Hunt

    portage wheels x 2…. would help?

  6. Jason

    Hey there Buck,

    My friend and I are driving from Baton Rouge to Minneaopiis and canoeing back down the river starting August 13, 2013. though neither of us have optimal canoeing experience, we are capable people who aren’t strangers to adventure and hard work. Any general advice for beginners to the river as a whole?

    Thanks for your inspiring blog!
    Good adventures

    • Bruce "Buck" Nelson

      Hi Jason,

      It should be a real adventure. I’d get out there and do some practicing with your canoe before you leave. You don’t have to be whitewater expert but you’ll need to competent. As always, I suggest reading through all my Mississippi pages as well as the questions and answers, and also the answers on my linked blog.

      Definitely wear your life jackets at all times and assume the big boats can’t avoid you even if they do see you. Stay away from fixed objects in strong currents.

      Take lots of photos!

      Buck

  7. Aaron carotta

    Hi Bruce- any reason you didn’t get the world record? 2000 plus would have given it to ya?

  8. Jason Biltz

    Hey Bruce! That sounds like a heck of a journey! My cousin and I are planning a trip to kayak from our home town in Ohio to the gulf! What I am wondering is what kind of permits and such did you need to make the trip? The kayaks are registered for Ohio but do we need to register them for every state we pass through? Let me know your thoughts please!

    Thanks!

    • Bruce "Buck" Nelson

      Hi Jason,
      If your kayak is registered in your home state you should be good to go. I don’t know of any other permits that you’d need for actually kayaking down the rivers.
      Good luck!
      Buck

  9. dustin hepp

    Hey buck my name is dustin and i plan on canoeing down a small river in iowa,the des moines river.when you made ur trip did u live completely off the land.?

    • Bruce "Buck" Nelson

      Hi Dustin,

      I relied almost exclusively on grocery store food. My thinking is that living off the land would have required too many hunting and fishing licenses (due to the many states) as well as a lot of time.

      Have a great trip.

      Buck

  10. Bill Barbour

    My son and I are considering a week-long ‘adventure’ in early June. We have considered a paddling (floating) trip down part of the Mississippi. We want to camp the whole way. Is there a particular section you would recommend? (We are in the Carolinas but will travel wherever.)

    • Bruce "Buck" Nelson

      For the wildest, most challenging part of the river you might start at the source at Lake Itasca. For the least paddling and the most river covered using the current you might consider starting south of St. Louis, say Cairo. You should be able to find camping nearly the whole length of the river.

      Good luck!

  11. Hegdehog

    Hi Buck,
    I really enjoyed your blog and story. I am planning to kayak the length of the Mississippi this summer. Any suggestions on maps? Would a GPS unit be better and can you navigate with just GPS? Would appreciate some advice. Cheers, Hedgehog

    • Bruce "Buck" Nelson

      Hi Hegdehog,

      I have information on maps in the planning section. A mapping GPS would probably work fine for a kayaking/canoeing trip if the maps showed all the locks and dams. For a power boat trip I’d definitely get the Corp of Engineers maps as well.

      Be safe and have fun!

      Buck

  12. Richard Reedy

    Buck, I am 75 will be 76 when doing “the river”, my wife is 3yrs. my jr. We love adventure, are in reasonable shape for the shape we are in. Researching now, have read much, your’s especially. Thinking of putting in at So. St. Paul to avoid portages, then going to the Gulf. Thought of using a flat back with a 3 to 5 hp 17′ min. Sounds like wind may be the biggie for an old man. Figured the trolling motor would be a safe option and still give the old boy the feel of paddleing. Also considering the rowing option you discussed, with paddles as well for variety. Figured I could stay out of trouble with the trolling motor when needed. My wife will be along plus gear so there will be some hard work on windy days. Can I go from there with no portages and do I have a reasonable plan here?

  13. noreply

    thanks for River Mississippi.

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