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
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.

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