Story by Eric J. Wallace
Photos by Bruce “Buck” Nelson
Early in the summer of 2001, having completed his 2,168 mile solo-hike of the Appalachian Trail two months earlier than expected, Bruce “Buck” Nelson was not only riding high, but wondering what to do with himself. After more than two decades serving as an Alaskan smokejumper—and thus being more-or-less perpetually on call—this was Nelson’s first extended summer vacation.
“I was hiking through the 100 Mile Wilderness on the Appalachian Trail,” explains Nelson. “Less than fifty miles from the terminus, I stopped at White House Landing Wilderness Camp to resupply.”
Paddling around Pemadumcook Lake in a canoe (borrowed from the hostel’s benevolent owner), Nelson contemplated the darkening silhouette of the AT’s northern terminus, Katahdin. Mesmerized by the glassy water, it struck him: The summer was far from over; he wasn’t ready to go home.
“A long trip by water might be the perfect follow-up,” Nelson said to himself. “Wouldn’t a canoe trip be a totally different type of adventure?”
The question lingered and hung in the air. A shiver knuckled down his spine. Awestruck, Nelson murmured aloud: “The Mississippi.”
“I wanted to maximize my adventuring,” recalls Nelson. “I’d finished the AT very quickly and I wanted to do something else big. I’d loved the trail—both the journey and the challenge of actually finishing it. Both aspects were of huge importance to me. So I thought, canoeing the Mississippi would be a similarly demanding physical challenge. And, after all, as begs the adage: Is variety not the spice of life?”
But America’s biggest, mightiest river? Insane.
“I didn’t know if it was a possibility,” laughs Nelson. “Adventurous as I was, I’d never heard of anyone doing such a thing.”
It sounded ludicrous, floating the country’s most notorious river in an open canoe. There were so many questions.
“You know, things like, Was the canoe idea even feasible? And, if so, how long would it take? What kind of boat would I need to pull it off?”
This was July 31. Post trekking the final 50 miles of trail and summiting Katahdin, Nelson hitched a ride into Millinocket, Maine. With two days to spare before he was scheduled to catch a ride (via some conveniently road-tripping family members), Nelson hunkered down in a local B&B. In a fever of determination, he spent the hours scouring the internet on a borrowed computer.
“I was able to find a couple obscure accounts of canoe trips,” recalls Nelson with a laugh. “And by reading these I learned the trip was both legal, and doable. And it looked like, if the river was high enough—and therefore fast enough—the trip could be made in under 100 days. Which was something of a tight squeeze as, at that point [(the 3rd of August!)], my remaining vacation-time had been whittled down to just over two-and-a-half months.”
Emboldened by these discoveries, Nelson thumbed it to the next town. Caught a bus to Bangor. And hopped a plane to Minnesota where he’d arranged to for transportation and temporary lodging with his parents.
Less than a week later, while en-route to lake Itasca, the Mississippi’s source, Nelson scored a borrowed canoe from an old high-school teacher under the following conditions: “He asked that I sign it for him when I finished.”
But what about gear?
“On the way to Itasca, I hit an REI and bought a nice PFD, a bent shaft paddle, and also a couple of dry bags. Then I went to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and bought maps for the Mississippi above Minneapolis. Other than that, mostly I relied on gear I already had. The fact I’d been solo-hiking for well over 2,000 miles—and thus camping-slash-existing on the lightest rations possible for months on end—helped streamline the process. The thing was, while on the trail, I’d had to lug both my cooking utensils and my meals around on my shoulders. Whereas, on the Mississippi, the canoe would carry all the weight. I viewed this as a big-time upgrade. It allowed me to buy all the rations I wanted at towns along the way, minus the inevitability of having to suffer for it for miles and days on end. Which was great.”
On August 15, the nose of Nelson’s borrowed boat first met the Mississippi. By early October, from its Minnesota origins, to the Gulf of Mexico, Nelson had conquered all 2,300 miles of the nation’s most iconographic river.
And how does Mr. Nelson feel about his last minute decision in retrospect?
“Minimal planning was actually a plus in many ways,” extols Nelson. “I left with almost no expectations. I had no guidebook. I didn’t even have maps for most of the river yet—just highway maps. (There was a glitch in delivery of the lower river Navigation maps and I had nothing other than highway maps below Cairo.) As such, the journey was a greater challenge, and challenges are by their very nature adventurous. Figuring things out as I went along made the journey feel more like a pioneering experience. I felt like I was hustling when getting ready, but I wasn’t stressed about it. I knew if other mortals had done it, I could as well.”
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Story by Eric J. Wallace