On the morning of Day 19 (June 18), the river was moving fast and we ran into a lot of crazy water that was swirling and bubbling. It was clear the river was flooded and getting wider. We knew we were approaching Fort Ripley as the sound of artillery, machine gun, and sniper fire echoed from a distance. We spotted a few soldiers by their trucks and even spotted them doing some training on the river in their boats. We planned to meet up with Mark Scotch in the late afternoon (a gentlemen from Stevens Point who is friends with Jim Lewis and reached out to me after reading my article in the paper. He was interested in joining us for a stretch of the river and had been in contact with me over the last several days). Mark was going to be our ride from above Little Falls to the Charles Lindbergh State Park, where we were planning on staying for the night with a fellow river paddler, Ellen McDonah. We were advised to get out at the launch well before the intended portage path due to the flooding and turbulent water as we neared the dam. Gabe and I pulled out at the boat launch about a half mile prior to the dam and waited for Mark's arrival. We paddled 38 miles total for the day. About 10 minutes later, I saw Jim pull up with his kayak on top of his roof. I looked at Gabe and said, "What the hell is Jim doing here!?" Gabe turned and laughed as Jim pulled up and said, "Surprise!". He said he was going to paddle with us the next two days because he knew there were some tricky spots ahead and he was concerned that we would have no assistance. He once again generously offered his time to us, and Gabe and I couldn't be more thankful. Once Mark arrived, we loaded our kayaks and drove to the State Park where we met up with Ellen, who is also paddling the entire river. She kindly offered us a place to camp on her pre-paid campsite. We all went into town to a small family restaurant for dinner. I ordered a 12 inch pizza (one of my biggest cravings since we started!). As we ate, we looked over our maps to determine where we were going to paddle the next day. After returning to the campsite, I headed straight for the showers after Ellen told us that they had warm water at this site (very rare find!). Unfortunately I didn't pack any shampoo for the trip so we debated as to what we could use. Gabe and I went to the other side of the building and removed the liquid soap dispenser from the wall. It might not have been the best but it worked well for what we were doing. After showering, we started a fire and spent the rest of the evening exchanging stories of our adventures so far. Heavy rain and thunderstorms were in the forecast so we brought everything inside that couldn't get wet and turned over all of the kayaks before lights went out for the evening.
On Day 20 (June 19), I was awoken at 3:30 am by one of the loudest cracks of thunder that I have ever heard. From a dead sleep I could feel the pressure from the thunder crack hit my chest. It honestly sounded like a bomb went off nearby. I turned on my headlamp and checked to see if any water got in my tent - sure enough, my shirt was completely soaked, and there was a puddle of water by my head and my feet. Frustrated, I just moved my sleeping bag and fell back asleep. Once we headed out toward Sauk Rapids, the rain came down and 25 mph gusts of wind were relentlessly blowing at our faces, creating the largest waves we've seen yet. The entire day we dealt with the wind in our faces, which made it nearly impossible to talk with one another. If we would stop paddling the wind would just push us back upstream. After seven miles in, we hit our portage at Blanchard Dam. This was our worst portage of the entire trip. The DNR maps claim it was 300 yards, but it was more like a half mile. We went up a hill, down the other side, up a large set of stairs, over a bike path, down a steep hill, across a foot bridge and a LONG path through the woods. When we approached the area where we put back in it was very turbulent and dangerous. If you couldn't paddle straight out at a quick rate then there was a chance that you'd get pulled into a large area of trees along the bank. Jim thought it was too dangerous and thought that we should put back in further down river. The problem was that the next launch wasn't for another three miles. We were assisted by four Minnesota Power employees who were surveying the portage path. They connected us with a ride from a local gentlemen who was just starting a kayaking outfitter business. He drove Jim back to Little Falls to grab his vehicle so we could move down river. While we were waiting, Mark and Gabe decided to take the chance and get in the river. They emptied their boats in case they did tip over and pushed out. They made it safely to the next boat launch down river and waited for Jim and I to catch up. We hopped back in to the calmer water and right back into the headwinds. We pushed on to the South Sartell boat launch where we were finally done for the day, completing 27 miles. Everyone was extremely exhausted after that day, and Mark Scotch parted ways with us. We really enjoyed his company and all of his adventure stories from the past. He's got a lot of great trips under his belt. You can read more about his travels on his blog, www.motoscotch.blogspot.com. That evening Jim called his old friend, Troy Hilde, that use to work with him. Troy said he would be happy to have us for the evening so Gabe, Jim and I spent the night at his house. Troy is a Marine Corps veteran so we had a great night exchanging stories and drinking beers until about 2 AM. We are extremely grateful and lucky to have Jim Lewis find us a safe place to stay for the night. There was a lot more severe weather passing through the area that evening. Troy and Mila Hilde were wonderful hosts who let us shower, do laundry and sleep in their home - we are very grateful for their kindness!
We awoke early on Day 21 (June 20) to some delicious fried eggs and pancakes made by our host, Troy. We packed up our gear and went to a landing just south of the last dam in Sauk Rapids. We said goodbye to Jim once again and thanked him for his commitment and concern of our journey. He truly just wants us to be safe and enjoy the river. We had a challenging place to put in the river. Just 50 yards past the launch there were several quick rapids. The only way to avoid them was to paddle straight out as fast as we could to the middle of the river. We both made it safely and paddled in some very hot weather the rest of the day. We made it to Monticello, MN around 5 pm and we both leaned against our kayaks and took a short nap. We woke up and set up my tent to dry out in the last couple hours of sun. I tried calling several contacts near Minneapolis to see if they could help us out. My good friend Melissa was out of state but offered her apartment for us anyway. I told her I would stay in touch. Later that evening we walked three miles into town to restock on supplies. We got more "just add hot water" meals, plenty of snacks to eat during the day and some protein bars to hopefully prevent us from losing more weight. We didn't make it back to our gear until almost midnight and went to bed right away. We paddled 34 miles for the day.
On the morning of Day 22 (June 21), an old friend from my unit in Twentynine Palms called me. Sgt Steel is a Marine Corps recruiter in Minneapolis and he said he would be happy to come and get us from the river, drive us where ever we needed to go and hold onto our kayaks for the night. There were going to be some crazy storms and tornadoes that night, so we needed to set up a safe place to stay. I called Melissa and said I would take her up on the offer of staying at her apartment even though she wasn't home until the next day. We paddled most of the morning and afternoon before we had to make our only portage of the day. We approached the dam and turned towards the area where we get out to make the portage. A park ranger drove by and drove us to the museum to get some fresh cold water. After a few hiccups with finding our exit spot, we passed under a bridge realized that our actual exit spot was now back across the river and we were lined up exactly with that launch. We tried to spin around and paddle upstream as hard as we could while using our rudders to turn us a little at a time back across the entire river. After about a minute of intense paddling we made it that landing. We were both exhausted and met up with Sgt. Steel to load up our gear. He dropped us off at Melissa's apartment and said he would watch our kayaks and all of our gear for the night. We were extremely grateful for him taking care of us that night. We wouldn't have had a plan without him. Melissa's sister, Megan, dropped the apartment keys off with me and left shortly after. When we went upstairs we saw that she had purchased two 6-packs of beer for us and left a note with money for us to buy dinner for the evening. It was extremely nice to have all of that after a long day of paddling for 41 miles, thanks so much Megan! We ordered gyros to go from a Greek place just down the street. Everything was amazing and Gabe fell asleep shortly after. I was still wide awake and went down stairs to the community picnic table and met two gentlemen, Blake and Eric, who also lived in the apartment complex. I enjoyed some good conversation for about an hour and a half and then went upstairs to bed for the evening.
It was already storming in Minneapolis on the morning of Day 23 (June 22). I didn't feel like it was safe to go out yet, but was hopeful that it would clear up soon. Melissa returned home a little after noon and she took us to McDonald's to get some lunch. She was kind enough to cover our lunch and was excited to have some visitors. I asked if she would drive us down to St. Anthony Falls so we could see the river. We had heard from several people that they had never seen the river that intense at that location. It sure was wild and I now understood why they weren't allowing any river traffic to pass through the cities. We then went to the movie theatre to watch 22 Jump Street. She again refused to let us pay and continued spoiling us throughout the night. She ordered pizza and appetizers for us and we hung out at her apartment watching tv all night before going to bed.
On Day 24 (June 23), Sgt. Steel picked us up from Melissa's apartment and brought us back to his recruiting substation where he offered us several cases of MRE's. We field stripped them down and just took the main meals and some snacks. He also offered us several stickers for our kayaks and some Marine Corps t-shirts. We drove down along the Minnesota and Mississippi River and saw how incredibly flooded it really was. Many of the islands that are normally exposed only had the tops of trees showing. Some bridges had water all the way to the bottom of them which made them impassible by any watercraft. He dropped us off and we said goodbye to Sgt. Steel and thanked him for everything he did for us. We honestly wouldn't have made it through the Minneapolis area without his help. We paddled out of the small marina and into the river which seemed much larger than the river had been thus far. We noticed huge 15-20 ft trees floating all around us, and there were now buoys marking the channel where the barges would pass. The issue with these buoys in high water is that the current seems to pull them under water and they randomly pop back out of the water without any notice. We tried to stay right in the middle of the channel but it swerves all over the river. The channel is the only part of the river guaranteed to be 9 ft deep for the barges to pass through. We had a couple buoys slowly appear out of the water in front of us where we quickly had to make adjustments. We avoided them at all costs because they would frequently have trees or other debris caught up in them. A storm was developing behind us so we paddled hard to stay in front of it. We approached our first lock and waited 20 minutes for a watercraft to lock through from down river. We were given the green light and entered the lock where a gentlemen handed us each a rope to hold onto. The doors closed and we were ready to be dropped down to the river below. After maybe a minute of hearing the water being pumped out we were surprised to see the doors start to open. It was pretty anticlimactic when we realized we only went down about 18 inches. The horn sounded to let us know we were free to leave and we pushed on to Lake Pepin. We were rained on for a little bit and didn't even bother putting rain gear on because it was so hot. We passed our first moving barge coming upstream while crossing Lake Pepin which pushed out a pretty decent sized wave. We had to turn into the waves to make sure they weren't too big to dump us from our kayaks. No problem though. After paddling 32 miles for the day, we arrived at the home of our next contact, Justin Staker. His parents own a house right on the river but he was unfortunately working in the cities for the evening. His parents, Dan and Lynn, were very kind to us as we approached their property and they said we were just in time for dinner! Their dog, Nelly, greeted me with a face full of kisses before I could even exit my kayak. Dan and Lynn had brats that came hot off the grill, a great fruit spread, chips and beer! We spoke of our trip and I had the chance to talk with Justin on the phone for a few minutes. Dan let us check the Army Corps of Engineer maps so we could plan some camp spots the next couple of days. We were given the bunkhouse to sleep in for the night which was a really nice small building that was designed like a little studio apartment. Everything we could possibly need was in it. Their generosity was greatly appreciated!
Today (Day 25) we plan on paddling between 35-40 miles. We're hoping to make it to La Crosse, WI by Wednesday night.