Mississippi dreaming: Hoffman shares quest of paddling from Itasca to New Orleans
MINNETONKA -- Gary Hoffman remembers clearly the first time he voiced aloud his desire to canoe the length of the Mississippi River.
"When I was a little boy and had gone up to Itasca, that's probably when my dreaming began, but I began to vocalize it in the early '70s," he reflected. "I can remember sitting at Monticello on the river bank with my wife and two young kids, and we saw a couple of guys paddling by. I asked them where they were headed, and they said New Orleans. I turned to (wife) Jacqui and said, 'Someday I'm going to do that.'"
That aspiration finally came true in 2002, when Gary and his adult son, Darrin, spent 45 days canoeing almost 2,500 miles from Itasca to New Orleans. He recently published a book, "Mighty Miss," about the experience.
For 20 years, Gary was a teacher of English, speech and theater arts at the middle- and high-school level in Minnetonka. In 1988, he went into full-time church ministry as a director of deacon formation.
But his preparation for a Mississippi adventure came through his experiences as a Boy Scout executive and working with the Outward Bound program, leading canoe trips to the Boundary Waters.
"I've been taking kids on canoe trips since I was in college," he said.
So Gary had the experience to undertake a major canoe adventure, but he needed a partner to take on the challenge with him.
"A couple of years ago, I'd asked some of the Outward Bound leaders to go with me, but they thought it was too dangerous," he said. "My son had heard about my dreams over the years, and when he went into the Army, he gave me a call one day and said, 'Would you like to fulfill that dream, the one about canoeing the Mississippi?' That's how it got started, but we waited four years until he was done with his Army career."
Gary and Darrin prepared for the trip by reading materials by other people who had made the trip and studying maps of the Mississippi route. Through their research, they hoped they were prepared for the obstacles and hardships they would encounter and the toll the trip would take on them mentally and physically.
"As we began, Darrin was in great shape. He just finished four years as an Army Ranger," Gary said. "I, however, was in shape only at trip's end. I was surprised that even after leading canoe trips for 40-some years in the Boundary Waters and elsewhere and instructing for Minnesota Outward Bound, how ill- prepared I was for the endurance and dangers we encountered."
"And there's an emotional toll, and we were prepared for that," he added. "In one of the articles we read, there was one father-son combination who was still not speaking to each other. They got to New Orleans and parted ways. ... We knew we could face that same kind of (stress on the relationship). ... On the trip, our faith in each other and our father-son relationship was tested to the max."
In retrospect, Gary realizes the one hardship for which they could have been better prepared was the weather. They left from Itasca in early spring of 2002 and didn't anticipate the increase in temperature as they headed south.
"We didn't bring along salt tablets, and that took a lot out of us," Gary said. "When you're in the Boundary Waters, there are always nice cool evenings, but here we were sleeping on top of our sleeping bags, buck naked, sweat rolling off our bodies. Even when the fog would roll in, it would come through the screen, and the moisture would collect on the walls and roll down the tent. ... Our sleeping bags were basically wet 24/7. We had to pack early in the morning and get on the river, so we had to pack them wet and get them out wet. But you got used to it. It was like being one of those pieces of gummy candy that you have to peel off the paper."
But heat wasn't the only obstacle they faced on the journey.
"Early on, navigating the boglands between Itasca and Bemidji became a two-day trip. Often the river would divide into five channels while flowing through those wetlands," he detailed. "Taking the correct channel was a challenge that led us to dragging our 20-foot canoe over muddy land stretches. The entire trip was no breeze and presented nearly as many challenges as grace-filled moments."
As the Mississippi transformed from a small river into a mighty waterway, the Hoffmans began to encounter traffic -- conveyances of a much larger sort than their canoe.
"We endured several barges trying to swamp us," he related. "The first was shortly after Lock and Dam Two. A barge captain pinned our canoe between his 15 barges and a sheer, 15-foot limestone cliff. On another occasion, we woke around midnight to the banging of metal and men swearing. When we shined a flashlight out of the tent's door, a grounded barge was looming over us. It came to a halt less than five feet away. We were within 10 feet of being flattened. That was the last time we camped near the water."
At Baton Rouge, La., Gary and Darrin had a run-in with a towboat that appeared suddenly from behind a lineup of parked barges.
"He came right at us, and when we turned to go out, he turned, no matter where we went," said Gary. "He was able to try to swamp us by coming head on until the last moment and coming to a dead stop, causing these huge waves. I really figured we were going to go down that time. Our guardian angel, God and a lot of people praying for us brought us through some of those difficult times."
The scariest moment of the trip came as Gary and Darrin tried to navigate a wing dam, which only extends partway into the river, forcing water into a fast-moving center channel. In their research, they hadn't encountered any warnings about the powerful whirlpools that form below such dams. They dropped into a 40-foot vortex and were pulled into its open "eye."
Here's what Gary wrote about the experience in "Mighty Miss":
For a moment we hang in mid-air, but only for a second. Dropping hard, we are immediately sucked into the vortex.
"Oh, my God," I pray silently, "save us." The smooth bubble is now a whirlpool. In one fell swoop our entire canoe has dropped two feet into a swirling mass. It has taken less than a split second. We are listing toward the whirlpool's four-foot open eye; so close I can see into its bottomless and foreboding pit. The pull on the canoe is relentless. The bow is bending downward while the rest lies flat in the whirlpool. How much stress can it take?"
"I always tell people, 'If you want to know how that experience ended, you'll have to read the book,'" Gary said with a laugh.
Canoe encounters of the people kind
While the trip was fraught with danger, it also had its magical moments, and many of them had to do with the people Gary and Darrin met along the way.
"When you'd pull up to a lock, you'd usually meet different people, and every time you pulled up into a marina," Gary said. "The thing about the river is, I believe some of the people who live on those houseboats in the marinas, they live right next to civilization but still apart from it. ... They're always really, really friendly and want to know where you've been. It's like you're bringing mail to them, like in the old days when people would travel and bring news from wherever they came from."
As they headed south, they followed in the wake of another New Orleans-bound canoeist named James, and they heard tales about him along the way. They eventually caught up with him.
"He was a loner and didn't want to give out much information," Gary explained. "He was really concerned that we knew these different things about him, but when you follow along behind a person, you can collect a lot of data about him. We just happened to run into a number of people who had also run into him."
Another character they encountered was a guy they called "Bottle Man," an immigrant from Eastern Europe.
"I never did get his age, but he was probably in the 70 to 75 age range," related Gary. "He had grown up on the Volga River and was ticked off at the Russians because they had ruined it, so now he was going to help the Americans save the Mississippi. He had gotten 129 liter soda bottles and wired them together with 10-gauge fence wire with a lounge chair in the middle of it, a cooler, a backpack, and he was just floating down the river, trying to get in the Guinness Book of World Records and trying to draw attention to pollution on the Mississippi. ... I don't think he made it. He only lived six or seven miles from me in Edina, and he'd wanted to get together in the fall of the year and swap stories, but I left messages and he never returned any calls. If he'd made it, I think we would have heard about it."
For most people, such a trip down the Mississippi would be a once-in-a-lifetime undertaking, but Gary is seriously considering making a solo effort some time in the future.
"If I go solo, I could take my time and visit with people and make a really long vacation out of it," he explained. "I love the people along the river, that's what makes the trip."
In the meantime, he's actively publicizing "Mighty Miss" through public appearances, such as two events scheduled next week in Slayton (wife Jacqui is a native of Hadley, providing the southwest Minnesota connection).
"It will be slides and a talk," he explained of his presentation, "lasting about half hour to 45 minutes. I want to spend my time talking about the highlights, but those people who really want to know how to prepare, I could give them a lot of information about that."
Gary's No. 1 tip for such an expedition: "Bring along (SPF) 50 baby sunscreen. Adult lotion, mixed with sweat, wreaks havoc on the eyes."
Gary Hoffman will give a free presentation at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Left Bank Café in Slayton; and will also speak at 9:40 a.m. Thursday to fifth- and sixth-graders at Murray County Central Elementary School.
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