PARK RAPIDS, Minn.—A European explorer stopped recently at Itasca State Park to resupply and prepare for the next stage of an 18,000-mile exploration of the Americas — all without the aid of a motor.
Arnaud Maldague, 29, of Brussels, Belgium, was in the middle of his second week at the park's Mississippi Headwaters Hostel on Wednesday, Aug. 1 and he planned to move on within a couple of days.
He had already crossed Canada by skis and bicycle before he paused in the headwaters area to plan a kayak trip down the entire length of the Mississippi. This meant shopping online and in Bemidji for a kayak and supplies, waiting for deliveries, looking for sponsors and making other preparations to paddle down 2,320 miles of river.
"I'm not actually relaxing," he said. "I work every day."
Maldague said the idea for the trip started growing six years ago, when he took an 8-1/2-month break from his studies to cycle from Belgium to Australia, with a few airplane hops along the way. After returning to Brussels, he completed his degree in economics at the Solvay Business School and went on several shorter cycling trips.
"That's when I decided I wanted to go to the Americas, because I had never been there," he said. "I wanted also to experience different sports, because cycling is awesome but it is always staying on the road. I thought to myself, I really want to also discover off-road traveling, going through the snow and the water."
It took Maldague two years to train in all the sports confronting him on this trip and to plan a route through 16 countries, starting in the coastal hamlet of Kugaaruk, Canada — 1,300 miles north of Winnipeg — and ending in Ushuaia, Argentina, considered by some to be the southernmost city in the world.
"I liked the idea of going from the northern ocean to the southern one," he said.
Maldague arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, on Jan. 1 and spent a couple weeks gearing up; then he flew to Kugaaruk and, on Jan. 15, began a gruelling journey across the snowbound Arctic. Two-thirds of the time he traveled by Nordic skiing; one-third, by kite-skiing, using two kites to harness the wind and pull him along on a pair of modified Alpine skis. Meantime, he dragged about two months worth of food and supplies behind him on a pair of sledges.
"It was really hard," he said, recalling that he had to turn back after three days and lighten the load. "It took me 100 days to go from Kugaaruk to Churchill, Manitoba."
Completely alone for wide stretches under the harshest conditions, he couldn't afford to make many mistakes. The cold itself was dangerous, as was skiing over a frozen bay where open water could loom up suddenly.
"It's a lot of reflexes and small things that you have to be careful with," said Maldague, "because you can have an accident very quickly."
One mistake, putting one one sock too many, reduced the circulation in Maldague's foot and led to a frostbitten toe. It took him six months to recover completely.
"It's only finished now," he said. "It wasn't really bad to need surgery, but I had to stay 12 days in one of the locations up there, because it needed to heal."
Also, there were polar bears. One of them ransacked his camp one night when he had forgotten to set up a perimeter wire alarm. The bear beat on the tent, tried to drag it on the ice and was starting to ransack the food sledge when Maldague scared it off with a gunshot.
Another polar bear stalked him in a blizzard for about half an hour. "That was probably the most stressful moment," Maldague said.
After reaching Churchill, he switched to cycling, at first traveling over a railroad. Eventually he was able to use regular roads, and so he arrived at Itasca. He expects his kayak trip to New Orleans to take two or three months.
After that, he said, "the next part is to go from New Orleans to Belize by bike, again. From Belize, I'm planning to sail to Guiana, along the coast. So, that's going to take me a few months." Due to limited funds, he said, he expects to buy a fixer-upper sailboat and spend time repairing and testing it before launching his Caribbean cruise.
"From Guiana, I'm going to cycle 500 kilometers to Boa Vista (in northern Brazil)," Maldague said, adding that he plans to canoe from there to Manaus, Brazil, then up the Amazon a bit, then via the Purus River to Peru. From there, he plans to cycle through Bolivia to Argentina, then ride horseback to the region of Patagonia, where he must cross through southern Chile before re-entering Argentina, most likely on foot.
Maldague said he hopes, if conditions permit, to climb a summit or two in the Andes.
Put together, this trip would be a test of endurance by any mode of transport. Adding to the challenge is the sheer number of nonmotorized sports for one man to master.
Maldague calls his manpowered expedition "The Manneken Trip," a reference to a famous fountain in Brussels depicting a plump, peeing child.
"The legend is that he peed on a bomb to prevent it to explode," he explained. "So, the fountain is the Manneken Pis" — which means "the little piddler" in the French-Flemish pidgin language of Brussels.
Anyone interested in following Maldague's progress can search for The Manneken Trip on Facebook, where he posts photos, videos and journal entries; livexplorer.com/themannekentrip, which plots his real-time progress on a map; or his blog themannekentrip.be. He also has a Youtube channel titled The Mannequin Trip.
During his trip, Maldague is shooting a series of short videos promoting environmental initiatives, such as a hydroponic container in Churchill that makes it possible to grow vegetables year-round, despite 50-below-zero temperatures.
In the U.S., he plans to visit a green study center in New Orleans and perhaps a place that builds houses from eco-friendly materials.
"I didn't want to just do my adventure," said Maldague. "I also wanted a bit more intellectual reflection, and think a bit more about all this. I feel that we are all the time focused on what is not going right, and I feel there is a lot of people actually going out of their comfort zone to try to change things. We don't have to wait for the government to do something; we can all do it."
After he completes his trip, Maldague said, he plans on making a documentary film, writing and speaking about his trip — "if I succeed and there is something to tell people" — and continuing to explore the world, though on shorter trips. He also hopes for a career with a business that has a social goal. And of course, there are more sports that he would like to learn, such as paragliding.
"The first thing about traveling alone is that you learn to accept yourself as you are, because you have a lot of time to think about things," said Maldague. "Some days you're going to think about what makes you happy, but other days you're going to think about all the mistakes you did in your life. At some point, you just have to accept the way you are."