On July 20 a purple sun was rising on the Mississippi River just west of Grand Rapids, Minn. We had already paddled 142 miles, 37 of them in the last 24 hours, and only eight miles lay between us and our destination.
We launched the expedition on July 14 from Coffee Pot Landing, putting our three boats in the water about 15 miles north of the Mississippi Headwaters. There were seven members of the expedition, including two instructors and five students. The group was put together by the C.O.P.E. Prevention Program, an extension of the chemical dependency program at Minneapolis American Indian Center.
The 150-mile accomplishment was great for us, five teenagers from the South Side of Minneapolis who had never been on a wilderness expedition before. We undertook this challenge in order to escape life in the city, experience something other than what we know, and to experience living in a close group in which everyone is looking out for one another.
A true expedition is a lot of work. Each day we divided up our responsibilities, which included navigation, food preparation and camp set-up and take-down. These responsibilities, combined with the difficulty of traveling down the river often led us to frustration.
As a group, we faced a winding river, turn after turn, leaving us feeling like we were in the middle of nowhere and would never get to our destination. We faced stumps and trees fallen over rapids. We faced portages over trees and around dams. We faced big lakes and winds on Lake Bemidji, Cass Lake, and a 30 mile-an-hour wind on Minnesota’s fifth largest lake, Winnibigoshish, a lake that presented us with a 15-mile crossing.
The winds on Winn-ibigoshish set us back, spending our second to last night on Tamarack Point on the east side of the lake, still 45 miles from our final destination, and leaving us only 36 hours to reach it. Our instructors gave us the option of leaving the river before reaching our destination, cutting the mileage of the expedition short and making arrangements for the van to meet us on Hwy. 2.
However, as we were reaching Hwy 2., we decided as a group to not quit early. We were determined to reach Cohasset, even if it meant paddling all the way through the night. As the sun went down we were still 25 miles from our van. Without navigating together and eating constantly to supply more energy, we would not have made it. As the sun rose and cast purple on the sky, we were exhausted, yet still eight miles from our destination. We were forced to stop at a campsite and sleep for two hours, from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. When we woke up, we cooked S’Mores for breakfast and got right back on the river to make the final eight-mile push, winding down the river and forcing our canoes through beds of wild rice until finally we reached our destination—our van waiting for us at the public boat landing in Cohasset.
Through all of the struggles, we had a great time. We told stories and joked all the way down the river. There were many times we wanted to quit, but we never did. We couldn’t have accomplished this without each other, five American Indian young men from the South Side.
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