Rick Bain, of Tampa, Florida, Matt Roy of Buffalo, New York, and Ryan Webb of Priest River, Idaho, paddled the Mississippi River source-to-sea, leaving on July 18, 2018 and reaching the balmy Gulf of Mexico on September 16, 2018. However, their journey began seven decades ago, well before they were born.
For centuries, troops returned slowly from battlefields, by sail, horseback, and foot, slowly decompressing along the way. More recently, you can be on a battlefield one day and in your suburban home days later. It's a jolt, which even WWII forward-area radioman Earl Shaffer realized 70 years ago. Prior to the war, Shaffer had intended to hike the Appalachian Trail with his neighbor and dear friend, Walter Winemiller, but Winemiller died at Iwo Jima. So, Schaffer undertook what was then considered impossible: walking the entire trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
Schaffer said he was going to "walk off the war" and so he started walking with his old boots, his army rucksack, and no tent or stove, averaging 17 miles a day. The long walk worked, as he put considerable distance between him and the memories and losses of WWII.*
History repeated itself in 2012, when Marine Corps veteran Sean Gobin also returned home from combat, deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and laced up his boots and also walked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail.
It was healing and transformative for both warriors and science supports the healing efficacy of simply being outside in green spaces.
For example, trees produce phytoncides, which we inhale. Phytoncides increase our white blood count and our white blood cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies. Two or three days beneath trees can boost our immune systems for 30 days. Time under trees also reduces our blood pressure and even ADHD, as well as anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and fatigue. It's a balm after the battlefield and it worked so well for Gobin that he founded Warrior Expeditions.
Warrior Expeditions connects veterans who have served in a combat zone and "supplies the equipment, clothing and supplies required to complete a long-distance outdoor expedition.” (View their sponsors here.) The expeditions range from walking around Ohio to biking across America to paddling Old Man River and all expeditionary warriors are also given a $300 monthly stipend to resupply. They're also given the opportunity to connect with more than nature, as Warrior Expeditions arranges for community support from veteran and community organizations located along the route, coordinating support "in the forms of transportation, lodging, and food." More nourishing than food are the connections formed with supporters along the way, which facilitate "a veteran's reintegration into society, restore their faith in humanity, and build a network of life-long friendships and relationships."
Bain and his two fellow vets paddled the river from its humble northern beginnings, when it's a nubbin of a river that twists through wild rice marshes and tumbles under white pines. They continued through its below-the-Twin Cities stretch, a river valley of comely bluffs, and down its brawny southern stretch, which is sometimes more than a mile across, and surprisingly wild, for it floods too frequently for houses to perch on its banks. Bain loved the northern-most fourth the best.
"Each segment was fantastic in its own way,” said Bain. “But I would have to say the northern Minnesota section and its untouched wilderness most filled my soul and intoxicated my senses like nothing else."
The river changed, but there were a couple constants, one being eagles, both golden and bald, which they saw from source-to-sea. The other constant was the kindness of both strangers and those dedicated to assisting paddlers and vets.
"The backup arranged by Warrior Expeditions was comprised of local VFW, American Legion and DAV organizations, but we also had help from River Angels and complete strangers on the river,” said Bain. “We owe everything to all of those kind and generous folks."
Bain is especially grateful for the kindness of a retired firefighter from Louisiana:
"His name is Jeff. He was previously aware of Warrior Expeditions and was expecting this year's source-to-sea, so he was following us on the Warrior Expeditions Facebook page. He drove to Lake Itasca from Louisiana and paddled his kayak with hopes of meeting up with us. He paddled 10 days and 147 miles without finding us, so he drove home, but continued to follow us on Facebook. He tried to find us again down south, taking his 22′ freighter canoe, which he'd built by hand, rising at four in the morning, driving 186 miles to Natchez, Mississippi, and heading up river for hours. The weather had turned rough that day, so we went ashore due to the impending lightning storm and took shelter high on the east bank, under cover of the forest. That's when I spotted Jeff in his canoe breaching the tumultuous cauldron of the mighty Mississippi! He beached his canoe by our 13′ Old Town NEXT hybrid canoes, grabbed four beers from his ice-filled cooler, and yelled, 'I've been tracking you from the start, I brought you two cases of cold beer!' We had a great party with our newly found friend! He made an impact on us all and I continue to be in awe of his kindness. When I can, I pay it forward, thinking of him and the many, many others."
However, of all the relationships that were forged, the ones between the three men were the steeliest.
"We were strangers when we met on July 16, but I don't believe Sean could have formed a stronger team of three,” said Bain. “I credit both the US Army and the US Navy for enhancing our work ethic, discipline, and problem-solving abilities. As different as we were, we were also very much the same and I could not have completed this epic experience without both of those guys."
In addition to the ubiquitous eagles, the trio saw a timber wolf, deer, river otters, beavers, armadillos, alligators, turtles, snakes, squirrels, a coyote, raccoons, vultures, herons, cranes, and leaping Asian Carp.
They also saw a pride in one's place, wherever that was.
"The thing that stuck me about each town was the pride of those who lived there,” said Bain. “There were many rural areas with little opportunity and plenty of their own problems, but without fail, they beamed with pride as they showed us around. I was struck by that again and again."
Bain also noted the other positive insight of the apparent industry seen on the river: "I was impressed with the commerce on the Mississippi River and felt that our country is economically strong, despite what the news may have you believe at times."
However, the tows moving the barges could be problematic for 13-foot canoes.
"Every north-bound barge, regardless of the size, created such a wake that the disruption usually lasted 20-30 minutes before finally settling down,” said Bain. “The wakes were impressive and dangerous, some climbing to maybe as much as six to seven feet tall and cresting as if you could ride them on a surfboard! I loved watching those waves, but grew to dread the eventual wake times two as it bounced off both banks and came at us again."
The barges on the Mississippi, lashed together with steel cables, can be half as long as aircraft carriers. Bain noted seeing as many as 48 lashed together.
To avoid the so-called Cancer Alley, the 105-mile, industrial stretch between Baton Rogue and New Orleans, the trio paddled the former Mississippi River's route to the Atchafalaya and through the Louisiana Bayou.
After a “remarkable” four-day journey, as the the crew neared the Gulf, they considered their journey's end at their riverside campsites.
"Over the last two weeks, we talked multiple times about how soon the expedition would be over and how much we didn't want it to end,” Bain reflected. “Yes, we all missed our loved ones and we did miss the comforts off of the river, but the majesty of it all continued to allure."
And how did Bain, a born storyteller, describe seeing the sea?
If you want to help other warriors reach their sea, coast, or mountaintop, donate here.
*When Schaffer reported his feat to the Appalachian Trail Conference, its officials considered his claim to be fraudulent. He eventually persuaded them of his veracity and told his tale in the book, Walking With Spring.
More from C&K
Healing Waters: Veterans finding healing and comfort from paddling.
Paddling Arkansas Buffalo River with wounded warriors.
Atchafalaya: The Mississippi’s Best Route to the Gulf
Why Paddle the Mississippi River