By Chelsey Lewis Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Paddling the entire length of the Mississippi River — about 2,300 miles — is challenging enough. There are dams, barges, weather and wildlife to deal with.
But for Michigan’s Nate Denofre — a double amputee — and Don Jokinen — a disabled combat veteran — it will be even more of a challenge, especially as the coronavirus pandemic forced them to reconfigure two years of planning.
On Saturday, Denofre and Jokinen will launch their two 17-foot Old Town canoes from the headwaters of the Mississippi River on Lake Itasca in Minnesota, with the goal of paddling the entire 2,350-mile river to the Gulf of Mexico over the course of about 100 days.
The duo is taking on the challenge, dubbed Paddling to Persevere, to raise awareness and money for Courage Incorporated. The nonprofit, which Denofre started with a friend in 2015, takes veterans and other adults with disabilities on wilderness adventures in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northeastern Wisconsin.
Denofre hopes the Mississippi River trip will serve as inspiration for others with disabilities. If they complete it, Denofre thinks he will be the first double amputee to canoe the entire Mississippi River without outside support.
Wilderness trips for people with disabilities
Denofre, 39, was born with amniotic band syndrome, which left him without legs below his knees. But that didn’t stop him from competing as a high school wrestler and football player, becoming a licensed wilderness guide and starting a survival school.
“I’ve always loved the woods and waters. I’ve spent weeks in the waters on my own time, just for leisure,” he said over the phone from his home in Ishpeming, Michigan, before leaving for his trip.
In 2014, Denofre’s body — and his spine in particular — was feeling the effects of multiple surgeries and more than 30 years of walking on prosthetics. He feared he might soon be in a wheelchair and unable to explore the U.P. wilderness like he had before.
So he set out for what he thought might be his last adventure, what turned out to be a 159-day backpacking and canoeing trip through the U.P.
While he was in the wilderness, his friends raised more than $4,000 for the trip that they dubbed “Nate’s Last Stand.”
The trip and fundraising effort garnered some news coverage, and about 90 days in, Denofre said, he got a call from a veteran who had heard about what he was doing. The veteran, who had been injured in combat and was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, said Denofre’s trip inspired him to leave his house for the first time in over a year.
“He said if I’m an amputee and I can do it, there’s no reason he can’t get out and go to the park with his kids and so forth, and that really struck me,” Denofre said.
The call inspired Denofre to take a portion of the money that had been raised and, with lifelong friend Erik Conradson, who started the original fundraiser, created Courage Incorporated.
Denofre said his backpacking trip helped give him perspective, and he hopes that’s what all of Courage’s trips give to their participants.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in a wheelchair or prosthetics or you’re perfectly able-bodied, 12 inches is 12 inches forward, no matter which way you look at it. Sometimes it just takes a little bit longer for certain people to do it, but it’s still very possible with effort and courage,” he said.
Among Courage’s first participants was the veteran who had called Denofre while he was on his backpacking trip. That veteran was Jokinen, who was injured while serving with the Army National Guard in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. Jokinen became one of Denofre’s closest friends and joined most of Courage’s trips after that.
“I went home (from that first trip fishing in the U.P.) sore, swollen, stinky, head pounding, neck throbbing but a smile on my face and in my heart for the first time in a long time. I Was Hooked,” Jokinen wrote on the Paddling to Persevere website. “Because of Nate and Team Courage Incorporated, that winter I drove myself and sometimes my two children to go river ice fishing. … A renewed peace I hadn’t felt in a long time was delivered to my soul each time I went out.”
While Courage’s hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor trips are suspended for now because of the coronavirus, Denofre and Jokinen are still moving forward with their Mississippi River trip and will be spending the next three months canoeing and camping together, along with Jokinen’s 4-month-old golden retriever, Kulta.
Denofre said he is doing the trip to raise money for Courage Incorporated and inspire people, especially now.
"There’s positive everywhere. Sometimes it’s hard to find, you have to look a little bit harder, but it can be done. If it saves one or two people from being depressed, stuck in their house. … We take people out to change their perspective on things. Sitting around with a disability, a lot of times it’s the mental health aspect I think sometimes is overlooked, especially with the disabled veterans — the PTSD. So we take them out in the woods and let them know that there’s still a way they can accomplish and get some self-worth back,” Denofre said.
"Look, how many veterans a day over 20 commit suicide? It’s all a perspective thing. If we can just stop one or two, that’s great."
“Although I continue to struggle daily with life, my surroundings, don’t we all? What do we do? We continue to fight. Might be a slower fight but still a fight worth fighting," Jokinen wrote on the website. “Too many of our brothers and sisters have ended their own struggles. Sometimes I understand them completely. Other days I wish I could have taken them to a waterfall/fishing hole.”
With the onset of COVID-19, Denofre said their plans to canoe the Mississippi “completely took a 180. A year-and-a-half of planning went straight out the window.”
“COVID put the severe in persevere,” he said, but “we’re going to make it regardless. Nothing’s going to stop us.”
One of the biggest adjustments they’ve had to make has to do with portages — when they have to get off the water and take their canoes on land around dams. Denofre said there are two dozen alone in Minnesota.
They had volunteers lined up to help with the portages, but with the coronavirus pandemic most will no longer be able to help, Denofre said. Instead, his wife, a registered nurse, is taking time off work to make sure they get through the portages safely. Portable wheels will be the biggest help in moving their 600-pound canoes on land.
The duo also had to reconsider how they’d handle food and gear for the entire trip. They originally planned restocking their food supply in cities along the route, but now they can't count on anything being open. So they have 65 pounds of dehydrated fruit, vegetables and meat; water containers and filtration devices; and solar panels and batteries for keeping their GPS and other electronics charged.
Another adjustment they’ll have to make along the route is if they stop at all. Originally they were scheduled to stop at VFWs, American Legions and other spots to “network, help out and do good along the whole way,” Denofre said, but he’s not sure how much they can do safely now with social distancing.
On the river, however, “the isolation thing is not an issue. We’re going to be in the middle of a river,” he said. At night, they plan to rustic camp along its banks.
What he is worried about is something that’s a concern for anyone in a small boat on the Mississippi River, virus or no virus: locks, dams and other boat traffic — including massive barges in the upper stretches and ocean freighters near the river’s mouth.
“It’s a very, very, very big concern of ours,” he said. “It starts out as literally a creek that you have to haul your canoe on, and it ends up as the world’s third largest river.” (Together with two of its tributaries, the Missouri and Ohio rivers, the Mississippi River is the world’s third-longest river system.)
But he said the challenge is part of what made him want to do this.
“This is an adventure for me as well. The hair on my neck is standing up a little bit, I won’t lie,” he said. “I’m scared, and I believe that’s a great thing. We can’t be courageous or brave without being scared. If a person who does this isn’t scared, they’re either foolish or a liar, in my opinion.”
Denofre called fear “the biggest disability of all” in a video posted on their Facebook page.
“His is fear, mine is pain. That’s my limiting factor” Jokinen said in the same video. “If I can prove to myself that I can do this, what else can I do?”
The duo is not the first to attempt a “source to sea” paddle of the Mississippi River. There are websites and Facebook groups dedicated to paddling the river, and many people have attempted to break speed records. Clark Eid and Bob Bradford hold the current Guinness World Record for the fastest time to row the length of the Mississippi River by a team, which they completed in just over 18 days in May 2003.
While Denofre has never paddled anything like the Mighty Miss, he has canoed thousands of miles on smaller rivers and Lake Superior, and he has extensive wilderness training and experience that has helped them prepare for the challenges the river presents.
The duo has a state-of-the-art GPS — donated by Michigan-based technology company Lucid Coast, one of their sponsors — a VHF radio to communicate with ships and lock operators, bullhorns, Coast Guard-recommended navigation lighting on their canoes, and a fully stocked first aid kit. Jokinen's canoe will carry the American flag, while Denofre will fly Courage Incorporated’s flag from his.
No matter what happens, they’re committed to completing their mission, Denofre said.
“We’re still going to take the trip of a lifetime and we’re all going to enjoy ourselves and run that flag down the guts of this country one way or the other."
More information: Follow a live tracker of the Paddling to Persevere journey on their Facebook page, facebook.com/PaddlingtoPersevere. For more on Courage Incorporated and to donate, visit courageincorporated.org.