I introduced you last week to two adventurous Chaska lads, Sean Bloomfield and Colton Witte, who embarked April 28 on a three-month, 2,250-mile canoe voyage from the Twin Cities to Hudson Bay. They are following in the wake of Eric Sevareid, who made the trip in 1930 with Walter Port and wrote about it in "Canoeing With the Cree," one of Minnesota's great adventure tales.
Well, it's been a heckuva ride since Colton and Sean started out. They've seen it all: High water, fierce winds, cold, rain and a trip to a hospital room. But first, let's get the cricket stampede out of the way.
I knew that Sean and Colton, both strong students, arranged to graduate six weeks early from Chaska High in order to clear the decks for their trip. But I hadn't heard about the chaos they caused on their last day of school when, in one of those senior pranks that sound funnier than they actually were, they dropped 500 crickets from a school balcony.
When the crickets hit the floor, they scurried across a commons, causing screaming and panic and leaving a sticky cricket mess. Colton and Sean, who, as we know, are high-spirited 18-year-olds, were escorted from the school and cited by Chaska police for causing a public nuisance. It cost the boys $250 each, plus some hours of community service.
As I said last time: Kids.
But if Eric Sevareid is right, boys who travel by canoe to Hudson Bay soon become men. And the first 10 days our young paddlers spent on the Minnesota River, swollen by a spring of snow and rain, shows why: It is No Country For Young Boys.
The guys had hoped to hit Ortonville and the source of the Mighty Minnesota by the end of Week Two, but the weather, the water and illness slowed them. They canoed into Mankato Saturday and made New Ulm Monday (in order to canoe north to Hudson Bay, you start south on the Minnesota, which bends to the northwest at Mankato). Last night, they were somewhere between New Ulm and Morton and they hope to reach Granite Falls this weekend, where Sean's parents plan to hook up with them.
But three of those first 10 days were spent on land, hunkering down in wind and rain and 30-something temperatures. The wind and the current were so fierce one day that the boys had to "line" their canoe -- hauling it upriver by rope, tugging from shore.
Grunt work along the river
The Minnesota in spring is nothing to trifle with (Colton told the Mankato Free Press that paddling it is like running up a down escalator), and the boys -- starting out after a night of prom and a second night of preparation -- were tired to start with. After the exertion of Day One, Colton was sick, unable to keep any food down.
The boys were living on P's -- pancakes, peanut butter, pasta and protein bars. And maybe food poisoning, too. Day Two was spent marooned on the river bank near Belle Plaine as Colton tried to recover. He felt a little better the next day, so he and Sean got back on the river, battling the big current again. By the time they reached St. Peter on the evening of Day Four, Colton was so weak that he and Sean beached the canoe, walked into town and headed for Urgent Care.
Colton was suffering from dehydration and needed intravenous fluids before he started to get better. As he and Sean began to leave the hospital in a pouring rain to head back to their tent, the staff at St. Peter Community Hospital took pity on them, first finding an office where they could sleep on a dry floor, then offering to put them up in a motel, where they got beds, and showers.
"Would you like to be the doctor who had to treat a boy who hadn't had a shower in four days?" Colton's mom, Kathy Witte, jokes. "But everyone has been so kind and generous -- and so interested in the boys! You hear the bad things people do, but everyone has been so helpful."
At each town, people following their progress have showed up along the river to greet the boys and, even better, to feed them. One woman took them to dinner and regaled them with a story of her journey down the Mississippi. A man bought them breakfast. And Colton's parents treated them to ribs in New Ulm. This is all reassuring to anyone who has thought of paddling a river: Canoeists do not live by peanut butter and pasta alone.
"The boys look healthy and happy now," says Colton's mom, who is keeping track of their progress via their website. "And they are amazed at how many people are interested in them, and how helpful they have been. It's wonderful."
It goes to show that Minnesotans love a good canoe yarn. We always have. And the kindness of strangers has become a big part of Sean and Colton's Excellent Adventure.
Nick Coleman • firstname.lastname@example.org