John Keaveney and his five companions were all smiles last week after finishing a three-month paddle up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico to the Twin Cities.
But they weren’t even halfway to their final destination — the Arctic Ocean.
“So far, so good,’’ said Keaveney, 30, after being greeted by family and friends at Fort Snelling State Park, where the group came ashore after completing the first major leg of an eyebrow-raising, nine-month, 5,200-mile odyssey spanning North America.
The six men — four grew up in St. Cloud and two in Iowa — launched their three heavily ladened canoes Jan. 2 in Louisiana and arrived in the Twin Cities last week after more than 90 days on the Mississippi River, fighting currents, subfreezing temperatures and ice sheets.
“Nine months is a long time,’’ Keaveney said. “But finishing the Mississippi is a milestone. I’m looking forward to the smaller rivers, and getting up north into the tundra.’’
The trip is ambitious by any measure. The crew, which ranges in age from 25 to 30, now will paddle up the Minnesota River and Little Minnesota River to Browns Valley, then to Lake Traverse and the Red River, then on to Lake Winnipeg and north to the Canadian wilderness.
“Our best guess is we’ll be to the Canadian border by the second week of May,’’ said Winchell Delano, 30, another St. Cloud native as is Keaveney. “That will give us five weeks in Minnesota. We have a lot of family and friends to catch up with.’’
Ice has been, and will continue to be, on their minds. They had to drag canoes over ice on the Mississippi, and Delano said Lake Winnipeg is expected to have ice until the first week of June.
“We think we’ll get there around May 20,’’ said Jarrad Moore, 26, who grew up near Des Moines. “If there’s a small opening of water by shore, we’ll paddle that. If not, we’ll just pull our canoes on the ice.’’
They’ll try to get to the Arctic Ocean by October, before ice forms again on the far-north rivers. Their route will take them on many famous Canadian wilderness waterways, including the Churchill, Cochrane, Fond du Lac, Yellowknife, Coppermine and Hood rivers, and lakes Athabasca and Great Slave.
Exploring the wild is nothing new for the six adventurers. All have done lengthy wilderness trips. Five of the six have worked at an outdoor therapy program in Utah for adolescents with behavioral, emotional and substance abuse issues. In 2012, Delano was among four paddlers who completed a 130-day, 2,600-mile canoe trip west-to-east across Canada.
But none has done a nine-month expedition. They took leaves from their jobs, and now 10- to 12-hour days on the water give them plenty of time to think about their futures.
“These trips are nice to figure out what you want to do, what you’re passionate about,’’ said Delano, who has a master’s degree in environmental history. “I could be sitting in an office, 9 to 5, wondering what I’m going to do. Instead, I’m paddling.’’
Luke Kimmes, 25, another Iowa native, taught outdoor education at a Colorado community college before joining the expedition. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’’ he said.
His experience was mostly backpacking and rock climbing.
“I had never been on an overnight canoe trip,’’ he said. “This was all new to me, so I had no expectations. People said you’re crazy, you can’t paddle up the Mississippi.’’
But paddling against the current wasn’t as difficult as he thought, and with the Mississippi leg done, Kimmes said he’s looking forward to heading to the remote and pristine rivers of Canada, where the north-flowing currents will be in their favor.
“I’m a huge fisherman, and all they’ve been talking about for the last 92 days is how good the fishing will be,’’ Kimmes said. “I’m really excited.’’
Living a dream
Planning for the expedition took about 1½ years, Delano said. He figures it will cost $20,000 to $24,000.
“We’ve spent about $10,000 in food, and it will cost us $6,000 to $8,000 to fly back [from the Arctic Ocean],’’ he said.
The group also has to be resupplied four times during their trek through Canada.
They have received more than $10,000 in donations.
“We never expected to touch this many people,’’ Delano said. “We’re getting donations from California, Florida, New York. It’s amazing.’’
The group has a website (www.rediscoverna.com) and members are posting blogs and photos along the way. Their cellphones won’t be much use when they reach Canada. They’ll carry a satellite phone for emergencies, and a GPS device that shows their location on their website.
This week they are taking a break in New Ulm to resupply, reorganize and celebrate with friends and family. On Monday, they head up the Minnesota River.
The commitment to a nine-month expedition wasn’t made lightly.
“Nine months was hard to wrap my head around, but once we started planning, I thought cool, let’s go for it,’’ Keaveney said.
“It’s hard not seeing friends, family and loved ones for so long,’’ Moore said.
But strangers they’ve met along the Mississippi were encouraging.
“Everyone we run into says, ‘This is awesome. I wish I had done something like that. Keep going,’ ’’ he said.
The trip already has been challenging; the group got hit with eight inches of snow in Iowa. They will have to navigate white-water rapids and huge Canadian lakes.
“You get up at 6 a.m. and it’s 5 or 10 degrees out and we have to paddle all day,’’ said Adam Trigg, 29, another St. Cloud native, describing the routine on the Mississippi. “But at the end of the day, you’re happy this is your life. And it’s pretty awesome.’’
He said he has no doubts he can endure a nine-month trip.
“I know there will be parts of the trip that will test us,’’ Trigg said.
The fourth Minnesotan is Daniel Flynn, 27.
Family and friends have encouraged them on their trek. But among those concerned about their safety is Kimmes’ mom, LaVonne, of Carroll, Iowa, who was at Fort Snelling State Park last week to greet her son.
“I think this is crazy, but I admire his courage to do it,’’ she said. “And he’s doing what he loves to do.’’