Become the first two women to canoe the fourth-largest river system in the world and the accomplishment is bound to offer a shot of confidence. Two Minnesota women, Lisa Pugh, 29, of Ely and Alyce Kuenzli, 30, of St. Paul took on that 4,000-mile challenge in mid-May. They started at Brower’s Spring, Mont., on the Missouri River with designs on reaching the mouth of the Mississippi River at the Gulf of Mexico in late November. They call it the Source of Confidence expedition and the biggest risk either of them has ever taken.

Source of Confidence is one of the expeditions featured online through Wilderness Classroom Educational Adventures. The live expeditions are designed to educate students about wild places and ecosystems. Curriculum resources include lesson plans, guides, scientific data and video capabilities while allowing students to interact with explorers in the field.

For Pugh and Kuenzli, their combined wilderness experience encompasses leading extended expeditions on water, land and ice by canoe, dog sled and foot. This wilderness travel has helped them examine successes and failures, and understand positive risk-taking.

As a result, Pugh and Kuenzli carry a spirit that is serving further purpose. Their source-to-sea adventure is geared toward teaching and inspiring a source of confidence in others. Along the route, they offer public gatherings for everyone to share stories and challenges. Here are edited excerpts from an e-mail conversation when the expedition was in South Dakota:

On reasons why

Pugh: When you start making bold moves toward what your heart and gut tell you, good things happen. It takes a lot of patience and you have to be OK with making mistakes. We’re using this expedition to show other people, girls and women in particular, how to take positive risks in order to build confidence. It’s not all majestic sunsets and good feelings. In order to get those things, you have to learn to deal with the heat, and the doubtful, scared and sad feelings, too.

Kuenzli: I canoed the Mississippi River from its source in Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. While paddling the Mississippi, I had heard a lot about the Missouri River. I also discovered that only one other woman has paddled this river system, [but] she had done it in a kayak. So that was very appealing to me.

On the biggest challenges

Pugh: The first 90 days were similar to what I’ve experienced before. But once we got to the middle of this 200-day expedition, the mental game got a lot tougher. Sometimes the thought of waking up early … and do it all over again the next day makes me want to ignore that rising sun and go right back to sleep.

Kuenzli: For me, the biggest challenge with the greatest reward is learning to live, get along and make decisions with the same person. Lisa and I frequently talk about how we are in a committed relationship doing this expedition and that requires a lot of work.

On what’s meaningful

Pugh: It’s incredibly challenging to be around the same person 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for seven months straight. When we are having a conflict or getting into that “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude, and we can step outside of that and see the other person’s perspective, that’s when I feel really successful. Reaching new levels of friendship and teamwork are the most meaningful moments for me.

Kuenzli: When we meet other girls and women, and tell them what we are doing, [it’s] the excitement, enthusiasm, support and questions they have. These have been incredibly powerful, meaningful and inspirational conversations that have helped me get through the harder moments of the expedition.

By comparison

Pugh: Constantly adapting plans and making decisions is familiar from my experience as the leader of many backcountry expeditions. Taking on this 4,000-mile river system … while documenting and sharing all of it, is a whole different animal. Getting through the physical, mental, and emotional challenges of a long expedition is new territory for me, and I love it. The incredibly supportive network of friends and family I have at home … [and] unbelievably generous and kind support of the people who live along the river — “river angels” — have been instrumental.

Kuenzli: The longest expedition I had been on was 90 days. When I’ve done expeditions in remote Canada, you don’t really see any other people. On the Missouri River we are meeting people daily and it’s fun to share our message and adventure with them.

On hopes and dreams

Pugh: I plan to continue leading expeditions in northern Minnesota while we compile and edit all the footage we’ve been capturing for our documentary. I also want to put together confidence-building workshops and resources for girls and women. My dream is to see adventure education really take off. It’s more than outdoor pursuits. It’s character development.

Kuenzli: My new big-term, life goal is to paddle all five of the longest river systems in the world, along with continuing to grow Source of Confidence into a nonprofit.

Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at