canoe illustration

Uncharted Waters

Holding tight to our paddles and letting go of our phones, my family and I braved 120 miles of the Mississippi and forged a special bond.

A t 6 a.m., I was shin deep in the Mississippi River, strapping our bags into our canoe so they wouldn’t float away if we capsized. On shore, my wife, Bridgit, stood with our two girls, Libby and Josie, who were skipping rocks.

Once the last bag was secure, we climbed in and found, to our relief, that there were still several inches between the top of the canoe and the water. We pushed out into the river, and were off on our journey southward.

It was an adventure we had planned ever since we’d moved back to Minnesota nearly a decade ago. I’d grown up in a small Minnesota town called Winona, 120 miles downstream from where we lived now in Minneapolis. It felt important to connect the two places, to know the river between them. We would row together, like the voyageurs. We would forget about the modern world and its troubles for five days and see our home in a new light. It was just a small piece of the river’s 2,350 miles, but it was a piece filled with meaning for me.

Bridgit was up front, I was in back, and Libby, 11, and Josie, 8, sat between us. It was the perfect time for such a trip: They were old enough to paddle but small enough that we could fit in one boat. We had this world-class wilderness area—part of the National Park System—running right through our backyard. All we had to do was get on it, and it would take us away.

Fish nipped the surface of the water around us. The sun rose as we rounded the first bend. It must have looked the same as when the writer Jonathan Raban sailed down the Mississippi in 1979. The river, as he wrote in Old Glory, was “as big and depthless as the sky itself. You can see the curve of the earth on its surface as it stretches away for miles to the far shore.”

We couldn’t see that far, but we did have a sense of something powerful and unknown beneath us, that we were somehow putting ourselves at its mercy. Many people we’d talked to thought taking our kids on this trip was either dangerous or foolish. But to me it seemed like the real danger was never to have taken the trip at all. Besides, we had even postponed it a day because of thunderstorms. After the rain stopped, I had come down to the shore and half-jokingly asked the river spirits for permission and safe passage. They seemed to be listening.

Between Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Mississippi flows through a gorge walled in by steep wooded hills and sandstone cliffs, so we moved fast enough that it barely felt like work.

“This is going to be no problem!” I yelled.

“We’ve only been paddling for 5 minutes,” Bridgit retorted.

We passed under bridges and through the odd sideways currents created by St. Paul’s spans and islands. Then the river turned south, and the screeching of the rail yard grew faint. The shore was lined with trees, and an eagle soared overhead. It was as if we’d managed to step out of the present and into a gentler current.

Almost on cue, we came to an island with a giant rope swing, like something straight out of one of Huck Finn’s adventures. We stopped for lunch and took turns sailing out over the water like it was the 1890s. Then, reluctantly, we moved on.

The river slowed, but we still made good time and settled into a new rhythm. Earlier, the residue of our lives—the phone calls, the emails, the deadlines—seemed to trail behind us in the water. But with every mile they drifted farther away. By the time the sun started setting, all that seemed to matter were the water and the trees and what was around the next bend.

We came to a series of small islands, one with a rudimentary campsite. We set up our tent, made dinner, and fell asleep to the sound of waves on the sand. Everything was going according to plan.

We packed at dawn, ate a quick breakfast, loaded the canoe, and then pushed off. The wind was still behind us. We passed an island full of pelicans before coming to our first lock and dam. As we drifted in, walls of concrete rose some 20 feet around us. The space was big enough for a barge, and we felt tiny inside. The gates closed behind us, and the lock attendant threw down a rope, which we held as the water dropped, revealing the algae-covered walls. When it stopped, the lower gates opened and we paddled on.

The sun was bright, the clouds billowy. Thousands of tree swallows flew around us, eating mayflies and midges. Watching them and the other wildlife—baby turtles, endless eagles, a deer swimming across the channel—occupied much of our time. We told half-remembered stories and sang parts of songs. The girls occasionally got on each other’s nerves. But most of the time, the river itself entertained us as well as any screen.

After a few more hours, we came to the Prairie Island Indian Community marina, where we stopped to use the bathroom. When we were about ready to move on, the wind started to blow, the sky blackened, and the temperature dropped.

“Maybe you guys should wait in the bathroom,” I said, handing over the life jackets, so they wouldn’t blow away. I put on my rain gear, tied up the canoe, and waited. Somehow, the storm went around us, and not a drop of rain fell. I thanked the river spirits.

Back on the water, we tooled past the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant. I felt lighter, more unrestricted, more unburdened. Was it the freedom of being on the river?

“Wait a minute,” I said, “where’s my life jacket?”

Bridgit’s shoulders slumped.

“We left it in the bathroom,” Libby said.

The sun was nearing the horizon. By then, we were a mile downstream. Everyone was tired. “It’s fine,” I said. “I can swim.”

We went on in silence.

The next morning when I woke up, the fact that we’d done no actual training for this trip became painfully clear. As a runner, I’d thought I was in decent shape, but now my back wouldn’t bend in the usual way. Bridgit was holding her forearms like a velociraptor, massaging them until they loosened up. The previous night, I’d jumped in the river to wash off. Now, I noticed red marks all over my legs and pelvis.

(Later, I asked my dad—a dermatologist—about them. “Oh, that’s just a duck parasite larva that burrows under your skin while you’re swimming,” he said.

“Just?” I echoed.

“Swimmer’s itch. Don’t worry about it. No one has connected it to anything bad so far.”)

Itching, I shook the sand out of our bags and packed them, and we got back in the canoe. Today we would cross Lake Pepin, a windy expanse that everyone assured us was the most difficult part of our trip, if not the entire Mississippi. The lake was more than 20 miles long and several miles wide. It felt more like an ocean than a river.

Rain and wind pounded at our backs as we set off, pushing us along to where the river widened, and we headed out into the open water of Lake Pepin. I tried to steer us along the western side, but not so close that it pushed us into the rocks. The farther we traveled, the bigger the waves grew and the harder it became to manage the canoe. Close to shore, we could see more eagles in trees of a state park.

“I don’t like this,” Libby said, her voice quavering.

“Not many get to see the park from here.”

“Yeah,” she said, “I can see why.”

I didn’t like it either. The waves were 4 feet high. Our canoe was too long to ride them straight on, and it was almost impossible to steer. The boat teetered on top of waves, and then dove into the troughs. Water crested over the edge into the canoe, and the girls bailed. After more than 2 hours, we came to the narrow point where we had to cross.

“OK, we all need to paddle!” I said over the wind.

There were no boats or barges, so we turned and headed straight to the other side, a mile from point to point. The waves were still high and the wind was at our side. I dug deep to keep us at an angle.

We reached the far shore and turned south. Several miles away, we could see a smudge of land that was our destination, a tiny town called Stockholm with a campground on the beach. After a long, long day, we finally arrived just before 5 p.m. We’d only covered 21 miles compared to 26 the day before, but they were hard-earned. Our nerves were frayed. Our skin burned from the sun and wind. Our arms and backs ached. We found the camp host and asked if there was a restaurant in town. There was, but it closed in 5 minutes.

We threw our gear in a camping spot and ran up the street. Inside, it was painted blue and yellow and had dollar bills taped to the ceiling. When the waitress asked what we’d like, Bridgit answered for all of us: “We’ll take one of everything.”

The Bures family on the last day

No one wanted to leave Stockholm. We were all tired, and we still had half of Lake Pepin left. The campground felt like an oasis, so the next morning, we lingered. I walked down to the beach and looked out over the lake. It felt like three weeks since we’d left home, not three days. The time between then and now had been full and rich, not thin and fast—the way most days felt. A sense of urgency had fallen away, as if we’d stumbled on an older rhythm that had been there all the time.

But we still had 50 miles to go, and there were thunderstorms expected in a few days, so we shoved off once again. By midmorning, we’d reached the point where Lake Pepin narrowed back into the river. A few miles later, we came to Wabasha, the town where the film Grumpy Old Men had been set more than two decades earlier.

On shore, we could see an ice cream shop and debated whether to stop. To me, the dock looked treacherous, and I argued that we should land on the sandy beach next to it. Bridgit said it was private, and we had a brief, heated, pointless argument. By the time it was over, we’d drifted past.

Ice cream receded behind us, growing more delicious with each mile. The wind died. The heat rose. Now we had grumpy old canoers and grumpy young canoers. We continued without a word, all trying to turn our mood against the current. We stopped on an island for lunch, but there was too much poison ivy to do any exploring. We were beginning to know the river, and it was wearing us down.

By the late afternoon, we started looking for an island to camp on. There were lovely open spaces. There were idyllic campsites. But it was too early; we moved on. Within a few miles, the islands we saw were overgrown and impossible to land on. Ahead was a lock and dam.

“Let’s just get through the lock,” I said. “We’ll have less to do tomorrow. It’ll be our last day.”

Without enthusiasm, everyone agreed. The gates swung open. We drifted in.

Below the lock, we passed a defunct power plant with massive smokestacks that climbed high into the sky. The islands around it were choked with underbrush. We kept going, mile after mile, looking for a small spot to pitch our tent.

“Nothing,” Bridgit said, despair creeping in.

She was tired. We all were. We’d gone almost as far as any day yet—more than 25 miles—and there was no end in sight. It was nearly 7 p.m., and we should have been making our dinner. We came to a grassy spot under some utility poles.

“We could camp under those power lines,” I said.

“Why would we camp under power lines?” Bridgit snapped. Then, in a smaller voice she added, “What are we going to do?”

“We keep paddling,” I said.

Muscles tensed in her shoulders. Suddenly, she started paddling with a force I didn’t know she could muster, powered by sheer rage. Water splashed over the rest of us. The girls looked back at me without a word, eyebrows raised. I put my finger to my lips, like we were in the presence of a wild animal. Then, just as suddenly, she slumped forward in the canoe.

“It’s OK, Mama,” Josie said. “We’ll paddle. You rest.”

After a short while, Bridgit came back to life, and we paddled another handful of miles. Eventually, we came to a gorgeous, flat, sandy island. It was covered in white, paper-thin turtle egg shells. There was a small lake in the middle. The day was over. The river had given us a perfect home for the night.

The upside of canoeing almost 30 miles the day before was that we had only 23 left the following day. All things being equal, our final day would be an easy one, which would end with a shower at my parents’ place.

The canoe felt light, and so did our mood. The sun was bright, and our minds were clear. For five days, we hadn’t read a tweet or sent an email. The weight of the modern world had lifted with each stroke.

At noon, we rendezvoused with Bridgit’s father and sister for lunch by the river. The girls were offered a ride home but opted to keep going. “We should finish as a family,” Josie said.

We set off through the green hills. We stopped on a sandbar to let a barge pass. Late that afternoon, we came to the final lock a few miles before Winona, eager to arrive, but knowing that once we did, we would be stepping back into the torrent of our lives.

When the lower gates let us out, we came into the stretch I knew best, where I used to rope swing and water ski and jump off bridges. Memories came flooding back. We passed under an old railroad bridge with graffiti from the class of 1989 (I was 1990), a kind of welcome home in spray paint.

Beyond the bridge, we came to a beach and pulled the canoe out of the water. It was bittersweet to be leaving the river that had carried us so far. We felt closer to it, closer to each other, maybe even closer to ourselves. But now, the trip was over and the currents of the present were pulling us back. For five unforgettable days, the river had kept the world at bay. For that, and for seeing us through safely, we went down to the water, thanked the spirits one last time, and turned toward home.


Frank Bures is a journalist and the author of The Geography of Madness. He lives in Minneapolis. Email him at frankbures@yahoo.com.

Illustrations by Molly Snee; photography courtesy of Frank Bures

Originally Published May 2018