Riding the river

Couple gives up apartment and jobs to canoe the Mississippi River

Early morning sunlight danced across subtle ripples in the water as Kate Grafing heaved a packed aluminum canoe steadied by her fianc Archie Ingersoll into the St. Croix River.

Delighted with the down-river breeze and warm sunshine, the couple was eager to get started. Ingersoll said he had a hard time sleeping the night before because of his excitement – and nervousness.

The 25-year-olds, who lived in Kingfield before giving up their apartment and jobs for the sake of adventure, were about to embark on a journey they hoped would end about 2,200 miles of winding waterway south.

“We have no intention of turning back until we get to New Orleans,” Grafing said.

She and Ingersoll launched their borrowed canoe, named Hellen of St. Croix, from the backyard of Ingersoll’s mother’s home in the town of Marine on St. Croix, which is about an hour northeast of Minneapolis. The couple left just as the sun was rising above the trees June 4 and planned to canoe the St. Croix to the Mississippi and spend two-and-a half to three months navigating the mighty river all the way to the Big Easy.

To make the trip possible, Ingersoll left his position as an editorial assistant for the Associated Press and Grafing said goodbye to her job as a dietician for Hennepin County Medical Center. Ingersoll said he had wanted to take the trip for years and was inspired by a book called “Old Glory” written by an Englishman who traveled the Mississippi in a motorboat.

“I figured, ‘Why not do it in a canoe?'” Ingersoll said.

Though she never thought the trip would actually happen, Grafing went along with the idea, and it became reality this year after more than a month of careful preparation that included researching routes and necessary supplies. Some canoeing practice was also done before the launch, but it was minimal. The couple said they were in a canoe together once before heading out.

“I don’t know if we’re in over our heads or not,” Ingersoll said. “But I think we’ve planned well. So we’re expecting things to go well.”

About 50 pounds of dry food such as oatmeal and nuts, several gallons of water and a variety of supplies including clothing, a tent, a camping stove, a weather radio and river maps were among the items sealed in watertight containers in the canoe. The couple planned to camp along the river most nights and occasionally make pit stops at motels.

Restaurant stops weren’t planned, but might happen after months of intense work and dry food, they said. Grafing, a vegetarian, said she wasn’t optimistic about finding a tofu restaurant along the route.

The couple planned to row about eight hours each day, starting early in the morning when the river is calm. Where they stopped each day depended on arm strength, weather or any obstacles they encounter, Ingersoll said. He said his largest concern about the trip was tolerating the mosquitoes and other bugs every night.

Experienced outdoorsman and wildfire fighter Bruce Nelson, of Fairbanks, Ala., said leaving later in the summer helps avoid the insects. That’s why he left in August for his solo canoe trip down the Mississippi in 2001.

Nelson, who created a website about his journey that Ingersol and Grafing used as a guide for their trip, said the big river serves up plenty of challenges no matter what time of year it is, but paddlers don’t have to be pros to navigate it.

“If you’re safe and sensible about it, it really isn’t that difficult,” said Nelson, who took a little more than two months to paddle the river in an aluminum canoe.

Some of the biggest obstacles Nelson faced included a floating bog through which he had trouble paddling but couldn’t walk on, and water that rose 3 feet one night and flooded his campsite while he was sleeping. On a larger section of the river, Nelson once lost his beached canoe to large waves from a passing tugboat. Luckily, he said, the boat’s crew recovered the canoe for him.

Such frustrations often cause people to quit their trips early, Nelson said.

Hokan Miller, a dispatcher with Upper River Services of St. Paul who worked for more than a decade as a boat crewmember on the Mississippi, said the boat traffic becomes more congested as the river widens in the South. Speedboats, houseboats, towboats and barges are some of the vessels that regularly ride the river, he said.

Miller said this is a good time of year to be on the river because there’s a lower chance of high water flows caused by rain and snowmelt, but he noted that the Mississippi is often unpredictable. He references Mark Twain when giving advice to river riders.

“I tell them to remember that Huck and Jim were not on a pleasure cruise,” he said.

But Miller suspects that a young couple such as Ingersoll and Grafing should have no problem finding the energy to overcome anything that might get in their way on the water. And the journey is beautiful, he said.

Ingersoll’s mother, Carol Ingersoll, 64, said she hoped they’d fare well as she stood on the river bank watching her son and future daughter-in-law take their first swipes at the water with new paddles that had arrived a few days prior. She said she was worried but happy to see her son doing something he had talked about for years.

“It’s a very long trip,” she said, watching the canoe grow smaller as it floated downriver.

The Ingersoll’s lived in Washington, D.C. for most of Archie’s life, but they spent summers at the house on the St. Croix. Archie learned to canoe on the river and spent eight years during high school and college as a crew team coxswain, the position responsible for steering a boat.

Grafing, originally from Worthington, Minn., said she has some camping and canoeing history with her family, but nothing nearly as extreme as canoeing the Mississippi.

She and her fianc said they plan to get picked up by a relative at the end of the trip. They have to be done before Aug. 30 so they can catch a plane to California for a wedding, and then it’s off to another adventure: a four-week hike through Spain.

“The Spain thing is my side of the trip,” Grafing said.

When the traveling is done, the couple plans to hunt for new jobs and, on June 28 of next year, get married in Marine on St. Croix.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]