By Howard Meyerson
GRAND RAPIDS, MI — It was late September when Gary and Linda De Kock arrived by kayak at Mile Zero on the Mississippi River. The couple gazed at the signpost with relish and dismay. Seventy days had passed — 2,291 river miles — since they launched on The Big Muddy’s Minnesota headwaters.
The De Kocks had reached the end of their Mississippi River voyage, a journey to raise money for a good cause. It was the conclusion of grand adventure for the Grand Rapids couple, who previously backpacked in Greenland, kayaked off Baffin Island and now had celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary, camping on the Mississippi’s banks.
“I wanted time to slow down. When I saw the marker ahead, I stopped paddling,” said 63-year-old Linda De Kock, a self-employed vocational rehabilitation consultant. “It didn’t seem real; I wanted to enjoy the moment we had talked about for so many months.”
Gary De Kock, a retired Grand Rapids wastewater treatment plant supervisor, was contemplating something else.
“I was thinking about 2 million paddle strokes. That’s what it took, 1,000 strokes per mile,” he said. “I had envisioned stopping to celebrate, but like time, the river doesn’t stop. The current was carrying us downstream — and we were already moving on.”
More than one success
The De Kocks successfully raised $16,500 for Water for People, a nonprofit based in Denver that provides clean and safe water to villages in Third World countries.
Their original goal was $11,455 — $5 for each mile paddled.
For Gary De Kock, who spent his 30-year career providing West Michigan residents with clean water, helping Water for People was a natural progression.
Seventy days on a river, spent camping on hot sand bars, islands and other odd, sheltered spots — or navigating its waters amid the tugs and barges, while floating through metropolitan areas like St. Louis, Missouri — presented more than a few challenges.
The pair averaged 33 miles a day in their 22-foot-long double kayak, but the going could be slow on the Upper Mississippi, which began as a stream not much wider than their boat. The De Kocks launched July 19 at Lake Itasca, in Minnesota. They spent their first three days paddling narrow waters that steadily grew wider.
The Mississippi is the second longest river in the U.S., after the Missouri River. It passes through 10 states and gains volume as it flows south, growing to 11 miles wide at Lake Winnibigoshish, near Bena, Minnesota. The river’s current picks up speed as it heads south, from 1.2 mph in the headwaters to nearly 3 mph at New Orleans, having picked up water from major tributaries such as the Ohio and Missouri rivers.
Its uppermost stretches required portaging around 10 dams — and negotiating a half-dozen or more log jams, the De Kocks said. Once they reached Minneapolis, the couple could paddle through locks to get around various waterfalls and dams. Their longest portage was nearly a mile. It required rolling their 90-pound kayak through a town, a job made easier with a portable set of wheels.
“We had to be very deliberate on the portages,” Gary said. “Unloading gear takes time. You have to pull stuff out. I probably underestimated just how much time.”
Agony of the feat
Long paddling days also were required. Daytime temperatures were warm, and the bugs on shore were miserable, both said. The couple planned to be in New Orleans by Sept. 27, the opening day for the Water Environment Federation’s national conference, where Water for People would be featured.
Headwinds on the lower river sometimes were brutal and forced the couple back to shore. Fresh drinking water also could be a challenge to find. The De Kocks consumed about two gallons each day and replenished along the way by drawing from taps where they could.
Linda said she grew tired of eating instant oatmeal for breakfast every day and will plan to have more food packed and available along the route if they attempt it again.
Gary simply said, “I won’t be eating oatmeal again, anytime soon.”
The De Kocks arrived at Mile Zero on Sept. 26, where they were met by their daughter,
Alisun. She had driven from Chicago with a friend and climbed aboard a river guide’s boat that had been chartered by the De Kocks for the nine-mile trip back upstream to port.
“It was an epic journey,” Gary declared, adding that it was not without its challenges.
“All of my dreams are still about the river,” Linda said. “It’s like a story that never ends, and I really miss it.”
This column appears on MLive Outdoors.