UND student recalls Mississippi canoe trek

Edmund Eilbacher and Jeff Petrie had planned to canoe the Mississippi River in 45 days when they departed May 22 from the headwaters at Lake Itasca.

Edmund Eilbacher and Jeff Petrie had planned to canoe the Mississippi River in 45 days when they departed May 22 from the headwaters at Lake Itasca.

By the time the young men - one a UND student, the other a recent graduate - hit the Twin Cities on June 13, they realized that trying to keep that pace would take all the fun out of the journey.

Instead, they decided to slow down and enjoy the ride. It might have taken them nearly twice as long, but in the end, the paddlers still got where they wanted to go.

Eilbacher and Petrie paddled up to Mile Zero, the official point where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, on Aug. 18. In that moment, an adventure that covered 2,320 miles and nearly 90 days came to an end.

"It was kind of surreal," said Eilbacher, 23, a UND commercial helicopter aviation student from Hillsborough, N.J. "There's this one buoy where the gulf starts, and we climbed on top of it, and both of us kind of looked at each other. We gave each other high fives and looked back upriver.


"It was like, 'Now what? Where do we go from here? We just spent 90 days on the river.'"

Petrie, 26, of Huron, S.D., graduated from UND in May with a degree in air traffic control. He came up

with the idea to paddle the Mississippi last spring. Both were members of the UND rugby team, and when Petrie suggested the trip, Eilbacher says he was more than willing to take the bait.

They dubbed the trip "Paddling for a Purpose" and started a campaign to raise $5,000 for UNICEF. With the trip now behind them, they're almost to that goal; the tally stood at $4,550 as of Friday.

Petrie and Eilbacher made the trek in a 16-foot plastic Mad River canoe. It might not have been the best choice for a 2,300-mile trip, but it was all they could afford.

"We were on a budget and couldn't spend thousands on a fancy canoe," Eilbacher said. "We ended up having to pay that out of pocket."

Red Bull, the energy drink maker, donated a pair of wooden paddles.

"We ended up using them the whole way," said Eilbacher, who now has one of the paddles on his wall as a souvenir.


There were many highlights on the trip, Eilbacher says, among them the wild portions of the river in Minnesota, the stretch near St. Louis and then New Orleans. The city known as the Big Easy definitely lived up to its reputation as a hotbed of live music and a melting pot of cultures.

And then there were the people. All along the river.

In Burlington, Iowa, Eilbacher recalls, they made friends with a group of people staying in small summer houses that stood on stilts along a backwater of the river.

Tell us your story, they said - and then offered Petrie and Eilbacher the use of an air-conditioned camper.

The Purple Cow, a bar in Alexandria, Mo., was another highlight.

"The owners said, 'You're on our tab - you have free meals for as long as you want to stay here,'" Eilbacher said. "Just make sure you relax."

Most nights, though, they camped on sandbars along the river, Eilbacher says. They lived sparingly, eating foods such as oatmeal and apple sauce for breakfast, pepperoni sticks or summer sausage for lunch and Ramen noodles at night.

The paddlers also learned not to rely too much on information others had given them before the trip. The barges didn't run them over, the river didn't flow way too fast and it wasn't impossible to canoe.


Some days, they'd make 50 miles, Eilbacher says; other times, they'd do well paddling 25.

Perhaps the scariest moment, he said, occurred in Iowa when a nasty thunderstorm, complete with swirling clouds and an updraft, rolled in one afternoon as they were paddling.

They got off the water just in time to get pummeled by wind and rain.

"I'm sitting there on this sandbar trying to hold down the canoe, and 40 mph winds are blowing like crazy," Eilbacher said. "We waited it out, but that was probably one of the scariest storms."

They encountered the best paddling conditions from St. Louis to Baton Rouge, La., a stretch of river without the locks and dams that slowed their progress farther upstream. The last 98 miles downstream from New Orleans were the hardest because the river was so wide and the current nonexistent.

"The river stopped running, we had 20 mph winds, and the canoe was way overweight," Eilbacher said. "We'd made a pact to get done Saturday (Aug. 18). We left Thursday from New Orleans, and we realized we had to canoe into the night to get it done."

As for the canoe, they sold it to a Mississippi couple after posting an ad on Craigs-



Now that he's back at UND, Eilbacher says he's trying to get back into the swing of school. Petrie is back home in South Dakota and pursuing career options.

In every sense of the word, Eilbacher says, the trip was an adventure both of them are grateful to have experienced.

"The people along the river were just amazing," Eilbacher said. "They were just so friendly, and everybody was so relaxed - all the way from Minnesota down to New Orleans. It's definitely a different lifestyle on the river."

-- On the Web:

You can make a UNICEF donation on behalf of Paddling for a Purpose at .

Reach Dokken at 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 148, or .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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