Monday, September 1, 2014
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Canoeists test their endurance and friendship on Mississippi trek
Larger view
John Pugh shown paddling down the Mississippi River. (Photo courtesy of www.source2sea.info/)
Two graduate students from North Carolina are spending 75 days in a canoe, paddling the length of the Mississippi River. Their journey began at the river's source at Lake Itasca, and will end at the Gulf of Mexico. John Pugh and Jessica Robinson say they're trying to accomplish two goals on their 2,300-mile journey. First, drawing attention to the Mississippi's importance as a drainage basin. Second, they're hoping to get out of the canoe in New Orleans still speaking to one another. We caught up with them during a recent stop in Red Wing.

Red Wing, Minn. — John Pugh says the idea for their trip down the Mississippi came as he and Jessica were leading a group trip in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp in 2002. Pugh says during that trip he decided that he would try to do something "cool" with his life every five years.

He convinced his fellow graduate student, Jessica Robinson, to brave mosquitoes, strong currents and barge traffic to join him on the adventure.

Pugh and Robinson are traveling in an 18-foot canoe made in Winona. They began their trip on May 14 -- the date of the Minnesota fishing opener -- at the headwaters of the Mississippi River near Itasca. They were impressed by the number of Minnesotans out enjoying the water.

Pugh says they began their trip in the middle of some stormy weather.

"(It was) very moist. The first few days we actually had a little bit of hail, so that was a little harder," says Pugh. "It's been very damp. But it's helped the water levels to stay up so we're making very good time with that."

Fueled by a diet rich in Twizzlers candy, beef jerky and peanut butter, John Pugh and Jessica Robinson paddle about 25 to 35 miles per day. Robinson says they've gotten into a daily routine.

"We get up. We pack up our gear fairly quickly, because when you're camping the mosquitoes are everywhere. And we get on the water. We don't eat breakfast in camp because of the mosquitoes. But we get on the water, and then we kind of get our stuff together and have breakfast, and really just take the day as it comes," she says. "We think about what kind of mileage we want to make. And so we just spend about 10 hours enjoying the river and paddling down, and sometimes fighting the wind."

Robinson says by using a Global Positioning System they discovered that without paddling at all, the current will take them 2 mph down the Mississippi. She says they're averaging about 4 mph. One day, thanks to a strong back wind, they reached almost 8 mph -- although they only kept that speed for 15 minutes.

Pugh and Robinson admit spending 10 hours a day in a canoe can test a relationship. Pugh says it's often a topic of conversation whenever they stop in a town for supplies.

"The first question we're asked, 'Why are you even out here?' The second question is, 'Do you plan on killing each other?'" Pugh laughs. "We've actually gotten along great. We've had a couple of 'moments of reflection.'"

"I think one of the things that's really helped is we recognize that you need some boundaries at times and you need some space," Robinson adds. "We do have a long canoe. We have about nine feet for each other -- it's about 18 feet long. So you get nine feet of the canoe to yourself. I'm in the bow, and if I don't want to talk to John I ask him not to talk to me, and I turn around and I don't even have to look at him! It's great!"

Pugh and Robinson say when the trip gets rough they focus on the beauty of the Mississippi River. They also think about what they'll do when they finally hit the Gulf of Mexico in August.

"Probably shed a tear in the ocean. It'll just be kind of overwhelming for a little while. But I'm really looking forward to that whole feeling," says Pugh. "That's something I keep in mind every day. Some days are great, some days are not so great. And all you have to do is keep plugging at it and eventually you'll end up there."

"I think that the big lessons are still to be learned. I think some of the things I'm going to look back on are some of the interactions with people," adds Robinson. "People have been very nice and very open and very like, 'Wow! You're doing my dream!' To be doing something that not only you dream of, but other people dream of, is just wild."

Jessica Robinson and John Pugh say they're hoping to reach the Gulf of Mexico during the first week in August. This week they are in Arkansas, and have about 535 more miles to paddle before they reach the Mississippi Delta.

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