Published June 19, 2010, 10:00 PM

Variety of adventurers plan travel along Mississippi River

Every spring, adventurers such as Dahm drift quietly down the Mississippi through St. Cloud, part of a tradition of adventure that is so common here, it’s become almost unremarkable.

By: Taleiza Calloway, St. Cloud Times

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — When Mary Fredericksen learned of her nephew’s plans to canoe from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico — the length of the Mississippi River — she was not surprised.

Such a challenge is entirely in character for Kevin Dahm, 30, Minneapolis, she said.

“He’s been canoeing his whole life,” Fredericksen said. “He’s always been adventurous.”

Every spring, adventurers such as Dahm drift quietly down the Mississippi through St. Cloud, part of a tradition of adventure that is so common here, it’s become almost unremarkable.

The travelers don’t always share their reasons for trying to conquer the largest river system on the continent. Some pass through without being noticed at all. Others are making the trip of a lifetime to raise awareness for a cause, publicity for a book or to have something to tell their grandchildren.

No one appears to keep track of how many people try to paddle the length of the river — at least several dozen a year give it a try. But the trend appears to be growing.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has seen an increase in requests for help to travel the length of the Mississippi River. There were about three inquiries last year and eight so far this year. Many boaters make the trip without asking for the DNR’s advice.

Last year, a team of seven people built a 32-foot York boat, lovingly named Annie. Their goal was to travel the length of the Mississippi River from Bemidji to the Gulf of Mexico and deliver the vessel in support of Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, an environmental organization based in Baton Rouge, La.

The team was a part of The Old Man River Project, an expedition not only to rediscover the Mississippi River but to promote preservation of the river basin and serve as a call to environmental activists.

Every few weeks, another person or group headed south on the river comes to public attention. And local river residents sometimes meet solo paddlers who are passing through quietly on their way to New Orleans, content to be anonymous.

While Dahm is no stranger to the water, this is the first time he will try to canoe the length of the Mississippi. The stretch from Lake Itasca to St. Cloud is the longest single stretch he has ever done, he said.

Dahm, who launched May 19, said the trip is a life goal he wanted to achieve. He recently turned 30, so the trip doubles as a birthday present to himself. He lives on the water now, he said.

“I grew up in Minnesota and Wisconsin, doing a fair amount of paddling,” Dahm said. “It always seemed like the big river to go down. I figured I would give it a try.”

He is documenting the trip in photos and through a video journal, talking to people along the way about the quality of water and life along the river, he said. He is not trying to break a record. For him, “completing the journey is more important than getting there faster than someone else.”

“I’m only looking to do this river once,” Dahm said. “The focus of this trip was to find out about the river. There’s too much history along this river.”

He expects to wrap up his trip by the end of August or early September.

Joni Liljedahl, information consultant for the DNR Information Center, said this year she started getting e-mail inquiries in February for map packets. She credits early springlike weather.

Detailed maps of the Mississippi — and other canoeable rivers — are e-mailed or mailed for free and are also available on the DNR’s website. Most of the requests are for a certain stretch of river.

But some people want the entire Mississippi. A Californian recently requested map information as he planned his trip downriver.

While it is hard to keep track of the number of people who travel the Mississippi, traffic is often steady from year to year.

“We have several dozen that go out every year,” Connie Cox said. “People have been doing this for two centuries.”

Cox, lead naturalist for Itasca State Park, said reasons vary for the voyage and staff learn about it from observation or travelers who decide to share their cause.

“A lot of people want to take the challenge, and test. ‘Can I do it?”‘ she said. “Some want to see America (or) they want to see the natural environment.”

From battling strong winds, rapids, heavy barges and eventually oceangoing boats, the trip can be an adventure, a bonding experience and/or a test. Some, when they get to the end of the river, are sad because it’s over, Cox said.

“It’s a pretty significant river (historically),” Cox said. “For many of these people, it ends up being a very spiritual journey.”