OTTERTAIL, Minn. -- In May 1979, Hank Kohler, his younger brother, Keith, and two of their buddies, Dennis Weidemann and Rich Wiebke, set out from a boat ramp on East Leaf Lake in east Otter Tail County on a canoe voyage that took them across a portage into the Red River Watershed and north to their eventual destination at York Factory on Hudson Bay.
The 1,400-mile journey by the four young Iowans, then in their 20s, inspired Weidemann’s book, “This Water Goes North.”
They weren’t exactly experienced paddlers, said Hank Kohler, whose family has a cabin in Otter Tail County near East Leaf Lake.
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“We had no real idea how long the trip would take,” Kohler, 68, recalls. “We were so new at canoeing, in fact, we didn’t even know many miles per hour or how many miles we could even go in a day.”
On Thursday, June 3 – 42 years and change after departing on that northbound trek to Hudson Bay – Kohler will push off from the same East Leaf Lake boat ramp on another epic canoe trip. Only this time, he will stay in the Mississippi River Watershed and paddle south on a 2,100-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
He’ll paddle across East Leaf Lake and into the Leaf River, which flows into the Crow Wing River, before entering the Mississippi River at Crow Wing State Park south of Brainerd.
“I’m going to have to do the first day and a half in a kayak,” Kohler, of Ames, Iowa, said in a phone interview. “The Leaf River is 45 miles long and most of its width is 15 to 20 feet. It’s a very small stream that for the most part is going through swampland.”
Crossing his mind
The idea for the trip came to him in January 2020, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kohler says. He was in Minnesota on an ice fishing trip – his family still has a cabin in Otter Tail County – and was crossing a bridge over the Leaf River.
“I thought, ‘Why the heck don’t I start in the very same place, exact same boat ramp and go all the way the other direction?’” Kohler said. “I mean, who’s ever done something like that?
“If you put those trips together, you’ve got almost 3,500 miles of paddling.”
The seed for the trip planted, Kohler contacted a friend, Rick Cruse, an agronomist at Iowa State University, to see if the trip could be a fundraiser for “some really good conservation programs.”
The result is one4water, an effort Kohler and Cruse launched as a fundraiser for the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa. The effort has already raised more than $5,000 for the museum’s Take CAARE program.
CAARE stands for Take Conservation Action through Advocacy, Research and Engagement. The program benefits some 5,000 young people annually from middle school through college age, Kohler says, “teaching them how to do the right things for our watersheds and water quality for the future.”
“It’s just exactly the marriage I wanted as far as trying to raise funds for somebody,” he said. “It’s really exciting to think that I can use the uniqueness of combining the two trips together, 42 years apart, to try to talk to people about water quality and then ask for donations for their projects. We’ve raised several thousand dollars, and we’re six weeks away from the start of the trip. That’s phenomenal.”
While the trip is a fundraiser, Kohler says he didn’t seek sponsors to offset expenses for equipment or other supplies. As an avid paddler, Kohler says he already has the equipment he needs. He’ll even carry the same cooking kit he used on the trip to Hudson Bay in 1979.
“My equipment certainly isn’t state of the art, and I’m not going to go and spend a lot of money to get fancy stuff,” Kohler said. “So, there’s not a whole lot of money I’m going to spend ahead of time because I do this stuff anyway.”
Beginning the trip on East Leaf Lake instead of paddling “source to sea” from the headwaters of the Mississippi at Itasca State Park was a sentimental choice because of his family’s history in Otter Tail County, Kohler says. He wanted to begin the trip in the same place as the journey on which he embarked as a younger man in 1979.
He’ll also save about 100 miles of paddling.
“To me, Itasca holds no historical significance compared to being able to say I started in the same spot and went to Hudson Bay,” Kohler said. “Now obviously, this trip is completely different. You’re totally in civilization now, I’ve got GPS on my phone and I know right where I’m at. Heck, the Mississippi River even has mile markers on it like an interstate.
“But at the same time, we’re going to raise a lot of money for a great environmental cause for now and the future. So, there is pressure to do it and to get it done.”
Various friends will join him on different legs of the trip, Kohler says, but he’s the only paddler committed to the full trip. If all goes according to plan, his brother and their two buddies who paddled to Hudson Bay in 1979 will be on hand for the sendoff at East Leaf Lake.
The goal is to paddle about 30 miles a day and wrap up the trip in mid-August. One friend has committed to joining Kohler for about three weeks to finish the trip.
“I don’t have anybody else that has decided to put in a whole summer to do this,” Kohler said. “I’ll have about a dozen different people as the trip goes on, actually, in the canoe with me. But as we go along, anybody along the river is welcome to show up in a canoe or a kayak and float for an afternoon or a couple of days.”
One day at a time
Kohler, who’ll be 69 in August, says he’s still an avid paddler and believes he’s in good enough shape to make the trek.
As with the trip to Hudson Bay, Kohler says he hopes to take the time to enjoy the sights a bit and visit with people he meets along the way. The itinerary also includes an event at the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, which is next to the river, Kohler says.
The key with canoe trips, as with many things in life, is approaching the journey one day at a time, he says.
“Some people look at a 70-day, 75-day canoe excursion, and it overwhelms them, because they look at it and go, ‘Oh my God, how can you possibly do it for that long?’” Kohler said. “But the bottom line is, it’s just a day at a time. You wake up, listen to the birds in the morning, you’ve got a beautiful sunrise. Now you’re just going to paddle a canoe and float down the river for 10 or 12 hours, camp again at night and watch the stars and the fireflies come out. Enjoy the day, have an adventure. Next day, do it again.
“You don't want to be intimidated by the totality of it, you just want to enjoy every day.”
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