While listening to Nate Denofre recount his epic canoe trip down the Mississippi River, we detected an undercurrent of symbolism at several points. He’d be talking about the river, but it would seem as if he was also alluding to life as an amputee. As you read Denofre’s musings (transcribed verbatim), replace the words “the river” with “limb loss” and see if you get the same sense:
“You have to learn with the river or you’ll never endure. There’s no way around that. . . . Anyone that’s going to finish has to grow with the river, flow with the river. It teaches you as you go. . . . . There’s not enough books in the world that could have taught me what that river taught me, and I couldn’t be more grateful. . . . . You get where you’re going when the river allows you to get there. And that’s kind of the attitude you have to have. . . . . [The river] can get very uncomfortable, but that’s all part of the journey. If it was easy, everyone would do it.”
Was Denofre deliberately using coded language to portray the Mississippi as a metaphor for limb loss? Was he making the connection unconsciously? Or were we just imagining the whole thing? Whatever the case, we like the comparison, so we’re going with it. And there’s no denying the parallels between Denofre’s life-long haul as a bilateral amputee (he lost both legs in infancy due to amniotic band syndrome) and his 115-day, 2,300-mile river voyage, which began in May with snowstorms and an unpleasant tick encounter and ended in August with triple-digit heat, hurricanes, and 15-foot gators.
Denofre’s wife, Christa, and dog Marci shared every mile of the trip, and disabled veteran Don Jokinen paddled alongside more than half the way. You can relive the whole adventure at the expedition’s Facebook page—and please consider making a donation to support Nate’s nonprofit, Courage Incorporated, which sponsors wilderness trips for amputees and other people with disabilities.
We caught up with Denofre about 24 hours after he and Christa returned to their home in Marquette, Michigan. Our conversation is edited for length and clarity.
You got to within 75 miles from the Gulf and had to hole up for a few days for (Hurricanes) Laura and Marco. Then, on the last day, it’s wall-to-wall alligators. Did you ever think the river was throwing everything it had at you, trying to keep you from finishing?
Actually, the alligators were the last three or four days. On the last day alone, we saw 27 alligators. Our canoe is 17 and a half feet, and there were gators rolling less than a foot away that were half to three-quarters the size of our canoe. Some of them were so big they actually were putting off a wake on the side of us. I was afraid to paddle with my arms on the outside of the canoe for a bit on the last day.
It seemed like a lot of things got thrown at you on the early part of the trip—bad weather, a health scare, some other mishaps. Was there ever a point where you came close to quitting?
There was one day in Mississippi. When you go from Memphis to Vicksburg, it’s very hard. There is no [drinking] water, there’s no state parks, there’s no people, no houses, no anything. And it’s mucky. That’s probably the toughest part. So there was one day where we were supposed to have a resupply with water, and the person never showed up. It was so hot, and we’d been sitting in the sun all day, we were so tired, and we had almost no water left. We finally got to Mississippi, to this little town called Greenville. There was no boat launch, so we just pulled our canoe into the muck. Everything was closed. I called a taxi, the one taxicab in this little town, and they couldn’t come get us. It was about a six- or seven-mile walk into town. I’m exhausted already, haven’t eaten or drunk anything for a while. I had a touch of sunstroke. And I’d had it. I said, “I’m done.” And I was serious. I never say that. Every day you ask yourself, “What am I doing? It would be so much easier at home. I quit.” But this time I actually meant it from the bottom of my heart. I was beat.
Then my phone happened to ring, and there was a gentleman from Quapaw Canoe Company. I told him, “I’m frustrated. I’m done.” And 15 to 20 minutes later, without me even knowing that it was going to happen, a man named Park Neff—he’s a minister down there, retired—he pulled up, picked us up, and took us to his house out in the country. I mean air conditioning, food, resupply, and he took us to church on Sunday too.
We had two days there, and if it wasn’t for that we would have absolutely have quit. That was the worst day, hands down. The parks were closed, we couldn’t get any water, we were out in the sun all day, and it burnt me. It just burnt me.
That’s something I wouldn’t necessarily think of as being an issue, but now that you mention it: You’re not ever in the shade, are you? When you’re out on the water, there’s absolutely no cover.
And the sides of the river are deadly. It’s a very foolish misconception. The sides are where the wing dams are, and they reverse the current. The river’s always really low—for what reasons, I don’t know. But the dams are under the water, where you can’t see them, and they push all the current into the shipping lane. If you go over one of those wing dams, depending on the river level, you could be dead.
Why are they so dangerous?
It depends on the river level. It just stops the current and pushes it to the side. They cause giant whirlpools and a lot of turbulence, because the current instantly stops. But you can’t see them, they’re underneath. We had to portage around one of them at Gales Point, Arkansas. We had to portage all of our gear. I was like: “Why do we hear a waterfall?” You paddle, and you can’t see anything, and then you just come to this massive waterfall with a mad, mad current. If we would have gone over that particular one, we would have died.
Are these hazards you anticipated, or were they things you learned about once you got out there?
We anticipated them. We did research. For almost two years I was pretty heavily into research. But theories only go so far. You have to learn with the river or you’ll never endure. There’s no way around that. Whether you’re a professional or an amateur, you have to go with the river. “Life between the levees,” they call it out there. You get where you’re going when the river allows you to get there. And that’s kind of the attitude you have to have. There’s a lady that quit just three days ago, and she has all these kayaking [Web] pages—she’s heavily into it. She only made it 10 days. There’s usually something that stops people.
For me personally, because I’m an amputee, the worst thing was the crawling in the muck. If you’re not sitting in a canoe, every time you have to get out, my prosthetics would sink in the muck and then get stuck, so I’d crawl. And some of that mud by the major cities is not good to be in. I’m crawling in it, so it’s on my hands up to my shoulders sometimes. Just muck, muck, muck. That was tough. That was probably the toughest for me. I expected it—I mean, it’s called the Big Muddy for a reason—but nothing like that.
In certain places there’s sand, and a lot of the islands are sand. And sometimes you can find a sand beach on the shore. But that’s rare. And even then, you only can crawl in so much wet sand. I’m always crawling. And it sticks to you when you get in the tent. It’s a very uncomfortable trip. I don’t care if how much gear you have or if your gear is the best of the best, you’re gonna get dirty and it can get very uncomfortable. But it’s all part of the journey. If it was easy, everyone would do it.
What pleasant surprises did you encounter along the way?
One of the best moments I had was at the beginning. We had ice and snow for six or seven days straight, and it was miserably cold. And after many hours in the canoe just freezing, we came around a corner and the Little Mississippi River comes in, and the main Mississippi is still only maybe a couple hundred yards wide at this point. But it was migratory bird season, and we had 50 to 60 trumpeter swans circling the canoe. We were tired and hungry, but that sight put me in a state of awe. We stopped paddling and just watched. It was something you’d see on the National Geographic Channel. You could almost reach out and touch these birds. It was almost magical.
Is there anything you learned along the way that you wish you’d known before you started?
That’s a tough one. There’s a long list. That river’s about 15 or 16 different rivers in one. When you start it’s a little tiny crick, and you grow with the river. Anyone that’s going to finish has to grow with the river, flow with the river. It teaches you as you go. You start out as an infant, and hopefully you graduate at the end.
You have a lot of time to think out there. A lot of 12- and 14-hour days of nothing. You have a lot of time to put things into perspective. I thought about a lot of things, and I guess at times I got a taste of my own medicine. Courage Incorporated takes people out into the wilderness to do things that they didn’t think they could do. And there were times I didn’t think I was going to be able to do this whole river. I learned a lot of lessons. There’s not enough books in the world that could have taught me what that river taught me, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
A lot of times your body can’t do things, and it’s hard for your mind to deal with that. It can be frustrating. But the wilderness judges you on what you do. Not what you look like, and not how you do it—just as long as you do it. Sometimes I take off my legs and I have to crawl because that’s easier. The river doesn’t judge you for that. It judges you for accomplishments. I can’t grow legs, but I can change my mind. Anything you want to do, you can still do. You can’t let anything stop you.
Read more about Paddling to Persevere:
The Only Disability Is Fear
Mayhem on the Upper Mississippi
River Report: America the Beautiful