“The Mississippi River towns are comely, clean, well built, and pleasing to the eye, and cheering to the spirit. The Mississippi Valley is as reposeful as a dreamland, nothing worldly about it . . . nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.” — Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
Everything seemed to be going so well for Nate Denofre and Don Jokinen, the bilateral amputee and disabled veteran (respectively) who are paddling the length of the Mississippi River. After getting beat up pretty bad by beavers, ticks, quicksand, and other hazards during the first month of the trip, they fought through to wider, smoother waters. June brought broad horizons and colorful skies. The expedition stayed healthy and ate well. They basked in the generosity of the River Angels, who came forth from towns all over the region to share food, help with portages, and open their homes. The weather was fine. The miles flowed by. Donations to Denofre’s nonprofit flowed in (you can add yours here).
And then, on July 8, the Mississippi pulled off an ambush. As it will do from time to time.
An afternoon squall kicked up with little warning, forcing the paddlers to dive for cover on an island just above Lock 12 near Bellvue, Iowa. “The wind came so hard and so abruptly, I didn’t think the laws of physics applied anymore,” Denofre said later. As the group hustled ashore, a locking carabiner on Denofre’s backpack snapped open, and the river swallowed the expedition’s GoPro and SD cards containing all of the video footage from the first two months of the trip—about 120 gigabytes’ worth of material.
Denofre was so busy scrambling for shelter he didn’t realize what had happened. By the time he discovered the loss, they had paddled through Lock 12 and gone many miles downstream. “I had no hope of ever finding them,” he says. “This river eats everything.”
Despite the slim chances, Denofre put out the word on Facebook Live and appealed to the River Angels for help. They came out in force. “It was incredible,” he says. “The magic of social media. There were multiple people in boats and on jet skis in that area looking on all these little islands.”
It so happened that a schoolteacher named Ryan Putman and his family had been watching from their riverfront home as the canoes raced the storm and reached the island just in the nick of time. When Putnam’s wife saw Denofre’s distress call on Facebook later on, they connected the dots and, along with their son Blake, motored straight to the beach where the canoes had landed. Putman picks up the story:
“As we pulled up to the island, Brandon Beck was already there searching for the GoPro and SD cards. We joined in the search and didn’t have much luck after wading around in the water for about 15 minutes. As we were about to head out, Blake yelled: “I found something.” Sure enough, it was their GoPro and SD cards sitting in about six inches of water not far from where Brandon and I swear we looked! We called Nate from Paddling to Persevere to tell them the good news. We drove the boat back to the marina, jumped in the truck and headed to Savanna, IL, to meet up with the paddlers. Blake had a smile from ear to ear the whole way there. When Blake handed Nate the GoPro, Nate asked what he could do for Blake, and Blake replied, ‘I don’t want anything, I just wanted to give it back to you.’”
“He refused to take any money,” says Denofre. “He’s already learned the rule of paying it forward. A ‘thank you’ was enough.”
If we may interject for a moment: This is about the best little news story we’ve heard in a very long time. After months of headlines about people getting sick, going broke, losing loved ones, and fighting over face masks and race relations and science and politics; after all that bitterness, this sweet little vignette from the river renews our faith that the nation might come out of this difficult year in one piece. Maybe the country’s sense of common purpose isn’t lost and hopelessly adrift. Maybe it’s just lying on a sandbar somewhere, in a foot of muddy water, waiting to be rediscovered. By a kid, probably.
We asked Denofre if he could explain why so many people like the Putnams have gone so far out of their way to support Paddling to Persevere.
“I don’t really know,” he told us. “I came into this thing with the thought that I’m going to beat this river. And I learned very quickly that there’s not a person alive who can do it alone. Everybody needs help. The people who live here understand that, and they help us because that’s what their nature is. It makes them feel good. It makes us feel good.”
“The best part of this trip so far has been the people,” he adds. “No contest. There’s so much good in the world. It’s really remarkable.”
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