Double amputee Nate Denofre is canoeing the Mississippi, source to sea, to prove that the only disability is fear.
Not many people are stubborn enough to take on the Mississippi River—all 2,350 miles of it—in a canoe. But for Nate Denofre, a double amputee since infancy, the Mississippi was just a second-tier challenge. He originally wanted to paddle the 2,000-mile Yukon River across Alaska to the Bering Sea.
“My board said, ‘Absolutely not, you’re not doing that,’” Denofre laughs. “It takes a year and a half to do the whole trip, because the river’s frozen a big chunk of the time. So then I said, ‘OK, what about the Mississippi?’”
Even then, Denofre had to lobby hard to gain approval from the board of his nonprofit, Courage Incorporated, which leads rustic outdoor adventures for amputees, disabled veterans, and other people with physical disabilities. He argued that a high-profile trip down the Mississippi would inspire people with mobility challenges, and maybe help Courage Incorporated raise the money to upgrade some equipment and buy a new pontoon boat.
Denofre didn’t have to mention that this might be the last chance he’ll ever have to do something like this. He’s been battling a degenerative spine condition for six years. At some point, likely not that far off, he’ll need to trade in his prostheses for a wheelchair.
In the end the board relented, as Denofre surely knew they would. He’s spent his whole life ignoring people who’ve told him he couldn’t or shouldn’t do something because of his condition—and then proving them wrong. Hence the name of the Mississippi venture: Paddling to Persevere. This dude does not give up easily.
A native of Ishpeming, Michigan, about 10 miles inland from Lake Superior’s southern shore, Denofre grew up as rugged as the Upper Peninsula landscape. He played high school football, made the wrestling team, spent his summers exploring the woods and waters, and carved holes in the ice to go fishing in winter. All this despite being born with amniotic band syndrome, which left him without both legs below the knee.
“People used to call me ‘Mr. Wide Open,’” he says. “I was always active, always outdoors. There’s a peacefulness that comes with it, but also that sense of accomplishment.”
In 2008 he launched a part-time backcountry guide service to earn a few extra dollars. Denofre advertised on Facebook, and it never occurred to him to mention that he’s a double amputee. (“Most of the time I forget,” he shrugs.) So when his clients, invariably able-bodied, arrived at some remote trailhead for a few days of hiking, camping, fly-fishing, and bow hunting, they were usually somewhat shocked to discover their wilderness guide wore two prostheses.
“A lot of them didn’t know what to say,” Denofre recalls. “Or they wouldn’t say anything because they didn’t want to be offensive. But the first time they’d see me climb up a tree and set up a bow stand, it usually put their suspicions to rest. It never ended up being an issue.”
When he got the diagnosis of his spinal condition in 2014, a group of friends raised the money to send him out for one last wilderness hurrah. It was originally envisioned as a couple of weeks in the woods, but once he got out there Denofre didn’t feel like hurrying back.
“I wasn’t planning on staying out there so long,” he says, “but I just kept getting farther and farther. The next thing you know one month turned into two. I ended up reaching Lake Superior, and then I started canoeing.”
He finally came back to civilization after 159 days. But Denofre still wasn’t ready to give up his beloved woods and waters. On the contrary, the months alone gave rise to a new sense of purpose—a commitment to share the joys of the wilderness with other amputees, people with spinal injuries, people in wheelchairs, trauma survivors, and anyone else with a physical impairment. Denofre reached out to Erik Conradson (one of the old buddies who’d sponsored his six-month nature walk) with an idea: What about a backcountry guide service that’s specifically geared toward people with disabilities?
Courage Incorporated led its first trip the following year, and word spread quickly. The outings are far from glamping—“We keep it pretty rustic,” Denofre says—because one of Courage Incorporated’s goals is to get participants out of their comfort zones and allow them to discover they’re capable of doing things they’ve been told are impossible.
“We take them fishing, hiking, camping, whatever they want,” says Denofre. “We keep the groups fairly small, 12 people or less, and we have conversations with the clients when they sign up, so we can customize every trip. Between the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin, I know a lot of places to go. One important thing is that we never, ever charge a client for anything. The food, the tents, all the gear—everything’s paid for.”
“The main thing is just to get people out of the house,” he adds. “Within the veteran population alone, 22 people a day commit suicide. It’s hard when you have limited mobility, but it’s still possible. And it helps you achieve self-worth.”
About two years ago, still battling for every day of mobility as his spinal condition advanced, Denofre proposed the long-distance river excursion. One of his first Courage Incorporated clients, former Army engineer Don Jokinen, signed on for the trip, and they spent months mapping out an itinerary to include stops along the way at VFW and American Legion posts, wildlife refuges, historic sites (including Mark Twain’s boyhood home in Hannibal), and other landmarks.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced them to make some adjustments, and it threw a major wrench into their resupply planning. A cameraman who had originally planned to accompany them bailed out. But the trip isn’t called Paddling to Persevere for nothing. Two mornings ago, on May 9, Denofre and Jokinen launched right on schedule at the Mississippi’s headwaters in Lake Itasca.
The previous day, a polar vortex had bulldozed its way out of Canada and settled over the upper Midwest. There was snow on the banks of the Father of Waters, which is just a few feet wide at its source. The temperature was in the 30s. It might as well have been the Yukon River.
Denofre could not have been happier.
Follow the Journey
Where are Nate and Don right now? You can track them live as they make their way south between now and early August, give or take. Get more information on Facebook at: