Luke Kimmes: Canoeing 5,200 miles from the Gulf to the Arctic Ocean |

Luke Kimmes: Canoeing 5,200 miles from the Gulf to the Arctic Ocean

Rediscovering North America

Teresa Ristow

Miles traveled: 5,200

246 days

Dates: Jan. 2- Sept. 2

Fun fact: In their entire 5,200 miles, they only capsized once — 559 times less than the total number of energy bars they consumed on their journey.

Courtesy Luke Kimmes

Luke Kimmes, 26, had never even been on an overnight canoe trip before when he and five friends began their upstream paddle on the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico on Jan. 2, 2015.

Their journey, dubbed “Rediscovering North America,” lasted eight months and took the six men in three canoes up the Mississippi and then up and down a series of rivers and lakes in the northern Midwest and Canada before reaching the Arctic Circle 5,200 miles away. It’s safe to say Kimmes, an outdoor programs instructor at Colorado Mountain College, has mastered the ins and outs of a riverbank campout.

The brainstorm for the trip came from team member Winchell Delano, who canoed 2,600 miles west to east across Canada from Alaska to Hudson Bay in 2012. The trip won Canoe and Kayak magazine’s Expedition of the Year, with prize money to use toward a future adventure. So Delano put together a longer, more outlandish cross-continental canoe trip, bringing in fellow wilderness instructors Daniel Flynn, John Keaveny and Adam Trigg and Jarrad Moore. Moore invited childhood friend Kimmes to round out the team.

After months of planning their route and determining refueling points, the crew packed up food and gear — including essentials from sponsors Big Agnes, Astral, Shred Ready, WindPaddle Sails, Bear Naked and Hilleberg — and hit the water.

They departed from the Gulf of Mexico up the Atchafalaya River west of New Orleans on Jan. 2, 2015, with riverside fishermen already pointing out that they were headed in the wrong direction.

“They thought we were crazy,” Delano says.

Miles traveled: 5,200

246 days

Dates: Jan. 2- Sept. 2

Fun fact: In their entire 5,200 miles, they only capsized once — 559 times less than the total number of energy bars they consumed on their journey.

Crazier still was waking up at 5 a.m. each morning and paddling for up to 10 hours each day. A typical push would be two hours of paddling, with one person stroking left and the other right for seven minutes at a time, then switching.

“For the most part it was a continuous effort to be on the same stroke,” Kimmes says.

Traveling upstream on the Mississippi, it was a constant push to stay moving or risk losing ground. Even a quick water break would cause them to drift backward with the current. They received reprieve if the wind was strong enough to unfurl small sails on the canoes, which they did a handful of times.

“Sometimes it would be for five minutes, and sometimes for an entire day,” Kimmes says. “That’s if we were lucky.

Kimmes adds it was impossible to prepare their bodies for what 10 hours of daily paddling would feel like. “The first month was pretty brutal for all of us,” he says, remembering a particularly brutal two-week stretch on the Mississippi.

“There were days we were so physically tired that we’d fall asleep in the boat while we were paddling. We’d wake up in the dark, tear down in the dark and eat in the dark. And our hands would freeze to our paddles.”

The dark days were often brightened, however, by the kind acts of “river angels,” both expected and unexpected, who provided warm burritos, beer and places to do laundry, all of which the team thanked in their blog

After more than 2,000 miles of upstream paddling, from the Mississippi to the Minnesota River, the group finally reached the Laurentian Divide between Big Stone Lake and Lake Traverse, along the Minnesota and South Dakota border, where the water finally flowed north, allowing downstream travel.

“For the first time in forever . . . downstream,” wrote Delano in an April 26 update, five months into the journey.

Though the downstream water was charging at a measly six cubic feet per second, the team celebrated at achieving the pivotal milestone.

“The guys didn’t really like talking about the Mississippi once we were done with it,” Kimmes says.

They then traveled downstream on the Red River to Lake Winnepeg, crossing into Canada and passing the 3,000-mile mark. From there it was upstream and down on the Saskatchewan, Churchill, Slave, Yellowknife and Coppermine rivers, and navigating through Manitoba, Saskatchewan and northeastern Alberta before reaching Canada’s Northwest Territories and beginning the final stretch to the Arctic Ocean.

On Aug. 30, the team reached the flats of the Coppermine River in the Northwestern Territories, meaning less than 100 miles to go. On Sept. 1, they left Blood Falls, their final portage, undeterred by 48 degree F. temperatures and 25 mph head winds. They pulled in on the west side of Kugluktuk the next afternoon, 246 days and 5,200 miles from their starting place.

Now Kimmes is back in Steamboat, teaching outdoor courses and busing tables to save up for his next adventure. “I’ve considered doing a Pacific Crest Trail trip,” he says. “I’d also like to do the Iditarod, or maybe an Ironman. There are a lot of places I want to go.”

For now, he’s spending his first full summer in Steamboat since moving to town eight years ago, and he’s looking forward to reliving his adventure through a documentary he hopes to release this spring.

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