BY SUE WEBBER
Sam Mathieu is only 23, but he’s no stranger to physical endurance. He was a standout lacrosse star at Stillwater High School. He, both his parents and his older brother all have taken part in marathons. His older brother loves rock climbing and recently participated in the Minnetonka triathlon.
But Mathieu’s current adventure sets the bar a little higher. The Lake Elmo man has set out on a solo journey to kayak the entire length of the Mississippi River. He began June 3.
Mathieu originally estimated the excursion, described by various sources as between 2,300 and 2,500 miles, would take 87 days.
When reached by cell phone on day 22, however, he was eight days ahead of schedule, and now figures he’ll reach the Gulf of Mexico in early to mid-August.
He shared some reflections about the trip.
“This whole thing started last Aug. 14, when I was on a boat with friends on the St. Croix,” Mathieu said. “We were at the confluence of the Mississippi, at the mixing of the waters. I got to thinking about that and started some research, and things snowballed. It long before I knew I would give it a shot. It’s been a lot of fun.”
The trip began June 3 on the Stepping Stone Bridge at Itasca State Park, he said. “The first day was my shortest; I went 15 miles,” Mathieu said. “The longest day was 38 miles. I was in the kayak for nine and a half hours that day.”
Loneliness hasn’t been a problem, he said, adding, “I’m pretty busy.”
The biggest challenge so far, he said, has been maintaining mental integrity “when you’re being chewed alive by mosquitoes and horse flies.”
“The bugs have been pretty bad,” he said.
He has a two- to three-week supply of food with him, including granola bars, nuts and chunky soups. He has a Jet Boil butane stove that can heat up soup within minutes, he said.
Occasionally, he stops at a restaurant and treats himself to a bacon cheeseburger.
Mathieu sleeps in a tent, or in a hammock, the latter “if the weather and bugs allow.” At times, he sets his food at least 100 feet away from the tent, just in case a bear should happen to appear. “I haven’t seen a bear yet, and I’m kind of sad about that,” he said.
He keeps a journal, and also maintains an Instagram blog online, so family and friends can follow his journey.
He’s had some heart-warming experiences along the way.
“The first family who hosted me was one I ran into at a boat landing,” he said. “I’d been bumped out of my camping spot, and once they heard my situation, they said they’d be happy to put me up at their house. I camped in their yard and they gave me breakfast.”
The second hosts were people he met through the Mississippi River Paddlers Facebook page and encountered near Elk River.
“I’d planned to camp that night, but right past the mile marker sign, people in another boat saw me and said they’d love to host me for the night,” he said. “Their house was right there. They made me an amazing dinner and breakfast, and I had my second shower in 18 days. It’s amazing how good that shower felt.”
Ordinarily, he uses a biodegradable all-purpose soap to take river baths, Mathieu said.
It turns out that the father in the first family he stayed with is the principal at the middle school in Little Falls, and wants Mathieu to come back to speak to his students. The mom in the second family is the activities coordinator at a senior citizen center and has invited him to speak there, as well.
And what’s next, after a summer on the river? Mathieu previously spent one year at Wittenberg College in Springfield, Ohio, and one at Century College in White Bear Lake before finishing his college education at the University of Minnesota-Duluth with a degree in biology and psychology.
“I’m a certified EMT (emergency medical technician), and after this trip I’d like to work as that for six to nine months,” he said. “Then I plan to apply to school to become a physician’s assistant.
He doesn’t envision this trip will be his last adventure, however.
“As I’ve been on this trip, I find myself itching to try another one,” he said. “I’ve always thought about hiking the Pacific Crest. I definitely got the adventure bug from my family. They get it.”
Coincidentally, a fellow graduate from Stillwater Area High School, Kory Kirby, embarked on his own adventure the same time Mathieu was putting his kayak into the Mississippi River. Kirby is on a solo bike tour along the Pacific Coast, from the state of Washington to California.
“We made our decisions separately, and took off on our adventures at the same time,” Mathieu said. “His trip is open-ended. He’s pulling a rig behind his bike and surfing along the way.”
Mathieu’s 23rd birthday coincided with his arrival in Stillwater, so he was able to take a break from his kayak and stop off at home. And how did he celebrate his birthday? “I went out on the river, on a friend’s boat,” he said.
As he took off again from Stillwater, Mathieu’s mom, Teresa, who is retired, joined him for the Prescott, Wis., to LaCrosse stretch of the trip, totaling 114 miles.
His goal is to make it past New Orleans to Port Eads, at the southern tip of the Mississippi.
“I plan to paddle into the gulf, and spend some time on the beach,” he said.
His mom plans to rent a kayak and join Mathieu on the last leg of his river trip, and then drive him back to Minnesota.
Mathieu reached Prairie du Chien, Wis., July 4. Follow his journey on Instagram @sams.solo.river.run.