Campers practice canoe maneuvers on the Mississippi River.
photos courtesy les voyageurs
The Mississippi River’s shorelines can blur into each other with each shade of green tree or calming blue ripple, but for people like Cole Wensman, certain parts instantly spark memories of, if not a specific time, of a feeling.
“I think it’s a sense of nostalgia for parts I’ve paddled in St. Cloud, by base camp [for Les Voyageurs]. It’s the sentimentality,” Wensman says.
For five summers, Wensman was a guide for Les Voyageurs, Inc., a nonprofit organization that sends out eight crews to Canada or, for their Far North excursions, even the Arctic Circle. (The trips are 28-day epics, although for the multiple times I’ve heard Wensman talk about them, he acts as if it’s not mind-blowing for seven to eight young men or women and one or two guides to traverse the wilderness more than 100 miles from civilization with polar bears.) To prepare for it all, the guides—all alumni of the program—start on the Mississippi.
The Les Voyageurs base camp sits right on one of the Mississippi’s many hairpin bends north of Sartell. Inside its walls, Wensman received weeks of training on topics like medical treatment, navigation, and guiding, which included, as Wensman puts it, “tent repair, canoe repair … really, lots of repair lessons now that I think about it.”
Then when the campers came, besides all of the onland prep, Wensman would work with them on the water and help them learn the different strokes. Power stroke, J-stroke, C-stroke. Draw stroke. Cross draw. Pry. They would practice aiming for different points along the shoreline or even head over to Sauk Rapids for some white water rapids practice. No matter how many times Wensman ran the rapid section, each excursion still holds its own thrill because the river itself changes—when the water levels are high enough, the rapids reach Class III out of VI.
Four to five canoeing practices a week for one and a half months equates to a lot of log time on the Mississippi, which is what you want when you’re about to venture out to the wilderness. After all, while canoeing experience will certainly help Voyageurs campers, it isn’t required.
“There are a few times when I took out paddlers who were brand new to rapids. They sat in the middle and were clinging to the yoke looking very scared the first time as they rode down without paddling. One time I even flipped the canoe with a new paddler sitting in the middle and that scared them a bit,” Wensman says, sounding a bit sheepish. “But then paddling with them again at the end of the summer was super satisfying to see them gain a ton of confidence in running rapids, and fulfilling to see their excitement and knowledge running different lines through the rapids.”
Whether the Mississippi River is just the start of your great adventure or the highlight of it, there’s no denying that it is an adventure. It may carve along cityscapes during its trek down south, but away from large metropolises, where trees crowd its banks and the building tops are far in the distance if at all, that’s where Minnesota spirit can be found.