PRAIRIE DU CHIEN – The mosquitoes are thick, the storms relentless and the river high.
This is a dangerous time to be on the rain-swollen Mississippi River, especially for those with little experience on the water.
The current is deadly. Debris is prolific, often out of sight but just below the murky surface. The conditions have limited recreational traffic, but barges and winds persist, teaming at times to create waves that could easily swamp a kayak.
But Nic Doucette and Gabe Vasquez are no longer rookies with their double-bladed paddles. The U.S. Marines have logged over 600 miles in their quest to paddle this river’s entirety in an effort to raise money for the Semper Fi Fund and draw attention to wounded veterans.
The duo is also learning about the kindness and generosity that resides along the river’s banks.
“I expected to be camping the entire time, but I’m shocked at the number of houses we’ve stayed at. Just complete strangers,” said Doucette, 27, a Jefferson native who lives in Ixonia. “We’ve been spoiled.”
I met up with Doucette and Vasquez last Sunday in flooded Washington Street Park, just a few blocks from Prairie du Chien’s downtown. The two men stored their kayaks at a home across the street after knocking on the front door for permission but stayed in a hotel that Saturday night. Doucette was meeting his wife, Heather, for the first and likely last time during the 2 ½-month trip that began May 31.
When I arrived, the men were busy filling empty water bottles and stowing their gear. Most was placed into the bow and stern compartments but some was strapped to the tops of the kayaks. Vasquez flies a small American flag tucked just behind his cockpit.
It’s the second flag of the trip after the first was lost in a harrowing incident in Buffalo City.
He had just shoved off from a boat landing, but the strong current caught the back of his kayak and slammed the boat into a dock before it flipped. Vasquez became entangled with the tether for his paddle and almost drowned. Doucette had to help free Vasquez, who kept going under after coming to the surface for gasps of air.
“I just kept my cool. If I would have panicked it would have ended up bad,” Vasquez said. “I’m from the city. This is all new to me, the camping and the kayaking.”
Vasquez, 27, who grew up in Austin, Texas, missed the first five days of the trip because he was just discharged from the Marines. In his kayak, he wears water shoes but on land sports his combat boots, his dog tags tucked between the laces and tongues.
In March, I wrote about the pair after Doucette, who attends UW-Whitewater, sent me an email in an attempt to promote the trip and help the fundraising. I met Doucette at his in-laws’ house in Helenville, east of Johnson Creek and found, what one might expect, an organized and well-mannered Marine.
He showed off his gear, which was neatly laid out in the living room. It included solar-powered chargers for his phone, maps, cooking equipment, tent and a sleeping bag. Surprisingly, it also included a cot. Not surprisingly, it’s no longer part of the journey, where storage is at a premium.
“At first I was terrified about it but he’s just been incredibly obsessive,” said Heather Doucette, who also brought their dog, Nala, an American dingo and corgi mix, to Prairie du Chien. “Every waking minute when (Nic) wasn’t at school or work he was doing some sort of research. He’s just very well informed.”
The 2,552-mile trip is designed to raise $25,000 for the Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit that provides immediate financial assistance and lifetime support for injured and critically ill service members.
The inspiration for the journey for Doucette came in fall 2010 in southern Afghanistan where he was part of a unit that cleared roads of improvised explosive devices. That’s when Sgt. Gabriel Martinez of Colorado and Cpl. Justin Gaertner of Florida each stepped on pressure plate-activated IEDs while using their metal detectors. Both men lost their legs. They survived and were assisted by the Semper Fi Fund.
Doucette and Vasquez are spending their own money on the trip, about $1,500 each. No money donated to the Semper Fi Fund is being used to cover their costs. So far, they’ve collectively raised about $13,000.
They’re also much better kayakers, even in big water. Two weeks ago, they experienced 6-foot swells.
“I feel really comfortable in this boat now,” Doucette said. “The waves don’t really bother us now. I think we’re both fairly comfortable.”
They each have different kayaks after beginning the trip with 12-footers. The 16-foot kayaks they now use are faster and easier to maneuver and help them travel 30 to 40 miles a day and average about 6 mph. When they were above the Twin Cities, the current was fast and they easily moved at 9 mph. At times, depending on how hard they would paddle, the Marines hit 13 mph, according to their hand-held electronics.
But the river is always in charge. That’s why Doucette and Vasquez skipped a 20-mile portion of the river between just north of St. Paul and Hastings, Minnesota, because it was too dangerous to navigate. Trips through the locks slow their pace, but because of the high water, the drops have been between only 12 and 18 inches, not several feet.
Because of Marine Corps commitments, Vasquez didn’t join the trip until Doucette was five days into the paddle, so he missed Doucette’s navigational blunder. Doucette was a few days in after leaving Lake Itasca. The river is narrow and filled with downed trees and beaver dams and looks nothing like the Mississippi River that flows along our state’s western edge.
Doucette came to a fork in the river, saw one fork blocked with trees so he took the clear path. It led him into a thick forest and forced him to drag his kayak through a marsh back to the main channel, a 45-minute slog.
“There’s just trees down everywhere. The current is sweeping, you so you’re trying to make these S-turns. I was happy to be done with that stretch,” Doucette said. “The headwaters were tough.”
And there were few people. But that’s no longer the case. Strangers will take them out to eat and buy them beers. One man in La Crosse slipped $20 into Doucette’s cellphone case.
When Doucette and Vasquez departed Prairie du Chien, their next stop was Cassville, where they were scheduled to meet up with a woman who had heard about their trip. She was planning to take them to eat at Potosi Brewery. When they got to Dubuque, they had complimentary accommodations at a resort lined up.
“Connections just work their way down the river,” Doucette said. “One word to describe (the trip) is spoiled.”