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Canoeing courage: Ishpeming man continues Mississippi River trip

Nate Denofre of Ishpeming is well into his Mississippi River canoe trip. Denofre, who has no legs below the knees, is bringing attention to people with disabilities being able to accomplish big things. (Photo courtesy of Nate Denofre)

MARQUETTE — When you’re traveling 2,500 miles — on water in a canoe, no less — unexpected events not exactly in the vein of Mark Twain are going to happen.

Nate Denofre of Ishpeming and Don Jokinen of Iron Mountain on May 8 set off on a big adventure: canoeing the entire Mississippi River from Lake Itasca, Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

Denofre, who has no legs below the knee, is CEO of Courage Incorporated, a nonprofit that offers 100% free trips and adventures to disabled veterans and adults. Jokinen, who served in the U.S. Army engineers in Iraq and is a 100% combat-disabled veteran.

Right now, it’s just Denofre, his wife Christa and their dog Marcie on the journey, with Jokinen recently going his separate way due to scheduling conflicts connected with raising awareness for other injured vets.

The mission, however, remains.

“Our biggest goal is to accomplish the fact that ‘what one person can do, another can do,'” Denofre said at paddlingtopersevere.org before the onset of the trip. “The only disability is in our hearts and the biggest disability is fear.”

Having possibly heard a rattlesnake outside their tent in Iowa might have understandably generated some uneasiness, but so far Nate is on track to reach the southern terminus of the Mississippi sometime in August.

“We might be a week or so later, “ Denofre said. “The weather absolutely beat us.”

But the GoPro incident — related to weather, of course — is utmost in his mind.

Denofre said most every moment of the trip had been recorded on his GoPro, which was attached to his backpack.

Earlier this month in Iowa, a “spot wind” that popped up in the blue sky prompted a quick visit to a nearby island for shelter.

In all the confusion, the GoPro was ripped off the lanyard.

“When we left, it was not with us,” Denofre said. “I was physically ill.”

That’s understandable, considering he believed over 100 gigabytes had been lost.

Denofre was resigned to the loss, but decided to put up a Facebook post “just for the heck of it” to let people know what happened.

Only a few hours later, they learned a family found the GoPro.

A July 8 post from the family’s father, Ryan Putman, detailed his “proud dad moment.”

“We knew they stopped at the island out from our house, so we decided to go take a look tonight to see if we could find it,” Putman wrote.

His young son, Blake, ended up locating the GoPro and SD cards in about 6 inches of water.

“We drove back to the marina, jumped in the truck and headed to Savannah, IL to meet up with the paddlers,” the dad wrote. “Blake had a smile from ear to ear the whole way there.

“When Blake handed Nate the GoPRo, Nate asked what he could do for Blake, and Blake replied, ‘I don’t want anything. I just wanted to give it back to you.'”

Denofre said the GoPro was in a waterproof case, so it was safe.

It was further proof to him that there are good people in the world.

In fact, Denofre said he’s met many such people on his journey.

“The people actually made this trip phenomenal,” he said.

The Paddling to Persevere Facebook page details the interactions with people, such as the couple who shared smoked salmon and sausage and took the Denofres to a laundromat and to its home for a shower; the family who brought the paddlers supper, and even got Marcie a bone; and the River Angels, who delivered much-needed gear in the early days of the trip.

Denofre has kind words for the River Angels, who are based mostly in Minnesota.

“They come out and meet you and help you as they wish,” Denofre said.

That included Day 5 when the River Angels provided them a ride to a motel to warm up.

Making progress

“It’s hard to believe a third of the Mississippi River is in Minnesota,” Denofre said.

However, the Denofres made it through the state and are moving southward. Late last week, they crossed from Iowa into Missouri.

The physical part, though, might not be as challenging as the mental aspect, although that might be hard to fathom considering the countless arm strokes needed.

“I’ve got to say it’s harder mentally on my end,” Denofre said. “Me and my wife together probably lost a total of 60 pounds combined weight.”

To navigate the Mississippi River takes strong arms but also a strong constitution.

“This isn’t a natural river anymore,” he said. “Man has done its thing to this, and it’s quite dangerous, I’d say.”

Even the land, though, has the potential for danger — such as snakes that rattle.

Nate posted this anecdote on his personal Facebook page.

“Laying on the tent and hear this humming/buzzing noise,” he wrote. “Very, very loud.

“My wife who grew up our west — ‘oh, hunny, that’s a rattle from a snake. Haven’t heard that in years!’ (As she rolled over with a grin and peacefully fell asleep!) Hahaha.”

Regardless of whether that really was a rattlesnake, Denofre likely won’t want to encounter a water moccasin on the rest of his river trip, but you never know.

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net

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