Huck Finns with cell phones

After Justyn Johnson canoed the Minnesota River last summer, he had no concrete plans for another trip, but the spirit of adventure had caught hold of him.

After Justyn Johnson canoed the Minnesota River last summer, he had no concrete plans for another trip, but the spirit of adventure had caught hold of him.

Saturday, Justyn and four friends slipped their kayaks into the Mississippi at Gulsvig Landing where the shallow river weaves through a tangle of brown grasses and the only sign of spring was a red-winged blackbird perched on a cattail.

Three others in the party plan a two-week foray, hoping to reach the Minnesota border before they head back to their lives in the Brandon-Evansville area, near Alexandria. But Justyn and friend Brian LaMay plan to keep paddling, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Before the send-off, Justyn, his parents Donn and Mary Johnson of Alexandria, and cousin Pauline Eilers of Park Rapids, and friends and relatives of the other adventurers had a hearty breakfast at the West Forty in Park Rapids.

Justyn said he and his friends began planning the trip right after New Year's. "I already had the gear so I didn't have to buy much," he said.


Planning included figuring out where the locks and dams are. Portages, camping sites and other information about the Upper Mississippi to Hastings are well marked on a map he got from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Mary had it laminated for him to take along.

Freeze-dried and vacuum-packed meals and granola bars will sustain the burley young man. Justyn lost 35 pounds in 23 days when he canoed the Minnesota River. He has gained 20 pounds since and expects to lose even more weight this time, eating only once a day.

Water is a bigger issue, he said. It was hot when he made the trip on the Minnesota River and one day, apparently because he didn't drink enough water, he started hallucinating. "I could see the bottom of the river five or six feet down, but the paddle wouldn't seem to go all the way into the water," he said.

This time he will know better, and can help his friends also. He carries a water purifier. The purifier kills microorganisms so it will work on the Upper Mississippi, but farther down where there may be chemicals in the water, he isn't so sure he'll want to drink it.

With a friend along this time, they may take turns guarding their kayaks and gear and going on land to buy water and other supplies. Otherwise, he said, "you have to try to hide your stuff, cover it with a tarp or something and hope it's there when you get back."

The only other obstacles Justyn anticipates are some rapids, turbulence from barges and tug boats and possibly snakes and alligators.

But that's the downside. "The best part is taking a two-month vacation," he said, but he's excited about the adventure of camping on sandbars, seeing spring unfold in the north country and spotting wildlife. "I'm looking forward to seeing lady's slippers, otters, eagles and bears. "Hopefully, they'll stay out of our food," Justyn said.

A camper since he was young, he knows about hiding food from black bears and how to stay dry.


Justyn and his family camped regularly at Lake 21 in the Paul Bunyan State Forest and at Itasca State Park. He even heads north for camping in winter.

A welder, Justyn said, "I have no mortgage and no dog, so I'm free to go."

He will make one side trip this month. His sister, Lindsey, is getting married May 18 in Glenwood. So someone is going to pick him up, take him to the wedding and return him to the river while the others wait. They hope to be south of Fort Snelling by then.

He'll also celebrate his 29th birthday June 1, keeping a calendar in his head, but not time. Grinning, he said, "I'm not wearing a watch because there's no need to know what time it is."

All the kayakers have cell phones, which they'll turn off most of the time. Justyn said on his previous trip, he plugged in his charger into electrical outlets at campgrounds or at C-stores. "People were very good about it," he said.

Mary said she's not too worried. "He's pretty cautious and will always be aware of his surroundings,"

"I will always be safe," Justyn added, grinning. "It will be fun."

It took Justyn 23 days to paddle the 327 miles of the Minnesota River from Big Stone Lake near Ortonville to Fort Snelling, and he thinks it will take a full two months to reach the Gulf of Mexico.


The Friday night before he left, Justyn spent four hours arranging and re-arranging his gear, making sure he had everything he would need for the journey.

For mental preparation, Justyn read "Canoeing with the Cree," Eric Sevareid's classic on a canoe trip he and Walter Port made from Fort Snelling to Hudson Bay in a canvas canoe in 1930.

"They had it a lot harder," Justyn said, "but they turned out to be great men."

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