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New book sheds light on one man's paddling trip to Gulf of Mexico – and his journey through life

Hank Kohler, who was the keynote speaker last March at the International Water Institute’s River Watch Forum at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, definitely has a gift for gab and a knack for telling a story.

Hank Kohler book cover.JPG
“One4Water: Paddling North to Polar Bears, Then South to Alligators from the Same Starting Point Forty-Two Years Later … and This Time It Mattered” was released in September.
Contributed/Hank Kohler
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GRAND FORKS – In June 2021, Hank Kohler set out from a boat ramp on East Leaf Lake in eastern Otter Tail County on a paddling voyage that would take him over 1,900 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.

More than four decades earlier – 1979, to be exact – Kohler, along with his brother, Keith, and two of their buddies, Dennis Weidemann and Rich Wiebke, had departed from the same place on a 1,400-mile journey to Hudson Bay.

The trip those four Iowa farm boys took was documented in Weidemann’s book, “This Water Goes North.”

On Thursday, June 3 – 42 years and change after departing on a northbound trek to Hudson Bay – Hank Kohler will push off from the same East Leaf Lake boat ramp on another epic canoe paddle. Only this time, he will paddle south on a 2,100-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

Kohler, who was 68 years old when he set out for the Gulf of Mexico, says he wanted the most recent trip to mean something, and so he made it a fundraiser he dubbed One4Water. The effort to date has raised more than $40,000 for youth programs at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa.

One4Water was a way to give back to the outdoors and the places that have enriched his life, says Kohler, who lives in Ames, Iowa, but visits the family cabin in west central Minnesota at every opportunity.

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“That was really the reason for this trip because I felt guilty,” he said. “I’ve had such a wonderful life and been in so many fabulous places, but I’ve done nothing to actually keep them that way for future generations except picking up some trash and telling people to be nice to Mother Earth.”

Hank Kohler mugshot.jpg
Hank Kohler

Now, Kohler has published a book on the journey titled “One4Water: Paddling North to Polar Bears, Then South to Alligators from the Same Starting Point Forty-Two Years Later … and This Time It Mattered.”

Writing a book wasn’t part of the plan when he launched the One4Water trip, Kohler says, but he developed quite a following online with the daily reports he posted on the Facebook page he created for the fundraiser.

“I’ve done some writing, but certainly nothing as extensive as trying to do an entire book,” Kohler said Monday in a phone interview. “But I had so many people that followed (the trip) on the Facebook page. We ended up having over 1,500 followers by the end of that journey. There’s so many people out there I’ll never meet, but they wanted to know if I’d write a book.”

Eventually, Kohler says, he warmed up to the idea with some encouragement from his wife, Anne. He already had the Facebook posts, the journal entries, the photos and the maps. The challenge, he says, was crafting the pieces into a book people would want to read.

Kohler, who was the keynote speaker last March at the International Water Institute’s River Watch Forum at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, definitely has a gift for gab and a knack for telling a story.

“If you just say, ‘We paddled, we paddled, we paddled, we slept on a sandbar, we got up and paddled again’ – that’s not real interesting,” he said.

Instead, Kohler says, he tried to intertwine the daily segments of the journey with backstories that would appeal to readers, along with some background as to the “why of it all.”

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“I added stories from my past and my thoughts and opinions on topics such as water, birds, trees, hope, fishing, along with wild places and wonder,” Kohler said. “In fact, on the segment about hope, I talk a lot about the River Watch program up there. Because, when you have young students doing that kind of work, being that involved in a watershed, that’s hope. That’s where our future is.”

Another section in the book is called “C Times Two.”

“When we started thinking about the One4Water and then the whole time doing it, the whole world was dealing with COVID, and I personally also have been dealing with cancer,” Kohler said.

He wrote much of the book last April and May on his phone while sequestered at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., undergoing treatment.

“I would dedicate 5 to 6 hours each one of those days for writing the book, because what else am I going to do?” Kohler said. “I had like 25 days of knuckling down and doing it because I certainly had the free time.”

Each segment ends with a suggested song that fits the mood, Kohler says. Among them are The Beatles’ “In My Life,” Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son,” the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” and John Prine’s “Paradise.”

“There’s got to be 100 songs listed in there for people to listen to if they want to, to get more of a feeling for the emotions of the trip,” Kohler said.

To date, he says, the book has been well-received.

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“It’s kind of like we’re sitting around a campfire, telling stories,” Kohler said. “You know, you’re telling stories about a trip up north someplace – now, it’s my turn to tell a story. And so each day is a story. And each segment is a story.”

“One4Water: Paddling North to Polar Bears, Then South to Alligators from the Same Starting Point Forty-Two Years Later … and This Time It Mattered” is published by Hog Press in Ames. The book is available on Amazon, at The Williams Company Store & Deli in Ottertail, Minn., and a handful of retail outlets in Iowa. Suggested retail price is $28.95 hardcover, $21.95 paperback and $9.99 Kindle.

More info: hogpress.com/kohler-one4water.

About the book

  • Title: “One4Water: Paddling North to Polar Bears, Then South to Alligators from the Same Starting Point Forty-Two Years Later … and This Time It Mattered.”
  • Publisher: Hog Press, Ames, Iowa; 120 pages.
  • Price: $28.95 hardcover, $21.95 paperback and $9.99 Kindle. Available on Amazon, at The Williams Company Store & Deli in Ottertail, Minn., and a handful of retail outlets in Iowa. 
  • More info: hogpress.com/kohler-one4water.
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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