Into The Wild: Canoeing the Mississippi, America’s most iconic river

Ryan Emerson’s pack was stolen and his cell phone now resides at the bottom of a river. His biggest hurdle while canoeing down the Mississippi, though, has been the wind.

“The only real challenges I have met so far are the wind,” said Emerson, who has lost six or seven days of rowing because of powerful gusts that kept him off the river.

The 23-year-old began his odyssey almost two month ago in northern Minnesota. Although Emerson has considered taking this trip for years, the idea to complete the expedition this fall was more of a spur-of-the-moment decision.

“I’ve been passively thinking about it for a long time,” Emerson said. “It’s been a decision made over several years. I have been looking forward to doing this since I was about 16.”

Emerson, who’s from Haywood County, said he wanted to make the trip before returning to school in January to obtain a master’s degree in applied economics from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.

“This might be my last chance before I have too many responsibilities,” he said.

Emerson did not tell his parents about his plans until two weeks before he left, said Diane Emerson, Ryan’s mom.

“We didn’t know he had been looking this up and thinking about do this,” she said.

Diane and her husband were not all that surprised, however. What Ryan didn’t know was that his parents had been researching a similar trip — one they want to take in a few years.

“I am sure he (his dad) wished he had the time to do it right now,” Diane said.

Emerson already owned camping gear, and after searching Craig’s List for a canoe, Emerson bought a Greyhound bus ticket. Within a couple weeks was headed to Walker, Minn. From there, he was picked up by the canoe’s owner and dropped off at Lake Itasca.

Emerson’s diet consists mainly of peanut butter, fruit, rice, tuna and canned chicken. But every so often, people who live along the river invite him for a home-cooked meal or let him sleep on their property.

“I don’t think it’s really common to see a canoe on the Mississippi river,” he said.

Although he has traveled as far as 40 miles in a day, Emerson averages between 20 and 25 miles a day.

Besides the wind, the main roadblocks to progress are the river’s system of locks and dams.

With other boats traversing the river, Emerson said, he must sometimes wait about an hour and a half for barges to get through the locks. A lock is a closed-off section of the waterway where the water level is either raised or lowered so the boat can continue downstream.

In some cases, Emerson must haul his gear around the dams.

“Obviously, you can’t go down the forty foot drop,” he said.

Despite some delays, he still expects to see New Orleans before his self-imposed deadline.

“The only real timetable I set was I’d like to be home for Christmas,” Emerson said.

Emerson plans to phone his parents before he reaches New Orleans so they can shuttle him back to Haywood County, but until then, they are on standby. Emerson has kept in regular contact with his parents, though, calling them every other day.

“I had told him the rule was every three days,” Diane said.

It’s a demand Emerson has met with one exception — when his phone sank to the bottom of the Mississippi.

To hear him tell the story, it was no big deal. He simply stopped at the nearest town and used a stranger’s cell phone to call his mom, who overnighted him a new phone.

According to Diane, it was a much more complex ordeal.

The family’s cell phone provider activated Emerson’s phone incorrectly. When anyone tried to call Emerson, they were directed to his sister’s phone.

“My son is on the Mississippi River, and we have not heard from him in four days, and I’m a nervous wreck,” Diane said.

Knowing about where he should be, Diane said she called one of the dams asking if they had seen a man canoeing down river.

They had.

When she phoned the next dam, about 20 miles downstream, they had yet to see Emerson. She then knew more precisely where he was and eventually made contact. After another couple calls and complaints to their provider, Emerson’s phone was finally able to make and receive calls.

Emerson said he does not mind being unreachable and mostly keeps his phone turned off.

“I don’t really get bored,” he said. “I’m an adventurer, so I’m always wondering what is around the next river bend. I can’t wait to see what I’m going to see today.”

To help pass the time, however, he said he listens to National Public Radio, or if no one is around, he sings The Beatles’ or Cat Stevens’ songs at the top of his lungs.

When able, he updates his blog ( at public libraries along the way. However, he said it gets harder and harder to update his online followers because he would rather spend the time traveling.

“I have to take three hours or so away from paddling,” Emerson said.

On Sept. 22 — 14 days after setting out, Emerson stopped in a small Minnesota town to buy groceries and use the local library’s computer. He locked his gear to a metal pole and when he returned, his pack, which contained a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, cookware, food, hygiene products, books and clothing, was gone.

“My faith in the integrity of humanity has increased greatly during this trip.  However, it took a huge step backwards today,” wrote Emerson on his blog.

He did not want to advertise that his pack had been stolen, Diane said, but she talked him into it.

“You have to tell the good with the bad,” she said.

The next day, Gander Mountain, an outdoor gear store that had heard about Emerson’s plight, offered to replace his lost items for free. He traveled nearly 57 miles in two days to the nearest store.

Last Thursday, Emerson was departing from LaGrange, Mo., and expected to reach St. Louis in a week’s time, allowing for a planned detour in Hannibal, Mo. — the boyhood home of author Mark Twain.

Emerson said he would travel about 20 miles from LaGrange to Hannibal and spend a day exploring the town and visiting the local museum.

“I usually just stop in the small towns with my camera and explore anyway,” he said.

Although he admitted to knowing little about Twain’s life, the author’s writings, in addition to Abraham Lincoln’s account of his own travels on the Mississippi, inspired Emerson to make the journey.

Twain, a former riverboat pilot, used the Mississippi as a setting in some of his stories, including what can be considered his magnum opus The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The Mississippi is the third longest river in the U.S., running from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico in New Orleans.

It is difficult to gauge the length of the Mississippi, as the river is always changing, but the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the Environmental Protection Agency and a U.S. Geological Survey have all stated the body of water is a little more than 2,300 miles long. However, Itasca State Park says the river is 2,552 miles long if you start at its headwaters, a tributary at the source of the Mississippi River where Emerson’s journey began.

In the future, Emerson hopes to dirt bike across Australia or cycle across the U.S.

“I don’t think this will be the end of his adventures. That’s just Ryan,” Diane said.

Go to top