Steamboat Springs Huck Finn would love these guys. Last fall, a group of eight twentysomethings — seven of whom lived in Steamboat Springs this past year — paddled four canoes from Minneapolis down the Mississippi River to New Orleans with two goals: Raise money for the Lambui Fund of Haiti and make it back to Steamboat in time for ski season. They succeeded on both counts, raising $10,000 and arriving back for opening day.
Included in the mission were cousins Michael and Louis Gutschenritter, Zach Wehr, Dave Lathrop, Brett Poche, Oscar Fonseca, Karrie Kressler and Amanda Stenman. We caught up with Michael during mud season for his take on the Mississippi milestone.
At Home: What prompted you to make the trip?
Gutschenritter: In 2009, I completed a southbound hike on the Appalachian Trail and realized how fun and revealing it was to see the country through a long-distance trip. So I began thinking of other ways to do it. I canoed my whole life growing up in Wisconsin and had the gear, so it seemed natural. And we chose Haiti as a beneficiary since it was on everyone’s minds. Out of 15 people who said they’d do it, eight quit their jobs and dedicated themselves to the trip.
At Home: Were you all friends beforehand — and afterward?
Gutschenritter: Some of us were. No one knew everyone, but everyone knew someone. We’re all gregarious, convivial people, making it easy to quickly become friends. And seven of us all moved to Steamboat together.
At Home: Did you all get along the whole time?
Gutschenritter: There were times when heads butted. We are all leaders and decision makers, which can cause tension when the decisions don’t match. But we learned that we were all dependent on each other — an aspect that cut the tension and forced resolution. The main thing causing tension was deciding to do a lot of miles in a day to get to a town. But we always had to accept the group’s vote and not complain. We are also all very laid-back and easy going, so conflict never lasted.
At Home: Even in such tight quarters as canoes?
Gutschenritter: If the tight quarters did anything, it made us better friends. The quarters weren’t that tight anyway. We were paired into 17-foot canoes, but we could chat with each other all day or not talk at all. No one forced conversation. We went through a lot of riddles and jokes.
At Home: How does the Mississippi compare to the Yampa?
Gutschenritter: It’s a funny comparison. The closest thing we had to a mountain was the bluffs by Winona and LaCrosse. While high water on the Yampa can be dangerous, on the Mississippi it doesn’t mean much, other than the fact that it might be harder to find a campsite. And, with high water, it was fun to paddle straight through the dams instead of going through the locks.
At Home: How was the actual paddling?
Gutschenritter: Industrial traffic was heavy. Two lines of buoys define a channel for barges going up- and downriver. Also, the river goes through several lakes up north, which were hard to cross due to high winds and whitecaps. Often, we’d have to hug a shore to block wind, adding miles.
At Home: How about the landscape?
Gutschenritter: The river had varying shorelines. At some points, there would be gorgeous fall colors covering bluffs. At others, there would be dilapidated buildings next to cranes swinging their mechanical arms, transferring shrapnel to a barge. Farther south, much of the landscape was boring and similar. That’s when it got difficult to look forward to each morning. The river actually has chemicals getting pumped into it from factories — direct drains of yellow liquid that heats up the water by at least 20 degrees and makes it smell like absolute disappointment. We’re lucky to have the Yampa.
At Home: Any close calls?
Gutschenritter: The worst was the headwinds in the middle of the trip. They were relentless. There was no way to track the canoes, with the wind throwing them every direction. It went on like that for a week straight, taking every ounce of our strength to make 30 miles a day. It was aggravating, defeating and a true test of physical and mental stamina.
Memphis during Halloween also got a little out of hand — but it was the town’s fault for letting eight Huck Finns wander the streets with 32-ounce beers, excited just to be around people.
But no one flipped (though Karrie and I fell in a few times), and no one woke up in a weird place without intending to. Barge captains continually warned us that the waters were higher than they’d ever seen. Some yelled at us, some congratulated us, but most just ignored us, understanding that the river is everyone’s.
At Home: Have a highlight or favorite moment?
Gutschenritter: New Orleans, the city that songs are written for. We all had the goal to make it there, and we were able to stay with some friends of Karrie’s. We also paddled bracken waters spotting gators and gar and explored the French Quarter, dancing in the streets. We also got on stage at a Haiti Festival of Culture and spoke about our trip, sold shirts and collected donations.
New Orleans is the biggest small community I’ve ever encountered. They are real people who know what it means to be a neighbor. It was hard to leave.
At Home: What did you take home from the expedition?
Gutschenritter: Most of all, we took home a solid group of friends we didn’t have before. We also became more aware of people’s generosity and discovered a relieving appreciation for the natural beauty of our nation’s artery. We also learned how to jointly make decisions, instead of allowing one person to take full charge; received a hands-on education about our country; and learned about business, fundraising development and the importance of organization to make things happen.