On Sept. 2, 2015, Adam Trigg of Waite Park, along with five other friends, paddled down the last stretch of the Kugluktuk River. The miles rolled slowly by, as they had almost every day for the last 245 days, yet there was something different about them, something more significant and profound. These were the last miles of a 5,230-mile canoe expedition, which started in the Mississippi River Delta in Louisiana, and ended in the Arctic Ocean.
The seed of the idea for a cross-continental journey originally came from friend Peter Marshall, who canoed in 2005 from Lake of the Woods to the Arctic Ocean. Then, in 2013, as Trigg and friend Winchell Delano were flying home from a hunting trip in Utah, the idea for a major canoe trip resurfaced.
“It started out as kind of a joke,” said Trigg. After shrugging it off after that initial conversation, the pair continued to toss the idea around, and eventually, what was once an abstract thought slowly materialized into a solid plan.
Trigg and Delano discussed paddling up the Mississippi rather than down it, which would add challenge and uniqueness to the trip. After looking into how realistic this plan was, they learned it was definitely possible.
“We heard of other people doing it, and I’ve canoed up the Mississippi before, so that gave us kind of a basis of what to expect as far as that goes,” said Trigg. The next challenge was in recruiting four more willing people to go on the journey with them.
“We knew we wanted six people, just camaraderie-wise and having other people to be with,” said Trigg. “Four would have probably been fine, and we would have moved a little faster even, but six we knew would be better for ourselves.”
A cold start
On Dec. 28, 2014, the group left St. Cloud for the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana, where their journey began on Jan. 2, 2015.
“We actually started on the Atchafalaya River,” said Trigg. They followed this river for 180 miles before connecting with the Mississippi. Trigg said he was amazed at the speed and immensity of the lower Mississippi.
“The lower Mississippi is humongous and fast,” said Trigg. “By far, the most difficult part of our upstream journey on the Mississippi was the beginning of the lower Mississippi. It’s nuts.”
Another big challenge was the temperature, which Trigg admitted was considerably colder than the group had expected so far south.
“For two weeks straight, it was not rare for temperatures to get to 15 below,” said Trigg. He explained that there were stretches where they would have to walk with their boats on ice for a couple days, or have to chop through the ice just to get through.
“We’d regularly have six inch icicles hanging from our gloves, and your hands would be frozen to your paddle sometimes,” said Trigg.
Other than the intense currents and biting cold, Trigg said that the adjustment to paddling eight to 10 hours per day didn’t take very long.
“Some of us had been on at least a month paddling trip before, so we knew we could do it,” said Trigg. “If you can paddle for a week straight, you can paddle for six months straight; it’s all the same at that point. About two weeks in, we lost the soreness.”
Life and generosity on the river
“You got used to pretty [bad] living conditions. There definitely were times when I was like, ‘Why am I here? Why am I doing this?’” —Adam Trigg
A group with less determination might not have made it through those first months, which Trigg said were the hardest. When the frustrations of battling cold, ice and an intense current got to be almost too much, Trigg said being with others helped boost moral.
“When it would be cold and miserable out, if you were [upset] about it, you’d be mad, but then you’d look around and think, ‘Well, it’s no different for you right now. You’re just as miserable as I am’,” said Trigg.
When asked if there was ever a moment he wanted to quit, Trigg responded, “I think we all just early on set it in our minds that this is what we’re going to do and we’re not going to stop. Whether or not we should quit was never brought up. I never had that conversation with anybody. We never let that be an option for any of us.”
Planning and packing food was an endeavor in itself, as the group would have to pack 18 days worth of food at a time on every re-supply trip. Re-supplies usually consisted of the group taking the day off to hike to the nearest town to stock up. But there were many instances, Trigg explained, where the generosity of strangers kept them fed far beyond the 18 days they had planned for.
“Normally we would head out with 18 days of food, which would get us about 300 miles,” said Trigg. “But from Keokuk, Iowa, we traveled 28 days straight, around 550 miles, all the way to Minneapolis without resupplying.” Trigg said the only way they were able to do this was because of the generosity of others.
Trigg said this kind of interest in what they were doing and the eagerness to help them out was the norm, and for him, it was one of the most profound aspects of the trip.
“One of the biggest surprises of the trip was the hospitality,” said Trigg, who went on to share one particularly impacting story. “One time, we needed water and were wind-bound on the side of the Mississippi. Three of the guys went off hiking on some gravel roads and eventually found this guy who owned a 13,000-acre game hunting reserve. He took us in, opened the liquor cabinet, fed us. He was almost like a surrogate dad for us and we still keep in contact with him today.”
In addition to people offering food and opening up their homes, people who followed the group’s blog, which gave an option to donate to the expedition, in total donated around $20,000, which covered the vast majority of the trip’s costs.
“We spent a total of about $25,000 on the trip,” said Trigg. “And $20,000 of that is from donation, which is just insane.” Trigg explained the impact that all of this support had on him.
“I think it just shows how many awesome people there still are all over the country. In eight months of traveling, we only met one person who was rude to us, and even he ended up being cool in the end. That was just one of the biggest takeaways: just how many amazing people there are out there.”
Canada: Land of fire and beauty
It was an easy transition into Canada, as the group paddled downstream for a change, on the Red River to the Canadian border, but once in Canada, the group were hit some additional issues: long portages and forest fires.
“Saskatchewan marked the start of the forest fires for us. We didn’t have any flames that we saw, but the smoke started,” said Trigg. “For the next month and a half, every day we had smoke so thick that you couldn’t see the sun. I didn’t have to wear sunscreen for a month.”
Trigg described the landscape during that time as an inferno. It was common to look across a lake and see flames stretching for miles.
“Flames would be like 100 feet high, and would move and sound like a freight train. It was really cool to experience that,” Trigg explained.
Trigg also talked about the longest portage of the trip, which was 12 miles long.
“That was nuts. It took us a little over a day to complete,” said Trigg. “It was hard on us. We were all very sore afterwards.”
Despite some of the challenges, Trigg said Canada provided them with some of the most beautiful scenery of the entire trip.
“By far, the most beautiful part of the trip for me was the Coppermine River, which was the last section of our trip,” said Trigg. The reason for this, Trigg explained, was because this section was “the most untouched and pristine.”
Another reason for favoring this section was the fact that the group paddled through in autumn.
“The fall colors in the tundra,” Trigg continued, “even blows [Minnesota colors] out of the water. You see blues, you see reds, oranges, greens, light shades of purple.” The pristine condition of this part of Canada also provided the group with a bounty of food. The group regularly fished and collected berries to help sustain themselves.
The group also saw an abundance of wildlife in northern Canada, including, as Trigg explained, “the biggest moose I’ve ever seen in my life.”
It wasn’t long before the realization that this “most beautiful” part of the journey was really the last part, and when they finally did reach the Arctic Ocean, on Sept. 2, Trigg said the experience was surreal.
“I just looked at Luke [Kimmes] and we were just like, ‘Well, this is what we paddled over 5,000 miles for,’” Trigg said, laughing. Despite the lighthearted joking, Trigg said it was a profound moment.
“It was so surreal and epic that we didn’t even know how to talk about it. We just got out of the boats, gave each other hugs and just kind of stood there, wondering ‘What do we do now?’”
Why 5,000 miles?
“Everyone always asks us, ‘Do you have a cause?’ We are like, ‘We are doing this just because we want to.’ What’s wrong with adventure for the sake of adventure?” Trigg also said that people would also ask if the trip was setting any records, but that too was a matter of little concern to the group.
While Trigg and the group may view their journey with pragmatism and humility, many have been captivated by the endeavor. The group’s adventure has been featured in many different newspapers and magazines, including Canoe & Kayak, CBS and the Star Tribune.
“I think sometimes it doesn’t sink in for the six of us what it is we actually did do. At the end of the day, we were six adults being bums living on a river, taking handouts whenever we could.”
For Trigg, this trip only served to fuel his love for adventure. He said he has no intention of scaling back, and is already brainstorming his next big adventure.