Mankato Area native, Dan Lee, has been on the water from a very young age, though early on, his options were somewhat limited.
“When I was too young to take a canoe out at my family’s cabin on Swan Lake, I would take a piece of our dock apart and float that flat piece of wood around the lake with a push pole,” recalled Lee. “This is really funny to me because now my preferred method is to push something flat around on the water with a push pole!”
Lee, who has been a guide and manager at Bent River Outfitters and currently works at Scheels in Mankato has done something only a very small number of people have done. For fifty-five days from the end of August through late October of 2017, he navigated the entire length of the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca in the north to Mile Marker Zero on the Gulf of Mexico in the south on a stand up paddle board (SUP)!
A Growing Love for the Water
“As a kid growing up in Mankato my friends and I would fish at Spring Lake or Hiniker Pond. Then we realized there was a whole big river to fish but our parents said, ‘Stay away from the river! The river is dangerous!’ Of course when someone tells you to stay away from the river it makes you want to go by the river!”
“When I was a student at MSU, my friends and I got canoes and I was finally able to get on the area rivers. If we had an evening free, we’d go paddle and float. It’s a great way to get outside. You check out the waterfalls. You stop on sandbars and cook a meal. You watch the sunset on the water. You see all different kinds of wildlife.
Of course when someone tells you to stay away from the river it makes you want to go by the river!
“One time we were floating, not paddling, from Judson Bottom Road back to Mankato. All of a sudden there were like 200 turtles floating in the water around us! It was incredible!”
“Even in winter, we sometimes visit the many frozen waterfalls along the rivers. They’re absolutely gorgeous. If you go out at night you can light up the waterfalls and take photos or just hang out, have a fire and enjoy the quiet and the beauty. They look like they’re frozen solid but if you sit quietly, you’ll hear the water running though the ice.”
Lee and his buddies eventually moved on from canoes to kayaks. After graduating, he found his preferred method of transport. “When I was working at Bent River I got on a paddle board. After that, I never wanted to get in a kayak again!” he said. “When I sit in a kayak my legs get numb or my back gets sore. When I’m on a paddle board I can stand, kneel, lay, stretch – you can do headstands on a paddle board!”
Old Man River
Just where did the idea to paddle the Mississippi come from?
A New Challenge
“I found myself settling into a comfortable job in Colorado as an aquatics coordinator for a rec center,” Lee explained. “It hit me that I didn’t have any adventures planned on my calendar. I started thinking about the things I wanted to achieve. What could I do in the next six months?
“It had always been on my mind to paddle the Mississippi in a canoe or a kayak. Then I wondered if anyone had ever done it on a paddle board? A little bit of quick research turned up that only two people had done it before. That’s all it took. It was set in stone. I was going to paddle the Mississippi on a paddle board.”
If I get to do one of my dreams I should give back and help somebody else reach some of theirs
The other two had done the trip in 70 days. “I wanted to set a record,” Lee said. “I wanted to beat them. I was thinking 50 miles a day for 50 days.” Which was a lofty goal.
Lee knew he wasn’t positioned to pull this off by himself. “I started calling different companies looking for sponsorships,” he said.
“My paddle sponsor was Accent Paddles, located right on the river in Minneapolis.
“My food came from Good To Go. It’s all vegetarian, vegan food specifically for outdoors. It comes in a bag. You pour in boiling water, let it sit a few minutes then eat.
“Starboard does an amazing job with stand up paddle boards and surf boards. They are great at anything you can think of on the water.
“I know a guy in Colorado named, J.B. at Altitude Paddle Boards. He did a great job helping me get my bags and gear paddle-ready.
“Hala, out of Steamboat, Colorado was a great sponsor. They’re leading in inflatable paddle board technology and design. They have carbon fiber inflatable boards that feel like a hard board. It’s incredible.”
The giving didn’t flow in just one direction. Lee raised over $6000 for the twin camps, Camp Lincoln for boys and Camp Lake Hubert for girls in Nisswa, Minnesota where he had been a counselor. “If I get to do one of my dreams I should give back and help somebody else reach some of theirs,” he said. “As a counselor, I learned so much about myself there taking part in all the things they offer. I don’t think money should ever be a reason why a kid can’t have those opportunities.”
Lee had hoped to start the trip in May but Dain Fisher, owner of Bent River Outfitters, convinced him to work there for the summer and set off in August which turned out well. “It was beautiful weather,” Lee said. “It was nice and cool the whole way down. One day was 32. Some days were in the 70s and some days were in the 60s. It was always perfect sunny fall weather.”
He laid his plans, gathered and tested gear and boards. He planned to start the trip with an inflatable paddle board which would stand up better in the very shallow Mississippi headwaters. Once he came to deeper water he planned to switch to a hard board which provided greater durability and speed.
Very early on the morning of August 31, 2017. Lee was ready to put his board in the water.
“The first day was one of my favorite days. After a long wait it was finally time. I woke up before sunrise and it was absolutely beautiful. Not warm, not cold, some fog. The sunrise was gorgeous. I put in on Lake Itasca and walked over some little rocks to get to the river.
“I paddled for just a few seconds and had to portage for the first time around a few trees. The inflatable paddle board was nice because a kayak or a canoe keel would hit bottom but a paddle board is flat, so I was able to paddle in almost no water.”
It was things like the bees that made each day memorable. The next day a swan flew right at my head barely missing me
“At its start, the Mississippi is a very small creek clogged with rice patties. If you’ve never seen a wild-rice patty they are not what you want to be paddling in. It’s just like paddling in short reeds. I had to watch where the water was flowing to find my way, just bushwhacking through the patties to get to open water.
“It was only three hours into the day when Dain called me. I was surprised I had service. My phone was in my life jacket so I put it on speaker. I was able to talk to him and describe what I was seeing while paddling including a family of otters swimming by. I told him, ‘I’ve got another portage, so I’ve got to get off the phone.’
“After getting off the water, I dragged the board across the ground just like you would drag a kayak or a canoe. All of a sudden I was swarmed by a bunch of bees! I jumped in the river and submerged myself. I’d hold my face sideways and come up for a quick breath. I did this over and over until finally, the bees dispersed. I only got stung twice.
“When it was over I couldn’t stop laughing. I was thinking how grateful I was that I wasn’t allergic to bees! I determined never to complain again that I’m allergic to apples!
“It was things like the bees that made each day memorable. The next day a swan flew right at my head barely missing me.
“I traveled 33 miles that first day.”
Days Fourteen and Fifteen
From the Best of Times
“Two weeks later, on day 14 of the trip, I was still having a blast. I was amazed that I got to hang out in nature through some of the most beautiful parts of northern Minnesota.
“This was the day I’d arrive in Minneapolis. There is a two-mile stretch near St. Anthony Falls that you can’t paddle. I had plans to meet my family at the top of the portage.
Day 15 was the first big reality check. All day I wondered, ‘What have I got myself into?’ Fortunately, I’ve got a stubborn streak. I said I was going to do it, so I was going to do it!
“I was ahead of schedule so I pulled off to the side of the river and took a nap on the beach. This was just the best day! I met my friends and family for lunch. Dad brought me Subway! That afternoon I met up with WCCO in Minneapolis and did a little interview with them.
“We went to Surly Brew for supper and got to enjoy some food, drink and each other’s company. It was a great way to end the day after a very big accomplishment — 14 days on the river!
“We spent the night at my sister’s house. Early the next morning she drove me to the other end of the portage.
To The Worst of Times
“It hit me hard that there was nothing between here and The Gulf of Mexico to look forward to! I didn’t know anyone else down the river. It was the hardest day mentally. I went from one of the best days, a day of accomplishment, to crying and embracing my sister as she was telling me to be safe.
“Day 15 was the first big reality check. All day I wondered, ‘What have I got myself into?’ Fortunately, I’ve got a stubborn streak. I said I was going to do it, so I was going to do it!”
Days Fifty-Four and Fifty-Five
“It was the second to last day.
“My buddy had driven my car down to New Orleans so we could drive it back to Minnesota. The night before we had some fun on Bourbon Street. I had just finished paddling the longest day of the trip. I pulled my gear over the levy bank onto the street and sent him my GPS coordinates.
“When he picked me up, I told him I wanted a hotel and a beer. He wondered why I wanted beer so I explained that I needed the extra calories because I paddled farther than usual that day. Besides, I just wanted a cold Coors.
“The next day, October 24th, the last day of the trip, held the best possible conditions. I had a north wind at my back, the current was pushing me as I was leaving the Mississippi for the Gulf, and the tide was going out. Three things that I could have been battling all lined up to help me finish the last leg.
The End of the River
“My goal was to take a picture at Mile Marker Zero. I had been told there was a waterproof lock box with a log book you can sign. Usually paddlers have someone else to hold their gear while they sign the book. The tide, the current and the wind pushing me out, made it too dangerous to grab the mile marker when I got there. I was at least able to see it. I ended 14 miles into the Gulf at Port Eads.
“There was one problem with the north wind. I had been counting on catching a ride with one of the many Gulf fishermen to take me the 11 miles back up river to the harbor where my buddy Stephen waited with my car. Because of the cold, there were no fishermen on the water. I was stuck at Port Eads, which is basically a fish camp, for the night.”
Someone told me that if I ever needed a hotel they would get me one. I never used it thinking there might come a day I needed it more. So it came down to the last day, and I really needed it!
“Someone told me that if I ever needed a hotel they would get me one. They gave me my ‘lucky’ card, which I always kept in my back pocket. I had never used it thinking there might come a day I needed it more. So it came down to the last day, and I really needed it!”
“I checked into a hotel on stilts then went to get some supper. I sat down at the bar and the guy next to me said, ‘You look beat.’
‘Yeah, it was a long day.’
‘You need a beer?’ he asked.
‘Sure. Thanks. I’ll have a beer!’
‘Want some frog legs?’
‘Sure, this is awesome!’
“We ate, chatted and enjoyed watching the Astros play in the World Series. It was a great way to end the day.
“There was a shrimp boat parked at the dock, I asked him if he was heading back up river tomorrow. He said, ‘Sure, I can give you a ride back up to the harbor.’ I thought I was all set. I woke up before sunrise to make sure not to miss my ride but when I got there the boat was gone.
“Fortunately there was another boat. The captain was a really nice guy. He had gotten a log stuck in his shrimp nets and then the nets got tangled in his propeller. They were still working on it, but he said he’d be glad to take me up-river when they were done. It took all day, but we were finally on our way. They cooked me Jambalaya onboard. I got to watch him steer upriver with just his foot. We chit chatted, enjoyed the river, and talked about life.”
Mankato is Home
Lee has seen a lot of the world on his adventures as well as time spent time living in Colorado. What is it about the Mankato Area that draws someone like him back and keeps him here?
You get to see things you never thought you’d see. Each time you come around a bend in the river you wonder what’s next.
“Having my parents and family around is a big part of it,” he said. “I’ve also realized I have the ability to work with people to make the city a better place. If you have dreams you can implement those dreams. If other people have dreams, you can help them. I’m all about this town, I love the river valley, I love the plains, I love being outside, I love everything about the area. It’s home.”
And finally, about paddling on the water, Lee said, “You get to see things you never thought you’d see. Each time you come around a bend in the river you wonder what’s next. I love the tranquility of being on the water — feeling the gentleness but also the power.”