Thousands of people thru- and section-hike the almost 2,000-mile hike from Georgia to Maine that is the Appalachian Trial. Yet, few people have accomplished a feat recently completed by Kelton Bailey. In December, he returned from what is dubbed a Source to Sea paddle – or 2,100-mile thru-paddle – of the Mississippi River. In fact, Bailey launched his kayak at Lake Itasca, Minn., headwaters in August and completed in four months the long trek to where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
“I always wanted to thru-hike the A.T. (Appalachian Trail),” said Bailey, an employee at Outdoor 76 in Franklin, “and a few winters ago, I had this random thought: I wonder if anyone has ever thru-paddled the Mississippi River.”
Bailey, a Franklin High School graduate, had gained experience paddling a canoe while studying outdoor leadership at Southwestern Community College and parks and recreation management at Western Carolina University. Then, for six summer seasons, he worked at a Christian camp in Minnesota. While there, he learned every aspect of paddling safety, preparation, skills, etc. involving canoes and kayaks. He had also worked three seasons as a raft guide on the Nantahala River, twice with Nantahala Outdoor Center and once with Wildwater.
“I sort of fell into working in the outdoor industry by mistake,” explained Bailey. “Originally, I was interested in being a missionary pilot. I thought pursuing outdoor leadership would be helpful in becoming a missionary pilot. By happy coincidence, at the faith-based summer camp in Minnesota, which follows an Outward Bound model, I learned all the paddling skills I needed. Plus, I became knowledgeable in swift water rescue, waterfront safety, and as a wilderness first responder.”
In his quest to discover if anyone had thru-paddled the Mississippi River, he landed on a YouTube series called “Escape with Jay,” in which a paddler documents how he completed the trip.
“I watched the series and really used it as a main resource,” said Bailey.
Bailey learned that less than 100 people annually thru-paddle the Mississippi River, and he decided he would be one of them.
When Bailey shared the idea with his father, Scott, who lives in Fletcher, N.C., he received a surprising response. His dad wanted to come along.
Thus, the pair – individually and together – began making plans during the early part of 2022.
“Dad and I discussed lots about gear, read paddling blogs, and sent each other information we found,” said Bailey. “He had many questions because he had camped but had never done intensive wilderness expeditions. I used my outdoor industry experience to try and help answer his questions or point him in helpful directions for preparation.”
To ready himself for such an arduous journey, Scott took a sea-kayaking course near Tybee Island, Ga., while his son researched new gear and added to his camping/kayaking inventory.
The pair also researched their route on what has been touted the “mighty Mississippi.” Named by the Algonquin people as Misi zipi, which means “great river,” the Mississippi River touches 10 states and flows 2,350 miles. It is the second longest river in North America. According to the National Park Service, “… at Lake Itasca, the river is between 20 and 30 feet wide, the narrowest stretch for its entire length. The widest part of the Mississippi can be found at Lake Winnibigoshish near Bena, Minn., where it is wider than 11 miles. The widest navigable section in the shipping channel of the Mississippi is Lake Pepin, where the channel is approximately 2 miles wide.”
By August 15, 2023, the Bailey father and son team was ready to launch kayaks at Lake Itasca, Minn. Bailey shared that initial experience: “Water was extremely low. We clawed our way through miles of inches-deep water, over beaver dams, and through muck and mature wild rice. Dad wears contacts (glasses don’t work for him anymore), and a few days in the arduous terrain had taken its toll and he had some eye discomfort.
“We decided to skip ahead to Bemidji (Lake Irving) to try and hit sections of the river that involved more manageable paddling rather than kayak-assisted hiking. Skipping any miles of the river cut me straight to the heart, but as Bemidji, Minn., is generally considered the viable starting point for a Source to Sea paddler later in the season (as opposed to leaving with high spring waters), I opted to skip ahead to maximize time with Dad.”
Unfortunately, Bailey’s father experienced a “full-blown” eye infection. After a visit to an urgent care center and medication, Bailey said, “Dad opted to retrieve our car and follow me along the Mississippi, driving the Great River Road and meeting me at campgrounds and campsites along the route. This lasted until I had reached Aitkin, Minn. Then, in spite of antibacterial drops, his eye infection made a comeback, removing driving as an option from him as well.
“It was very disappointing, but eyeballs are a big deal and most folks prefer to keep theirs – Dad included. We had also done everything to maximize our time together, and our only regret was that we hadn’t had as much time as we’d wished, so we made our peace with reality. Dad wouldn’t continue with me beyond Aitkin. The next time I saw him was in McGregor, Iowa, where we met when his eyes had recovered and he and Mom had flown up to retrieve the car stranded by his eye infection.”
Bailey continued on solo and journaled and took photographs to document his journey. Along the way he experienced memorable encounters with nature and at the same time faced difficult trials.
“There were many high points!” he said. “Fiery sunrises and sunsets, winding river vistas, soft sand bars, and unique geological features. The bluffy and summery stretches through Minnesota, Wis., and Iowa were particularly enjoyable.”
And, as is the culture on the Appalachian Trail with trail magic (meals, snacks, and water) offered by trail angels and ambassadors (volunteers), Bailey encountered “river angels” who were eager to assist and encourage him during his trip.
A third of the way into the excursion, he was met with cooler temperatures and cutting winds. “Probably the most brutal stretch was between New Madrid and Memphis, Tenn., where I faced three days of headwinds, three days of rain, two of which were intense, and then three days of cold nights in the upper 20s. Being quite wet and rather clammy for 9-10 hours in rain gear that had long since maxed its capacities, and also being very alone, was absolutely miserable.”
Although rain and wind made paddling difficult, Bailey admitted that solitude for days on end was “the greatest challenge.”
Because of his field of study in several outdoor-oriented fields, Bailey kept logs of his momentous trip. Included in his personal documentation: “The magic of wilderness experiences is that they can become life experiences, giving us skills for facing everyday problems back in the front-country world, with all its challenges. I also learned much more about how vital the Mississippi and Intercoastal Waterways are to the pumping of lifeblood into our nation. The Mississippi may as well be America’s aorta. Anyone considering such an adventure absolutely ought to take a marine radio, and research which channels to use where.”
After countless hours spent paddling and sleeping in a tent on shorelines and eating freeze-dried meals, Bailey finished the trek at Burns Point, La., after “taking the Atchafalaya River, which is a Mississippi distributary that allowed me to reach the Gulf whilst bypassing intense shipping traffic in New Orleans, which is one of the busiest ports in the world that poses some very real risks to small watercraft.”
Getting to the end of the Mississippi River, he realized that his 90-plus days “just happened to add up to an extraordinary result … a precious reminder that we can do amazing things if we are willing to put effort into day after day of much smaller but intentional habits. It all adds up. For my part, it was great to be out there. As J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings character, Samwise Gamgee, so mildly said after his own grand adventure, “Well, I’m back.”