BRAINERD, Minn. — Father-daughter duo Scott and Samantha Armacost of Oakland, California, have gone more than a third of the way in their journey down the mighty Mississippi River.
As of Monday, Sept. 27, the team paddled more than 850 of their 2,350 mile journey, traveling through four states. The Mississippi River runs through 10 states — starting at Lake Itasca in Minnesota and flowing through Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, where it meets the Gulf of Mexico.
The Armacosts started their journey Aug. 17 — making their way through the Brainerd lakes area around Labor Day weekend — and hope to finish the trek around early October.
The idea to paddle down the Mississippi River — a bucket list item for many — started with the basic idea that 27-year-old Samantha wanted to go on a trip with her father for his 61st birthday. Samantha, who spoke about the trip in a Sept. 21 phone interview, said they discussed hiking Mount Whitney in southern California. They applied for a permit to do so but were not selected in the lottery system.
Samantha then thought of the idea to paddle down the Mississippi River. She had worked at a summer camp in International Falls, teaching many kids how to canoe, and thought it would be a fun trip. Her dad agreed.
When they began researching and planning for the trip they joined Facebook groups “Paddling the Mississippi” and “Mississippi River Angels,” a private group of people who help those who are paddling down the river. Through these pages and planning processes, Samantha was inspired and wanted to paddle for a cause, like so many people have done.
“Canoeing has always been a very reflective time for me,” Samantha said. “...The research was inspirational and I got to thinking about how we can make this trip about something bigger than us, not just a personal trip, but for it to represent something.”
Samantha said this trip would be their first trip, so to speak, in getting back out into the world since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Because COVID-19 had so greatly impacted so many people, the duo decided to use the trip to commemorate the victims of COVID-19. Folks who lost someone to COVID-19 share the names of their loved ones to the Armacosts and then Scott, a Navy veteran and trumpet player, plays military taps to honor them each night at sunset.
“There has been a lot of loss that we've experienced and we haven't been able to grieve and mourn together in the traditional ways that we're used to because we weren't allowed to be together,” Samantha said. “... So, this is just a way to pay respect to those people who lost their lives.”
The Armacosts are raising money for COVID-19 through a national organization called Direct Relief that provides personal protection equipment to medical facilities all over the world throughout the pandemic, and for natural disasters, such as Hurricane Ida. They also are raising money to support families of deceased service men and women through a program called TAPS — Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
Since the father and daughter are honoring lost veterans and those who have lost their lives to COVID-19, they are calling their trip “A River Eulogy.” People can follow them at facebook.com/groups/arivereulogy or instagram.com/a.river.eulogy/. Those who want to make a donation to one of the organizations may go to bit.ly/3CTNvwR.
Paddling the Mississippi River
The start of the Armacosts’ journey was challenging as the Mississippi River is low, especially at the headwaters. They made it to Lake Itasca Aug. 17 and there was just a trickle of water. Though they knew that the river was low — Samantha was in northern Minnesota all summer guiding canoe trips in the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park — to see it in person was still shocking, she said. They were fortunate as people from the “Mississippi River Angels” brought them near Lake Marquette, south of Bemidji to get on the river.
“We had to skip the first 45 miles because from everything we’ve been hearing from folks it was going to be a really intense slog to get through the river,” Samantha said. “It was like a creek up there with no water and a lot of leeches and beaver dams.”
The Armacosts packed up their 17-foot, bright red Nova Craft canoe with a tent, sleeping and kitchen gear, dry food and miscellaneous items, along with a spray skirt that went over the top of the boat to protect the gear from wind and rain.
Their journey began and the amount of miles they travel each day has ranged from 8 to 28, with an average of 20-25 — all depending on the current and amount of tailwind they have. The time of day also varies depending on weather conditions.
“We’re pretty flexible and a couple of days ago we woke up at midnight and paddled for four hours because we knew the wind was going to be really bad,” Samantha said. “It’s usually calmer in the evenings. ... Other times we are usually on the water by 7:30 a.m. and paddling to around 4 p.m. or so. We try to get in at least eight hours on the water.”
The Armacosts just passed the border from Minnesota last week, which for them was a major milestone.
“It took us 35 days to get out of Minnesota,” Samantha said, as a third of the river is in Minnesota. “It was an absolute delight to be in Minnesota. We were joking that we may never get to Minneapolis because of the river. I don’t think people realize and we didn’t either just how much it winds in the headwaters section. You might be going 10 river miles, but it’s probably just 3 actual miles, so the switchbacks are endless. So we had a lot of quality time in Minnesota and we are very grateful for all the wonderful people we met. We stayed with 10 different families while in Minnesota through the river angels.”
The Armacosts said the river was so low that some banks were 10-feet below the normal water line on the bluffs.
“It was astonishing to see just how low it got in one year,” Samantha said. “It took us 35 days to get to the (Minnesota) border, as there was no current helping us. So we worked for every mile.”
The weather was the other challenge and at times the Armacosts got cynical about the forecasts saying there was a 65% chance of rain and then no rain, to at times the rain coming in a downpour.
Another challenge was Lake Winnibigoshish, the fifth largest lake in north central Minnesota, which the Mississippi River runs through. The Armacosts said it was tempting to paddle across the lake, which is 16 miles, but knew it was not a good choice.
“It’s a shallow lake and if the wind picks up at any time, the waves can be just massive and can be fatal,” Samantha said. “We made it here after a storm and it was still really windy. We pulled up to a resort called Becker’s Resort and Campground (in Bena) to get some water and to charge our electronics and the owner was on the dock when we pulled up. He asked us what we were doing and ... he said, ‘I’m not letting you go any further’ and ‘Oh no, I forbid you’ to go with this wind, even though it was at our backs. We learned a lot from the locals just how powerful that body of water is and the next morning we woke up at 3:30 and took off and had perfect conditions. We paddled along the shoreline and didn’t make the direct crossing as we were a little nervous to do that after the good advice we received.”
Now that the Armacosts are out of Minnesota, they should be picking up the miles at a faster pace. They said once they get to St. Louis, Missouri, the current will really start picking up and their pace will go closer to 60-70 miles per day.
Scott, who has been working remotely as a financial adviser during the trip, said the journey down the Mississippi River with his daughter has been a great experience and one he had not prepared for. He said his preparation for the trip was by spending one hour on a dead calm lake canoeing. He said he knew his muscles would be sore and the trip would be challenging, but he was going to go and make wonderful memories with his daughter.
Scott said Samantha, a professional outdoor guide, has been doing an amazing job getting them through the river and all its challenges.
“I don’t offer much, just a bit of horsepower,” Scott said and laughed. “I’m kind of here for the ride. We have figured out the division of labor that seems to work pretty well and it’s getting more efficient.”
Scott said the physics of efficient paddling is not how much water a person can pull with each paddle, but on how in sync the two people are in their paddling of the water. He said they have been getting better everyday.
Scott said playing taps every night has been very meaningful to honor the more than 663,000 victims of COVID-19.