GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. - Rick Bain, Matt Roy and Ryan Webb were only a week into canoeing the entire Mississippi River and they already had hours of stories about wildlife and whitecaps to tell when they stopped in Grand Rapids on Tuesday, July 24.
Lake Winnibigoshish was choppy with 4-foot rollers going in every direction a few days before, but instead of skirting along the lakeshore to avoid the waves, the three combat veterans decided to chance it going straight across.
"Terrible idea. ... We're an hour in and we look back and the trees aren't getting any smaller and the far ones aren't getting any nearer," said Roy, a U.S. Army veteran from Buffalo, N.Y.
The trio reached the other side of the lake after several hours of what they called "epic" nonstop paddling. But then, 4 feet from shore, Roy's canoe tipped and submerged. They decided 4 feet was close enough to say, "Eh, we made it."
The tipped canoe tale then led into a story about how Roy picked up a passenger that morning - a four-inch crayfish that became a running joke. As Bain and Webb gave Roy a hard time about unknowingly sitting on a crayfish for hours, they kept up a back-and-forth banter between the three of them.
"We're going to have so many weird anecdotes by the time we're done with this," said Bain, a U.S. Navy veteran from Tampa Bay, Fla. "I'll probably forget half of them. I'll have my share. I probably already had them and have since forgotten them."
"You paddled upriver yesterday for, like, 20 minutes," interjects Webb, a U.S. Army veteran from Priest River, Idaho, and they start laughing as they recall how Bain went the wrong way on the river when they started paddling again after their lunch stop.
A lot of their days so far have been filled with fun and laughter, which is what they probably needed, Bain said.
Strangers no longer
Roy, Webb and Bain were strangers when they began the journey at Lake Itasca on July 18, brought together by the nonprofit Warrior Expeditions, which outfits combat veterans for long-term hiking, biking and paddling treks. Sean Gobin, a former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, founded Warrior Expeditions after hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2012. Warrior Expeditions' goal is to help combat veterans benefit from outdoor expeditions, an idea based on World War II veteran Earl Shaffer's quote that he was going to "walk off the war" when he became the first person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in 1948.
In addition to equipment and supplies, veterans canoeing the Mississippi River with Warrior Expeditions are supported by "river angels" like Grand Rapids resident Dennis Jerome, a Vietnam War veteran who opens his home for the veterans to enjoy pizza, beer, a bed and laundry. After a day of paddling 22 miles to Grand Rapids on Tuesday, the trio was relaxing in Jerome's living room, a black-and-white photo of Jerome's uniformed grandfather from World War I on the wall above their heads.
Jerome was the commander of the American Legion post in Grand Rapids when he was contacted to become a river angel for Warrior Expeditions. It's his second year of hosting Warrior Expeditions veterans and it's easy to make connections with them based on their military experience, he said. Webb added, "There's nobody who understands it like veterans. You don't have to explain anything to them. You don't have to explain it."
They explain that meeting river angels and other boaters is helping them restore the faith in humanity that they feel they've lost. Warrior Expeditions is veterans helping veterans in an effective way and is one of the new avenues being created to meet the specific needs of younger veterans, they explain.
"We're not all out at the VFW getting drunk. But we're war veterans," Bain said. Roy added, "We're a different generation."
Jerome pointed out that he served two years in the Army, one of which was in Vietnam, while the post-Sept. 11 generation serves longer with more deployments. He pointed out that VFWs and American Legions are losing older veterans, but they're not replaced by younger veterans because they want something different that adds value to their lives.
"That's not such a bad thing. We've got new veterans and new ways to help cope with life after being in the military," he said.
Webb said that it comes down to veterans finding a purpose in their post-military lives.
"You don't have it anymore. You lose it when you get out after 13 years. I've been out for three years, what the (expletive) do I do, you know? It's tough," Webb said. "It's a tough transition. You go from one extreme to nothing and you're just scratching your head."
Roy adds, "All of a sudden, your job's done. Like, here you go, here's a college fund, now go figure out your purpose in life, but people have been doing it since they were 18 and now they're 24, 25."
In need of an adventure
On the river, the distractions are gone and they're forced to think about what they need to think about.
Webb didn't know anything about Warrior Expeditions until his wife told him that she filled out an application for him and he had an interview that day for a canoe trip down the Mississippi River. He served in the military police for 13 years beginning in 2001, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. He doesn't have any goals or expectations for the canoe trip, but he is loving it so far even though he misses his wife and kids at home. His moods at home are "like a rollercoaster," he explained, and while some days are great, he has some dark days.
"Shannon, my wife, will throw me the four-wheeler keys and just say, 'Go, just go to the mountains,' and that's my therapy. It's been great. It's healthy," he said. "I hope I come out of this a perfect man, but I don't know. I really don't know. I love the outdoors and that's all I do know. I'm curious to see how this will affect me."
Bain was intrigued when he saw a PBS show on Warrior Expeditions' Appalachian Trail hikers and decided to apply the next day. He held several positions in the Navy and his service from 1987 to 2016 has included deployments to Kuwait and Iraq. He's been feeling restless and in need of an adventure, but feeling like he's getting older. He wanted an adventure that in the end, may improve who he is.
"I'm trying to build a better Ricky and I'm just trying to work on stuff. I don't really know how to. Just go out here and lose myself and maybe I'll find myself," he said.
Roy found Warrior Expeditions while googling "veterans on the Appalachian Trail." He served as a combat engineer in the Army and his 10 years of service, beginning in 2000, included deployments to Kosovo and Iraq. He lived on a beach in Panama for three years, returning to the United States a little more than a year ago. In Panama, the nearest neighbor was a 15-minute drive away. Now, he's trying to build a support network again now that he's "back in civilization," he said. "My situation really changed and I think I needed to hit the factory reset and do something big, then finish a trip and look forward from there. But I really needed to get back in touch with my military roots."
A needed challenge
Bain, Roy and Webb are grateful to be meshing well, but they understand that they're only 162 miles into a 2,500-mile canoe trip and a lot could still happen between them.
In Jerome's living room, they talk about what's to come - "barge country" on the river once they pass Minneapolis - and what they've already experienced. The river from the headwaters to Grand Rapids contains bogs with vegetation so thick they had to bounce back and forth between the shores to cut through it. They also traversed a stretch so crowded with trees that they called it "a water park log ride."
"Physically, I feel better than I have felt in years, even though my back is sore, my shoulders are tired, my arms are sore, my elbow kinda hurts. But, ah man, I feel good, I feel great," Webb said. Bain agreed, saying, "But when you face something so challenging - I mean, this is enormously challenging - in the end, the people who make it have a mental strength. The physical - your body's just going to go as long as your mind keeps telling it to go. It's just when your mind says, 'That hurts too much...'"
They're aiming to reach the Mississippi River's end in New Orleans by Oct. 1, but it's difficult to look beyond the immediate future in such a long trip.
"I just want the next five minutes to be successful. Then the next five. Then the next five," Bain explains.