Rochester hiker carrying canoe memorial down Superior Trail for suicide awareness, remembrance
"Portage for a Purpose" sets Evan Hansen on a 310-mile journey to raise money for suicide prevention.
Editor's note: Rochester’s Evan Hansen has no connection to the movie musical “ Dear Evan Hansen ,” which arrives in theaters Friday, Sept. 24, and deals with themes of anxiety, depression and suicide. In fact, this Hansen didn't know about the movie until August. This story's subheadlines are references to song titles in the musical.
ROCHESTER, Minn. — If you see Evan Hansen hiking down the Superior Trail in September, ask him about the names on his canoe. That is, after you're done asking why he's carrying a canoe down a 310-mile dirt trail without taking it out on the water.
Hansen, 26, of Rochester, will carry a canoe memorial to people who died by suicide down the Superior Hiking Trail, which begins at the Canadian border and ends at the Wisconsin/Minnesota border.
He calls the trip “Portage for a Purpose.”
Technically, it’s not a proper “portage,” or transport of a boat from one body of water to another. But Hansen sees the journey, beginning Sept. 1, as a way to raise awareness ( and hopefully funds ) for NAMI Southeast Minnesota.
In August, Hansen put out a virtual call for signatures and names of people who died by suicide, which will cover the inside and outside of his vessel. He'll keep adding names throughout the portage.
“It’s a double-edged sword — I’d like it to be riddled with names, because that shows a lot of support,” he said. “But it also shows a lot of deaths.”
Hansen first considered testing himself with a long portage a few years ago, out of a desire to test how long he could carry a light canoe. Three hundred miles, or roughly the length of the Superior Hiking Trail ? It would be a stretch, but it seemed possible.
He didn’t have a reason to make the trek, aside from curiosity. And he had other things on his mind — between August 2019 and August 2020, four people in Hansen’s social circle died by suicide.
“I think a lot of people have been on the edge of a mental abyss” without considering the aftereffects, Hansen said, like the grief and anger inflicted on their loved ones. In his own darkest moments, he certainly hadn’t.
“I’m not shocked by much, but it was very shocking, very surprising, and very heavy-hearted to see the people around me so deeply saddened,” he said. “It shouldn’t have taken me that long to take it seriously.”
One death hit especially close to home, in December. Hansen recalled a phrase from Luke 9:23: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
Sure, it was out of context. But Hansen thought he could take action. “I didn’t want to add another ‘Sorry for your loss’ onto the pile,” he said.
He reached out to the Superior Hiking Trail for permission to carry a canoe along it, then contacted Sean Kinsella, the executive director of NAMI Southeast Minnesota , about turning the portage into a memorial/fundraiser. He pitched the idea of collecting donations for NAMI before and during the trip .
Hansen wants to be clear: The portage isn’t a metaphor. He’s “not carrying the burden of grief or suicide.”
He sees the canoe as more of a “walking memorial.” It’s a common thing to see on trails — hiking families might carry a lost member’s boots with them. Suicide is a different beast — one that makes some people defensive or uncomfortable.
“I want them to know — people who contemplate suicide, they’re not alone, and families … going through grief are not alone,” he said.
Hansen has posted about the people he mourned on the “Portage for a Purpose” Facebook page , but has kept details vague to respect families’ anonymity. He refers to them as “The Coworker,” “The Brother,” “The Angel” and “The Hiker.”
At least those four names will grace the inside of his canoe.
Vincent Pizzo, Hansen’s former North Central College floormate, received a photo of his brother’s name earlier this summer.
Pizzo’s sibling died in 2019 — he is “The Brother” Hansen will represent on the hiking trip. In return, Pizzo has done his best to share posts and get word out about "the mission."
“I’m honestly so grateful and honored that he would be willing to do that for me and my family,” he said.
Waving through a window
Nearly four times as many U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression to the U.S. Census Bureau at the end of 2020 — 42%, compared to only 11% in 2019. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s most recent snapshot of Minnesota’s mental health showed about 21% of respondents had anxiety, nearly 15% reported depression, and about 24% showed signs of both.
Rochester’s mental health service providers, including NAMI , Family Service Rochester and Zumbro Valley Health Center , said they have seen increased demand in 2020 and 2021, causing waiting lists for therapy and other services.
Kinsella, the executive director of NAMI Southeast Minnesota, said there are two issues at play: increased need, and a constant shortage of mental health professionals.
Not every disorder experiences a long wait, he said, but some would-be clients could wait up to a year for one-on-one therapy — especially youths in the 10-to-18 age range.
“The pandemic has done a number,” Kinsella said. “People who already had pre-existing dispositions toward anxiety and depression, we saw an uptick. We also saw that alcohol sales went up by 55%. So if you’re looking at a family dynamic … that presence of alcohol is enough to help individuals in the family begin to spiral out of control.”
The CDC reported increased anxiety, depression and suicidality between April and June of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.
Ashleigh Dowis, the director of Clinical Services for Family Service Rochester, has seen even more people seeking services in the spring and summer of 2021 as COVID cases rose again . FSR has seen increased interest in treatment for depression, anxiety, and family work, including couples counseling.
The reversal from attempts to go “back to normal” caused increased stress across the board.
“We took a deep breath, and then it all came back — or it seems so,” Dowis said.
Reduced stigma around mental illness also allowed more people to readily seek treatment.
“People have heard a lot about mental health needs in the pandemic,” she said. “It’s opened up inroads for people who, in the past, wouldn’t have seen (treatment) as an avenue.”
Heather Geerts, Zumbro Valley Health Center’s director of clinical services, said beginning in April of 2021, her organization went from around seven calls about therapy a day to 21. Zumbro Valley Health has begun to catch up by leading groups focused around anxiety and depression management, until those patients can get in for individual therapy.
“A lot of it comes down to staffing,” she said. “The challenge we experience is that we’re a nonprofit … we are not able to necessarily compete, wage-wise, with other for-profit entities.”
Dowis added that increasing accessibility via school-based mental health systems and other “nontraditional access points” could help shorten waiting lists.
But it won’t help local organizations find more master's-level, licensed clinicians.
Cassandra Linkenmeyer, the Minnesota area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, applauded virtual mental health care.
“I think it’s one of the best things to come out of the pandemic, but there is still a lot of work to be done,” she said. “Virtual care helps ease access to care, but the demand is high, and unfortunately, many rural areas still lack capable broadband and internet in order to access this care."
"But it’s improving," she added, "and overall, this is a step in the right direction.”
Kinsella isn’t sure — the “step back” to telehealth therapy during the height of infections in 2020 removed a necessary personal touch, he said.
“Here at NAMI, the people who gravitate toward our services really need that human-to-human connection,” he said.
You will be found
Kinsella hopes even more that the journey will raise awareness.
“As we know, very well, the devastation that’s left behind for family members lasts years and years,” he said. “There’s a lot of blame, a lot of guilt, a lot of frustration that they couldn’t get the help that they needed for their family members. … It takes years to recover, and it also impacts their friends.”
Community members can donate to Portage for a Purpose through NAMI’s website or a 4Giving webpage . Others can mimic Hansen’s trek in a small way, by signing up for NAMI WALKS, the national organization’s annual fundraiser.
Does anybody have a map?
The Superior Trail is “pretty navigable,” but not flat, by any stretch of the imagination. Hansen will travel south, about 10 miles a day (walk an hour, rest for 15 minutes). Given the weight of his gear and canoe, the portage will take the entire month of September.
His vessel, an Adirondack-style canoe, weighs around 16 pounds, and is small and light enough to move around trees relatively easily. Hansen said he can carry the canoe and gear for 90 minutes comfortably. He’s used Rochester’s hills to practice carrying the gear uphill and downhill.
If worst comes to worst, there are plenty of trailheads Hansen could use to exit early.
“Failure is an option, but quitting isn’t,” he said.