BEMIDJI — On the eighth day of their 2,350-mile canoe journey down the Mississippi River, Nate Denofre and Don Jokinen found themselves paddling into Bemidji for a well-deserved Sunday lunch alongside Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
Upon coming to shore, they were greeted by an entourage of Bemidjians, who made sure to welcome them with open arms to the First City on the Mississippi.
With American flag in hand, Bill Batchelder -- owner of Bemidji Woolen Mills -- organized a reception in front of Bemidji's Paul and Babe statues to honor and mark the occasion for the travelers. In attendance was Joe Vene -- veteran and former Beltrami County Commissioner -- who carried the reception by singing the Finnish national anthem and "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The pit-stop in town offered the duo a chance to unwind for a short afternoon, as after just a week on the river, Denofre and Jokinen had already encountered their fair share of obstacles -- from broken paddles to wet, freezing start conditions on Lake Itasca -- on the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
But for Denofre, a double amputee, and Jokinen, a disabled Iraq War veteran, they were determined to keep inconveniences from interfering with the challenge of a lifetime.
For over a year, the Michigan men had researched and prepared for this “two-fold journey,” which they named Paddling to Persevere. Their mission being to serve as inspiration for others with disabilities as well as raise awareness for Courage Incorporated, a nonprofit that Denofre founded with a friend in 2015.
Denofre, who was born with amniotic band syndrome -- which left him without legs below the knee -- created the organization to give individuals and veterans with physical disabilities the chance to participate in outdoor excursions.
“Lots of people (paddle the Mississippi River), but very few with disabilities. I think only one person ever did it, in 2013,” Denofre said. “But we said if he could do it, we could do it.”
“In the last three months, my plans took a 180-degree switch. We had all kinds of stuff planned, but COVID-19 stopped that,” he added. “It was at a stage for a while: Do we stop or do we go? Do we cancel it? But we decided to keep going, and here we are.”
The trip is estimated to take about 100 days, and Denofre’s wife, Christa, and Jokinen’s parents, Don and Jeanie, are accompanying them along the way to provide assistance.
However, as the pair continue to document each leg of their journey on social media, they are garnering the attention of what they have deemed "river angels," like Janet Rith-Najarian, looking to help out the paddlers any way they can.
“I’ve been shuttling some of their gear and bringing some meals and supplies as they need it,” Rith-Najarian said. “It’s kind of a neat thing. I know the river really well. . . so it’s kind of a natural thing to take an interest in people doing treks like this.”
Additionally, other river angels along the Mississippi have been providing them with guidance, in terms of where to camp and how to navigate down the river.
“There are so many people who are inviting us to stay at their places,” Jeanie Jokinen said. “It’s overwhelming, a nice overwhelming.”
Although Denofre admitted that the journey has been “tough and slow” from the start, he said it’s also been “worthwhile,” allowing both he and Jokenin to learn a few good lessons along the way.
“This just sounded so challenging that I figured I was up for the task. It’s been like a physical therapy type of thing to keep me going. There’s days that I just give up, and I want to sit down on the couch, but you can't do that here,” Jokenin said. “I couldn't let Nate go alone. It was one of those things that helped push me to do it, too. If he can make it, I can make it. We push each other like that.”
To keep up-to-date with Denofre and Jokenin's journey, you can follow their progress on Facebook on Paddling to Persevere and Courage Incorporated. To donate to their mission, visit www.courageincorporated.org