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Mountains to the Mississippi: Burke finds new adventure on canoe trip

Bill Burke and his camp set up near Lake Winnibigoshish on their journey down the Mississippi River. Submitted photo.
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BEMIDJI -- After reaching the summit of Mount Everest not once but twice, and having a mountain named after you in Nepal, one may think Bill Burke has reached the peak of adventure for one lifetime.

But you don't know Bill Burke. The 77-year-old retired attorney from Costa Mesa, Calif., just started his next adventure -- a 2,400-mile canoe trip of the Mississippi River.

After 45 years of practice, when he retired, Burke said he wanted to find a safe and easy hobby to fill his days. It didn't work out exactly that way -- Burke turned to climbing mountains. In fact, he's climbed the tallest mountain on every continent.

Now, after those numerous experiences high in the sky, he said it was time to take his challenges closer to home and sea level.

“I happened to be watching a documentary on the Mississippi and I thought 'This is a great idea.'" Burke said last week as he prepared for his trip. “I did a lot of research -- it's got a lot of risks and a lot of challenges and that is appealing to me.”


Burke’s Mississippi paddle began Friday, July 26, and he estimates the trip will last 70 to 80 days. He passed through Bemidji on Wednesday.

Before his trip, Burke spent time practicing kayaking and canoeing at a relative’s house in Detroit Lakes. He even took a trip to Itasca State Park to figure out the logistics of navigating the upper part of the river where his journey began.

Although he has done his fair share of practice, Burke said this is his first time paddling in a canoe at such a high caliber. The roughly 2,400-mile trip down the river to the Gulf of Mexico will pass through 10 states.

It wasn't just the documentary that inspired Burke to take his experience to the Mississippi. He said his strength comes from his relationship with his grandson, Ollie, who has special needs and often joins him during his training. Burke said he wants Ollie to know to live his life without limits despite the challenges he may face.

“I have been involved in his life and his care since he has been born, I want him to live as fully as possible,” Burke said. “I try to do everything with him he is a big part of my life.”

Along with Ollie, Burke has dedicated his canoe trip partially to another one of his grandsons, Danny. The 21-year-old passed away in a skiing accident in December, and the family is still feeling the pain of the loss. But, Burke said Danny’s love for risk and adventurous spirit lives on, and inspires him and his family to continue to heal and do what they love. Both Ollie and Danny will be remembered through decals that were added to Burke’s canoe reading “Live like Dan” and “Ollie Power.”

“That is a big part of my motivation for this trip to honor them,” Burke said.

Although he has tons of experience in high-stress and situations, he still has his worries. Learning to navigate the narrow and shallow sections of the river will prove to be a challenge for him, he said.


“When I first climbed Everest I remember how excited I was -- but also how nervous and anxious I was at the prospect of climbing it,” Burke said last week “I am also scared in many respects of this trip -- I’ve never done it before and I don’t know what to expect -- you never know until you are on the river what you will encounter.”

Burke said the best part of all his adventures is making connections with people who want to see you succeed.

“They will support you, bring you into their home, let you shower, stay overnight, feed you,” he said. "The people are one of the most exciting aspects for me -- I look forward to that. I think it is going to be really fun.”

Burke reached Lake Bemidji on Tuesday, July 30, according to blog updates on his website. He stayed at a Bemidji hotel -- he was excited to get his first shower since he left Lake Itasca, he said. From Bemidji, he made a 23-mile trip to a campsite near Cass Lake. Burke said the first 100 miles of his trip have proved to be more challenging than he expected.

"Based on my experience so far, this adventure will be far more challenging than climbing Mount Everest," Burke said. "Mount Everest is more dangerous, but the physical and mental challenges of traveling on the river are greater."

Anyone who is interested in keeping up with Burke throughout his trip can find blog posts, photos, audio and videos on his website at eightsummits.com.

Natalie Hilden is the Pioneer's summer reporting intern. She graduated from Nevis High School in 2017 and is now finishing up her bachelor's degree at South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD. She is majoring in News Editorial Journalism with a minor in design studies. Apart from journalism she paints and draws in her free time and enjoys watching women's soccer.
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