Kayaking the Mississippi River in Support of Fellow Marines
Nic Doucette and Gabe Vasquez never paddled a kayak a single day in their lives. But a little inexperience never stops a Marine when he’s got a plan.
Doucette and Vasquez, two 27-year-old veterans of Operation: Enduring Freedom, embarked on a mission of exploration and endurance in support of their fellow Marines. The two men traveled the Mississippi River by kayak from “source to sea” in the summer of 2014, starting at Lake Itasca in Minnesota and finishing at the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. At a total of 2,340 miles paddled, and taking over 70 days to complete, the journey was made to bring awareness to the Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit that provides financial assistance and lifetime support for injured Marines and their families. Doucette’s inspiration for the trip came during his 2010 service in Afghanistan, when two men from his unit, Sgt. Gabriel Martinez and Cpl. Justin Gaertner, lost their legs after stepping on pressure-plate activated IEDs.
Along the way, Doucette and Vasquez glimpsed a cross-section of American hospitality and culture, shaking hands with prideful veterans and accommodating civilians. They enjoyed home-cooked meals and local bars, and stayed and dined in houses and churches, where they restocked, replenished, and refreshed themselves before tackling the river. They enjoyed hometown baseball games and pub beers with boat owners and dockside river dwellers. They slept in motels, guest bedrooms, garages, on front lawns and in makeshift camps under the stars. From complimentary gift bags with snacks and supplies, to on-the-house meals, to even the smallest gesture of a stranger putting change in their laundromat
Doucette journaled every day and his wife Heather updated his blog with his entries. Follow his entire journey here, and read his responses to some of our questions below:
Q & A
What about this journey seemed like the right choice for you and Vasquez?
I had been out of the Marines for a few years and was ready for another exciting challenge. I thought about the idea of a long river trip, and decided if I was going to do any river I might as well do the most well-known one in the country. I had no idea if anyone had canoed the entire river in the past and that’s when my research began. I found a website describing a canoe trip from source to sea, and emailed the author. Through our conversation, I realized that a kayak would be a better choice than a canoe, because it allows you to move more quickly through the water.
Gabe and I had never paddled a kayak a day in our lives before, but we both have the same itch for challenges. We did a little bit of training beforehand, but overall, we wanted the experience of growing along with the river. The Mississippi is kind enough to inexperienced paddlers in that it starts out just wide enough for your kayak to fit, but then grows slowly into an unpredictable monster over 6 miles wide at some points.
What was your inspiration?
The main goal was always to help out the Semper Fi Fund in any way that we possibly could. Whether it was funds or plastering their logo all over our gear; people would ask about the organization. The support we received from the SFF made the entire trip so much fun as well. They sent us clothes to make our journey more comfortable, they set up press meetings, scheduled a huge concert event in New Orleans for the last leg of our trip and constantly checked in to see if we needed anything.
Tell us about the people you both met along the way, many of whom were veterans.
Gabe and I were motivated by all our social media visitors who followed our progress day by day. Reading the comments of strangers always lifted our spirits if things were getting tough and nothing got us paddling harder when a random message would pop up saying, “You’re about a day away from where I live, I’d love to offer you guys a place to shower and maybe a hot meal.” It was never easy leaving the hospitality that was offered by so many kind strangers. We’d often stay up late hearing stories from the people we met. Those were probably critical hours we could have spent resting but the opportunity to meet such a diverse group of people was not something we’d often get the chance to experience again.
I always knew I could count on another Marine but I guess never had the opportunity to test that idea out in reality. Not a single Marine let us down. We stayed at a Marine’s house in Minnesota and stayed up until 5 a.m. drinking with him and exchanging stories. It was one of the most fun nights of the trip and we really felt the bond that was created over just a matter of hours. If we were in a desperate situation, we called local Marine recruiting stations and they were always there to help us with anything we needed.
Almost every state we passed though we would somehow run into veterans. Nothing beats getting the chance to speak to someone who lived in the same culture as us. We almost have our own language. There’s endless conversation when vets get together.
What was the most especially valuable item you took with you along the river?
I’ll give you two. The first piece of gear that I found to be invaluable was my Garmin GPS. Going downstream on a big river might not sound like you need a GPS, but it kept our minds at ease. The use of the speedometer and number of miles traveled, along with average MPH were all quite essential in knowing where we would finish each day as well as letting us know how long we would have to paddle to get there. I spent only one day without the Garmin and felt like we were going nowhere.
The second piece of gear we relied on the most was our Goal Zero Sherpa solar kit. The Sherpa 50 only needed to be recharged maybe once a week. It powered both of our cell phones, our radio, and kept our camera batteries charged as well. That’s how were we’re always able to keep the blog up to date, stay in touch with our families, and contact other Marines when we needed to.
What music did you listen to on the river?
Taylor Swift, all the way. Had all of her albums on loop and I’d listen for hours. I’m sure few Marines would ever admit to such a thing but it kept me moving down stream in a good rhythm.
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On August 9th, 71 days after departing, Doucette and Vasquez arrived in the salty mouth of the Gulf of Mexico looking like unshaved, unshowered vagrants. The two Marines raised their paddles above their heads in victorious triumph, then dove into the sea for a well-deserved leisure swim. Doucette and Vasquez continue to spread the word and represent the Semper Fi fund, and their goal of fundraising continues today.
Despite their injuries, or perhaps in defiance of any limitations posed by them, Cpl. Justin Gaertner and Sgt. Gabriel Martinez continue to thrive and serve as Marine veterans. Gaertner volunteers with a group called the H.E.R.O Child-Rescue Corps, chasing down sex offenders. Martinez is a father of one and happily married in Colorado. “Both men seem to be doing things with their lives that maybe they wouldn’t have done had they not experienced such a tragic event,” Doucette said.
Doucette and Vasquez have raised over $17,500—and counting—for the Semper Fi Fund. If you would like to donate and help support SFF’s mission to provide for veterans of the US Marine Corps and their families, please click here.
What did you think of Nic and Gabe's journey? Be sure to leave a comment below!
- Brent Hannify