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Breaking Barriers On The Mississippi

Inside Devin Brown’s attempt at a record-setting source to sea journey

Feature photo: Courtesy Devin Brown

Minneapolis-based kayaker Devin Brown firmly believes “there’s a portal, a version of me that I’m supposed to meet.” She hopes to discover that person on a source to sea expedition down the Mississippi River, starting May 28.

Breaking barriers on the Mississippi

Brown, 38, is setting out to be the first Black woman on record to paddle what she calls the “Nile of North America,” from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. She’s making the journey to help her grow as a person, but also to encourage other Black, Indigenous and People of Color to discover the outdoors.

“It takes people seeing people that look like them out there doing these things for them to take interest,” Brown says.

A quintessential American waterway

The Mississippi River flows 2,320 miles across 10 states. It doesn’t escape Brown that the Big Muddy is a watery corridor spanning vast landforms, ecosystems, communities and histories. The Mississippi carves a path through the heart of the continent and plays a central role in American culture—for better or worse.

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“Civilizations have consistently established themselves along rivers for survival and the Mississippi is no different,” Brown notes. “Indigenous peoples navigated the river, created ceremonies around the river, birthed and died on this river. Enslaved peoples used the river as a source of economy in the back channels, collecting Spanish moss to fill mattresses. They also used the river to escape to the North, knowing that once they hit the Ohio River tributary, they were free.

“And then you have the colonizers who have recreated her banks, sold goods and people up and down the river, installed locks and dams, and polluted her at some times beyond recognition in certain areas.”

Finding meaning on the Mississippi

Brown was born in New Jersey and she considers herself lucky to have discovered kayaking and the outdoors as a youth at the Frost Valley YMCA camp in New York’s Catskill Mountains. She spent 12 summers at the camp. Years later, she returned as an adult to lead sea kayak trips for campers on the Gulf of Maine. The opportunity to leave a stressful career and reconnect with nature was “the time of my life,” Brown says.

Brown relocated to Minneapolis in 2014, drawn by the “graceful power” of the Mississippi River. She says she’s faced plenty of barriers—including 80-hour work weeks, the cost of outdoor gear and a car accident last April—to get a chance to paddle its entire length.

Brown doing a temperature check of Lake Bemidji the day before setting out. | Photo: Courtesy Devin Brown

What’s more, as the mother of a six-year-old son, Brown says she “doesn’t have the luxury of taking 100 days to paddle down the river.” So she’s also decided to take a crack at the speed record for paddling the Mississippi, which currently stands at 55 days. Plenty of precipitation this spring has increased her odds of accomplishing this goal.

Ultimately, the journey is an expression of someone who has “fallen hopelessly in love with the Mississippi River,” Brown says. “Life is short. We try so hard to find purpose, meaning and joy in life. Kayaking is something that gives me joy and this trip just seems right.”

Feature photo: Courtesy Devin Brown




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