After spending 100 days paddling down Alaska’s Yukon River in 2006, Canadian Brett Rogers contemplated his next move. Returning to a life of normalcy was not an option, so he began planning a project called “Old Man River.” Years later, using past connections through actor, Dan Aykroyd, Rogers and crew funded a 2,400-mile paddle down the storied Mississippi River on a 32-foot York boat. They endured fierce storms and a month of rain. They portaged their 1,000-pound vessel over 15-plus miles and came face-to-face with some of the world’s most intimidating industrial landscapes.
The end result is a 10-part web series with new episodes being released every Tuesday. Intrigued by Rogers’s expedition, we asked the adventurer about leading such an epic river journey.
How were you guys able to escape the responsibilities of daily life like jobs and family for 100 days?
Everyone on the crew was at a crossroads with their lives and so the timing was perfect. Everyone had just graduated from school or was in between jobs. For me, I had been doing some freelance work in television and was teaching documentary part-time at a college but my focus had always been (and still is) to build a career on storytelling around water, so for me it was a no brainer.
How long did it take to build the York Boat?
The boat build was over a 3-month span but we built 90-percent of the boat in 6 weeks. We had a boat builder give us guidance, but Cliff (my first mate) and myself did 90-percent of the labor.
Was there a time during the expedition you were worried about the boat falling apart?
We really believed in our wooden boat. That said, the headwaters for the first 500 miles were extremely shallow and our boat was taking a beating. We knew at some point we would have to undertake major repairs or risk causing major damage to the hull, which would jeopardize the expedition.
What was going through your guys mind as it rained for a month straight?
F@#k this! It was probably the biggest mental battle I have ever endured. Not only did it rain everyday but it was an extremely cold, one of the coldest falls on record. Every night we set-up camp our sleeping bags would be damp from the day before.
As the saying goes; it’s not a true expedition until someone from the crew reaches a breaking point. How long did it take for a crew member to question the trip?
In St. Louis one teammate found out his parents were splitting up while another broke off a long distance relationship with their partner. Not easy things to deal with on the river. I of course was very stressed with leading the expedition and directing the production of the documentary. Yet with it all, no one reached a breaking point. That said, by the time we reached Baton Rouge, with over 100 days of river behind us, and only 230 miles to go before the Gulf, I think we all began to breakdown both mentally and physically as is evident in the film.
What were the biggest challenges along the way?
There was one common challenge that did not change from day 1 to day 110 and that was finding drinking water. Every 3 days we had to resupply our drinking water and yet for the entire expedition the river was too polluted to drink. This was both a major pain, and a major revelation into understanding how most people in the world deal with something most of us in North America take for granted.
Talk about the interesting characters you guys met along the way.
Ike Hastings– a World War II veteran who fought in the Pacific and married five times– at 85 years young lived on a paddle wheeler he built himself and hammered home why river life is the best when he said, “I’ve always liked it on the river because it’s the last place where you don’t have someone running the radar clock on you or telling you what you can do. If you don’t like your neighbors you can always cut the line and drift on down a ways.”
Reflecting back on the trip, what’s the one experience you’ll never forget?
The River was more beautiful than I had ever imagined. I think most people around the world would assume that the Mississippi River is this open sewer– sometimes this is true. But the truth is the good far overshadows the bad. We camped on countless deserted sandy islands located in the middle of nowhere that would rival any beach in the world.
Photos courtesy of photographer Kyle Jeffery.Brettonthewater.com