HELENVILLE, WI — Nic Doucette is organized, in shape and determined.
And by the time he heads back to classes at UW-Whitewater next fall, he should also be an expert with a paddle. His real goal, however, is to raise money for his comrades in the U.S. armed services injured in the line of duty.
Doucette, 27, a former U.S. Marine who graduated from Jefferson High School, has never traversed the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Canada, paddled Michigan’s Sylvania Wilderness and Recreation Area or even pitched a tent on a sandbar during an overnight trip down the Lower Wisconsin River.
But come late May, Doucette and fellow Marine Gabe Vasquez will embark on a trip of a lifetime. The Wisconsinite and Texan plan to kayak down the Mississippi River from its source at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana.
That’s 2,552 miles in about two and half months with each man in his own kayak dodging floating logs, portaging around beaver dams, sharing locks with barges and avoiding the large wakes of clueless pleasure boaters.
“It sounds insane, I know,” Doucette said. “The key is getting out early each day to avoid the head winds.”
The trip is designed to raise $25,000 for the Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit that provides immediate financial assistance and lifetime support for injured and critically ill service members. The organization, founded in 2003, spends just 6 percent of its money on administrative and fund-raising costs and has received top ratings from charity watchdog groups, according to its website. Doucette and Vasquez are spending their own money on the trip, about $1,500 each. No money donated to the Semper Fi Fund is being used to cover their costs.
Doucette’s inspiration came from his time in southern Afghanistan in the fall of 2010 where he was part of a unit that cleared roads of improvised explosive devices.
It was the day after Thanksgiving. Stateside, we were trying to save a few bucks on a television, computer or video game. But for two of Doucette’s buddies in Afghanistan, the day was life-changing.
That’s when Sgt. Gabriel Martinez of Colorado and Cpl. Justin Gaertner of Florida each stepped on pressure plate-activated IED’s while using their metal detectors. Both men lost their legs but survived and were assisted by the Semper Fi Fund.
“They were two of the best sweepers you could ask for,” said Doucette, who was not on the mission in which the men were injured. “It was tough.”
Both men have recovered and with prosthetics, are active again. In April, Martinez visited victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. According to the Semper Fi Fund, Martinez, 25, “drives a specially outfitted truck, races a hand-operated tricycle and gets help around the house from his service dog, Wonka.”
Gaertner, according to the website, Homes for our Troops, enjoys mono-skiing, surfing, snorkeling, sky diving, running and fishing and hunting. Do a search and you’ll find a 55-second YouTube video of Gaertner water skiing on a specially built board.
“They do some pretty incredible stuff,” Doucette said. “It’s really crazy the stuff they’ve accomplished since they’ve lost their legs.”
When I met Doucette at his in-laws’ home in rural Jefferson County, he had his gear laid out on the living room floor. There was a tent, a cot, sleeping bag, marine radio, binoculars, rain gear, a collapsible shovel, compact stove and a cooking ware set, among other items. He had bound navigational maps but also an app for his phone that shows the route of the river and his location via GPS.
Doucette, a business major who lives in Ixonia, started planning his trip last May and began practicing his kayaking skills last summer on the Rock River near his parents’ home in Jefferson. The brutal winter, however, has forced Doucette to keep his 12-foot, $800 solo kayak stored in his father-in-law’s storage shed in Helenville since November.
Doucette thought he’d be doing the trip solo, but in December he got a call from Vasquez, 28, asking to go along. Vasquez is also a novice with a paddle but is stationed at Camp Pendelton near San Diego and has spent most of the winter on the Pacific Ocean practicing his stroke and getting comfortable with his kayak.
“I was content to do (the trip) by myself,” Doucette said. “Not every 27-year-old has two and half months to spend kayaking.”
Doucette, who has already raised almost $3,000, had originally planned to canoe the river but after researching the trip, quickly realized that a kayak would offer more speed and better maneuverability.
The trip, regardless of vessel, is arduous and will require paddling more than eight hours a day. Most nights will be in a campsite, not a hotel. The paddle through and along Minnesota is expected to take a month because the start of the Mississippi River resembles nothing to that of what we see along western Wisconsin.
“The beginning is going to be very intense,” Doucette said. “It’s very narrow, very shallow. There will be a lot of walking at the beginning.”
And it will be cold water, at least at the start. Last year, ice didn’t leave Lake Itasca until May 13. His trip will take him through the Twin Cities, past La Crosse and Prairie du Chien, St. Louis, Mo., and ultimately into the Atchafalaya River. The off-shoot of the Mississippi offers a safer route and and takes him through Morgan City, La., the last community before the hitting the Gulf of Mexico.
Doucette and Vasquez will be forced to portage around more than a dozen dams in northern Minnesota before going through, in Minneapolis, the first of 27 lock and dams operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It includes three on the Wisconsin side at Alma, Trempealeau and Genoa with the last in Granite City, Ill.
But Doucette has already navigated a hazard that has thwarted many a man in search of adventure. He approached his wife, Heather, about the trip, only after conducting thorough research.
“I had all my answers ready,” said Doucette, who has been married almost two years. “There was nothing I couldn’t answer.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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