Skydiving into a Forest Fire and Rafting 3000 Miles, All in a Day’s Work

In preparation for our upcoming Mississippi Float Trip, we have chosen to speak with a select group of individuals who have successfully paddled down the entire length of North America’s mightiest river.  A general badass, I was thoroughly impressed with Buck Nelson and know you will be too.  This post is a fairly quick read and, if you have time, you may listen to the audio as well.  Enjoy.


Buck Nelson, One of the Few Smokejumpers in the World and Outdoor Adventurer

His website is called Buck Track, and after talking with him, I became thoroughly convinced he could run down an actual buck and break its neck with his bare hands.  Looking online, there have been few people we’ve found who have actually paddled down the entire length of the Mississippi River.  For most people, the Mississippi River is “that thing those backwoods mofos from the Dark Ages used go down to hunt bears and shit.  I mean didn’t Napoleon or someone explore it?  I think it might have been Jean Baptist de la Salle – which of course means ‘of the Salle.'”  The Mississippi is iconic, a known entity, so much a part of our American culture, we accept it as we would the seasons, partisan bickering, and a new pair of shoes bought by J Lo.  For many of us, a missed question on a geography midterm or a drunken rendition of Tina and Ike’s Proud Mary is the closest we’ll ever come to actually experiencing it.  We have said it so many times:  “the Mississippi, the Mississippi River, biggest river in the United States, explored by La Salle – all lands drained by the River, I learned about that in a book one time…  I am in Illinois, it is 1983.  I am a young man – a young, young man of 6.  My teacher pulls down a strappy overhead map and it is a map of the United States.  On it she points to THE River with a long pen.  She has long fingers.  She is beautiful.”  Oh that memory.  Long gone.  The Mississippi River – a phantom, a mental construct, nothing but a cognitive placeholder in my mind.  Nothing more than that till I die.  That may have been true for me at one time, but for Phillip and me, THE River has become very, very real.

I am a man, a man now of 31 years.  I am going to paddle down this fuckin’ thing.  Holy shit!  I’m actually going to paddle down a map!  No, no, you can’t paddle down a map.  It’s not Ms. Hemmingson with her long fingers anymore, buddy, damn she had nice legs.  Hey!  Focus!  You need to get ready.  You’re actually goin’ down this thing and are making a movie about it.  You need to be prepared. For Phil and me, the Mississippi River has stopped being a neat mark on our cortical highways.  The fantasy, the passing fancy, the idea of actually going down it in our Sea Eagle kayaks is upon us.  In the summer of 2009, we’re paddling down it, and we need to talk to someone who has already paddled down it.

Enter Buck

Real man, is an understatement.  A smokejumper for 20 years, this man had seen his share of adventure… and danger.  One thing is to read about smokejumping, ah yes, isn’t that that thing they did in that movie with Richard Gere or something? NO!  It’s real! Buck knows.

When 11Visions makes enough money, Buck, I want you to take me smokejumping.  Of course it’d be a simulation, but what do you think, viewers???  Wouldn’t that be a badass story to cover?

Buck tells it best on his site, but one can gather that paddling down the Mississippi was something he was going to be able to handle.  You would think then that he would have been a bit cavalier about his preparations, perhaps even being a little cocky – I mean, come on, if you’ve jumped into a fire (can’t always get next to one), rope-landed from a tree, hacked down limbs with an axe, wielded a chainsaw, and are one of only 400 people in the world who can do this job, you’d call the Mississippi a piece of cake, right?


In fact, Buck’s first piece of advice to us was…

“Pay attention.  Always.”  More on this later, but this, he says, will save your life.  As we conducted this interview, I found his answers of real use.  The only people we had been talking to up to this point about our upcoming trip had been family members and well-meaning, but freaking annoying friends who said things like “you’ll die,” “you’ll drown,” “there are 5-foot waves,” “currents!” “bears!” and “lions!”  These are the sampe people that answered that geography question, “TRUE – Napoleon Bonaparte discovered the Mississippi,” but like I said, they meant well.

Buck was not one of those Mississippi “adventurers” who had gone down in a houseboat pulling into riverside bar and grills every hour and a half, slamming cocktails and playing grabass with the waitresses.  He went down in a canoe and camped on the riverbanks.  Real man.  So I asked him…


“Can anybody do this?”

“I think if somebody who is genuinely interested, with a little bit of preparation and by applying a little bit of common sense, I think an average person can do it.  I think it’s the type of thing a person never regrets so I would say, go for it.”

“During 9/11, most of us were in the ‘real world’ living our lives.  You happened to be out on a boat during the attacks.  How did being removed from the world affect your experience of that event differently than us?”

“I happened to be listening to National Public Radio, and it was a local program, and they were talking about some local dance troupe who was going to be giving a performance.  They broke in and said a plane had struck the second tower of the World Trade Center, and then they went right back to talking about a dance troupe, and I thought, ‘What in the world is going on?’  I was out there by myself and I had no one to talk to about it.  About the only way it changed my trip directly was I was going by The Rock Island Armory (they manufacture munitions) and the Coast Guard came out and told me to stop in case I was a terrorist.”

“What about your canoe?”

I don’t claim to be any expert on canoes.

Canoe on Lake Pepin
Canoe on Lake Pepin

It’s your standard 16-foot Alumacraft canoe.  It looked good enough to me so that’s what I went with.”

“How long did this trip take you?”

“I think 67 days.”

“I’m very curious:  If we have to go to the bathroom, what do we have to do?”

I think everyone handles it their own way, but when I was heading down the river, if there was no one around, I just peed over the edge.”

“What about #2?”

Land on shore, go into the bushes.

“Did you ever let yourself just drift, maybe falling asleep going down the bank?”

“Nope.  I think that’s one thing people kind of dream about:  getting out in the current, just kicking back and taking a snooze.  I think people tend to be afraid of the wrong things to a certain degree.  That would be really dangerous.  The current in a lot of places is really fast and even if it doesn’t seem fast when you’re flowing down with the river where everything is moving the same speed, if you came upon a buoy or something, you could hit it violently.  Or say you came to a wing dam, or

probably more dangerous than anything is a tugboat coming around the corner.  So you do have to pay attention.  Things can go from hunky-dory to ugly fast.”

“What is the scariest thing that happened to you?”

“One night I went to sleep like normal.  I was probably three feet above the level of the River and tied my boat off.  And I woke up and I heard water splashing and I thought, “Huh, a tugboat came by during the night and waves are lapping up towards my tent,” and I started falling asleep again and I thought, ‘Man, that water sounds so close.’  I unzipped the door of the tent and water was lapping right up against my tent.   The river had risen several feet in maybe four hours, and part of my tent was in the river.   I was thinking, ‘Is my canoe still there?’  I jumped out of my tent, yanked the stakes out of the sand and found a couple items floating in the shallows, threw them in the boat and drug it further up on the bank.  It was kind of a spooky feeling to have something so dramatic happen so quickly at night.”

“What is essential to bring?”

“Absolutely a life jacket.  A sleeping pad, good rain gear, sun hat, at least one long sleeve shirt, long pants to protect yourself from the sun and the cold, an insulating layer, sunscreen, and sunglasses.  You will spend a lot of weeks baking out in the sun.  Also, insect repellent and a reasonable amount of food and water to get you from point to point.”

“What kind of people did you meet?”


“I met a lot of people down on the river fishing, a lot of people down at the river to see the sunrise or sunset, and people on the big paddle wheel boats from time to time.  I just met two other guys in a canoe doing the whole River.  That was fun to be able to talk to somebody and compare notes.  A cross section of people.”

“What shouldn’t people be scared of?”

“I think people overrate the danger of the waves.  If you’re not paying attention and you let a big wave hit you sideways it can easily swamp you for sure.   But I just paid attention the whoooooole time, and I didn’t get too close to the boats and I didn’t get too close to the shore where the waves build up higher, and it wasn’t a serious problem.  People told me that there was gonna be six-foot waves that would swamp me for sure.  That turned out to be a myth.”

“What was the crappiest day you had – a day where you went ‘ah man I just want to go home?”

“The last night on the River I spent at Port Ives, a place where largely fishing boats and house boats gather, and the owner had told people what I had done, and a whole bunch of people where all excited and inviting me over for dinner, and it was really neat.  I felt kind of like a celebrity and some guy said, ‘You know what, tomorrow we’ll give you a ride up to New Orleans.’  And the next morning they gave me a ride partway to Venice and said, ‘You know what, we don’t have room for your boat,’ so I was stuck in Venice.  That was just a lousy feeling because I hadn’t asked them for their help, but they had insisted, and I was stuck – that really bummed me out.  But the way things happen… I was just sitting there and these other guys come along and say, ‘What’s up?  You know what, I’ll give you a ride.’  So my problems were immediately solved.”

“Can you paddle at night?”

“I wouldn’t recommend it.  One evening it was foggy, and I couldn’t see, and it was really creepy because all of a sudden I could hear water swirling violently, and it was a buoy with water swirling around it.  I thought, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna get to shore and I’m gonna stay there until the fog clears.’  Paddling at night is asking for trouble, and there’s enough hours in the day for the mileage you’d be covering.”

“Is the water polluted?”

“I talked to a tugboat captain

Towboat Captain
Towboat Captain

who had run into Jaques Cousteau twenty years ago.  He was doing a special on the River and said the Mississippi, for a major river running through a populated area, was one of the cleanest rivers in the western world.  I wouldn’t scoop up a glass of water and drink it, although that same tugboat pilot said he’d grown up doing exactly that.  The River is a lot cleaner than people think, so you can, and I did, swim in the River many times.”

“Do we have any chance of hooking up with girls on the River?” (Yeah, I asked him this!)

“Again, I think you make your own luck.  And if you want to make that happen you probably can.” (chuckle)

“You seem to subscribe to the philosophy that the Mississippi is a big, very complex, potentially dangerous system, but if you’re paying attention and you don’t push your luck and you’re not doing stupid things, there is no need to fear it.  Would you agree with that?”

“I would agree with it completely.  There’s a little risk the whole time; you don’t need to take extra risk, and if you’re smart about it, it’s not a very risky trip.  It’s a fairly safe trip if you play your cards wisely.”

“On that line, what should I tell my mom who’s freaking out about this?”

“I’d tell her the main reason she’s uncomfortable is she doesn’t know enough, and people tend to fear the unknown.  A lot of people have done the trip safely and if you are prepared you’ll make it in fine shape.”

“What new adventure are you on to now?”

Gulf of Mexico
Gulf of Mexico

“I’d like to do the Pacific Crest Trail.  I’ve got some irons in the fire for the summer – I wanna do some float trips, some hunting, and fishing, those types of things.”

“Buck, I appreciate your time.  I certainly learned a lot.  I can think of three specific things I was going to do on the river, and now I’ve totally changed my mind.”

“Great.  I hope you guys do it.”


Well Crap!

Well crap!  Now, we’ve got to do it.  I’d feel like a complete tool if Buck found out we bailed our Mississippi trip which will begin from Lake Itasca this May.  Stay tuned by signing up for our newsletter on the right hand side of this screen

Buck was indeed the man.  After I hung up the phone with him, I felt instantly confident.  There is a real confidence that can be gleaned by talking to people who have actually done something as opposed to people who haven’t.  Friends, family, Romans, countrymen, I love you, but please read this interview.  This is a man who has done it.  He is a safety-minded individual who still believes complex systems like a giant river can be confronted if you prepare and keep your eyes peeled.  And that is what 11 Visions is all about – walking through that door with our eyes wide open.  Not being afraid of the danger but burning it up with the power of our attention.  Thank you, Buck.  We will pay attention.  And we invite you, dear readers, to come with us in May where we’ll be pushing 2553 miles towards New Orleans.  Let’s hope we don’t run into those douchebags at Port Ives.

I am a man, a man who has talked to a master – a master in the sense that he has accomplished something I wish to accomplish.  I am thinking.  I am thinking about my family, my fears and doubts.  I know I can do this if I, if we, keep our eyes open and PAY ATTENTION!

You can find out more about Buck’s adventures at

The Kite and the Weight

kite_flyingImagine a flying kite tied to a weight. The weight is just heavy enough to keep the kite from flying off into oblivion, and the kite catches the wind just enough to drag the weight forward. Interesting analogy. What does it mean?

In our business, Phillip, in general, is the weight. He keeps me grounded. I am a man of high-flying ideas, and oftentimes have no idea how I’m going to make them happen in the real world. With Phil, I’m tied squarely to the ground, but not so much that we cannot be drug forward by the joy of inspiration.

The wind can easily be likened to inspiration. Break the word inspiration down: in=in and spire=breath. The wind is the breath in your sail. It’s the high-soaringness of your idea. But if you’re all kite, you’re flying up, up and away. You need to be grounded. We live in the third dimension, and hard, physical action is what makes great ideas real. But what if you’re all weight? No movement. You can take all the action you want; but, if it’s not inspired action, well, what energy is going to move that weight?

From a purely cold-science, Wall-Street-business-plan point of view, I am completely, utterly useless. I can’t make a website, I can’t edit a video (though I can tell you what I want it to look like), and I can’t rig a tractor to run. But I can come up with ideas, I have a feel for what will inspire others, I have a feel for what will be exciting and funny, and I can act, improvise and write. Hear me now: Phillip comes up with tons of ideas; however, I would say with general certainty I spend my time with my head in the clouds a lot more than he does. Without Phil, I’m off into the ether.

Phillip is a whiz on technical matters. He can throw a website up in 2 seconds (just did another one… and another). He can edit like a madman and is more wary of logistical matters than I am. I’m a burning heart ready to evaporate at a moment’s notice. I have no idea how I have not spontaneously combusted by now. “Hey Phil, we could do this and this and THIS!

“Whoa there, cowboy, hold the phone. We gotta water the horses, and connect to the operator first.”

So, you would think Phillip, being the more cerebral of the two, might poo poo my ideas, but he doesn’t! I’ve rarely heard him say it can’t be done. And if he did, he knows I’d bother the piss out of him till he said yes 😉. He says, “Lets do it,” and just reminds me of the technical implications. The weight and the kite, they are indispensable to one another.

If you are planning a great adventure, go for it! You don’t need a partner. You can play the role of both the kite and the weight, though it is more fun if there are two people who can separate into complementing roles. Phil always says yes. He’s cautious, but he says yes. And I never like to say no but gladly give in when something is definitely not a good idea or when technical obstacles are too thick to push through. Somehow, however, that kite-weight contraption is gonna move forward, that movie will move forward, that website, web video, book and article are going to move forward. The wind is always there; you just need to catch it.

Reason informs inspiration, and inspiration informs reason. They are not mutually exclusive. They are opposite ends of the propeller that drives the boat, your idea, forward. They are two sides of the same coin. A coin cannot exist without two sides, and an adventure cannot be made possible without both high-flying feeling and cold-grounded physical action. It is the energy and the stability together, the right brain and the left brain, power and groundedness, inspiration and action that make your experience possible. One without the other, and the system collapses.

An old Quaker prayer goes like this: Pray and move your feet. I believe part of our job on this planet is to bring a little bit of heaven to earth, and I believe that is achieved through following your inspiration. The earth and the heavens cannot exist without one another. One is not necessarily better or worse than the other. Neither the brains, nor the lungs nor the heart could dream of existing without working together. Bring your reason and your emotions together when planning your next great adventure. If you take a step back, you’ll see the kite and the weight are not just indispensable to one another, they’re the best of friends.

An Interesting Email Exchange

Should you set a big goal you’re not sure you can achieve and thus motivate yourself?  Or should you set a nice, sweet, achievable goal that you’re sure you can do thus, in theory, building your confidence?

This is an interesting debate.  View the exchange below between myself and the facilitator of our upcoming Escape from Alcatraz Swim.  Also, Leslie, if you’re reading this, I didn’t think there would be a problem if I published this exchange.  This is a complete professional exchange between a student and an instructor.  You will see the warmness she exudes in her communication which is why I went with her (there are several swim instructors running Alcatraz swims) over the others.  Go to if you want the realest deal in San Fran swim instructors.  In this exchange, you will see that both of us want the same thing – my success.  Which method is better?  We’ll discuss that in a moment.

First me:

March 3

I have never swum open water for distance, as in “okay Ryan, your goal is to swim from here to there” but I have swum in the ocean several times. This is the first time I have learned TI, but not the first time I’ve learned to swim.
I was planning on arriving Apr 2, I know you guys swim on Wednesday but don’t know if I can make that date, I will be there a few days beforehand to swim in the swim park or anywhere else you suggest. Are there other groups that swim on other days – Thursday Friday Saturday?

Her reply:

March 5

Hi Ryan,

Ok. That helps a lot.

So, I don’t want to be discouraging, but here’s what I think might work really well for you, in terms of progression, planning, and succeeding at what you want to accomplish.

1) Get comfortable with your stroke between now and May
2) Do some open water swims in Chicago in June
3) Come out here in July or August to swim Alcatraz
4) then continue to increase your distance and plan for some cold water training from September 2009 – whenever you are booked for Dover in 2010.

I think this plan will bring you the most success. I’m happy to hear your thoughts. If you are still determined to do Alcatraz in April, we will be happy to have you. Let me know what you think.



And my reply:

March 6
Thanks for your concern. I’m still doing this. I understand your doubt, but that’s okay. I have one month to take that away. So anything you want to share in terms of what you would like me to accomplish this month before I come out is fine.

Okay, thanks Leslie,

March 6

Hi Ryan,

Your goals for this month should be:

1) be able to swim a mile in less than 40 minutes in the pool, without stopping
2) be ready to tolerate 50-53 degree water by taking cold showers (are you wearing a wetsuit for this swim? – I would highly highly recommend it.
3) be able to sight efficiently and successfully
4) be ready to swim in choppy water – we call it the “washing machine” effect the way the water tosses you about.

I’ll wait to receive your sign up form.


March 6

Yes I’ve already been
1.submerging myself in the tub 45-50 degree gradually increasing time, yesterday was 10 min
2. swimming in the lake (Michigan) for brief periods (close to shore, don’t worry) don’t tell the cops, you’re technically not supposed to for another 2 months
3. Yes I’m using a wetsuit for the swim
4.sighting is upcoming in my lessons
5.I’ll give you updated times as I get them
So thank you. Once again, I understand you’re doing your job by warning me, but I’m commited. I’m young and ambitious, and don’t think I’m being unreasonable. If I am, it’s not a dangerous unreasonablity, so you shouldn’t be worried about me biting off more than I can chew. I will show up prepared. I have my goal; I will do it.
Thanks for supporting me.

So there you have it…
She wanted me to succeed; that much is obvious.  She did think I should wait, but I don’t want to.  I want to go for it.  It inspires me.  I could wait but then I’d feel like I was throwing the breaks on a beautiful ramp up to the big day.  I can’t back down.  I’ve gotta do it.
Now, as you’ll notice, I’m pumped.  The fear is pumping, but the excitement is too.  If I waited till July like she said, sure I’d have had a “better” shot, but then there is no motivation, no inspiration; and, that’s what we’re about – exploration, vision, touching the stars.  There is no star in waiting.  Let us do it.  Let us explore more visions.  My vision is to complete Alcatraz in under an hour.  Let us do it.
Here’s another exchange between me and my brother Zach, the most rational of the family.  “Are you preparing?” he asks.
“Yes, I’m doing all I know to do.”
“Are you just gonna show up there munching doughnuts saying ‘where’s duh water?'”
“No, I’m training, cold water training, elliptical machine, swimming every day.  I’m just scared; it’s my first open water swim.”
“Look, it’s a challenge; it’s gonna be challenging no matter how you look at it.  Just do all you can do and go.”
“Am I being naive?”
“No.  You’re not being dangerous.  You’ve got a goal, you’ve got a preparation plan.  Go do it.”
God, I love my brother.
So I feel a lot better after that.  Alcatraz, here we come.
Stay tuned.


March 7

Hi Ryan,

I AM reading this!!! LOL. And I’m FINE with it. It is an important discussion. I am glad you posted it. Your enthusiasm makes me so happy. And you can do this!


Escape from Alcatraz!


In preparation for our upcoming English Channel Swim, Eleven Visions will be, first, escaping from Alcatraz!  The Alcatraz swim, hosted by swim instructor Leslie Thomas, will take place April 5, and we want YOU to be there!  Follow our blog updates and web videos for the exciting details as Ryan tries to swim away from all the bad crap he’s done.  What he did to get thrown into Alcatraz we’ll never know.

The 1.25 mile swim will be Ryan’s first open water swim (no walls, no pool bottom) and he’s as nervous as the pope on his wedding night.  Come join in the fun.  We welcome your comments and suggestions.  ‘Swim straight’ has already been suggested.
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