Into the Waves – The Scary Kind

Cass Lake - Not Named after Mamma Cass
Cass Lake - Not Named after Mama Cass

From Stump Lake to… now.  Aitkin, Minnesota.  Close to Brainerd.  The towns are getting bigger now – this one has a McDonalds; the last one had a gas station; we’ve yet to see a Starbucks; it’s still pretty wilderness, but we love it.  Either way, we are definitely moving south.

A lot has happened.  Let’s sort through it.

First, we’re in Aitkin – a town with over 1000 people!  Yeah!  Civilization never tasted so good.  Also, we’ve almost completed our 300th mile!  Only 10 more to go today and we’ll hit the tri-hondo.  Thank you once again to everyone following us on this amazing journey.  Thanks to our 4-wheelin’ friends in McGreggor, MN (Shout out to Litchfield!) who were so kind to let us film them getting completely hammered and pulling their ATVs on top of them in a mud pit.  Turn a little bit this way, smile, let the 400 pound Kawasaki crush you, aaaaaaand got it!  Great shot, guys, thanks.

Shout out to Jack and Shelly who shared their campsite with us last night.  Apparently the universal phrase for “Hey, would you like to spend the next 5 hours with us and our family?” is thinly veiled as “Hey, you wanna beer?”  And finally, thanks to the Mobergs of Bemidji and Cass Lake who shared their wonderful cabin with us.  Amber, please refrain from using racial slurs if you do, in fact, visit us in Texas; you will get shot by the Aztlan posse of San Antonio.

Stump Lake into the Waves

This is the continuation after our ordeal at Stump Lake.

I’ve had coffee and doughnut holes now.  I feel good and the cold ground, its cold grass, is being shook (shaken sounds too formal) off of me.  I feel good.  I don’t normally drink coffee, but coffee, or anything for that matter, from a stranger is always good – fires started by strangers have been good, candy, venison – everything from new friends – have been tasting… wonderful.  When I was young I would eat doughnut holes with my grandmother during warm Indiana mornings.  My dad would have coffee; he was a man and drank man drinks.  Today I have coffee.  In roughly 36 hours, I will, without a doubt, have to deal with some man-size problems.

Phil and I paddle out of Stump Lake more or less scot-free.  The river turns into lakes turning into river again.  Lake Andrusia is merciful.  You only need to take a tiny corner of about 250 yards and you’re back on the river again with current, merciful current.  Even with the clouds forming large, dark thunderheads in the background, we’re in high spirits.  The Bemidji Pioneer had interviewed us 5 or 6 hours ago.  They seemed very interested in our story, took photos and everything.  It was a great interview; but, now we skid into a a tiny bay bordering the great Cass Lake, originally thought to be the source of the Mississippi River.  Shortly a pontoon boat blazes by.  “Where you headed?” the driver calls.

“New Orleans!”  This has become our stock answer.  It is usually the best for getting the most surprised facial expressions.  It always starts conversations.  This time it doesn’t:

“Cool, well where are you campin’?”  Peter, his name we will learn later, is instantly practical.  While most fisherman and lookers-on on the banks of the river express shock or dismay at our venture, he is immediately trying to find a solution for the gathering rain clouds.  A man shouts from the bank:  “Just heard the weather report!  2 hours and this rain is on us!”  The pontoon boat is motoring away and Peter shouts back:  “I know you’re trying to reach Star Island!”  How the hell did he know that! “Don’t do it!  You won’t make it.  Hit the second Potato Island.  Oooon the nooorth shooore… (louder now) you can camp therrrreeeee!”  “Thanks!” I shout as loud as I can turning 180 degrees.  Phillip offers his thanks as well and checks the map.  “Dude,” he says, “the second Potato Island is much closer.”  He’s right.  It will save us about 6 miles.  Thunder rolls in the distance.  We’ve probably got an hour and a half.

I turn back one more time.  Peter’s pontoon has petered out in the distance.  It’s hard paddling ahead, really hard.  Cass Lake is large – about 25 square miles.  Huge glaciers dropped a nice chunk of ice here thousands of years ago, and today it’s beautiful, by far my favorite lake of the trip.    Originally called Elk Lake, General Lewis Cass changed the name when he found it.  Why? you ask?  Well he thought it was the source of the Mississippi River.  You see, about 200 years ago, people were jonesin’ to know the actual source of the Mississippi.  Several expeditions were formed, some funded by the federal government.   Many eager, young explorers were anxious to put their stamp on the veritable source.  Cass thought he had it.  I don’t know for certain but I think the conversation when he found it went something like this:

“Cool, guys, I think I found it.  This is a big ass lake, and I don’t see the water goin’ anywhere else, so let’s name it Cass Lake and get the hell out of here.  These mosquitoes are sons of biznatches.”

A French fur trapper pipes up:  “But monsieur, zis cannot be Cass Lake, ziz is Elk Lake, we and ze Indians have named it so for 100 years.”

“Yeah Frenchy, I don’t have time for this crap (slaps a mosquito).  I gotta get back to Washington and attend a parade they’re throwin’ for me, so just shut your mouth, and make sure you tell Napoleon or whoever the hell your leader is nowadays that this is the mouth of the Mississippi, and we should be good.  Okay, let’s get the M to the F outta here.”

Turns out Cass was wrong.  Though he enjoyed some level of fame for about a decade.  In 1832 Henry Schoolcraft found the actual source of the Mississippi.  He just looked a little harder.  Returning to Cass Lake, he found Star Island where a young Indian chief by the name of Ozawindib promised to take him to the real source of the Great River.

As Phil and I paddle, I’m hoping we can still reach Star Island.  I’d love to stand in the exact spot where Schoolcraft pulled his canoe on shore to try and prove that douchebag Cass wrong.  I want to see where he and Ozawindib shook hands, where Ozzy said he would take him to what would be known as Lake Itasca personally; but, it’s not going to happen.  We’ve got to make the second Potato Island and set camp.  The wind has picked up, and it’s drizzling.  “I think we can beat the rain,” I tell Phil.  “Yeah,” he responds, “I think so.”

The Wind Blows Harder

I was on a bus in rural France 3 years ago.  An old, old man looked at me and asked me where I was from.  “Texas,” I responded.  We talked.  “Your French is very good,” he assured me.  “I was an English teacher,” he says.  “Look up on that mountain.”  About 18 miles away there is a weather tower on a long, dark hill.  He switches to English:  “The wind blows very much.”  I remember that phrase vividly.  He looked me in the eye when he said it, and I couldn’t help thinking that this man was imparting on me some sort of wisdom, some sort of French to American, Old Man to Young Man bit of wisdom before he deboarded (not died, just got off the bus!), which he did 30 seconds later…uh, got of the bus.  “Aurevoir,” he said, and that was the last I saw him.  He lives in my memory and he is living in bright color now because the wind is picking up more and more.  The wind blows very much…….blllllllooowwwwwwwww. It is the only thing I can hear besides the sloshing of my and Phillip’s paddles.

I hear something else now.  It is Peter on his loud, motoring pontoon boat.  His whole family is lounging, comfortably ahead of the rainstorm, on the deck and seem unperturbed to see two paddlers fighting for their lives in the middle of the lake.  They are off to warmness, a home, a fire, 4 walls, something; and, I envy them.  I spy a young kid whose name I will learn is Nelson, Peter’s brother, his wife, a younger girl – Amber.  Janice, Peter’s wife,calls out, “We don’t have a hot shower, but we do have a hot sink!”  I’m not getting what the hell is going on.  Rain is hitting my face.  “She wants us to follow them,” Phillip says.  Phillip can sense when I’m not grasping the obviousness of the situation.  “Follow us in,” Peter says.  “Just follow the wake of the boat.”  I smile; I still have no idea what the hell is going on.  “Phillip,” I say, “just what the hell is going on?”  “They’re inviting us over,” he growls.  The waves are over a foot and a half.  “Hot sink sounds good to me,” I shout (I have grasped the obviousness.) and start singing.  My lap is swamped with a sidelong blast of water.  “Anywhere but here sounds good to me,” Phillip sings as if part of my impromtu lyric.  We paddle harder.  Food, I think.  Hot anything, Phillip thinks.  Out of rain, the universal traveler prototype thinks.

The Mobergs

I watch the pontoon boat disappear into the shoreline.  It’s only a mile and a half away but it’s dark and gloomy; I can’t exactly see where it went to.  “What if this is a big farce?” I ask Phillip.  “What do you mean like if they’re pulling our chain?  No way!”  What if it is a farce? I ask myself again.  Closer to shore we can see Peter’s pontoon boat.  A young man walks out on a long aluminum deck.  Glasses on face, smart shirt and smart shorts, cool hairdo – it’s Nelson.  This guy’s been to college, I think.  “I’ll carry your shit up!” he yells at us and smiles.  Holy crap, it’s not a farce! “Cool,” I call back.  Peter and Janice walk out. “You found us!”  They’re a little uneasy, I think, to be honest.  It’s kind of like the hitchhiking situation:  You don’t know them, and they don’t know you, but here you are going to spend some time with each other.  With hitchhiking you’re spending a few hours in someone’s car.  They can kick you out if they really need to.  Here, we’re being invited into someone’s home… a little different.  I weigh 220; how the hell you gonna kick me out!

Nelson carries my black stuff-sack up.  He offers to carry my giant Gregory Pack up too.  I try some humor; I think I got a read on this guy.  “Give ‘er a shot,” I say.  He pulls and can’t even pull it up.  “Gotcha,” I say, “it’s heavy as hell.”  He laughs.  Bingo.  I did have a read on this guy – cool, college guy.  Peter tells us where we can stash the boats.  The wind is picking up even harder now.  Holy crap, I think to myself, what if we were in that mess! It’s colder now.  Janice starts in, “Get inside!”  She’s turned motherly.  “You guys are just getting cold out here.  Go up, go up to the fire!”

We walk 30 feet up and a fire is casting light on a large cabin’s brand new facade – new wood from a new hardware store –  stuck on to three walls of an older Lincoln log style.  Peter eyes me.  “We just replaced that wall,” he says.  He smiles; I smile back.  From the time they passed us on the pontoon boat, the whole family has had about 3 beers each.  As they say in Mexico, they’re feeling “happy-zon.”  I look around.  There is a thermometer with the Celcius side covered.  Peter eyes me again.  “Yeah, Papa Moberg covered that side up.  He was tired of trying to figure out which side was Farenheit.  So one year I switched the tape.  He came in madder than hell yellin, ‘Somebody get the hell out there and fix that damn broken thermometer!'”  I laughed sincerely.  It was time for supper.

“I got deer brats,” Peter says.  “They’re made from deer who’ve fed only on wild Minnesota rice.”  I can’t resist a cause Phillip some trouble.  “Well, Phillip’s a vegetarian,” I say loudly.  “Reeeeeaaaallyyyyy,” the whole family responds in unison.  They’re undeterred.  Janice gives the strongest argument.  “Phillip, no, listen.  Deer is the leanest meat you can eat.  We don’t feed them corn; we feed them only natural wild rice.”  Phillip is uncomfortable.  I’m laughing my ass off.  I know he’ll eat it.  In The Hitchhiking Movie he ate mutton because it was new and different and being offered by a host.  I knew he was going to eat it anyway but I thought I’d cause him some trouble.  “No, no,” Phillip says, “I’m going to eat it.”  They demur.  “Well, I mean, don’t eat it if you don’t want.”  I know he’s starving; this is f—ing hilarious.  “No I’m going to eat it!”

“No dude,” I continue, “I got this; I’ll eat your portion.”


I give in.  “I’m kidding guys.  He is vegetarian but he eats meat from time to time.  I know he’s hungry.”

Phillip takes a bite.  “Best damn thing I’ve ever eaten,” he proclaims.  And he’s right.  Deer bratwurst has got to be the most amazing thing I’ve had in my life.  I wolfed down 3.  Awesome.


The Mobergs are drunker and things are getting more fun.  Amber is Peter’s neice.  “Dude, are you guys like paddling?” she asks.  “That’s retarded,” she asserts.  “I could like so paddle better than you, in fact, I am better than you, I don’t even know who you guys are and I know I’m better than you.  I paddled, yeah, I paddled all the way here too.  In fact I invented paddling.  I’m like the paddling goddess.  I command you to kiss my feet otherwise I will like throw a wave at you or some shit.  Are you guys like drinking our beer?  What’s that shit?  You need to like pay, you need to like pay me.  I don’t really mean that, but you should.  You guys are a couple of douches, but I like you… as far as douches go.”

Nelson does his best to explain Amber.  “She’s a fuckin’ bitch!”  I nearly lose my lunch.  “You are!” he asserts to Amber, “you always pull this shit.  These guys are paddling the entire Mississippi.”

“Yeah, and it’s gay, or retarded… take your pick.”

“No, you’re fucking gay, shut up, jeez.”

Nelson turns to me.  “Dude, okay so we’re out one night and Amber is taking handfuls of popcorn and throwing them over her shoulder.  And there’s this douchy fraternity guy at the table behind us, and he gets up and is like, ‘What the hell!’  And Amber goes, ‘Whoa, what’s up with that guy?  What a jerkoff.  So rude.'”

Ahhhhh Amber.  I told her that she should try her hand at standup comedy, but also to be careful when she does.  Naturally funny people oftentimes have egos that bruise easily; and, you can be the funniest person in the world and have your jokes tank in front of a live audience.  Amber, let me know if you went on stage.  I’d love to know how it went.

Janice invites me inside the cabin now.  Peter is outside instructing Phillip on every last corner of the lake.  Peter’s brother-in-law is chatting with his wife about Amber.  Amber’s mother now:  “Uhhhh, honey, cut it in half, you’re kinda crossing the line.”  This just incites her more:  “Dude like I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, mom.  These guys dig my shit and shit.”  I roll on the floor laughing and into the fire.

Inside, Janice is a little tipsy.  “I know you,” she says to me.  “I know you have voices.”  Whoa!  I think.  This is eerily reminiscent of Fred in The Hitchhiking Movie who told me he could tell I was thinking all the time.  “How do you know that?” I ask.  “Takes one to know one,” she says.  “I’ve had voices since I was little.  Do you know the one time I didn’t have any voices whatsoever?”


“When I was paddling the Mississippi.”

Cool.  Very cool.

At any rate, the constant thinking, or voices as Janice prefers to call them, subsides rapidly inside this kind of candyland of goodness, the Moberg cabin on Cass Lake.  These people are so nice; they are goodness itself.  On the 7th day God looked at what He created and saw that it was good; he must have looked upon the Mobergs that day as well.  Janice applies vinegar to my sunburn.  “You’ll smell like a pickle, but the pain will go away.”  Peter is instructing me on how to make headcheese out of a moose’s nose.  Phillip is yammering away with Nelson about music.  Nelson stands up and tells us about the time he saw Ted Nugent almost die.  “Dude!  We were in the middle of a storm at Moondance Festival in Bemidji, and lightning is going off all over the place, and Nugent gets up on the very tip of the stage with his guitar wailing away and wagging his tongue singing the America, Fuck Yeah! song and we were all like, ‘Holy crap, this is the last anyone will see Ted Nugent alive!”

All in all, I feel very very good to be here.

We sleep in real beds.  In the morning I shave with a real sink.  I help them build a new deck for their new front wall.  Amber cracks more jokes.  Nelson offers me more beer and says he wants to paddle the River as well.  I feel very very good.

Time to Go

The waves are blowing in our direction now.  I turn to Phillip.  “We gotta go,” he says.  “Yeah,” I say.  “It’s too nice here.”  I hate to say it, but it’s true:  you can’t get too comfortabe and complete this trip at the same time.  We say our goodbyes.  Nelson is cordial.  Amber says, “Oooooo, we finally scared these guys off.”  Peter is sympathetic and Janice is, as always, motherly.  We shove off.  This was our first true, blue interaction with a family on the trip.  And we are glad, because the movie will be, always and after all, about people.

8 thoughts on “Into the Waves – The Scary Kind”

  1. Great idea guys. I have traveled most of the river, but not all at once, using various types of boats. I have crossed each bridge on the river (except a new highway near St. Louis).

    To show from all my work are 215 water samples that show the decline in water quality as the river flows south and dozens of photographs of how levies separate towns from the river.

    I live near Ft Snelling where the Minnesota enters the Mississippi near river mile marker 846. If there is any help I can provide as you pass through the Twin Cities please let me know.

    Tim Gustafson

  2. Believe in the goodness the Universe lays before you!
    Trust in your intuition, which is connected to God, and your intelligence next – in that order!
    I am loving your journey!
    Stay safe and continue to be in a constant state of Awe and Awareness!

  3. Quotastic accounts of time well spent!

    My good friend is a good friend of the Mobergs. That is how I found this link. I think it’s about time I befriend them too!

    Me and my buddy are going to paddle the Mississippi from Big Sandy to Coon Rapids Dam, beginning in less than 2 weeks. YAY! I wonder if we tell people we are going ALL the way, if they too will give us beer……


  4. Hello!
    HOw cool, you rode past me in Aitkin. I was inside a fence and yelled, “where you heading, New Orleans?”. And you both said,”yes”. That is cool and here you are. My brother alerted me to your blog, after I told him I saw you cruising down. Next time stop for a hot shower and a walk on land!

  5. I’ve always loved the last name Gustafson. Tim, I’m in Minneapolis as we speak. I’ll be heading out again in 2 days, Tuesday morning!

  6. Hey guys – glad to see you made it! Anytime you want to go four wheeling again – let us know!

    Good job,
    Your 4wheeling friends from McGregor.

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