Novice kayaker enjoying Mississippi River charity trip

kayker wayne o'brien
Wayne O'Brien

By Ted Pennekamp

A man from Warrington, England is not only enjoying a great adventure kayaking alone down the length of the Mighty Mississippi River, he is also raising money for British military personnel who have been injured in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Wayne O’Brien, 55, began his solo paddling adventure on June 23 in Lake Itasca, Minn. and plans to finish on Aug. 23 in New Orleans. O’Brien learned to kayak in November of 2012 and is averaging about 40 miles per day. He is camping in a tent along the route.

“I’ve met many absolutely fantastic people along the way,” said O’Brien, who stopped for a bite to eat in Prairie du Chien on Friday. “People are genuinely concerned about my safety and my progress.”
O’Brien is undertaking this challenge in support of the charity “Help for Heroes,” who rehabilitate and support servicemen and women of the British Armed Forces injured in active service. He is posting information about his trip at his KayakTheMightyMississippi Facebook page. Charitable donations of any amount are greatly appreciated and can be made via: O’Brien noted that his son has served in Afghanistan and Iraq and is currently home in England.

O’Brien is a novice kayaker and he said that he has had some mishaps along the way so far. On his first day, he hit a submerged tree that rolled him and took him under. “I got out, but I swallowed quite a bit of water,” he said. Another close encounter was with a barge tow. O’Brien said that he started to go through what turned out to be the wrong side of a lock when he noticed that he wouldn’t be able to make it past the long barge tow. “Someone yelled, ‘get out of there or you’ll be dead.’ That was enough incentive for me,” he said. “And, I paddled out of there like an Olympic kayaker.”

O’Brien has enjoyed the scenery and wildlife of the Mighty Mississippi as well. Otters have come up and played alongside his kayak and he has seen deer, bald eagles, and a large snapping turtle. “On my first day when I was getting ready to start at Lake Itasca, this huge snapping turtle was walking down the steps,” O’Brien said. “I just said, ‘Hi’ and let him go on his way. Later on, I was paddling and saw a bald eagle swoop down and pick a fish out of the water. I felt like I was living in a wildlife film at that moment.”

The river has been high and that has helped O’Brien make progress on his journey so far. However, the trip has also been difficult and is quite a challenge. “My learning curve has been very steep,” he said. “It’s been physically hard and mentally even harder.”

O’Brien said that at one point he thought that he might not be able to continue, but he is takingthe journey one day at a time and has received encouragement from all whom he has met, which has boosted his confidence greatly.

He said that some people have invited him to stay on their boats and in their homes, and have offered meals and an occasional beer along with encouraging words. O’Brien is also receiving encouragement via Facebook from many residents of England and the United States.

In about a week, O’Brien will meet up with good friends Jeff and Marsha Boyer in Grafton, Ill. O’Brien met the Boyers while bicycling across the United States last year.

“The quality of the people is a lasting memory,” said O’Brien about his Mississippi River adventure. “It’s been a heartwarming experience.”

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