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Do a Catholic deacon and his son have what it takes to canoe the length of the Mississippi?

February 15, 2010



by Gary Hoffman

Deacon Gary Hoffman and his son  Darrin challenged themselves to canoe the Mississippi River from top to bottom.

The pair put in at Lake Itasca in northerm Minnesota dreaming that some 40 days later they would pull their canoe out of the water at Jackson Square in New Orleans. The year was 2002

Hoffman, an ordained Catholic deacon who in retirement still does part-time ministry at St. John the Baptist in Jordan, finally has published the story of this journey of a lifetime. And what a story!

Icy cold water, strength-sapping heat and humidity, gorgeous sunsets, terrorizing lightning strikes, scented spring blooms, scary whirlpools, cooling river breezes, wind-whipped waves, feed-frenzied walleye below, eagles soaring overhead, the occasional loon, beaver and great blue heron for company — and that’s just the non-human aspects of a 2,552-mile canoe trip down the fourth-largest river in the world.

River people are fascinating

Deacon Hoffman is obviously a people person, and the people that the father-son duo meet along the way make this as much drama as memoir, as much a statement on the nature of humanity as a travelogue, as much a how-to book on father-son relations as a how-to book about canoeing the length of the Mississippi.

There are the friendly couples, an eclectic collection of strangers, the helpful rangers, and what best might be described as “characters,” like the Bottleman, attempting to conquer the Mississippi rowing a craft designed entirely of plastic bottles.

“No doubt about it,” Hoffman writes, “the most important part of a Mississippi trip is the people — those we meet and each other. Mississippi books should warn travelers to set aside more time for people. Our goal of two months (to complete the trip) doesn’t allow time to truly know God’s greatest natural resource in the valley: river-people.”

But every drama must have it’s bad guys.

Lock keepers who don’t like canoeists, barge pilots who try to run over them and a nasty employee from the Corps of Engineers who spent hours trying to swamp the Hoffman’s 20-foot canoe — all made the journey more dangerous than it had to be.

No way an easy float

They added to what was obviously a physically demanding challenge, much more so for the then-58-year-old deacon than for his 27-year-old son. Muscle aches, numbness and a medical emergency requiring antibiotics became part of the story, but maybe not as persistent as the mental and emotional roller coaster of a father-son relationship under the stress of an enormous challenge complicated by danger, hardship and every-day life decisions.

Son Darrin had been married for just two months when he and his father launched on Memorial Day in 2002, leaving behind a new bride who understandably didn’t relish the idea of her new husband taking off on an extended trip without her — and a risky trip at that.

Toss in the confidence in himself as a strong, athletic young adult and mix it with the usual parental take-charge approach most fathers assume with their children — no matter the age — and the trip ended up being a consistent struggle of wills. The tension between the two eases but never disappears as the Hoffmans paddle as many as 60 miles a day, taking in both nature’s beauty and nature’s awesome power.

Spirituality always present

The deacon in dad Gary is always right at the surface along with his love of God’s creation. Floating with the Mighty Miss’ current brings “a taste of heaven,” he writes at one point, and soon after their canoe is “sitting in the middle, the starting point, of a loon chorus,” likening it to an evening newscast in the loons’ world.

Dirty, grubby and smelly from camping and paddling, Deacon Hoffman asks to use the restroom during a stop ashore, only to be asked to leave by a female employee. “She provides a gentle but firm reminder of how judgmental I have been,” Hoffman notes. “I am experiencing what must be very common for street people: fear and embarrassment on the part of the establishment.”

More often, however, encounters along the Mississipi are down right hospitable, even neighborly. When an Iowa couple opens their arms and invites Gary and Darrin to enjoy the comforts of showers, a warm dinner, comfortable chairs and congenial conversation, Deacon Hoffman writes, “Other than salvation, we may never receive a finer gift . . . human love.” For him, the people, the sights, the sounds and even the smells are God’s gifts.

The river itself he finds to be a healer and a harmer, and he turns the Father of Waters into a woman with picturesque analogies of a beautiful woman, a trickster, a comforter and a tease.

The best way to enjoy “Mighty Miss” may be to read a chapter a day, taking your time and journeying with the Hoffmans vicariously. As with most great reading, it’s a book I didn’t want to end because I enjoyed the reading so much.

Deacon Gary Hoffman developed and directed the Diaconate Formation Program for the Diocese of Crookston, MN. He later served at St. John the Baptist in Excelsior. Now retired, Deacon Hoffman is hitting the lecture circuit, showing slides of the trip down the Mighty Miss and doing book signings. The self-published paperback sells for $18.95. To order copies, to contact him for speaking engagements, see http://www.MightyMiss.com.


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