A million strokes | VailDaily.com

A million strokes

Matthew "Mississippi" Burdine is paddling his canoe solo the 2,300-mile length of the Mississippi River. He started last August here in northern Minnesota, where it's small enough to jump across. He'll finish in a couple of months in the Gulf of Mexico.
Special to the Daily |

To help

Matthew “Mississippi” Burdine is paddling the 2,300-mile length of the Mississippi River to help raise money for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. To help, go to http://www.amillionstrokes.com.

VAIL — Ask Matthew “Mississippi” Burdine where on God’s green earth he is, and he’ll tell you, “On the river.”

He got to camp late yesterday, around dusk. It was on a small island in the Mississippi River about 30 miles east of Davenport, Iowa. He gathered some wood and built a fire while we talked.

When he started 90 days ago, canoeing the 2,300-mile length of the Mississippi River seemed like a good idea. It still does. He has about 60 days to go.

When he started he called the effort “A Million Strokes for a Cure,” because he figured that’s about how many times he’d have to paddle that canoe. He’ll be revising that upward before he’s done.

“It’ll definitely be more than 1 million strokes,” he said.

Absolutely free

Burdine is freer than probably anyone you know. He’s old enough to know exactly what he’s doing.

“I turned 30 on day 30 of this trip,” he said.

Burdine earned his MBA from Ole Miss and went to work on Wall Street for what may the shortest measureable expanse of time this side of a theoretical physics experiment. A few days after he arrived, he looked around and found himself on a spot near that massive bronze bull statue. He looked at his feet that occupied that spot and realized he’s probably allergic to Gucci loafers, and certainly to the Wall Street hamster wheel.

The bull inspired him to do something bullish, and he bolted for the Colorado Rockies. In the winter he teaches skiing in Vail’s Lionshead children’s ski school. You can usually pick his class. They’re the ones with feathers in their helmets and laughing.

In the summer he’s a whitewater raft guide for River Runners in Buena Vista.

“After all that high water last summer, I was ready for some flat water,” he said.

After the whitewater season, he put his canoe in the Mississippi River in August at its northern origins, a marsh near the northern Minnesota border. It’s so small you can jump across it.

“I had to drag my canoe the first half mile,” Burdine said.

As it meanders south, the river opens up into big bluff country. It took 60 days to paddle through Minnesota.

He figured it would take three or four months. He has never been so happy to be wrong in his life.

“I’m taking my time,” he said.

Happy to give

This is where the song “Proud Mary,” starts rolling through your head: “People on the river are happy to give.”

“I’ve met wonderful people along the river,” he said.

A friend from Vail was raised on their Iowa family farm, not far from the river. When those snow storms rolled through last week, they invited him to weather the storms at their place.

A woman’s great grandmother pioneered out in Colorado, and eventually migrated back to the river. In those days, great grandmother could see a couple miles up the river. If she saw someone, she’d start cooking so she’d have something ready by the time they got to her place.

The family tradition continues. Burdine met that great granddaughter, who invited him to the house for steaks.

He said he’s seeing both the heartland and the heart of America, the kindness.

“I call them River Angels, and they help you when they can. It’s been wonderful. And that’s another reason it’s taking so long,” he said. “The magic happens when you’re not in a hurry.”

“The people along the way. That’s been the most magical and amazing parts of this trip,” Burdine said.

Burdine was raised in the Mississippi Delta, where the Arkansas River dumps into the Mississippi near his family’s farm in Greenville, Mississippi. That’s the same Arkansas River he runs all summer near Buena Vista.

Then there’s the wildlife. Minnesota is filled with eagles and lakes. Migratory fowl are making their way down the Mississippi Flyway, the same way he is.

As far as he feels like

How far he paddles depends on the day. Some days 5 miles is far enough. Some days it’s 30.

Some of it’s weather. “I’m entering the time of year that storms are coming through,” he said.

The storms move from north to south along the river basin and are usually called “northers.” If northers are going to come all that way, they mean business.

“You hunker down and use a little tarpology,” Burdine said, referring to rigging a tarp to keep him and his gear dry.

He wears a wetsuit under his clothes and stows all his gear in dry bags, just in case. The canoe hasn’t swamped and he hasn’t needed it so far.

He dodges the huge barges that move cargo up and down the river and occasionally talks to the crews on his marine radio.

“That’s so guys on barges can ask, ‘Canoe, what are you doing on the river?’” he said.

“I’m doing between 5 and 30 miles a day,” comes Burdine’s uncomplicated answer.

“It’s just like Huckleberry Finn,” he said.

He’s had a few close calls, and the hardest part was getting into a mental rhythm, which he says, “wasn’t all that hard.” Still, as the river grows, so does the danger — wind and currents do crazy things together. He’s using his whitewater experience to get through this.

Jack Paco

The temperature will drop to 18 degrees overnight, but he’s geared up for it.

The good folks who make Jack’s Paco pads gave him a huge hot pink pad for this trip.

“You get a good night’s sleep,” he said.

He carries most of the same gear he carries into Colorado’s back country, along with a black cast iron skillet to cook the catfish he catches during the day.

He has his guitar, his “anti-insanity machine.”

Paddling for a cause

At first he wasn’t going to declare a cause; he was just going to do it. But the river gives a man’s thoughts time to wander, and his wandered to his mom and grandmother who both died of breast cancer. He wanted to know why.

It’s not a metaphysical or philosophical question for Burdine. It’s a research question.

He’s quick to point out that he’s not the only one seeking that answer. Every two minutes a woman in the U.S. is diagnosed with breast cancer. It’ll hit one in 1,000 men.

If he raises $100,000 for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, each day on the river pays for two days of research.

“That’s fast. That adds a sense of urgency,” he said.

Not all that urgent, though.

In Louisiana he’ll take a right at the Atchafalaya Basin and head down the river through pure wilderness for the last leg of his sojourn.

He figures he’ll finish in February, maybe. Maybe he’ll ski Vail in March or April.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

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