Kayaking Source-to-Sea on the Mississippi River

8-minute read

Aqua Bound Ambassador Devin Brown will soon embark on a solo kayak trip she’s been dreaming about for many years—a source-to-sea journey on the Mississippi River. If she completes it, she’ll be the first black woman to kayak all 2,340 miles.

Devin Brown with her kayak and Aqua Bound paddle

Devin Brown will take on the length of the Mississippi River in 2024

She’ll launch in late May 2024 in her Stellar Multisport-18 kayak with her Aqua Bound Whiskey paddle at the headquarters at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. She hopes for rain to increase the water levels so she can do the trip to the Gulf in 50 days—an ambitious goal, but one she feels capable of meeting.

We got on a call with Devin to learn more about her background, her love of kayaking, her community work with other people of color, and her upcoming Mississippi River kayak trip.

Here’s our conversation with Devin Brown…

AQUA BOUND: Tell us a little about your kayaking background.

DEVIN: I grew up on the East Coast and went away to camp every summer. My introduction to paddling was around Lake Coal in the Catskill Mountains. I always really loved being on the water. Later I would be a camp counselor there.

I first came to Minnesota on a business trip in 2012. At that point, I was dealing with some depression. I thought it was incredible to be in the Twin Cities with their accessibility to green space. That’s what I had missed and needed in my life. It was amazing that I could rent a kayak and paddle on a lake and then be home by dinner time. That’s not an East Coast thing.

I remember standing next to the Mississippi River watching fireworks that summer. I loved the energy that came off the river. It just really gave me life. I told myself I’d move to the Twin Cities and learn more about the Mississippi River one day.

I eventually quit my job and ran back to my childhood summer camp in my late twenties to be an adventure trip leader. I found myself taking kids on trips, including kayaking through the Gulf of Maine. I was feeling like myself again. That connection with the water in a boat reinforced that nature—and specifically water—was a key to my happiness. After that summer I cashed out some stock options and moved to the Twin Cities.

I had lined up two jobs working on the Mississippi River. The guiding gig didn’t work out because I didn’t look like someone the owner wanted to represent his business. But I still have a good relationship with the other one, an outfitter.

Devin Brown kayaks on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, early spring

Getting in some early spring paddling on the Mississippi in Minneapolis

AQUA BOUND: What led to you getting into your current paddling work?

DEVIN: [After getting to the Twin Cities] I was living on my own, dirt poor. That took me away from paddling for a good four years. The closest I could get was sitting on the banks just trying to catch my breath.

And then one day things just started to turn in the right direction. I went back to school, got my massage therapist certificate and started a business. I was finally able to buy a house, buy a car and buy a boat. I bought my first boat during the pandemic.

I entered my first competition shortly after that and got first place in the women’s solo, completing 50 miles in just over six hours. There were several things I noticed after that competition. First, I was one of very few women. And I was one of the only people of color.

I wanted to do something about that. I approached a local coffee shop and the owner agreed to help me fundraise for a new boat. I was able to make my own coffee blend, which gave me a platform.

The more exposure I got, the louder I got about the lack of diversity in paddle sports. I needed to get more women—and especially women of color—out and immersed in nature because that’s where I consistently received my own healing.

Devin Brown, laughing, with her two Aqua Bound paddles

Devin will use her Aqua Bound Whiskey and Manta Ray paddles on her trip

I didn’t want others to have to fight as hard as I had to get back on the river. The expense of paddle sports is a main barrier. It’s not just that I have to have a boat, I also have to have a paddle and a life jacket. I have to have a way to get that boat to where I want to put it, which means I also have to have a place to store that boat. All of these things have to be pulled together for people to access this sport.

I was looking for local organizations with fleets of kayaks I could use when I discovered PaddleShare [a local kayak rental company]. They loved what I was doing. Not only did they let me use their boats, they hired me to be a program specialist working with the Mississippi Park Connection.

I also reached out to Paddle Bridge, a new local touring company. They said they’d support us with whatever we need. So, I’m on the river with PaddleShare and doing introductory paddles on different lakes in the Cities with Paddle Bridge.

AQUA BOUND: How has your work helped change peoples’ lives?

DEVIN: It’s been the most beautiful snowball effect for some people. From “I just paddled the Mississippi River for the first time—I’ve never experienced nature like this!” to finding peace and floating and being away from the kids!

One woman has shown up pretty much every time I have boats. That was the catalyst for her completing a 3-day bike camping trip up in Ely with absolutely no camping experience.

Another woman in Saint Paul Community Education saw I was delivering the message of kayaking as a black woman and it made her feel safe to engage in this sport too. I was able to make her feel comfortable. She’s rented PaddleShare boats at least five times since then with her friends and family.

It’s that one introductory point of not feeling talked down to or treated differently because they happened to be born in a different body. I love being able to offer that experience and be that spark to get people outdoors because we need to get back to nature. Kayaking is just my vessel.

AQUA BOUND: Tell us about your upcoming Mississippi River trip.

DEVIN: The summer after I worked as an adventure trip leader at my old summer camp I started to read the Mississippi River Paddlers Group on Facebook. That’s where the dream to paddle source-to-sea took root.

I plan to leave sometime over Memorial Day weekend [2024], at whatever point it feels right. I’m really excited about it.

Devin Brown kayaks the Mississippi River

I am concerned about the water levels and flow rate of the river. We’re in a severe drought in Minnesota and then in a drought all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. So every time it snows, I do a happy cry!

When I made this trip public, I thought 50 miles a day was reasonable, but that was getting off high-water season. In stellar high water, I can cruise at about 13 miles an hour. I’m a little concerned because I know it’ll be harder with less water. But the universe has carried me this far, so I just have to have faith in that.

I’m blown away by the level of support I’ve gotten from absolute strangers. River Rats are really special people, but it’s not just the River Rats or boat captains who are reaching out. It’s people who don’t even kayak—everyday people are asking how they can help.

I have access to all the route maps and plans Scott Miller used (one of the groups of men who hold the world record for the fastest paddling trip down the river). So I know what launches are good for me and where things are, based on his intense mapping. And a grad student is using me as the final project for her master’s degree. She’ll have a website that will track me.

I’m really humbled by how much support and encouragement I’ve been receiving around this trip.

AQUA BOUND: What are you most looking forward to?

DEVIN: Going on the river is like a spiritual experience for me. I know that out on the river, there’s a version of me I’m supposed to meet. I know I’ll go through an evolution. I’ll be able to purge some of those traumas and emotions that no longer serve me, while also taking in other lessons to fill those spaces.

I’m excited about the transition I’ll experience while I’m on the river. That’s really the primary goal. The river itself has been something near and dear to my heart because it’s something that gave me light at a very dark point in my life.

I’ll see where I am after 50 days. If I just have 200 miles left, I’ll push through to the end. If I’ve just passed St. Louis, I have a mortgage and a 6-year-old son I need to return to. I also have a bunch of community events planned for August. So maybe it’ll be a pause, maybe I’ll get it done.

Besides the flow, my biggest concern is fresh water while I’m out there, making sure I always have enough. Other than that, I’m trying not to overplan. I mean, Eddie Harris just hopped on the river and didn’t even know how to canoe and he’s done it twice! So I’ll be fine. I’m just going to have faith and go with the flow.

Devin Brown holds her kayak and paddle

As this trip has gotten closer, I’ve grown and elevated every couple of months just getting ready for it. I’m excited about the ideas, lessons and clarity I’ll gain that’ll make me a better person, a better community member and a better mother.

A big thanks to Devin for her time with us to share about herself and her trip! You can follow her journey on Instagram.

All photos by Samara Gaitan, courtesy of Devin Brown.

What paddling questions can our friendly Customer Service team help you with? Contact us here: 715-755-3405 or [email protected]

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