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Kayak trip puts veterans in natural serenity

Andrew Hayes (left) and Curt Nelson paddle their kayaks away from the Crosslake Rock Dam on Big Pine Lake Thursday as veterans from the Eagle's Healing Nest in Sauk Centre begin second annual trip on the Pine River Thursday. The trip was the brainchild of Vietnam vet Steve Eisenreich, Wounded Warrior-MN, and Jim Bergquist, owner of Crow Wing Kayaks in Crosslake. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls) Gallery

CROSSLAKE—For the second year running, veterans from the Eagle's Healing Nest in Sauk Centre were given the chance to enjoy a moment of peace amidst nature as they kayaked down Brainerd lakes area waters.

The Nest serves veterans who experienced psychological trauma, and helps them manage the symptoms: post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and chemical addiction.

Thursday's ride took them down the Pine River, where they put in just downstream of Crosslake Dam.

The setting around them was serene: water gurgled through the rocks and birds chased each other among the reeds nearby. A soft breeze moved the branches of trees on the riverbank, filled with green young leaves.

The veterans—all of which were men ranging in age from post-9/11 to Vietnam-era—were not so placid as they sat in their kayaks and waited to get underway. They smoked, jovially shouted at one another and laughed as one of them fell in the river. One man snapped a twig off a branch and mischievously poked a fellow kayak rider in the back of the neck when he wasn't looking.

Even though the ride hadn't actually started, it was clear they were having fun simply being there.

Jim Bergquist, whose business, Crow Wing Kayaks in Crosslake, supplies the kayaks for the ride, said past trips have gotten rave reviews from the veterans.

"They just have a blast," he said. "It's a nice, easy paddle for them. You see a lot of wildlife, you see eagles all the way down."

Vietnam vet Steve Eisenreich, Wounded Warriors-MN coordinator who together with Bergquist helped create the kayak ride last year, said it gives the veterans an experience that's peaceful.

"It's a chance for them to remember what it was like before they went to war," he said.

Introducing the men to kayaking gives them another outlet and means of connecting with friends and family. It also helps break up the regimen at the Eagle's Healing Nest, Eisenreich said.

"They're getting the help that they need there, to move back out into the world," he said. "But there needs to be recreation experiences mixed in there as well."

Curtis Nelson served as an infantryman in Iraq, and entered the Healing Nest about a month ago. Originally from Babbitt, he was looking forward to getting out into the woods.

"It's been a long time," he said of outdoor activities. "It's nice to get back into it."

Jim Warren usually lives in the the Twin Cities, so it was nice to experience the north woods, he said.

"This is something really different," he said. "Really helps the psyche."

Not all of the kayakers were veterans. Two women, EMT Cindy Kulzer and her coworker, went out a little early. Kulzer said participating was her way of honoring the people who served, including her dad, who died a few years ago.

"Memorial Day's coming up," she said. "My dad was a Marine, and we grew up knowing what Memorial Day was for."

Bergquist said there would likely be another kayaking trip in August.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser.

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