Friendship along the Mississippi: Merrifield couple opens house to river paddlers

LouAnne Harris paddles her paddlebaord loaded with gear near Green's Point Wednesday. Aug. 28, on the Mississippi River north of Brainerd. While raising money for Rivers For Change, Harris is seeking to become the first woman to paddleboard the 1,000-mile trip from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

MERRIFIELD -- Paddling down the Mississippi isn’t an uncommon summer activity in Minnesota.

But navigating the river in its entirety on a stand-up paddleboard is a whole other beast.

That’s what 32-year-old LouAnne Harris is doing, though. About two and a half weeks ago, the New York resident embarked on her journey from the Mississippi headwaters on Lake Itasca with just her paddleboard and two bags of gear.

Earlier this week, she found herself in the Brainerd lakes area.


On the dock eating a piece of toast at the Mississippi River home of Vicki and Jon Dubeck of Merrifield, Louann Harris prepares for another day paddling the river on her paddleboard. Harris is seeking to become the first woman to make the trip from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

After spending a night at the Aitkin Campground, Harris paddled down the river to Merrifield, where she came to the house of Vicki and Jon Dudeck, also known as “river angels.”

The Dudecks are part of a network of residents along the Mississippi River -- from the headwaters down to the Gulf of Mexico -- who open their homes to paddlers in the summer.

Vicki Dudeck recently saw a news article about river angels and decided to get involved.

“I used to be a backpacker, and there’s the same idea in backpacking, kind of like a trail angel, someone who helps you out in some way, whether it be a meal or a safe place to camp or shelter or whatever,” she said during an interview at her home Tuesday, Aug. 27. “And so we’ve just really enjoyed living on the river, and to be able to offer that, it just felt good.”

Harris is likely one of the last of the roughly 20 paddlers the Dudecks will host this year, as many started in early June and are long past Minnesota.

For Harris, the source-to-sea trip will likely take about three months, and if she completes it in November, she’ll be the first woman to stand-up paddleboard the entire river. The only other documented paddleboarder to navigate the Mississippi from Minnesota to Louisiana is Englishman David Cornthwaite, who completed the task in 2011.


But the journey isn’t about setting a record for Harris, it’s simply about the adventure.

The Alaska native grew up around water and has always enjoyed the outdoors. She began paddleboarding nine years ago.

“I grew up kayaking, but then when I started working at the kayak company that I work at in New York, they were just starting their SUP (stand-up paddleboard) program, so I got in on the bottom floor there,” Harris said.

This isn’t her first paddleboard adventure though. About four years ago, she and a friend went on a four-month journey down the East Coast, from New York to Miami. Then Harris got an itch for another trip.

“I kind of missed the feeling of being out there and the simplicity of it all, and I knew I wanted to do a solo trip,” she said. “The Mississippi had been something that we talked about back and forth between us as just an idea of something to do, and it just kind of stuck in my mind.”

The Mississippi trip is about 1,000 miles longer than the East Coast journey but should be close to a month shorter.

Up until Monday and Tuesday’s break, Harris said she had paddled about 20-30 miles per day. But as she prepared to hit the water again Wednesday morning, she planned to increase her daily distance to 35-40 miles.

“I’m going to start really trying to take advantage of just the nice long days that we still have,” she said, noting her body is now better adjusted to the physical activity.


Paddling, however, isn’t all Harris is doing on her journey. She’s also fundraising for Rivers for Change, a nonprofit aimed at getting people across the country involved with their local waterways through adventure, conservancy and education programs.

As of Wednesday, she was halfway to her $6,000 goal.

LouAnn Harris sets out on her paddleboard Wednesday, Aug. 28, from Vicki and Jon Dudeck's Mississippi River home near Merrifield. Harris is seeking to become the first woman to paddleboard the length of the river from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. The 1000 mile trip is expected to be completed in November. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

And to help fund the trip for herself, Harris is selling tickets to raffle off her paddleboard at the end of the journey. When she’s done, she’ll personally deliver it to the winner, no matter where in the country they live.

Harris also hopes to reach out to women’s and girls’ organizations along the way to talk about ways to get involved in outdoor activities.

“Then they can follow along and maybe send me questions or anything like that,” she said.

Most important, Harris wants other women and girls to know a feat like hers is possible.

“I feel like it’s still pretty rare for women to go out and do these things by themselves, and so the reaction I get along the way is, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so brave,’” she said. “There’s a real element of concern that I am a woman, I am out here by myself. And it would be great and it would be really wonderful to see that reaction change more from, ‘Oh my gosh, I could never do that, you’re so brave out there by yourself,’ to ‘Oh my gosh, that’s amazing, that sounds like something maybe I would like to do.’”

Vicki Dudeck knows a complete source-to-sea trip isn’t something she would likely complete, but after visiting with so many canoers and kayakers over the summer, she and her husband said they wouldn’t be opposed to a trip from Lake Itasca to home.

More than likely, though, the Dudecks will continue to be river angels, opening their home to weary river travelers from around the globe.

This summer, they’ve met people from all across the U.S. and countries like Denmark and Canada, along with an American now living in Saudi Arabia.

One notable visitor was Bill Burke, an adventurer known for climbing Mount Everest twice and reaching the top of the highest mountain on each continent.

“We get to live vicariously through other people,” Jon Dudeck said.

And with so many interesting people and wide array of experiences, Vicki Dudeck said she really enjoys being able to expose her 10-year-old son, Hunter, to new things.

Hunter said he, himself, enjoys meeting new people and hearing about their experiences. One traveler even taught him how to make a fire using a ferro rod, which are tools made from a man-made metal alloy that can produce sparks measuring about 3,000 degrees.

“It seems like there’s a lot of people who are kind of world travelers and this is just one more adventure,” Vicki Dudeck said.

That’s exactly what the trip is for Harris. And while she may not be able to convince many others to traverse the whole Mississippi River on a stand-up paddleboard, she still hopes to get one message across for those thinking about something similar.

“You don’t have to be this crazy adventure outdoor person.”

Getting involved

Anyone who wants to donate to Harris’s cause can do so at .

Raffle tickets for her paddleboard are available at for $25 a piece, or 5 for $100.

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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