Canoers make pit-stop in Brainerd lakes area en route to Gulf

Nate Denofre, Christa Denofre and Don Jokinen continue their journey down the Mississippi River Thursday, June 11. Conrad Engstrom / Brainerd Dispatch

When Christa Denofre, Nate Denofre and Don Jokinen made it to shore Tuesday, June 9, they did so just in time to miss thunderstorms.

The three of them along with their dog Marcy started May 9, on a trip to travel the 2,348 miles down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Along the way, the Mississippi River Angels group on Facebook provides a place where the three of them can stop and get some rest and camp for the night.

Rob and Kayla Vacek, live on Rice Lake which the Mississippi River feeds and provided shelter for Jokinen, Nate Denofre and his wife Christa.

“The river angels are amazing,” Christa Denofre said. “They are a network of people who you never know are around, but when they find out about you they offer a place to stay to build your tent, offer a hot meal, do your laundry and help you resupply. Truly incredible.”


The Mississippi River Angels also come in handy because the coronavirus pandemic has closed camping grounds.

Nate Denofre walks with two bionic legs and has since birth. When Nate Denofre was born, the umbilical cord wrapped around his legs causing both legs to be amputated from the knee down.

Back home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Nate Denofre is the co-founder and CEO of Courage Inc. The non-profit helps disabled veterans find a place to be active and have a place to hang out.

That’s how Nate Denofre met Jokinen. Jokinen is from Iron Mountain, Michigan and served in the National Guard. He was deployed to Iraq from 2007-2008.

Jokinen suffers from major arthritis and needs a stick to walk. He also struggles with PTSD.

“I was in a really bad place about six years ago,” Jokinen said. “(Nate) called me and told me about Courage and what they had to offer and that really got my wheels spinning.”

One benefit canoeing provides for Jokinen is physical therapy.

“I’m excited for the healing mother nature will throw at us,” Jokinen said.


Christa Denofre admitted the first time she stepped foot in a canoe was last month when they started their journey. It’s been a learning experience for her each mile.

“Physically it’s been difficult,” Christa Denofre said. “I’m almost 50, but I’m enjoying it and thriving off it. I’ve learned quickly.”

Christa Denofre is a nurse and she loves having her dog Marcy with her on the trip.

“I could either stay home and worry about him or I could ride along and worry about him,” Christa Denofre said. “In a lot of ways, it’s been way harder than I thought it would be. I’m in the front with Marcy right behind me and (Nate) steers.”

The inspiration they cling to is “if one person can do it another one can.”

“I always catch myself saying ‘I’d really like to do this someday,’” Nate Denofre said. “There is no such day. Today’s the day and someday is not. One person can do what another person can do and I absolutely believe that. We prove that every single day. It doesn’t have to be the Mississippi River.”

Nate Denofre also said he thinks there has been only one double amputee to make the trip through the Mississippi River. He hopes to join that list.

When they started last month, Nate Denofre estimates they had over 1,000 pounds of essentials in the canoes with them. When they left Thursday, he thinks they have lost about 200 pounds.


The hope is to reach the Gulf of Mexico by mid- to late-August with many Mississippi River Angels stops in between.

Nate Denofre claims to be a history buff and is excited about the adventure that still awaits. The three of them have two American flags, one in Nate and Christa Denofre’s canoe and another in Jokinen’s canoe.

“I’m excited to get those flags to the Gulf of Mexico,” Nate Denofre said.

CONRAD ENGSTROM may be reached at 218-855-5861 or Follow on Twitter at

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