Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Before Facebook made reconnecting with old friends a oneclick process, eight former St. Cloud State students bonded annually aboard canoes floating down the Mississippi River.
The Stearns Hall residents’ one-off whim in the spring of 1979 has evolved throughout the years into something special — equal parts bull session, drinking party, support group and wilderness adventure. The crew has completed 34 such voyages, each on the first weekend in May.
They’ve weathered all kinds of conditions, including snow, sandstorms and downpours. In drought conditions, the men have dragged their canoes down the river. Head winds once forced them to tie ropes to their canoes so they could be towed by hand along the shore. They’ve greeted the morning in tents covered with hoarfrost. One steamy Saturday they coped with 90-degree weather by swimming in the river.
“We’re just a bunch of guys who’ve never taken ‘no’ as an answer,” said Jim Hasling, who owns an insurance agency in Blaine. “It’s just like a fellowship. We become one. We don’t even have to talk before we go. Everyone knows what to do. Everyone knows what to bring.”
The therapeutic value of a sojourn on the continent’s mightiest river is considerable. Paddling between islands, floating past small towns, the men have shared news about children, parents, jobs, homes, divorces and cancer scares.
“All these large life events you catch up on as we float together down the river,” said Monte Bloom ’86, a high school and middle school German teacher from Zimmerman.
“We’re like brothers,” said Scott Roffers ’82, a prosecutor for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. “We screw each other to the wall every chance we get. We see a weakness and we bust their chops. Then we hug each other and laugh.”
“There’s an incredible amount of trust among the group,” said Jeff Filipek, the YMCA director in Pierre, S.D. “You can bring stuff up, knowing you’ll get a candid response, whether you like it or not, and knowing it won’t leave the river.”
Filipek’s trust in his friends is rooted in a near-death experience on that first trip down a rain-swollen Mississippi. Several hours south of campus, his two-man canoe struck a partially submerged log, tossing Filipek and another student into the near-freezing water. Despite a life vest, the heavily jacketed Filipek was slow to resurface.
“I remember thinking ‘Wow, this is how I’m going to die,’ ” Filipek said. When he did come to the surface, Filipek clung to another canoe as his friends paddled him to shore. There in a farmer’s field north of Clearwater, the young men set up a tent, started a fire and removed Filipek’s clothes. Roffers unrolled a sleeping bag and crawled inside with Filipek, sharing body heat.
Hours later, after an emergency room visit to St. Cloud Hospital, the young men gathered in Stearns Hall. They recalled the harrowing minutes in the farmer’s field, when Filipek was too weak to stand and was drifting in and out of consciousness. But they also recalled how much fun it was out on the water, away from the pressures of school and work.
And they began to talk about continuing the trip. “We were naïve and we believed we were invincible,” Filipek said.
The next day, the farmer who’d retrieved their canoes hauled those same canoes back down to the river. Trip No. 1 finished without a hitch in north Minneapolis and every year has followed suit.
“For the foreseeable future,” said Bloom, “we’re going to keep this thing going, as long as our bodies hold out.”
Through the years, the men have refined their Mississippi River canoe trip, drawing upon hardearned experiences, as well as the inner wisdom that comes to men in their middle years.
“In the early years we were really young and dumb,” said Bloom, with a chuckle.
Young and naive
Mature and seasoned
Share your St. Cloud State gathering traditions
Do you have a tradition of getting together with friends, faculty or alumni that started at St. Cloud State University? We’d love to hear about it.
E-mail your stories to Jeff Wood at email@example.com or managing editor Adam Hammer firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll publish them in an upcoming edition of Outlook magazine.