ST. JOSEPH — As young boys playing in the Salt Fork River, Levi Marriott and Paul Cousert often wondered if you could float the river all the way to the ocean.
In about 21 days, maybe as many as 28, the best friends from St. Joseph will finally answer that boyhood question when they paddle their canoe into the Gulf of Mexico.
"I want to get a mouthful of salt water," said Marriott, who is a leader for Boy Scout Troop 40 in St. Joseph, along with Cousert, who both came up through Troop 40 and earned their Eagle Scout badges together.
Now, as leaders of their former troop, Marriott, 34, and Cousert, 33, are embarking on this lifelong dream to canoe all the way to the ocean, and at the same time, raise funds to pay for new canoes, paddles, life jackets and waterproof bags for Troop 40 while also inspiring the Boy Scouts they lead by using the skills they learned as Scouts.
Sunday morning, Marriott and Cousert will launch their 49-pound, 19-foot We No Nah brand canoe loaded with 900 pounds of gear, including themselves, at Cave in Rock on the banks of the Ohio River to "Finish the Journey," as they've dubbed their trek. They will paddle about 100 more miles on the Ohio River to Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio converges with the Mississippi River, and then about 1,000 miles more to the Gulf of Mexico.
Their journey started about two years ago, as they canoed the first leg in sections — as their schedules afforded — from the Saline Branch to the Salt Fork to the Vermilion River to the Wabash and finally to the Ohio River. Last year, they canoed the Ohio River to Cave in Rock in southern Illinois, where they will pick up the final leg of the journey today, canoeing through seven states to the Gulf of Mexico in one shot.
"I'm just ready to go," Cousert said last week after they had packed all their gear into one canister, two 100-liter waterproof bags, two 35-liter waterproof bags and a plastic tote stuffed with enough food for 28 days, including 8 pounds of homemade jerky.
Each day's meals — for two — are crammed into one vacuum sealed plastic freezer bag. The daily menu features one energy bar each for breakfast, another energy bar and trail mix for lunch, and for dinner, a packet of chicken or tuna with instant rice. In between, they will snack on lots of nuts and dried fruit, and the only beverage is lots of water. Up to a one-week supply of water in four 10-liter containers will be on board the canoe, and they've plotted towns where they can stop along the way to replenish their water supply.
Cousert expects he will be quite a bit slimmer at the end of the journey, considering the light menu and thousands of calories they'll be burning. Their goal is to paddle a minimum of 50 miles a day in 10 to 12 hours a day. Their mornings will start at 5 a.m. when the temperatures are cooler and the rivers have less traffic, they said, which also affords them enough daylight to take a break in the afternoons, if they want, and not be rushed to find a spot along the river banks to camp each night. Cousert said the dinners don't even require heating, if they don't have the time or energy. They've kept their gear as minimal as possible, but decided to take two tents, about 3 pounds each and a radio. Best friends since childhood, they've heard each other's stories, they said, and they learned along the Wabash that it's fun tuning into the local radio stations as they go, absorbing some local flavor of the towns as they float along.
'Excited but apprehensive'
About four years ago, Marriott and Cousert began talking seriously about taking this journey and that led to research and eventually seriously planning, including finding the opportunity when both could take several weeks away from their jobs. It's also taken them time to amass some of the quality maps and gear, like the Kevlar canoe, which is strong but light material, and their paddles, which weigh 15-17 ounces each.
Marriott has done an "extreme amount" of research, he said, reading about 10 books and lots of online material, and the last several weeks, they've been in major preparation mode, which ramped up even more this past week.
Cousert and Marriott both said they wake up in the middle of the night, thinking of something else they need to do or pack. Cousert said he quickly jots it down on a note pad.
"I'm excited but apprehensive," said Marriott, adding that he doesn't think it has sunk in yet that their journey is finally starting.
Cousert agreed he's excited, but a little nervous, too. He anticipates the weather, or lack of food, being their biggest challenges.
Marriott said personality conflicts.
Together in a canoe for 21 days, at the least, even lifelong best friends will have some disagreements, they both said, laughing.
They aren't concerned about sitting in the same position and paddling for hours at a time, because, they said, they know from experience that their bodies acclimate. And flooding doesn't concern them either as the Mississippi is well below flood stage now because of last year's drought, they said.
But both are a bit apprehensive about navigating locks. Marriott said their journey will take them south of all the locks on the Mississippi, but their leg of the Ohio River has locks.
"So that will be interesting," said Marriott, who added that he just hopes all their planning and preparation works out well, so they can make the scouts of Troop 40 proud and inspire them to do good things. "Becoming an Eagle Scout and a father are the two things I'm most proud of."
Blogging as they go
Cousert and Marriott said their families have been very supportive. Relatives will meet them in Louisiana to celebrate and bring them home, but they are also very thankful to businesses and individuals that have made pledges or donations toward their fundraising goal.
Greg Knott, a fellow Troop 40 Scout leader and former Troop 40 Scout, has helped them set up a blog, so the Scouts and others can follow their progress. By using a solar device to charge their cellphones, they hope to send pictures to Knott, who can upload them to the blog. People can also donate toward the canoes and equipment at that site, finishthejourney.blogspot.com. Donations may also be sent to Troop 40 Boy Scouts, PO Box 436, St. Joseph IL 61873.
When Marriott and Cousert were in Troop 40 as boys, the group had aluminum canoes, which were a big part of their outings, they said. But those eventually wore out, Marriott said, and the troop currently has no canoes. Many of the boys in Troop 40, they explained, have never been canoeing, and they want to change that. And Marriott's 8-year-old son, William, is a Cub Scout, who will eventually be in Boy Scout Troop 40, so Marriott wants him to experience canoeing as he did.
"I want to make sure we will have all the tools necessary to enjoy the whole boy scouting experience," Marriott said.