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Brock's battle: Paddling with a purpose

Wood (right) and buddy Jesse Hacker get their trip started at Itasca State Park. (Contributed photo)1 / 2
Wood (left) and longtime friend Dan Anderson pose with one of the kayaks they took down the Mississippi River. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)2 / 2

Alexandria's Brock Wood had no intention of letting Hodgkin's lymphoma dictate the way he lived his life from the day he was diagnosed last fall.

It ultimately did, though. It hasn't touched his adventurous spirit. Instead, it gave him an opportunity to turn the adventure of a lifetime into something much bigger than himself.



Before he was ever diagnosed with cancer, Brock and his dad came up with the idea to kayak the length of the Mississippi River this summer. It was thrown out as a joke at first, but quickly gained steam.

Now Wood had the purpose of raising money for lymphoma research through his trip, and nothing was going to keep him from that. Not even the fact that he was just three months removed from undergoing treatment.

"That was the point," Wood said. "I just got cured a few months before, and I was going to do this at this time because I wanted to show that you can beat cancer. You can do something after it. It's something that sucks that's in your life and is a tough situation for you and your family, but it can be beaten."

Wood had only kayaked a couple times and been on a few canoe trips into the Boundary Waters before this. To gain some experience, he waited just long enough for the ice to melt away from the shores of Lake L'Homme Dieu before he was out on the water.

On June 17, he and Jesse Hacker, a longtime friend and fellow 2012 graduate of Jefferson High School, set out on their journey from Itasca State Park. Brock's brother-in-law, Amos Hartsell, and buddies Dan Rice, Karsten Thompson and Dan Anderson kayaked with him at different points of his 40-day trip down the river. His father, Dan Wood, kayaked with Brock on the final day, as well.

"I wanted to do it for the adventure," Rice said. "To say I had done it, and second, it's such an important cause. It's important to get the word out and try to raise money...It's something I've never really heard of anyone doing, but it doesn't surprise me that Brock wanted to do it. The whole family is kind of that way."



Brock's dad said he, like a lot of people, would love to do a trip like this, but other factors tend to get in the way. Brock was different. He was doing this.

Dan and his wife, Juanita, supported their son all the way. They knew he was capable, but that doesn't stop parents from worrying about what could potentially go wrong.

"We were nervous every day," Dan said. "We were nervous when he was planning for it. We never imagined it would really happen. We are glad it did, but it was nerve-racking. When you go to bed at night, you're wondering where your son is. He had phone service some of the time, but a lot of the time he didn't. You lay there wondering, is he sleeping? Is he still kayaking? Is he alive? We were happy to go pick him up."

Wood's journey brought him through five different states and ended on July 26 when he and Rice arrived in New Orleans at almost 4 p.m. They averaged a little less than 60 miles per day, while battling constant heat that many days reached more than 90 degrees.

They also experienced everything the Mississippi has to offer in their 16-foot kayaks that took on any rough waters that the weather and river threw at them.

"We saw it when we first started where it got down to three feet wide and two inches deep, where we had to pull our kayaks through areas," Wood said. "It was incredible to see the river go from that to over a mile wide and over 200-feet deep."

They didn't use a GPS. Instead, they relied on hard-copy maps that they got from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Phone service was nonexistent for days at a time, but they kept in contact with family back home as much as possible.

"It wasn't as tiring as people would think it is," Wood said. "It was hard work, but it was all a mind game. It's just under 2,400 miles and you just keep seeing trees and trees and trees. There's probably under 100 towns that we saw on the river and once you get past St. Louis, where there's no more locks, there is nothing because the towns are on the other side of the levees."



That meant they had to be smart about rationing their food and water the further south they went.

The food they packed was Mountain House freeze-dried products that simply required them to add water that they boiled on a Jetboil. Nalgene and Gatorade bottles were filled with water whenever possible.

They were prepared to rely on themselves, but quickly realized they didn't always have to. People throughout every region were willing to help once they heard Brock's story.

"It was incredible to see Northern nice and Southern hospitality," Wood said. "People took us in everywhere down south. It was incredible. They would drive us into town for food, ask us if we wanted a burger. It was crazy how nice people are."

Wood said they slept on the riverbank probably 25 to 30 times during their 40 days on the river. The other nights, strangers paid for a hotel room or offered them a shower and a place to sleep in their home. Even a young boy at a stop between Brainerd and Grand Rapids got a $10 bill from his piggy bank because he wanted to donate it to "Brock the Kayaker."

"It was awesome to see things like that," Wood said. "We had people help us out throughout the whole river. There's still good people. That's what we saw throughout the whole thing."


Wood set out on his trip with the goal of raising $100,000 for Hodgkin's lymphoma research. He isn't there yet, but he's not done either. Wood said they have currently raised around $30,000.

They are planning other events to help close that gap, including a 5K race, kayaking events for next summer and a fundraiser later this fall where Brock will tell more stories about his time on the river. He also has meetings planned with some local businesses that he hopes will result in donations.  

"We're not stopping right now at the end of the trip," he said. "It's not, 'OK, we're done and we raised this much money.' That's not our goal. We set our goal at $100,000, and we're going to get to $100,000 or above and beyond."

Wood has given people no reason to doubt him. If he has proven anything over the last year, it's that he is pretty good at accomplishing almost everything he sets his mind to.

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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