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River adventure: IM father, son tackle the mighty Mississippi

Donnie, Don and Jeanie Jokinen gather with support dog Kulta. Don displays the medal plaque he made for the Mississippi River Angels who helped them along the way during their 113-day canoe trip. (Terri Castelaz/Daily News photo)

IRON MOUNTAIN — Just like characters in a Mark Twain novel, an Iron Mountain family embarked on their own adventures of “Life on the Mississippi.”

Donnie Jokinen, and his father, Don conquered the mighty Mississippi River — going “source to sea” — in their canoes in 113 days.

Tackling this challenge is hard enough but doing it with disabilities makes it all the tougher.

Donnie suffered combat injuries while deployed in Sadr City, Iraq, in 2007 and 2008 with the 1138th Engineer Company, a National Guard unit from Farmington, Mo.

He since has made it his mission to honor other veterans and show them they, too, can overcome their obstacles.

Don Jokinen of Iron Mountain at the Headwaters of Mississippi River in Lake Itasca, Minn., gets ready to paddle the Mississippi River.

He originally started the journey with Courage Incorporated, a nonprofit organization that provides trips to disabled adults.

“Prior to leaving, I was in a pretty dark place in my life,” Donnie said. “I felt this was something I could really benefit from.”

After some discussion, his father decided to go along for the “ride,” with his mother, Jeanie, following in their motorhome. “I was the boots on the ground,” Jeanie said.

After two years of planning, they finally were ready to start paddling the 2,300-plus miles.

On May 8, with about 600 pounds of gear, their canoes went in at Lake Itasca, Minn. — the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

Sunsets were spectacular on many days of the river trip.

He and his father actually had little experience on the water. “Last year I did a lot of fishing on Peavey Falls and paddle area waterfalls,” Donnie said. “That’s when I knew I belonged on the water.”

The first leg of the trip was the toughest, battling the weather as well as obstacles, they both said.

“It took about 60 days just to get out of Minnesota,” Donnie explained.

The group of four were among the first to leave from the headwaters so they were the ones to “break trail.”

“There was big ash trees we had to chop through with an ax,” Don said. “At times we would just notch out a V-shape just enough to send our canoes over it instead of having to portaging around it.”

Donnie and Don Jokinen approach New Orleans, where they would be held up for five days by storm warnings.

Weather definitely was not their friend, either. “There was 3 inches of snow on the ground when we left,” Don said.

It led to Donnie struggling with hypothermia. Others organizing the journey didn’t want to slow the pace and schedule.

“We were worried about how he was being treated, with no concerns of his injuries,” Don said.

But Donnie didn’t want to quit, either. So the family decided it was best to separate from the others and continue on their own.

“I wasn’t going to stop what I set out to do,” he said.

He created his Facebook page, 22 Stay Alive, that proudly displays the saying, “Never quit! Never accept defeat!” The name references the 22 veterans he said take their own lives each day.

He regularly posted photos of their journey for followers to see.

“I wanted to use this trip as physical and mental therapy,” Donnie said, “and take what I learn and pay it forward.”

He now is raising funds to start a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to help other veterans.

They were in desperate need of equipment — solar panels, GPS locators, and handheld Marine radios — to help travel the river.

Camp Hope of Missouri learned of his mission and rallied to raise the funds needed. Camp Hope is a non-profit dedicated to help wounded veterans enjoy outdoor adventures. Donnie first visit the camp in 2012 and credits them with helping him learn to cope with his injuries.

The team experienced many special moments on their trip.

“Probably the most emotional for me was when we paddled into New Orleans,” said Donnie, also noting he flew the American flag each day unless wind conditions didn’t allow it.

He had reached out to Bill Nelson, formerly of Florence, Wis., and member of Banded Brothers Motorcycle Club, because he has connections to the river.

When the duo approached downtown New Orleans, they noticed the traffic on the river was oddly quiet.

“It was just us paddling right down the middle of the Mississippi River,” Don said. “We then realized the river captain had shut the river down so we could safely paddle through.”

As they approached the dock, where Jeanie awaited, members of the Banded Brothers were lined up with their bikes and began revving their engines.

“They were paying their respect for what we were doing,” Donnie said.

“It was so cool to see,” Jeanie added.

The club members took them through town on their bikes and treated them to dinner.

Don said it was a very humbling and emotional day.

The next day, they were advised by weather controllers on the river to stay grounded because a hurricane was coming through.

They waited it out for five days, when the winds changed and the hurricane went around them.

“We were protected like that almost the whole trip,” said Donnie. “We were caught in very few storms.”

One exception was a night spent holding their tents up with their feet in the air during 60 mph winds so it wouldn’t fold down on them.

There were times they would be out of supplies and say something like, “a really cold water would be good right now” and 10 minutes later a stranger would show up with one.

“People were amazing all the way,” Donnie said.

A gentleman in Baton Rouge, La., was another example of the kind human beings they encountered.

“Larry had been following us and learned where we had planned to camp that night. He showed up to warn us of the rough area due to crime and drugs and offered to take us to his house,” Don said.

His generosity didn’t stop there. They told him of their plans to make it to the zero marker and he advised if they wanted their canoes back they would have to find someone with a boat to haul them 10 miles back upriver because there were no roads at that point.

“He took his boat all they way down from Baton Rouge to Venice to pick up Jeanie to meet us at Mile O, and then towed the canoes back,” Donnie said.

They got to experience so many things along the way and the people were just one of the things that made the long journey worth it.

The Jokinens both agree there were multiple times they wanted to quit, but then something would inspire them again to keep pushing.

The family stressed how dedicated the Mississippi River Angels were in taking care of them along the way.

“They came right out to the campsite to bring you food, firewoods or whatever we needed,” Don said. “Even drive us to where we needed to go.”

“We are so grateful for what they did for us,” Jeanie said.

As a thank you to their “river angels,” Don crafted unique metal plaques to present to each of them.

“We kept track of everyone that had helped us and will be delivering the rest of them in person to Minnesota,” she said.

The duo also agrees they are thankful to have Jeanie at their side.

Jeanie took the “Great River Road” from north to south. “It was fun — I had my own adventures,” she said. “I got to talk to a lot of people.”

Donnie would plan out the full day’s itinerary the night before so Jeanie could go ahead of them to their designated camp area.

Although she didn’t have to deal with weather, wildlife or barges, she had her own challenges. Many times she found it difficult to reach them by cellphone or unable to reach camp site them because the GPS showed a road that wasn’t there, leaving them to camp on river banks.

“Overall, it worked out really well,” Don said.

After months on the river, father and son reached Mile 0 on Sept. 1.

After taking 113 days going down the river, the family drove straight back to the U.P. with only four hours of sleep.

Jeannie also noted how much weight the two lost in those months — Don 40-plus and Donnie 20-plus — burning 6,000 to 7,000 calories a day.

“I would meet up with them at night to feed them — I had lots of steaks in the RV,” she said.

They both agreed it was a strange feeling after returning home.

“Even home I felt like we still had to paddle,” Donnie said with a laugh.

“The river taught us a lot,” he added. “All three of us on an individual basis and also as a group.”

Don is excited to say that they did the Mississippi River — “source to sea.”

“It was a very good trip – it challenged you mentally and physically,” he said.

Donnie plans to take what he has learned from the river to help other veterans. “I want to share my experience that is why it is important to get my non-profit ’22 Stay Alive’ up and running,” Donnie said.

His focus is to be able to take other disabled veterans on extended trips like camping, hunting and fishing.

Those interested in donating to 22 Stay Alive can go to the Facebook page to learn more.

He also will sell calendars featuring photos from the trip, as well as T-shirts and eventually plans to have a book.

“The river was very healing and rewarding. I want other vets to be able to experience this,” Donnie said.

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