Rolf Hagberg and Dennis Caneff arrive in St. Cloud during their trip down the Mississippi River, St. Cloud State University, June 1975
The pair journeyed 2,550 miles down the river from its headwaters at Lake Itasca as St. Cloud State University students in 1975 to chronicle life along the river in text and photos. They ended up producing 11 newspaper articles, a small book, an audio-visual presentation and slide shows for Outdoor Recreation.
Caneff sent back dispatches about their adventures to St. Cloud State. Hagberg joined the trip for adventure and for the opportunity to do a photography project that would have legitimacy and scope.
He provided a photographic record of the trip.
After six months of preparations, it took them 110 days to paddle the river. They travelled about 25 miles each day and took a day off each week for rest and relaxation. Along the way they interviewed commercial and hobby fishers, attended Tom Sawyer Days in Hannibal, Missouri for the Fourth of July, rode a paddlewheel riverboat and a towboat hauling grain and met with employees managing the locks and dams in St. Louis.
Their adventures included a three-day wait to cross Lake Winnibigoshish because of high winds and rough water. They capsized only once — when a wake from a ship overturned them 230 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
The trip has led to a lifetime friendship between the two who meet for a reunion paddle every five years.
“It was the most significant thing we did at St. Cloud State, and the college did a lot to enable and support us,” Caneff said. “The trip shaped many of our professional and personal choices in the intervening decades.”
In addition to documenting the river for credit and adventure, Hagberg and Caneff earned a grant from the Horizon panel of the Bicentennial Commission, which was documenting life around the 200th anniversary of the United States.
“We had this credential that allowed us to go visit with people and say we’re doing this documentary project for the Bicentennial Commission,” Hagberg said. “… Everyone was excited to see us.”
They also used the trip to raise money and awareness for the St. Cloud YMCA, which was designing a room with equipment for people with disabilities.
Forty years later, the journey still has meaning for Hagberg and Caneff.
It taught Hagberg see the power and size of nature.
“To actually have this very strong personal connection to this natural system, it was just in us by the time we were done. We were part of it,” he said. “… I’ve never (again) had that kind of long-term connection with a natural entity. It really set the tone for how I lived my life. That we need to respect and be part of this wonderful system and be good stewards of it.”
Caneff also learned a love for rivers that carried into his career. He is now executive director of River Alliance of Wisconsin, which works to protect, enhance and restore Wisconsin’s rivers.
The trip also built upon his natural love of adventure. Reflecting on the trip 40 years later, Caneff remarks on how much the river has changed due to the Clean Water Act of 1973.
“What we saw and learned on the river helped me shape my desire to be an advocate — for rivers, for water, for ordinary struggling people,” he said. “I couldn’t be ‘objective’ or impartial. And that explains my work ever since.”