Source to Sea, Safely

Devin A. Brown kayaks on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Photo Sarah Whiting

I quit my job the summer after I turned 27 to co-lead wilderness adventure trips with teens. I decided to escape a life of chronic pain that resulted from my corporate job and return to the place where I last recalled having an identity: summer camp. Kayaking that summer brought me joy, and I knew I had to incorporate it into my life.

After returning home to New Jersey, I found a Facebook group with folks who were obsessed with the Mississippi River, many of whom had embarked on source-to-sea adventures. I was fascinated, and reminisced about my first trip to Minnesota the summer prior.

I had attended a celebration on Nicollet Island on the Fourth of July and was intrigued by the way the energy of the Mississippi River vibrated through the island, making it hum differently than the mainland. There began my crush.

As most transplants’ stories begin: the infamous Minnesota summer convinced me that the long winter is a trade-off for three intoxicating months. Stalking The River from my childhood home, I decided I was going to move to Minneapolis to learn about it. With family in the area, I could buy myself a few months on couches until I figured things out. A one-way ticket was purchased.

I secured jobs with two different employers: a boat rental in Clearwater near Saint Cloud, and a touring company that is no longer in existence.

In my experience, “Devin Ashley Brown” leaves a lot a racial ambiguity; a 200-pound Black woman is usually not who employers are expecting to show up, especially in regard to paddle sports. I immediately went from river guide to an operations role without explanation. A co-worker plainly told me that the owner did not want a Black woman guiding for his company. With my intuition validated, I immediately resigned. That was not going to deter me from my mission to build a relationship with the river.

During the summer of 2013, I worked with Clearwater Outfitters. I took the Northstar Train to Big Lake on Friday mornings, camped out on the island just north of the Highway 24 bridge, and floated myself down to work in the morning. It was dreamy. During the week, I worked in outdoor retail.

But working 50- to 60-hour weeks at eleven dollars an hour became very stressful. The excitement waned, and the electric bill was late.

Walking home one day, choosing food over transportation, I passed the Aveda Institute. I decided that becoming a massage therapist would help me build a foundation to get me back on course. Over five years I built a successful practice, purchased a car and a house in North Minneapolis, and had my son. I used a stimulus check to purchase my first recreational kayak, and quarantine allowed me to get reacquainted with the river on my own terms.

Community, Connections, and Camaraderie

Water is healing. We are mostly water, so it makes sense that many people feel energetically in sync with it. Kayaking is meditative; the repeated infinity motion of paddling paired with feeling the water’s current opens parts of my heart and brain that are not accessible on land. When I talk with paddlers about our “why,” a theme emerges — there is something spiritual in the surrender to water, and something unequivocally special about the Mississippi River.

In June 2022, I competed in the inaugural Two Paddles Mississippi River Race. I completed 48 miles in six hours and 13 minutes, averaging 5.5 miles per hour. I was the only solo woman competitor.

Later, after letting the race integrate into my being, I realized that the lessons I’ve learned in perseverance, self-worth, determination, and focus are all linked back to my experiences outdoors. I also knew that representation matters, and that I wanted to get loud and passionate about introducing those who look like me to the sport.

In order to do that, I was going to have to make some noise about the inequality in kayaking and the high cost of having an outdoor hobby. On top of affording gear, you have to take time off of work to use it. There are many systemic traumas that prohibit people, especially BIPOC people, from connecting with nature.

My Solara 120 was a wonderful entry-level kayak, but I wanted something longer and faster to level the playing field with those middle-aged white men who dominate the competitive circuits. I knew that I could not responsibly purchase a performance boat, so I did something I do not typically do. I asked for help — specifically, from the astute owner of The Get Down Coffee Co., Houston White.

Meeting with him, I spoke about how important connecting our North Minneapolis community to nature is, and how systemic issues have prevented it. I wanted to help connect my community to the Mississippi for meditation, fitness, and stewardship — and I needed a better boat to do that.

I got to customize a limited-run coffee blend called “Afrodiskayak,” and a portion of sales went to my new boat. Stellar Kayaks also liked what I had to say, and offered me a discount on a Multisport 18′. I call it “Drip” as a nod to The Get Down, to the community that purchased the coffee, and to the water. With that new social currency, I decided it was time to lean into what I came to Minnesota to do: a source-to-sea paddle down the Mississippi River.

Alone in the Dark

On the river I’m typically alone. I feel safer there without the comments I receive on the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. Truthfully, I try to avoid paddling on Lake of the Isles because, without fail, I encounter microaggressions. Most recently, on a paddle with my five-year-old son, a white male paddle-boarder insinuated that my boat was stolen. I’ve heard white women complain “they get everything” after someone mentioned how beautiful Drip is. I’ve heard: “Black people kayak now?”

This past June, I participated in another Two Paddles endurance race on the Mississippi River — this time it was 150 miles from Brainerd to Coon Rapids.

After the Blanchard Dam, the river runs through people’s yards. Near an alabaster bridge, there was a gaggle of shirtless white men. I heard “Look, a nigger.” I was shook. I had never been called that to my face. “Black bitch,” sure. “You people,” of course. But never explicitly a “nigger.” At that moment, my feeling of safety was stripped from me.

After a few miles of paddling solo and thinking about Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, and other Black women who had to be the first, and the hate and violence they were subjected to, I felt empowered and frightened simultaneously. Within a few miles, I met up with another paddler, which provided a sense of safety and distraction from my impending doom spiral. Evening fell, and in the dark I slowed down while dealing with rocks and lack of flow and depth. We separated.

After the Lilydale dam, the banks turn back into yards. After being verbally degraded 30 miles earlier, I was hyperaware that with my fancy boat and flashy gear, I was still just “a nigger.”

In the previous weeks, AJ Owens was shot through a door by a neighbor, an 11-year-old was shot by a cop after calling 911 for help, a teenager was shot because he rang the wrong doorbell, and perpetrators were only apprehended after demands for justice.

In the darkness of Dakota County, with a full bladder, I was overwhelmed with the stories of Black people getting murdered and maimed for no reason, of the Black and indigenous women who go missing at alarming rates — and how those who are supposed to serve and protect never care to investigate. I feared my son might not have a mother because someone deemed me as a threat while squatting, pants around knees.

After 20 hours of paddling, six changes of clothes, and an impending storm on the way, I had experienced enough of that race. I’ll return to do it again in 2025.

Over the past year, I’ve been able to connect with Black women around the country to create a skilled and powerful group of melanated paddlers. Tanya Walker, the president of Black Women Who Kayak+ in Houston; Lily Otu of the American Canoe Association; Tatianna Cruz from the Tampa Bay Kayak Anglers; Adrianne Burke with D.C. Department of Parks & Recreation; and others. I was able to process that experience with them, and heard similar disgusting stories of being verbally assaulted on trail.

These shared experiences only reinforced the importance of the work we were doing to share our passion, and the necessity of being highly visible to feel safe and allow our nervous systems to ground in the outdoors.

Safety in Numbers

Photo Sarah Whiting

Next summer I plan to become the first Black woman to kayak the Mississippi River from source to sea. I am going on record to honor those without record. To honor ancestors that were sold and bought along the banks of the river. To learn about myself and the universe.

Part of that journey is talking publicly about what it is like to paddle while Black, and highlight why people of color continuously need to create safe spaces free from the hate strangers cast upon us when we explore places that belong to no one.

When I initially dreamed up my source-to-sea trip in 2013, I knew that solo camping on the banks of the

Mississippi River was not safe — not because I lack the skill set to do so, but because of the people I might encounter along the way. Now the question is: How do I feel safe enough on the water to accomplish what I hope to accomplish?

After my story was covered on WCCO, two women in Arkansas reached out, and are now training to join me for a stretch of the journey. I’m hoping to fundraise for a safety boat that can loosely follow me, especially in residential sections. In my free time I teach kayaking to people in my community, and I hope some of them will be inspired to join for a few miles next summer.

Paddling all 2,340 miles of the Mississippi River is not the beginning of a life chapter for me — it is the culmination of one. I do not know what message or lesson is out there for me, but I do know there is one. The journey leading up to this point has been exhausting, painful, joyful, affirming — and a blessing. In life, there may be a strong headwind, low water, and a racist shouting slurs from the riverbank, but it’s ever important, as Langston Hughes writes, “to hold fast to dreams.”

In addition to operating a mobile massage practice, Devin A. Brown (she/her) works for the Mississippi Park Connection as a seasonal program specialist facilitating kayaking trips. In her free time, she introduces people to the river using Paddle Bridge Guide Collective’s equipment.

To kick off fundraising for her trip, join Brown on Friday, October 6, 7–10 p.m. for a river cruise. Brown is also seeking donations of silent auction items for the event. Follow @Afrodiskayak on Instagram for updates.