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Minn. Songwriters Take On Mississippi River

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(credit: Jupiter Images)

(credit: Jupiter Images)

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing learned their biggest lesson about the Mississippi River before they even dipped in a paddle: Expect the unexpected.

The two childhood friends and Minneapolis musicians had planned to leave St. Paul on Wednesday for a monthlong canoe trip down the Mississippi River to St. Louis. They were going to pack a guitar and a banjo and tap the current for inspiration as they worked on a new album of children’s songs about the river. The duo, who are making a name in the family music scene as the Okee Dokee Brothers, also planned to bring along a videographer and turn their Huck Finn adventure into a children’s music video.

But the Mighty Mississippi is mightier than usual these days. Thanks to recent rains, the river is flowing high, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take the unusual step of closing three Twin Cities locks to recreational boat traffic.

“It’s kind of bizarre for June,” said Greg Lais, executive director of Wilderness Inquiry, which has canceled several of its canoe trips on the Mississippi River and is sponsoring Mailander’s and Lansing’s trip. “In the 20 years I’ve been going on the river, I haven’t seen consistent high water.”

The fast water — gushing at 33,000 cubic feet per second over St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis on Tuesday morning — creates a lot of turbulence and swirling eddies.

“It’s just not safe right now to be on the Mississippi River,” Lais said. “Especially not in a 17-foot canoe.”

So, instead of paddling south, Mailander and Lansing are driving north. After months of preparation, they changed plans at the last minute and are going to depart from the Mississippi headwaters of Lake Itasca.

“We know there is a sign that says, `The beginning of the Mississippi River,’ and I think that’s probably where we’ll put in,” Lansing said Tuesday before packing up the canoes. “An adventure is not always what you plan. You’ve got to roll with the punches.”

Or roll with the river.

Lansing’s and Mailander’s adventure can be traced to childhood in Colorado, where they built small rafts to bob down the neighborhood creek. Their love of the outdoors stayed with them as they forged musical careers. After playing in a bluegrass band for six years, they started the Okee Dokee Brothers in 2008 and released the CD “Take it Outside.” That led to regular gigs at festivals, fairs, libraries and bookstores.

“Getting outside is a natural instinct we have as children and somewhere along the line we lose that drive,” said the 25-year-old Mailander. “Our music is for kids, but it’s almost more to remind adults that they can go on these adventures and get outside and find themselves in nature and do challenging things. It doesn’t have to be going down the Mississippi for 30 days.”

They got their idea for a river journey during a road trip two summers ago along the Mississippi River through Iowa. When a lock-and-dam operator told them that canoes sometimes came through, they knew what they wanted to do.

“We thought how great it would be to float down the river on a canoe and write songs,” said Lansing, 26.

They’re tapping into a long tradition. From riverboat work songs to “Proud Mary,” and from “Old Man River” to New Orleans jazz, the river has captured the imagination of musicians.

“You can almost stick your ear in the water and listen to all this music going up and down the river,” said Charlie Maguire, a Minneapolis songwriter who released an album of original river songs, “Great Mississippi,” in 2002 as a commission from the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. “I’m kind of excited to see what they come up with. Isn’t it every kid’s dream adventure?”

Lansing and Mailander researched traditional river tunes in the archives at the Smithsonian Institution and will include a few on their album. The rest will be original songs, which they’ve already started working on.

“We’ve got a skeeter song,” Lansing said. “It’s a song about both accepting mosquitoes and despising them.”

“We know we want a song about camping in a tent,” Mailander said. “And we have the idea of doing a polka song from the northern part of the river. And we have a lot of blues ideas for the St. Louis part of river. In the middle, there is that banjo old-time, bluegrass music.” They’ll also write about the river itself.

“This is not just an ordinary river,” Mailander said. “It’s a national symbol. It splits America in half, and yet it joins it together.”

They are not sure yet whether they will paddle from Itasca to the Twin Cities or whether they will pull the canoes out of the water after a week or two, and then drive south for a while to finish the trip somewhere downriver. Either way, they’ll be camping along the river wherever they can find a spot that’s not under water. Two friends are traveling with them — a videographer and an outdoor guide.

Surprisingly, the meandering journey through the woods from Lake Itasca to the Twin Cities would take almost as long as paddling from St. Paul to St. Louis.

“It doesn’t seem like it would be that far, but it really zigzags quite a bit up north,” Lansing said.

Their only sure plan is to stay on the water for about a month.

“Basically, the day after July 4, we’re just playing every day at a different library or bookstore or fairgrounds,” Lansing said. “So, as soon as we get off the river, we’ll shower up and go for it.”

By MAJA BECKSTROM
St. Paul Pioneer Press

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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