Harold “Hal” Hoops of Green Bay, Wisconsin, loved boats and dreamed that he’d one day build one. Then a stroke confined him to a wheelchair. His daughter, Barb, a divorced mother of a young son at the time, often drove the 140 miles from her home in Waukesha to visit her dad and mom. During one visit she noticed Hal browsing the ads in the back of the latest issue of WoodenBoat. He paused at the Pygmy Boats ad and said, “I always wanted to build one of these, but there’s not much point anymore.”
Fortunately, where Hal saw regret, Barb saw opportunity. She envisioned a family project that she, her father, and her son, Eric, could enjoy. They placed an order for an Osprey Double kayak kit and began the project on a work table built for the height of Hal’s wheelchair, finding what time they could together in Hal’s basement. The project went slowly and while the kayak was still in the works, Barb remarried and her husband Gene joined the project. The extra pair of hands made the work go faster, but there was still much to be done when Hal fell ill and passed away in April, 2010 at the age of 80.
Barb, Eric, and Gene brought the unfinished kayak home to Waukesha to complete it. At the launching, they dedicated the boat to Hal’s memory and christened her KUPENDANA, Swahili for “Love one another.” After their first outing, Gene suggested paddling the Mississippi River—all of it—from its source in northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Even though Eric was now in college and Barb was retired from teaching, she had trouble embracing the idea. But then, during a Sunday sermon, Barb and Gene were both inspired to incorporate an element of service to the communities along the route. They would make their river travel a manifestation of kupendana. Barb and Gene dehydrated food, mixed ingredients for meals, gathered equipment, and made contact with service organizations along the 2,000-mile route they had planned for their 6-month voyage.
They embarked from Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River, and paddled the stream’s serpentine path northward toward Canada for 60 river miles before turning south, bound for the Gulf. During their first 10 days on the river, they had seven days of rain, capsized twice, and encountered a granite boulder which punched a hole in the kayak’s hull.
But life on the Mississippi was not without its upside; people along the river helped them through the rough patches and there was no shortage of beauty in the landscape. In the wilderness surrounding the Upper Mississippi, the Geigers enjoyed the company of muskrats, turtles, deer, and innumerable birds. They made stops in towns along the way and took part in projects with Habitat for Humanity, Ronald McDonald House, and the Salvation Army, as well as a number of homeless shelters and food banks.
Their original plan was to descend the entire length of the Mississippi River, but concerned about the volume of barge traffic on the Lower Mississippi, they turned onto the Ohio River at the southern extremity of Illinois and paddled some 40-plus miles upstream to the mouth of the Tennessee River at Paducah, Kentucky. They continued working their way upstream to the Tenn-Tom Canal, traveling through a series of 11 locks in the course of its 236 miles. The last leg of their voyage, the Mobile River, delivered them to the Gulf of Mexico.
KUPENDANA not only fulfilled Hal’s dream of building a kayak and the couple’s inspiration to serve the riverside communities, it gave Barb a story to tell. She has written a memoir about the kayak trip titled Paddle for a Purpose, scheduled for release on April 3, 2018. It will be available through a link on her web site and all profits will be donated to charity—kupendana.
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