Marines paddle Mississippi River to raise funds
Published 10:55 am Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Two marines, arms aching from hours of paddling and bodies fried from an unmerciful Mississippi sun, docked their kayaks outside the Portofino Hotel on Mulberry Street Monday. As they pulled up, an anxious crowd of Vicksburg residents and fellow marines proudly cheered their arrival. The two then handed thousands of dollars in equipment, everything they owned at the present moment, to a person they’d never met, who whisked it away to his house for safekeeping during the night.
Thus ended a normal day in the life of Nic Doucette and Gabe Vasquez.
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The duo has set out to paddle the entire Mississippi River, from its humble Minnesota beginnings to its Louisiana mouth, in order to raise money for marines and their families through the Semper Fi Fund. Doucette got the idea when canoe fishing with friends in his home state of Wisconsin and, after a year of careful preparation and intense research, he planned to set out on the adventure alone.
“I tried to convince a few friends to go and no one was really interested in going, so that’s when the planning phase started,” Doucette said. “I started… doing a lot of research online, reading about other people’s experiences and finding as much information about it as I could.”
But that’s when the first of many major surprises on the trip surfaced, changing Doucette’s blueprint altogether and throwing a welcomed wrench into his solo plans.
“I continued on with the planning and I just kind of planned to go alone, because I couldn’t really find any friends to join,” Doucette said. “Then I posted it on Facebook… and that same day, Gabe — which we served in the Marines together, the First Tank Battalion — he reached out and said I’m coming with you.”
The two, who have ben friends since 2008, were placed in the same company in California and spent six weeks in Australia together. Vasquez was finishing up his eight-year enlistment the day before Doucette was set to embark on his journey, and it just so happened that he wanted to join his buddy.
So for the past two months, the duo has battled the elements to slosh through 1,900 miles of Mississippi River, landing in Vicksburg Tuesday night around 8:30 p.m. to a hero’s welcome. From there, Doucette and Vasquez were shuttled to the Southern Heritage Air Foundation, where they were fed a hearty meal of fried catfish and given a tour of the museum. The foundation rolled out the red carpet for them in appreciation of their dedication and service.
“We planned it just for them. We have a foundation called the Warrior Bonfire Project. The mission of it is to help wounded veterans. We do different activities,” president Patty Mekus said. “We just wanted to thank them for their service and the risk that they take and the sacrifice they make. Any time we have a chance to help a service member, we try to do that.”
Eating dinner with the company of strangers, the two reflected on what has transpired over the summer with disbelief and humility.
They have already raised close to $15,000 for the Semper Fi Fund and have witnessed first-hand the kindness and generosity that can exist between complete strangers.
The dinner Tuesday was free, and the Portofino Hotel didn’t charge them for their one-night stay. Vicksburg native Layne Logue reached out to the marines before their trip even began and stored their gear at his house overnight, going so far as to paddle out to meet the two in the middle of the river.
“We’ve had countless people reach out, just complete strangers, reach out to us and help us along the way,” Doucette said. “Just the kindness and the generosity of the people along the river has been unbelievable. Just shocking. We just shake our heads in disbelief each time.”
Doucette and Vasquez recalled tales throughout the journey, ones of imminent dangers and kind strangers, but they saved the best for last. Arriving in Vicksburg with the support of what seemed like the entire town left a lasting image on them as they prepare to take on the tail end of their travels.
So when asked about a moment, that one defining account which serves as an overarching theme of their summer journey, a smile curled around their lips as they both agreed.
“We’ve had good moments and bad moments,” Vasquez said. “Coming to Vicksburg is definitely one of the best ones.”