July 30, 2012

Oakland teen 'blows off steam' by paddling Mississippi River

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Like many kids his age, 17-year-old Benton Purnell, of Oakland, spent the bulk of his summer listening to audio files through his headphones.

click image to enlarge

Benton Purnell passes through a series of locks on the Mississippi River in Minnesota during the first part of his journey earlier this summer.

Contributed photo

Additional Photos Below

But unlike other kids, he listened to classic works of literature instead of popular music.

While paddling a canoe down the 2,350-mile Mississippi River.

Much of it alone.

When Benton began his voyage, he didn't have much experience for a long solo trip. The closest he'd come was two weeks on the Allagash with a local church group.

Benton was overweight, with eyeglasses perched on his nose and soft hands more used to paper-shuffling than canoe-paddling.

His father, Ronald Purnell, said that he encouraged Benton to blow off some steam by having an adventure during the summer break.

"I didn't really mean that much of an adventure," he said.

Benton began on May 4 in the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. He floated all the way to New Orleans, where he donated his canoe and all of his equipment to a local Boy Scout troop.

Right from the start, Benton and his father, who joined him for the first two weeks, faced challenges including fallen trees, unnavigable marshes and waterfalls.

At each obstacle, the canoe had to be unloaded, carried for as much as a half-mile portage, and reloaded, an exhausting and time-consuming process that soon had the pair ditching their equipment.

"Three times, we decided to offload," Ronald said. The final offload was Ronald himself, in Minneapolis, and Benton pressed on alone for two more months.

Benton's contact with his parents from that point on was limited.

He kept in touch with his parents by pushing a button on a satellite transponder every few hours. He could push different buttons to indicate that he needed help, or was doing well, or was camping for the night, and the transponder would send a message to his anxious parents with his precise location.

"Him having that was really very comforting. Even when there's no cellphone, he could spot to us," said Ronald.

Life on the Mississippi

While every day brought fresh challenges, Benton soon fell into a routine.

His days were filled with as many as 14 hours of paddling, during which he listened to audio books, including classics "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "The Last of the Mohicans," "Around the World in 80 Days" and "The Time Machine." He also listened to the "9/11 Commission Report," German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil," a collection of poetry and, of course, Mark Twain's "Huck Finn."

Food was more of a chore than a pleasure, especially after the first month, when he ran out of propane for his stove. He rarely had the energy to collect wood and build a fire.

"I never ran out of food, but there were times when I only had instant mashed potatoes," he said. "There were points when I would rather starve than eat more instant mashed potatoes, especially since I often had to eat them cold."

Benton learned to watch for church steeples peeking over the levee, his only clue that he was close enough to a town that he could hit a convenience store or gas station for food.

"They have 100 different variations of Fritos and Twinkies, and only one can of soup," he said. In addition to the mashed potatoes, he said that he consumed massive quantities of Ramen noodles and Spam.

Usually, Benton pitched his tent to sleep on sand bars that formed on the inward curves of the river. The sandbars were also popular with animals looking for an easy way to the water.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Benton Purnell, 17, of Oakland, poses for a portrait at his parent's McGrath Pond Road home Thursday. Purnell spent the summer paddling the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seaman

click image to enlarge

Benton Purnell, not pictured, paddles toward St. Louis and the famed Gateway Arch.

Contributed photo


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