Personal Essays

How I Got Started Paddling

Bryan Hansel prepared to launch his sea kayak.

Bryan Hansel prepared to launch his sea kayak.Over at, Derrik asks, “I know there are lots of very experienced paddlers out there.  Help me out and share how you got into paddling in the first place…” Taking up his challenge, I posted a comment on his blog. Many more comments followed mine, and I found each comment interesting and enlightening. From the comments, it’s easy to see how appealing the sport is to all types of people.  The more I thought about this, the clearer it became to me that doing a post on Nessmuking about how I got into paddling would be a perfect way for me to expand the topic.

How I Got into Paddling

Growing up, my parents owned a beat up red fiberglass canoe. The hull was built from fiberglass mat or was sprayed into the canoe mold by a fiberglass chopper gun. It weighed a ton, and without a portage yoke, we hauled it around by the ends taking many rests on the way to the dock. Once or twice a summer, the canoe sprouted a hole, so we’d try to repair it using a fiberglass repair kit from the auto parts store–those repairs never seemed to hold.

My siblings, cousins, and I paddled the canoe on the backwaters of the Mississippi River near Savanna, Illinois. My aunt owned a cabin sandwiched between the railroad tracks and the water. A steep wooden stairway lead down to a wooden dock where we launched out into the backwaters. Paddling the shores, we hunted frogs, fished, and explored. We dodged water snakes pretending they were water moccasins. Despite warnings from our parents, we explored beyond the back waters into the main channel.

Solo canoeing in Iowa.On one memorable adventure, we wandered the backwaters until we dead-ended in front of a small opening between islands leading to the channel. Water from the main channel poured through the opening creating a small drop from the channel into the backwaters. I didn’t know if we could paddle through current like that, because we’d never tried. We got a run into the current with all our strength, but the current stopped us. Luckily, we stopped near an upstream rock, which we pulled and pushed on to get into the channel. Looking back, it was so shallow that I should have just stepped out of the canoe and walked it out, but the spirit of adventure kept us in the canoe. It was probably that day, pushing our limits, trying to see what we could do, exploring boundaries to see what was around the corner, that helped form my drive to keep pushing myself in outdoor sports.

Where I Went From There

After those early adventures in our fiberglass canoe, I expanded my outdoor sport interests to include backpacking, mountain biking, and climbing. My studies in college and the job I worked to pay for it didn’t leave time to explore the outdoors, but with an excellent mountain biking trail near the university, it seemed like the perfect sport to take up. I spent my free time riding 10 miles to the track, 10 miles around, and then back home. In summers, I worked for the DNR and in the IC Park and Recreation department. I tried to be outside as much as I could and desired to embark on a long paddling trip.

College ended, and I found myself working seasonal outdoor jobs. During winter, a buddy of mine and I talked about paddling a canoe down the Mississippi River. In the end, because of the cost of buying a canoe and a special on PBS that we both watched, we decided to hike the Appalachian Trail instead. Six months later I found myself back in Iowa for the winter and when summer came I discovered climbing.

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Both rock and ice climbing consumed my every free minute for years. I climbed all over the country including my two favorite climbs–a winter ascent of Devil’s Tower via the classic Durrance Route and a long ice route in Smuggler’s Notch. On both climbs, my climbing partner and I rappelled down in the night.

At some point during those climbing years, while working for a retail operation, I discovered kayaking. I bought my first touring kayak, a Dagger Magellan, and used it to explore Iowa’s waterways.

Rediscovering Paddling

Standing on canoe gunwales in a Voyager canoeThose explorations took me on trips down the Maquoketa River, the Iowa, the Upper Iowa, and out onto the Mississippi. It didn’t even occur to me that kayaks were designed to be paddled in open water. I read the magazines filled with worldly adventures, but with all the waterway’s of Iowa, I had no desire to paddle anywhere else.

After a season or two with the kayak, I sold it. Some years later, I bought a solo canoe and started to build a cedar strip tandem canoe in my apartment’s living room. During the years between selling the kayak, my focus and wanderlust that had been quelled by the Appalachian Trail reappeared. New disposable income that allowed for climbing travel also opened up my eyes to the wonders in the paddling world. I had always known about the Boundary Waters, so I decided to go.

In 2001, just days after the September 11th attack, my friend Steve and I journeyed north with two solo canoes. The town of Grand Marais, which I instantly fell in love with, was a ghost town. We put in on a route along the border. Several times a day, fighter jets flew along the border above us. At camp, we tried to catch news about the attack on a radio I brought with me. We had great campfires built with Canadian wood. We paddled on seeing no one until our last night. On the portage to the lake with our campsite, we ran into two guys who were heading out of the BWCA. They hadn’t heard the news, so we didn’t tell them.

After discovering the BWCA, there was no going back. I fell in love with the place, gave up climbing, learned to freestyle my solo canoe, and went on several Boundary Water trips a year, including many solo trips covering 100s of miles. (Links highlight just a few.) I fell so heavily in love with the Boundary Waters that during one solo trip, I knew that my place in life would be to move near it. Somehow I knew I’d have to leave my great job, the security it provided, to move into the unknown.

Back in Iowa, many of my friends were kayakers and rolling looked fun. So, I built a skin-on-frame kayak, got into rolling, built a plywood version of the skin-on-frame and used it to paddle 500+ miles of the Mississippi River. Although just the section between Jacobson, Minnesota and Dubuque, Iowa, it gave me a taste of the adventure I could have had if I had canoed the Mississippi instead of hiked the Appalachian Trail. Paddling became all-consuming. It was no longer a hobby, it was my life.

The Move North

Lake Superior kayaking in a homemade kayak.Just after the Mississippi River trip, I moved to Grand Marais to be closer to the paddling in the Boundary Waters. I started I paddled often in the BWCA using one of my two solo canoes or my tandem canoe. I also discovered kayaking again on Lake Superior.

Kayaking on Lake Superior is like kayaking on a freshwater ocean. Waves, open water, and its miles upon miles of shoreline grabbed my attention. Using what I learned from my other kayak builds, I designed a new kayak and used it to explore the lake. During that time, I started guiding kayaking for a resort, and obtained instructor certification from the American Canoe Association. I took kayak trips to places like Georgian Bay, Lake Nipigon, Norway, and many locations on Lake Superior. I built another kayak and designed custom boats for other paddlers.

Eventually, my kayaking cumulated in a failed attempt to paddle around all five Great Lakes. Early in the trip, I developed tendonitis in my elbows, something that has plagued me for years, and just before the trip I had re-injured an old climbing injury. I knew I had to cancel the trip when I wasn’t able to even hold a port-side stern rudder on following two-foot waves. Since the trip, I’ve slowly been able to paddle short distances again, but I continue physical therapy in hopes that the pain will eventually go away and that I’ll be able to attempt a long expedition someday.

And that brings me to today.

What Paddling Means to Me Now

On the side of a river in the Boundary Waters.Knowing what paddling means to me is almost impossible to put my finger on. For over 10 years, there hasn’t been a day in my life I didn’t think about paddling. If I wasn’t out paddling, I wished I was. My injury and having to quit my expedition forced me to look elsewhere for outdoor recreation–to look elsewhere to try to redefine myself. It challenged me to discover who I was again. I took up light-duty mountain biking, trained for a bike tour, and road my bike from Duluth to Dubuque, Iowa. But, I just came back to paddling. It’s just who I am. I paddle. Other than Ilena, it’s what makes my life complete.

What’s your story?

Please, share.


  • Hi Bryan – Really enjoyed this story. The North Shore has its own special magnetism.

  • Bryan-this was great. I did not realize you stomped around the Mississippi. I worked at a camp near Savanna. I really enjoyed this and share many of the sentiments. If you love the wilderness, you just love the wilderness. :) Thanks for the story~~

  • The North, and the North Shore, draw some mighty fine folks! I had a map of the Nipigon/St. Ignace area on my wall for years before I finally had a sea kayak and the time to visit there.

  • I fell the same way about web design. It drives me and makes me want to learn and discover every day. It’s my passion. Must be something in our genes.

  • Thanks for sharing Bryan, that’s most inspirational! Cheers – FP

  • Thanks, everyone.

    @Betsy & Andrew – There’s just something about this area isn’t there? I think it’s all the fresh water. One of my favorite quotes is by Loren Eiseley. She writes, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

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