SI Vault
Lars Anderson
September 23, 2002
At age 47, and with Huck Finn in his heart, Slovenian Martin Strel became the first man to swim—yes, swim—the Mississippi
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September 23, 2002

Old Man River

At age 47, and with Huck Finn in his heart, Slovenian Martin Strel became the first man to swim—yes, swim—the Mississippi

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Swimming in Minnesota's Lake Winnibigoshish, Strel is draped in weeds that weigh as much as 10 pounds and trail behind him for 20 feet like a long green cape, but he keeps his head down and swims on. By day's end he has covered a total of 150 miles—only 2,210 to go.

DAY 11

Near Brainerd, Minn., the river is swollen by rain and rife with whirlpools. Strel nearly gets pulled under by one in the afternoon, which further erodes his flagging spirit. He has blisters, bug bites and cuts all over his body. He has already lost 20 pounds and is having trouble sleeping at night. "Too much to think about," he says.

Along with his team of kayakers, there are four other people helping Strel: two drivers who move his gear from one hotel to the next; one cook; and one person who continually updates his website. With the help of the Slovenian government, Strel secured corporate sponsors to cover expenses for the team and to pay him a nominal sum. Says Guy Haglund, one of the drivers and project coordinators, "Nobody is getting rich doing this. This is all about the thrill of the adventure."

DAY 34
Strel stops in Hannibal, Mo., the birthplace of Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, and is given the key to the city. "I am Huckleberry Finn," Strel announces. He is in good spirits partly because, for the the past two weeks, numerous Slovenians have stood on the banks and cheered; some have even jumped in and swum a little ways with him. Like Forrest Gump as he ran across the country, Strel attracts people who simply want to join him.

DAY 37
Just outside Alton, Ill., Strel yells, "Hot." A factory on the bank of the river is releasing near-boiling water into the Mississippi, forcing Strel to abandon the strong current in which he's been swimming. Strel also encounters detritus such as diapers, tires, bottles, cans and all manner of plastics in the Big Muddy.

DAY 38
Strel is beaming. He reaches St. Louis in the late afternoon. Here he traverses the 29th and final lock on the Mississippi. He is happy to have the locks behind him because they slow the current and force him to go ashore to walk around them. Now that it is open river from here to the Gulf, the current becomes noticeably faster, increasing from an average speed of about one mile per hour to 2.5.

DAY 41
The day starts out like every other: Strel wakes up at 6 a.m. at yet another cheap hotel, this one in Grand Tower, Ill. He eats a breakfast of eggs, ham, cheese and fruit and is in the river by seven. Just before noon a violent storm rolls in as Strel nears Cape Girardeau, Mo. His kayakers encourage him to stop, but Strel wants to continue until their scheduled lunch break at 12:30. At precisely 12:25, lightning strikes an iron buoy that's only 10 feet behind Strel. The concussion of the blast lifts him half out of the water. He is dazed but unharmed. As he retreats to a nearby sandbar, he is visibly shaking. "Close call," he says.

DAY 44
At twilight Strel decides to go a few more miles downriver—one of the few times he and his kayakers stay out past nightfall. In pitch-black conditions a barge shines its spotlights on the group, blinding them. In the confusion another barge nearly plows over Strel and the kayakers. They make landfall at 9:30 p.m. near Tiptonville, Tenn., after covering 50 miles, the longest single-day swim of the journey.

DAY 56
This is the worst day yet for Strel. He has swallowed so much polluted river water that he has constant pain in his stomach. He floats on his back and simply kicks with his legs for much of the morning. He's so tired, he falls asleep in the water on several occasions. Nonetheless, aided by a strong current, he covers 38 miles.

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