"What he had planned in his head from the start, if we got Jim out all safe, was for us to run him down the river on the raft, and have adventures plumb to the mouth of the river."
—MARK TWAIN, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Martin Strel first read Huckleberry Finn when he was a 12-year-old living just outside the village of Mokronog, Slovenia. On his family's farm in the foothills of the Julian Alps, young Strel would close his eyes and imagine what the great Mississippi looked like, picturing its curves and its colors. Even then, Strel had a thing for water. He learned to swim at age six in the Mirna River, a small waterway near the farm. Using chicken intestines and rabbit skin as bait, Strel would jump in the river and catch carp. By age 10 he was such a prodigious swimmer that he challenged two soldiers to a two-mile race. Strel won and was awarded a case of beer, which he gave to his father. "I am a fish. Always have been," says Strel, a man of few words.
But it wasn't until 1997 that Strel got serious about ultramarathon swimming. That year, at age 42, he quit his job as a music teacher and swam across the Mediterranean from Europe to Africa, covering 48 miles in 29:45. Three years later he set a Guinness record for longest swim when he completed the length of the Danube—1,862 miles—in 58 days. During all this time, simmering in the back of his mind, was his childhood dream to swim the mighty Mississippi.
"No one has done it," says Strel. "That is why I try."
And so he did.
At high noon on July 4, amid the towering pines in the woods of Minnesota, 225 miles northwest of Minneapolis, Strel plunges into the clear blue waters of Lake Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi. Slathered in lanolin, wearing goggles and a wet suit and swimming freestyle, Strel at first goes so fast that the three kayakers who are accompanying him strain to match his speed. His stroke is textbook; he'll average about 20,000 of them a day.
As will be the case for most of the trip, Strel says very little. The only sounds are his arms piercing the water, his legs kicking, his gasping for air. The kayakers have whistles to warn him of objects in his path, but nonetheless he frequently scrapes his hands and head. After covering 16 miles, he says his only word of the day: "Drink." He then takes a break and has a drink.
Strel has crafted an ambitious schedule: Swimming 11 hours a day, he plans to take 66 days to cover the 2,360 miles of the world's fourth-longest river, ending in the Gulf of Mexico. To prepare his body, Strel spent the previous six months swimming, hiking and cross-country skiing for five to six hours a day. Not that Strel looks the part of ultramarathon swimmer. He has, to put it gently, a big belly. At six feet and 250 pounds, he more closely resembles an aging middle linebacker than the typical long-limbed swimmer. "My father is like a bear before hibernation," says Strel's 20-year-old son, Borut. "He must store food for his long journey. A little fat is good."
Even so, on the eve of his swim the kayakers—all of them American volunteers-were flabbergasted to see Strel stuffing his face with sausages and swilling beers.