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Deaf friends paddle down the Mississippi River

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

Posted September 11, 2014 | By Staff Reports |

Kevin Berrigan and his two friends wake up every morning at 5:30 a.m. and slug down a 5-hour Energy drink. Gabriel Paulone and Scott Lenmann help him get the supplies for the day into their tiny brown canoe, and 30 minutes later it’s time for a hearty breakfast of Pop-Tarts before hitting the water for the day.

They know it’s going to be a long one filled with physical punishment paddling 10 hours down the Mississippi River. They’ve already lost about 10 pounds because of it. But the call for adventure is worth the pain.

The best part? They can only tell people about with their hands.

Berrigan, Paulone and Lenmann are three of the first deaf people to kayak from Minnesota’s Lake Itasca to the mouth of the longest river in the United States. But that doesn’t matter to them. Being deaf is no more their identity than being alumni from Gallaudet University in Washington D.C.

“The story is that when we were in college one night we were looking at a map of America and saw the river,” Berrigan said. “Then we said, why not?”

It’s a question that has popped up often in their lives and one they’ve answered with trips around the world. From drinking cervezas beachside in Cancun to traversing the lush landscapes of Colombia, the three live for adventure. Staring down the daunting Mississippi River was no more a challenge than explaining to people how being deaf doesn’t have to be one either.

“The challenges are just the same as everybody who did the same thing,” Paulone said. “We work on our arms everyday, and as for the vocal communication part, we do not talk with people on the river except when we roam around the town.”

When they need to communicate, like when interviewing with newspapers, the three write down their answers or sign them slowly to an interpreter. The close friends, whose relationship formed at a middle school basketball tournament, began their journey 64 days and 1,600 miles ago. They plan on reaching the end in the next 10 days.

“In other countries, deaf people like us wouldn’t be afforded this opportunity,” Berrigan said. “The best part is the people we get to meet, and it confirms my belief that we live in the greatest country in the world.”

The three have made it their mission to bring awareness to the deaf community and educate people on its culture. But since they first entered the headwaters in Minnesota, they’ve learned almost as many lessons as they’ve taught.

“From really small towns to big cities, I learned a lot about the lifestyles I have never witnessed in my whole life,” Paulone said. “It’s a nice experience being able to see and feel the true small river towns that I would probably never go to.”

Surviving the harsh winds that batter their kayak and the unforgiving sun that pounds down on their bodies, the guys have incurred danger and lived to tell the tale. But it’s the encounters with the people the three have met that have truly shaped their experience.

“Meeting so many nice Americans who we just met, they are much more willing to help us. It is a blessed feeling,” Lenmann said. “(We do it) for a personal accomplishment — to prove the whole community that being a deaf person is not an issue at all.”

So they’ll continue on down the river, trading pounds for public awareness — making a statement the whole world can hear.

“Being able to witness firsthand one the most famous rivers in the country is quite breathtaking,” Paulone sad. “Lots of work, yes, but what keeps us rowing everyday is knowing this peculiar feeling when we reach the gulf. It’ll be memorable.”


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