Erich Mische: I’m 57, afraid of the dark and am riding a leaky pontoon down the big river. What could go wrong?

1September 2020

I am not the bravest person anybody knows.

I am afraid of the dark. Animals, wild or otherwise, scare and intimidate me.

Bats? Mice with wings and fangs.

Bees? I run in circles from them screaming like a child who can’t catch the guy in the ice cream truck.

Blackbirds? I literally hid in a strangers’ garage one time when I was doing my paper route because I was being attacked by a group – a murder? – of blackbirds.

People? People don’t scare me. Nature will, I am certain, take my life.

So the idea of taking a homemade raft built on a rotted-out 50-year-old pontoon down the Mississippi River for 1,700 miles through 10 states for two months by myself seems perfectly reasonable for a 57-year-old chubby guy who has absolutely no experience of any kind to justify this kind of trip.

But I am doing it anyway.

The “why” might seem to suggest the answer is “because it’s there” but that would be a lie.

I am doing it because the charity I lead, Spare Key, www.sparekey.org, is starting to wither on the vine because of the impact COVID-19 has had on the economy – and more specifically, on our ability to raise money.

Canceled and postponed events. A sharp drop-off in individual giving, and corporate and foundation gifts.

All of this adds up to a potential revenue loss to Spare Key between $500,000 to $750,000.

Or, put it this way, anywhere from a third to one-half of our budget for 2020.

Erich Mische in St. Paul (Lori Swanson / Pioneer Press)

I can’t bring people to events, so I decided to bring an event to people.

I decided I would get on a raft and drift down the Mississippi River.

Leave my family behind. Sleep on a raft built by my brother Fred, his daughter Matilda, my son Owen, a dear friend Ray and three guys named John.

Taking a Home Depot garden shed and shedding parts of it and cutting its weight down from nearly 1,200 pounds to 800 pounds, they built me a craft we have christened the “S.S. Hail Mary.”

And, it is, indeed, a Hail Mary.

I am, at my core, a hopeful kind of guy. So much so that I decided to call the trip “Hope on the River,” and you can check it out at www.Hopeontheriver.com or on our Facebook page @hopeontheriver or all the other social media sites that you could possibly put your hands on.

By the time you read this piece I will have done the following:

Launched the S.S. Hail Mary from Harriet Island while tied to the venerable Padelford Riverboat

Motored to Red Wing to have the 32-year-old Nissan boat motor tuned up, a new 9.9 Mercury outboard kicker motor installed, along with a depth-finder and a marine radio.

Left Red Wing in high hopes of starting my drifting journey only to be foiled by a leak in my starboard pontoon tube

Had said pontoon tube repaired

Left Red Wing again and journeyed straight into the depths of Hell by spending nearly 6 hours being buffeted by gale force winds on Lake Pepin

Grounded myself on a sandbar

Got off the sandbar and got stuck on another one

Killed both my motors

Had to be towed to the Marina that was a mile away from the sandbar I apparently thought was a smart idea to ground myself on

Here’s the deal: I may not be best person in the world to make this trip, but I am the person on this raft.

I am also the guy who cannot wait to find the America I know is out there and the Americans I know who are far more hopeful about this country’s future than we have any right to believe.

We can look at the Mississippi River as a body of water that divides the country.

Or, we can look at it as the body of water that calls us to gather at the river to be a part of a better country, a stronger country, and a more hopeful country.

Hope on the River is a fundraiser for Spare Key and to raise awareness about a significant initiative we launched in 2018 called www.helpmebounce.org.

Since 1997 we have served over 4,000 families facing a medical crisis with more than $4 million in housing and housing-related assistance.

We started serving families in only one state, Minnesota, and in 2013 we expanded that to four states – Minnesota plus North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

Despite the hundreds of thousands of families across those four states, and the country, who are facing financial calamity as a result of a medical crisis, we would never be able to serve more than a few hundred of them under the business model that the vast majority of non-profits operate under.

Today, after launching www.helpmebounce.org we are now registered to serve families in 46 states – and, the good Lord willing, by the time I reach Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and walk off the raft into the government center in that city and file our registration papers, we will be able to serve families in all 50 states.

That didn’t happen by accident.

It happened by Hope.

Hope that we could do more to help families who need Hope.

Which is why I am on a raft on a river and don’t have a clue about what I am doing.

I have Hope.

Lots of it.

I have Hope that there are far more Americans in America who will lend a hand to a guy who has never done anything like this before and will make sure he gets to Baton Rouge in reasonably decent shape.

I have Hope that there are enough Americans who always wanted to do a trip like this who will want to follow me – see where I am – learn about what I am doing – meet the same people I am meeting – and be reminded that America is far more a nation of similarity than it is of differences.

Each week I hope to tell you about the people I meet, the places I go, the troubles I get into, the lessons I learn.

I am full of Hope on this trip, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I am full of trepidation, as well.

I have a pontoon tube that leaks.

A 32-year-old two-stroke motor that sounds like it is going to quit every five minutes.

A garden shed raft that would perform better in your backyard than on one of the most powerful rivers in the world.

And, a 57-year-old guy afraid of his own shadow.

What could possibly go wrong?

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