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Voice for the rivers: 'Waterway Jay' quits his job to paddle Minn.'s 4,500 miles of water trail

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Tom Cherveny Tribune / Traveling solo has taught Jay Gustafson how to pare his supplies and carry no more than the essentials. 2 / 5
Tom Cherveny Tribune/ Jay Gustafson navigates fast water below Granite Falls on the Minnesota River. He's paddled more than 1,000 miles on water trails on 10 southern Minnesota Rivers so far this season. He hopes to cover all 4,500 miles of the state's water trail system to complete his quest next year. 3 / 5
Tom Cherveny Tribune / Jay Gustafson has set out to paddle all 4,500 miles of the state's water trails to call attention to the opportunities we have waiting for us to enjoy and explore in our backyards. He paddled the Minnesota River this past week. 4 / 5
Tom Cherveny Tribune / Jay Gustafson portaged around the Granite Falls dam on September 9. Thanks to a strong current, he was making as much as five miles per hour while paddling downstream. 5 / 5

JORDAN, Minn. — Jay Gustafson quit the job he loved and hit the trail.

We should say trails, as in Minnesota's water trails. He intends to paddle all 34 of them, a total of 4,500 miles.

"This is the thing I love more than anything,'' said Gustafson. "I love to canoe. I love to be on our rivers. I love paddling,'' he said during a break from the waters of the Minnesota River last Saturday, Sept. 16.

He was expecting to reach Jordan by this weekend. He will get a ride back upstream so that he can start paddling some of the tributaries: The Pomme de Terre, Chippewa and Redwood.

Gustafson, who turns 34 at the end of the month, is motivated by much more than wanderlust and a love for paddling.

He wants to call attention to our network of water trails and encourage people to get out and enjoy them and in turn, appreciate and protect them.

"I just felt like if I wasn't willing to step up and do something, be a voice for those rivers, then who would?'' he said.

Leaving IT behind

Gustafson started his quest July 6, later than he would have liked. He was working as an IT business analyst in the Twin Cities with colleagues and a company he describes as "great.'' He promised his boss he'd finish a project before leaving, hence the late start.

She in turn gave him a ride to his first river, the Watonwan. He's paddled the Rum, Blue Earth, Cottonwood, Zumbro, Root, Sauck, Cannon, Des Moines, and Long Prairie before starting on the Minnesota River. He'll have well over 1,000 miles logged with the completion of the Minnesota.

He is hoping to complete all of the designated water trail rivers in southern Minnesota before November. He intends to start on the trails in the northern half of the state early next spring, possibly late March or early April.

If it sounds like a major odyssey, know that he's hardly a novice at this. Last summer, Gustafson and his cousin, Jeremy Davis, paddled the Mississippi River from its headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico, a distance of 2,361.2 miles.

It was on this trip that he told his cousin: "I am going to paddle every one of the rivers the DNR maps.'' "I really didn't know what I was saying at the time,'' he said, laughing.

Passion for paddling

His passion for paddling started naturally enough with a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Gustafson grew up in South Dakota, but his father was a Minnesota native. When the young Gustafson suggested a Canadian fishing trip, his father offered that he had something in mind that he'd like.

Gustafson and a friend returned to the BWCAW for several years following. When he finished college, he moved to the Twin Cities and discovered Minnesota's rivers and the network of water trails.

"I fell in love with our rivers once I got on those,'' said Gustafson. "I think there are just as many beautiful places on these rivers and you don't necessarily have to work as hard because the current is taking you,'' he said.

Addressing water issues

There are challenges, the number one being the focus of his trip. He wants to call attention to the water quality issues our state faces. He points out that 40 percent of our waters are considered impaired.

He's documenting his journey with a GoPro, and will be reporting on the condition of the water trails to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He is taking videos of the campsites and public accesses along the way. Some are in need of work, he said.

He's encountered log jams and choked channels, the Blue Earth and Cottonwood Rivers being the the worst in this regard to date.

Yet he's also been witness to astonishing scenery. The bluffs along the Root and Zumbro Rivers leading to the Mississippi River proved to be stunning. "Absolutely beautiful,'' he said.

His only disappointment is that he has not encountered many people along his routes. The solitude has only served to underscore his motivation to make more Minnesotans aware of what we have.

Enjoying solitude

He's paddling a 31-pound North Star canoe, and carries a minimum amount of gear. Portaging by yourself teaches you to trim your gear to the essentials, he explained.

He carries a Bible and devotional for reading, and has some favorite music along. As the hours of daylight shrink, he is finding himself pitching his tent earlier and starting his day later.

In between it's paddle, paddle, paddle. "I always have a stick in the water,'' he said.

"I am very introverted and I enjoy the quiet of it,'' he said of his time on the water. "The peacefulness of it and just being able to take in everything that is has to offer.''

The best part of the journey, he said, is the sense of accomplishment of being able to do this on his own.

"I don't have to have help from anybody to make a difference," he said. "I can pursue my passion and be the voice of the rivers.''

Gustafson is funding the trip largely on his own, but has picked up some sponsorships and receives donations on his website:

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335