Kayaker Devin Brown to challenge the mighty Mississippi

Devon Brown Photo by Sarah Whiting

by Tony Kiene, Minnesota Spokesman Recorder

Sometime this Memorial Day weekend, Northside resident Devin Brown will begin her journey from the headwaters at Lake Itasca to Mile Marker Zero in the Mississippi River Delta, near the point where the “Misi-ziibi” (meaning great river), as the Ojibwe people called it, meets the Gulf of Mexico.

Brown is poised to make history by becoming the first Black woman to solo kayak the entire length of the Mississippi River—2,340 miles—and she seeks to do it in record time for a female solo kayaker, a mark currently held by Traci Lynn Martin at 55 days.

And just like the river she is setting out to conquer, Brown’s path to this moment has been long and winding. A native of Glenridge, New Jersey, Brown first fell in love with the natural world as a youth attending the Frost Valley YMCA summer camp in the Catskill Mountains of New York State.

“We did a lot of hiking and backpacking back then. And we splashed around in the lake a little bit. There was some kayaking,” Brown reminisces.

Yet it would still be a few years before Brown discovered her true calling was on the water. “I was working retail in Manhattan,” she explains, “but I was depressed. So I decided to quit my job.”

Brown returned to the summer camp she attended during her teen years, this time on staff as an Adventure Trip Leader, where she helped to guide a new generation of campers on kayaking trips along the coast of Maine.

“I felt completely grounded on the water. I knew that I needed kayaking in my life,” says Brown. “Everything was beautiful. I was aware of my body, perfectly in tune with my thoughts. I was able just to be myself.”

When that summer was over, Brown refused to do anything else career-wise until she found something that “felt right.” That’s when she was reminded of a previous business trip she had taken to the Twin Cities, a trip that just happened to coincide with the Minneapolis

Aquatennial. To say that she became enamored with the City of Lakes at that time would be quite an understatement.

“It was incredible to me that someone could just walk from their home to Lake Harriet and kayak,” Brown affirms. “The Aquatennial fireworks show rivaled anything I’d seen in New York City. And I was so amazed by the energy from the Mississippi River.”

Coupling her experience as an Adventure Trip Leader with her memories of Minneapolis, Brown made it a point to learn more about the Twin Cities and the river that runs through them. Sitting in the kitchen of her childhood home, she quickly connected with the Mississippi River Paddlers, a private Facebook group boasting 4,400 members. 

She also searched for job opportunities related to the river. After communicating with a potential employer via email and telephone, Brown landed a position as a river guide.

However, Brown wasn’t what her new boss expected when she arrived in Minneapolis. “You don’t look like a kayaker,” she was told. The inference was clear, and Brown resigned. This was neither the first nor the last time she’d experienced racism while pursuing her aquatic dreams.

Relentless in her ambition, Brown was able to land work here and there and found time to get out on the water whenever she could. However, the stress of paying her rent, much less renting a kayak, started weighing on her. That’s when fate stepped in.

A fortuitous stroll past a local Aveda salon resulted in Brown becoming a licensed massage therapist, a career move that allowed her to find stability, build a clientele, and, of course, get her “back on the river.” And when her pandemic stimulus checks arrived, Brown was able to buy a kayak of her very own.

Photo by Sarah Whiting“I felt completely grounded on the water. I knew that I needed kayaking in my life.”

She entered a 50-mile race on the Mississippi River, with a time of six hours and 13 minutes in the women’s solo event. Though excited about her accomplishment, she noticed that not enough women were doing this, not to mention very few people of color. 

“I wanted to do something about that,” reveals Brown. “How can I get more people that look like me?” Likewise, as Brown started to cast her vision for the “Source to Sea” voyage she’ll embark on in the coming days, she also realized she would “need a faster boat.”

She approached the Get Down Coffee Company for support, where Houston A. White and Haley Matthews-Jones came up with an idea. Brown would create her own proprietary coffee blend, the proceeds of which would fund the purchase of her new kayak.

Brown, who is now the program manager with the Mississippi Park Connection, finally had the boat she needed and a social media platform, @afrodiskayak, to launch her campaign. “It was time for me to make the announcement. It was time to take on the river.”

While Brown is confident that she’s prepared for the challenge ahead, she notes that the mental toll might be more exacting than the physical one. “I’m a single mother. I know what tired is,” Brown laughs.

But she’s a little more measured when she discusses everything she’ll have to consider on this expedition. “There is so much you have to account for with the weather alone,” observes Brown: “temperature, wind, humidity, precipitation, lightning. Also, the speed of the river as well as its level.”

Then, in Minnesota alone, Brown will have to negotiate a total of 23 portages, spots along the river that are impassable, and will require her to pick up her kayak and walk to a location where she can reenter the water. But once she makes it to St. Louis, a little less than halfway down the river at 1,130 miles, the Mississippi is free-flowing to Mile Marker Zero.

When asked about her motivation in this quest, Brown says it’s multi-layered. “It’s a spiritual journey for sure. I want to release those things that no longer serve me.” 

There’s also a health and environmental justice component to it all. “We all are water,” she adds. Clean water is a human right—something we are all entitled to.”

However, as much as anything else, Brown is looking to pay homage to the “foundational people” of this nation: Indigenous tribes and enslaved Africans, many of whom used the Mississippi River in search of freedom, though traveling in the opposite direction.

She hopes to inspire “little Black girls” to “walk their own path” and perhaps “paddle their own river.”

Check back to follow Devin Brown’s “Source to Sea” journey each week in our special series, “Where on the Mississippi is Devin?” Each week, we’ll track Devin’s latest location on the river, share some of her innermost thoughts, and highlight Black and Indigenous history along the Misi-ziibi.

Kayaker Devin Brown to challenge the mighty Mississippi


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