With a paddle in her hands and passion in her heart, Yolandea Wood, 53, of Shiloh, had her kayak packed to the brim with everything she needed for the two-month trip down the Mississippi River to raise awareness for clean water around the world.
“(It was) just an idea to have a grand adventure, and then some ladies who love to kayak got together and said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Wood said.
Accompanied by Joan Twillman, of St. Charles, Missouri, and Carol Heddinghaus, of Rolla, Missouri, Wood set out in late May from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, at the Mississippi headwaters. Wood and Heddinghaus completed a total of 2,120 miles traveling to Morgan City, Louisiana, while Twillman stopped about halfway in St. Charles for personal reasons.
They traveled with everything packed in their kayaks they could possibly need — toilet paper, food, tents and clothes. Eating primarily non-perishable packaged foods like tuna, rice and crackers, the women sustained themselves with weekly supply packages delivered by family and friends to where they were on the river at the time.
“We even tried SPAM and how should we eat it,” Wood said. “I thought they liked it, so I bought a whole bunch, and we didn’t eat very much of it. … What do you do with six cans of SPAM after a trip?”
For 64 days, Wood endured the elements and challenged the river head-on while she paddled to pursue her mission: raising money for various clean water projects through the O’Fallon Sunrise Rotary Club. So far, she has raised more than $3,800 for projects in Malawi and Nicaragua and said she will continue fundraising until the end of the year.
“I made a donation, too — $1 for every person who was following me on the trip,” Wood said about her Facebook page followers. “So I put my money where my paddle was.” Wood, who is single and arranged with her job to take time off for the trip, documented her journey through a series of videos and posts on Facebook to let others know about her mission.
“The conditions were quite challenging,” Twillman said about facing weather systems and headwinds early in the trip. “And I was delighted for the skills of Yo(Yolandea) and Carol because we needed them — we needed the skills.”
The ladies took caution under heavy rains and wind. At times, they were assisted by what Wood referred to as “river angels” — people who help paddlers by doing acts of kindness such as finding access to showers, food, laundry and overnight accommodations.
“A guy was working on concrete and I asked him, ‘Do you know if there are laundry facilities in this town?’ — the town was small, and he goes, ‘no,’” Wood recalled. “Later on, he comes back and goes, ‘I had to get some concrete, but if you give me 15 to 25 minutes, you can do laundry at my house, you can shower, and there’s a storm coming; would you guys be open to sleeping in my guest room?’”
Wood told this story and others like it about the people they met along river:
“One person was totally reconstructing their house on the Mississippi named Sandy,” Wood said. This “river angel” was in the process of dedicating an area of her house to paddlers for doing laundry, bathing, eating and sleeping.
“Her house is totally gutted; she’s sleeping in a camper, but she’s welcoming us,” Wood said in amazement.
“(Sandy and her husband) had a full hot dinner they made in a crockpot for us, and they had a breakfast of wild blueberry pancakes with homemade maple syrup,” Twillman said. “This was not any easier for them to cook than it would have been for us, and they went so far out of their way.”
Wood said of the river angels’ hospitality, “I think that’s one of the lessons I learned: 99.5 percent of the people will help you if they’re able to and you ask.”
The conditions were quite challenging. And I was delighted for the skills of Yo(landea) and Carol because we needed them — we needed the skills.
Joan Twillman, St. Charles, Missouri
Despite depending on the occasional kindness of others along the river, the women learned to rely on each other as they pushed their mental boundaries.
“I really learned to appreciate my travel mates. I think the primary thing was you really need to work together as a team … we all have our strengths,” Heddinghaus said.
For Twillman, who paddled for 37 days, being present in the moment was an important part of her experience on the river. “More than anything it was just the way of taking things as they came, because we didn’t have any other choice — and being ready for whatever it was that happened,” she said.
This notion resonated with Wood as well, in addition to taking each day one at a time.
“There are so many things we can do, but we just have to move — we have to just start,” Wood said. “If someone says they’re going to paddle 2,100 miles, it seems daunting; however, if you just do a little bit every day, it’s surprising how much you can do.”
While one in 10 people in the world lack access to clean water, according to water.org, Wood said her trip’s purpose was to bring attention to availability in our own country as well.
“We think water will always be there, and when it’s not there, we get concerned,” Wood said. “My goal is to make people aware of how they’re using water. I’m not asking for people to make a big change in their world, but small increments in awareness can make a difference.”
For more on Wood’s trip or to donate to the cause, visit www.facebook.com/IMAGECleanWater.