Paddling to Persevere

Nate and Christa Denofre and Donnie Jokinen (right) enjoy a rest day at Berglund Park as they take a break after the first quarter of their 100-day canoe expedition to the Gulf of Mexico.

By Lynn Mizner

Newlyweds Nathan (Nate) and Christa Denofre and their friend Donnie Jokinen have been paddling the Mississippi for 25 days, and they have 75 more days before they reach the Gulf of Mexico.

Undaunted by ticks and mosquitoes, the group is raising money to finance activities for disabled vets and other adults with disabilities.

Aitkin Independent Age staff caught up with the trio from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula last week as they enjoyed a rest day at Berglund Park on the Mississippi River in Palisade.

Nate is the CEO of Courage, Inc. Quick to say, “I’m not a veteran,” Denofre has  first-hand knowledge about living with a disability. His legs were amputated at birth because of a problem caused by his umbilical cord cutting off his circulation. He had a quick smile and a cheerful attitude as he explained his desire to provide camping, fishing, canoeing and other outdoor experiences for others with disabilities.

Jokinen is a 100% disabled Iraqi combat veteran. He was an Army National Guardsman who was activated in 2007 and ended up in Iraq sweeping for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Asked about what their biggest challenge has been since they left the Mississippi headwaters in Itasca State Park, they chorused, “Pain and fatigue.”

The two men explained that living with a disability can make even the most mundane tasks exhausting. So, adding long days of padding, loading and unloading their gear, setting up camp and cooking outdoors makes for some long and tiring days.

Christa, who is a registered nurse with an understanding of the physiology and psychology of pain, nodded in agreement. 

The friends also have an unseen companion on their trip. Tim Sanders was a partner in planning the expedition.

“Tim wanted so much to make this trip, and he was sure he would be able to do it until just a short time ago, when he passed away. We brought his remains with us,” said Nate, gesturing toward a tan satchel sharing his seat at the picnic table.

The Denofres’ 11-year old dog Marcie  is also making the trip. Marcie had never been in a tent or a canoe, but she’s been the perfect paddler, sitting still and waiting patiently until they land for the day.

What did they like best about their stay at Berglund Park? 

“A shower, fresh water and toilets,” said Jokinen. 

Christa shared that people in Palisade had been “super-friendly and helpful.” Nate had been suffering with a broken tooth for several days, so when they landed at Berglund Park, Christa immediately went looking for someone who could help him get to a dentist. Monique Lamke of Palisade gave the couple a ride to McGregor, where Dr. David Winegar took care of the dental issue, and counted it as a donation. 

“Dr. Winegar was so kind,”said Christa.

“It’s unbelievable how nice people have been to us.”

Courage Inc. and Paddling to Persevere each have their own page on Facebook, if people want to follow the progress of the paddlers.

Donations are welcome; they will help pay for future events. They can be made right on the Facebook pages.

The Denofres can be contacted by email at

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