Finding a Wey: An interview with Quapaw 24 Hour Paddle organiser Andy McLean
In October 2015, Adventurer Dave Cornthwaite and Ocean Advocate Emily Penn led a moving retreat down a stretch of the infamous Mississippi river. Through Exploring Mindset, the Mississippi river united an international group of individuals embarking on their own life journeys with a community of local river folk. Led by John Ruskey, the Quapaw Canoe Company are dedicated to sharing and protecting the environment they call home.
In March 2016, the Quapaw Canoe Company headquarters was visited by the river they cherish when the Sunflower river, a Mississippi tributary, rose 25 feet in 24 hours. The Quapaw headquarters, known affectionately as The Cave, was flooded, leaving the life-work of John Ruskey underwater.
Across the Atlantic, member of the Exploring Mindset expedition watched as images of the flood circulated on Facebook. Team members Andy McLean and Chris Barnes in particular felt compelled to help and set about creating their own river based adventure in order to raise awareness, and funds, for their contemporaries across the pond.
On April 23rd a group of over 30 paddlers took to Surrey’s River Wey in a variety of crafts on a 24 hour paddle. Over the weekend the fleet covered 40 miles in various conditions, dodging trees, sailing weirs and navigating locks. I caught up with Andy to find out more and discover how the magic of rivers influenced the Quapaw 24 Big Paddle.
The Quapaw24 Big Paddle was in aid of flood relief fundraising for the Quapaw Canoe company in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Tell us about your connection to the Mississippi river and why you felt so compelled to help.
I committed to Exploring Mindset and the Mississippi expedition only a few weeks before it set off after seeing Dave and Emily speak at the Escape to the Woods festival.
From the moment we arrived in Memphis there was an immense feeling of respect beyond simple hospitality between John and his crew and us. . This feeling deepened over the week, especially when river legends Dale Sanders and Rod Wellington joined us for a stretch of the trip; we became a sort of river family. John’s connection to the river was particularly striking, but all the crew from Quapaw showed an understanding and love of the Mississippi, which often gets a bad name due to its size and strength. Our trip culminated in a visit to the headquarters of Quapaw Canoe company: the Cave. We saw John’s work first hand: his paintings, his maps and his collection of river knickknacks collected over years and years, as well as hundreds of books and more modern office equipment. It felt like a very private, sacred space to share and we were all captivated. It was a special moment.
Did you understand the severity of the flooding when you first saw it on Facebook?
Initially I didn’t really register. I think it was when I read a newsletter from Quapaw in the aftermath of the flood that I realised that this was very real. One account in particular really struck a nerve as it explained how a hole had to be cut into the ceiling of The Cave in order for John and others to escape. The fact that I’d seen all the work, the work of a lifetime really, which was not recoverable disappear under murky water was sad to see.
Why choose a river paddle adventure as opposed to other event options?
It was Chris Barnes, another Exploring Mindset team member, who came up with the idea. It seemed like the perfect way to pay homage to and support our river family across the Atlantic. It replicated the journey we took with them last year and enabled us to share our own rivers with others. It was also Chris’s idea to make the paddle 24 hours, mirroring the rapid pace in which the Sunflower’s waters rose during the flood.
Once the decision was made, what went into making the event a success?
Our first action was to let Ruskey and Quapaw know what we were planning and get permission to use the Quapaw name. I’ve run a few events in the past but we didn’t really think that much about it. We’re part of a larger group called The YesTribe which are very much based on actions over words. We put out one post saying what we intended to do and volunteers came forward almost instantaneously to help. Chris began to recce the route in his spare time whilst others pulled together kit lists, contact information and other logistical must haves. Roles and responsibilities seemed to sort themselves out without needing to be vocalised. Chris’s job was to finalise the route and scout out the river. My job was to get people to come to it!
Do you think people would be surprised by how much happens behind the scenes?
Actually I think people would be surprised by how little it took to take an idea into reality. On the day the background support of our crew was invaluable and a little more full-on but in terms of getting the event to happen, it didn’t take as much as I had expected.
The event saw over 30 paddlers (and 2 swimmers!) come together — many of them unfamiliar with the fundraising cause. Why do you think there was such a strong response?
One of our biggest challenges was communicating the Quapaw story, but many paddlers were also part of the YesTribe so are fairly adventurous spirits. When you arrange a great adventure, underpin it with a cause and then have a few people signing up momentum really builds. The value of Facebook and event pages also really helped make this even as large as it turned out to be. More people clicking ‘Going’ led to more and more interest in the event so in the end even those who couldn’t join us were able to keep track on our progress, and in one or two instances come to our aid too. Once we started sharing the Quapaw story, we were able to get people to come along but the fact that so many signed up without a deep emotive connection to Quapaw is a real testament to the event.
How have the Quapaw canoe company in Mississippi responded to the event?
I think John was really touched by the suggestion of the paddle but at the same time I can’t imagine he was that surprised. Rivers connect people in strange ways and he of all people knows this. As time went on John wrote to us a lot and also promoted the event to the Clarksdale community. During the paddle itself John and a host of other river goers (including 30 school kids) also took to the Mississippi to show support for us supporting them! Their support was invaluable to us as the paddle progressed and the energy levels wavered. We even had one paddler, who confessed she wanted to quit three or four times, tell us that seeing Ruskey brought it all home to her and helped her continue — which is a real testament to river unity!
What caught you off guard? Any surprises along the ‘Wey’?
I think we were slightly over cautious with kit and everyone had too much stuff. This led to a bit of a logistical nightmare as we used support vehicles to help lighten the load. Next year we’ll scrap the suggestion of multiple changes of clothes and invest in a communal pile of dry, warm garments in the event of someone going for an unplanned swim!
This event was never about a schedule but we did have to alter the plan as we went along due to unforeseen obstacles and lower than average water levels really slowing us down. Luckily the quick thinking of our incredible support team saw us overcome anything that could have caused a potential problem and I’m very glad to report that moral remained high even in the face of uncertain camping spots and delayed mealtimes!
What are your favourite memories from the trip?
I loved greeting everyone as they arrived on the Saturday morning and seeing all the craft waiting on the river bank. Once the paddle was underway we had a support bike running along the tow path with us, I jumped at the opportunity to get on it Saturday afternoon and view the fleet from the river bank. This meant I could tell pedestrians about the cause as well as cycle on ahead to check the route. My favourite memory however was the moment when Chris and I had to wake everyone up after just under three hours sleep! It was 4.30 in the morning and we felt rotten ourselves so couldn’t imagine how everyone else would respond. Yet making the tea, handing out flapjacks and joking about the ‘glamour of adventure’ really united the group. Although there were a few groggy responses, there was a smile on everyone’s face eventually!
Also, the most powerful feeling was the massive team hug at Teddington at the end, with Chris and me in the middle. I can’t imagine a leader having a better feeling!
When did you struggle? What saw you through?
The hardest bit was the first hour or so, as it often is on adventures. I was in a boat with two others and you’re learning your vessel, getting to know your team and also navigating very unfamiliar waters. It wasn’t the easiest stretch of river either. I can honestly say I never felt like quitting however and I think it’s testament to the group that there was zero negativity from start to finish.
Personally, how has this weekend changed you?
I’ve always loved hosting events and working with others but working with Chris felt very natural and easy. I really enjoy being responsible for others and helping them have a good time. Combine this with my love of nature and I think I may have a new business idea forming. I think it changed me in the sense that it opened up the opportunity and possibility to organise more adventure events which unite all my passions, which is always an exciting discovery for anyone to make.
What did the Big Paddle prove to you?
Well, it proved I can lead a group of people when I have the right partner where there is implicit trust. I showed me that I am good at motivating folks and communicating a message which that helped build a buzz about the event.
During the event, I am pretty sure my love for building teams that work together and leading by example (e.g. helping carrying canoes at each portage) and always making sure everyone was ok was felt by the team.
Towards the end, taking the decision to cut the paddle short, while Chris was further down the river, was an important step. Seeing everyone at the end, and being part of the massive group hug, proved to me that this was the right decision to make.
Hopefully, Quapaw will avoid any flood disasters in future, but will the Quapaw24 Big Paddle event happen again?
Definitely. Without doubt. We’d love for this to become an annual thing and already others are coming forward and offering their skills for making next year bigger and better.
What’s the best way to give to Quapaw and stay updated about future paddles?
You can donate to the Quapaw flood appeal until May 9th here.
The best way to stay up to date about the next big paddle would be the website and Facebook .