430 Miles Down the Wisconsin River to tell a “Good News Story”

Jesse Hieb Wisconsin River

When I talked via smartphone to Jesse Hieb, he had only been off the Wisconsin River for about an hour or so, after a full day of paddling 32 miles. It was his second day on the water and he was trying to make up for lost time, after getting a late start on what he hopes will be a 17-day downstream journey.

Jesse Hieb Wisconsin River

“I wasn’t sure where I was going to camp tonight,” he explained. “But then I saw this bald eagle and I thought ‘what the heck, I’m going to just follow it.'” He ended up paddling a bit father and was treated to the sight of two bald eagles and found what may be a deserted put-in or trailhead. He settled there for the night.

Just talking a few minutes to this young filmmaker, who also works for REI in Milwaukee, you can hear the excitement in his voice and it’s infectious. Hieb has been paddling for over 10 years – starting out in kayaks – and has been doing standup for about two. About three months or so ago, he sold the kayak.

“For me, sup gives me easier access to the water,” he explained.

Jesse Hieb Wisconsin River

He’s been on the Wisconsin for much of that paddling life, but until recently, he had no idea that it wasn’t always a beautiful, gorgeous place upon which to explore nature.

“I think most people in my generation have no idea that this river was once so polluted, so filled with toxic sludge that parents wouldn’t let their children play in it,” he explained.

So, Hieb decided turn an expedition down the river into a way to educate his fellow paddlers, and others, about the Wisconsin’s past and how government intervention combined with determination of both citizens, environmental groups and industry turned things around. Along the way, he will be interviewing conservationists and others who made that happen for a documentary on a body of water he clearly loves.

“It’s such a great success story, and it’s still going on now,” he said. “I want to help tell that story, I want to remind people of the collective impact we can have when communities and business work together.”

Boardworks has loaned Hieb a 12’6″ Raven inflatable for the expedition, in order to help him get through sections of rapids on the river and more easily navigate the narrow stretches of the Wisconsin. He has allotted 17 days for the expedition, which means he needs to paddle at least 25 miles a day, if he wants to make it back to Milwaukee in time for his next shift at his REI store.

“When I woke up this morning, it was raining and kind of cold, and of course the typical response was to just go back to sleep,” Hieb said with a laugh. ” But then I realized, no, no, you don’t get to do that!”

He admitted this is the first time he’s ever “gone off alone” for this amount of time.

“When I was driving up to the headwaters, I was a little nervous. But now that I’ve been on the water, I’m super stoked!”

Jesse Hieb Wisconsin River
Temperatures dropped into the 40’s his first night, after being at a comfortable 65 degrees or so during his first day of paddling. He said when the rain stopped yesterday, it was just about right.

While being an avid paddler, Hieb has intentionally stayed away from the SUP race scene.

“Being on the water is my Zen time. I am naturally a very competitive person, so I refuse to let competition and time on the water mix. This is my yoga – not sup yoga, you know – but my time for calm, when I think, and to get away from everything. I’m also a fairly religious person, so when I paddle, I have long talks with my Savior and I reflect on life.”

You can follow Hieb’s expedition on Facebook or his website and learn more about the Wisconsin River here. He plans to do several Facebook live sessions as he goes. And The Mullet hopes to catch up with him when he completes his paddle, as well.