In his mother's memory, MU grad canoes for cancer

Friday, July 29, 2011 | 2:34 p.m. CDT; updated 9:55 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 30, 2011
Evan Walton pauses his journey to take a photo on a riverbank. The MU grad is canoeing from the Mississippi River's source in Minnesota to St. Louis to raise money for breast cancer research. His mother died of the disease two years ago.

COLUMBIA — One night this year, while enjoying a few drinks at Shakespeare's Pizza, MU graduate Evan Walton made up his mind to do something bold. He would take a trip down the Mississippi River like the one made by Huckleberry Finn, a character Walton had long admired.

Then a purpose began to guide the trip. Walton would make it in memory of his mother, Cheryl Walton, who died of breast cancer two years ago. She fought the disease for much of Evan Walton's life.

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“The trip initially started off as an adventure,” said Walton, 24. “But, I figured I could kill two birds with one stone.”

He registered his trip with Susan G. Komen for the Cure, through its awareness and fundraising program Passionately Pink for the Cure. He hopes to raise $10 for every mile of the roughly 1,000-mile journey from the river's source to St. Louis, where he grew up.

Passionately Pink provides a way for people to initiate their own fundraising projects that are then directed to local Komen affiliates, which channel the funds to breast cancer research.

Evan Walton's aunt, Kathy Philpot of Baudette, Minn., said witnessing her sister-in-law's struggle with breast cancer has not only made Walton passionate about the cause, but has also influenced his studies and future. Walton, who graduated in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in biology, lives in Columbia and plans to go to nursing school.

"Evan was so taken back by this that he was going to be a doctor," Philpot said. "He just feels so adamant about finding a cure for cancer."

Preparing for the journey

During the planning stages of the trip, Evan Walton's father, Kim Walton of St. Louis, was uneasy about the idea.

“I really didn’t want him to try this," Kim Walton said. "I’m his father, and he’s my only son. But, I thought if I couldn’t stop him, I’d try to help him.”

Although his son worked two jobs to afford the cost of supplies for his trip, Kim Walton helped purchase some equipment as well. At the beginning of the trip, he drove his son to Lake Itasca in Minnesota, where the Mississippi River starts, and has met up with him several times to camp together for a couple of nights.

"It is a wonderful father-son thing to do," Kim Walton said.

Evan Walton hit the river June 27 with minimal canoeing experience — which made the trip even more appealing to him.

“I was trying to think of something that scared me, and I had absolutely no experience with a canoe,” he said. “I think I had only been inside of a canoe once or twice before this trip.”

Evan Walton said he grew up leading a pretty normal suburban life.

“He’s always been really adventurous, really athletic and a lot of fun,” his father said.

Even as a boy, Evan Walton had a daring side to him.

“Saying that I had a sense of adventure would be romanticizing it,” he said. “My mother described it as reckless. She used to say if I wasn’t in danger, I wasn’t happy.”

The trip has been even more dangerous than he expected.

“This trip is so mind-altering and life-changing already,” Walton said. “And it’s getting almost exponentially freakier as time goes on.”

Life on the river

Walton usually gets on the water by 7 a.m., paddling an average of 30 to 40 miles per day and taking only occasional stops to eat. Even so, his lack of canoeing experience hasn’t been much of a problem. The psychological challenge of the trip has proven to be more difficult for him.

During the first couple of weeks, Walton traveled through a wilderness area with no one for miles around. He struggled with feelings of intense loneliness.

“There are stretches where you don’t see anyone or anything,” he said. “You start to feel really alone, which is something I’ve never experienced.”

Even though he found the solitude testing, he has also learned a lot from the experience.

“When your entire survival and day revolve around your own decisions and no one else’s opinion, you develop this weird self-reliance that doesn’t exist when I'm in Columbia,” he said. “It has made me more confident and patient.”

Once Walton reached St. Paul, Minn., his isolation was interrupted by a steady flow of barge traffic. Avoiding them has been a challenge, and their presence has been dangerous.

“It’s like having a high-rise building moving towards you down the street,” he said.

Walton now spends much of his day trying to stay out of the way of those barges, carefully navigating their wakes.

At night, when he gets tired from a long day of rowing, he pulls his canoe up on the banks of the Mississippi. Frequently, he takes out his guitar, low-tech recording device and a notebook and begins to write music.

A singer and songwriter for the Columbia-based band Ptarmigan, Walton said the trip has been a good excuse to work on material for the band’s next album.

“I've got almost an album’s worth of stuff that I plan to record when I get home,” he said. “I’m looking at a river-themed project right now.”

Though Kim Walton cannot accompany his son as often as he would like, other members of the family have stepped up to support Evan Walton's efforts.

Philpot housed the father and son at her home in Baudette, Minn., in the days before the journey began. During the trip, her family throughout Minnesota assisted Evan Walton by giving him food and a place to shower and sleep. She also said her nephew felt spoiled when her relatives in Little Falls, Minn., pulled him out of the river and immediately offered him a beer.

Kindness of strangers

Evan Walton said one of the best parts of the trip has been the kindness of people.

“People buy me dinner and give me things all the time. They think I’m crazy," he said. "I've been taken out to lunch many times and sold beers from people’s commercial boats. People think I'm just some suffering vagrant, so they do everything they can to help me.”

Donations to his Passionately Pink for the Cure project were almost $1,000 before Walton left, and that amount has continued to rise.

“It makes me not be able to give up, even when its gets really hairy out here,” he said.

As of Thursday, Evan Walton’s efforts have raised $1,740.

His aunt and father hope for even more.

"I totally support him," Philpot said. "I would hope that he can raise more, but I know whatever they can get they will be happy for."

She and Kim Walton have been taking care of the fundraising efforts, as Evan Walton's concentration is consumed by life on the river.

“I’m more focused on just surviving right now,” he said.

As of Tuesday evening, Evan Walton was somewhere south of Burlington, Iowa. When he gets back is highly dependent on weather conditions, Kim Walton said. Strong headwinds have been slowing his progress lately.

Kim Walton expects a phone call each night from his son to assure him he is safe. He keeps his phone with him at all times, just in case a call for help comes.

Worries aside, Kim Walton is proud of his son's efforts.

“Evan is a wonderful kid,” he said. “He’s doing a really good thing, it’s an incredible effort. No one really understands what he does. It is like running a marathon every single day.”

Evan Walton encouraged people that have considered taking a trip like this to go ahead.

“Because it's crazy,” he said. “Why not? If someone has the inkling to do something like this, just do it,” he said. “It will be great or dangerous — just something.”

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Monica Andres August 20, 2011 | 12:18 p.m.

Evan, this is an amazing way to put yourself out there and do something for a great cause. I searched for you on facebook and I'd enjoy talking with you.

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