Missouri teen completes half of solo river trip

Friday, August 1, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — James Welborn, a recent Webb City High School graduate, has reached the halfway point of his solo canoe trip down the Mississippi River — just in time to celebrate his 19th birthday with family.

When Welborn arrived in St. Louis this past Friday, he was greeted by familiar faces, The Joplin Globe reported.

"I started heading to the Arch around 2 p.m. and came across some pretty good waves and lightning in the background," he said. "By the time I was getting close to the Arch, the sun came out."

Then, as Welborn paddled around a river bend, he saw his family and friends standing on the bank holding signs and wearing matching T-shirts that said, "Keep calm and paddle on."

"When I got to the bank, I got out of my canoe and gave everyone a big hug," he said.

Welborn stayed in St. Louis with his family until his birthday, which was Monday. His brother and his brother's friend then traveled in a canoe alongside Welborn for four days.

On May 25, Welborn and his father, Jeff, launched a canoe into the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca in Minnesota. Jeff Welborn joined his son for the first week — 118 miles — of the 2,320-mile journey, but James Welborn has since been canoeing alone. The Mississippi River is one of the world's major river systems in size, habitat diversity and biological productivity, according to the National Park Service, and it is the third longest river in North America.

Welborn has dealt with ruthless mosquitoes, which his father jokingly said is the state bird of Minnesota, and he has paddled through hazardous flooding conditions.

But Welborn also has experienced the kindness of strangers. He has met dozens of people who have offered him a place to sleep, food and warm showers as he makes his way down the river.

He has received national attention for his trip, and about 2,000 people are following his updates on a Facebook page titled "Welborn's Mississippi Solo."

In June, Welborn announced he would be featured in a documentary, but he couldn't reveal which network was creating the film.

One of his most challenging days so far came last Friday, when he experienced what it was like to paddle upriver. Around 4 p.m., he was looking for a place to set up camp.

"I saw a nice sandy area but passed it up because my map showed there was a nicer island farther down," he said. "When I arrived, it was completely underwater."

He traveled a bit farther to see if there was another option, but there wasn't.

"I knew my guaranteed place to camp was the first sandy area I saw," he said.

So Welborn turned his canoe around paddled 1.5 miles upriver.

"That was the worst thing I have ever experienced," he said.

The Welborns of Oronogo are no strangers to outdoor adventures. They frequently go camping, hiking and canoeing. Welborn has traveled to about 20 states to hike to their highest points.

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