Barb Geiger '79 and her husband kayak the entire Mississippi River
Paddle for a Purpose
The Mississippi River level stood high. A late spring's three feet of ice melt greeted Barb (Hoops) Geiger ’79 and her husband, Gene, as they stood on the river’s bank at Itasca State Park in Minnesota.
They had kept a watchful eye on the weather for weeks, determined to launch their homemade kayak into the headwaters of the mighty river. Rain and sleet brought on a cool 50 degrees on this first day of June, but they were undeterred by the less-than-ideal conditions. They refused to stop themselves from an adventure that had been a year in the making, even when they capsized before making it out of the park. They launched, determined to start a 5-month journey paddling down the river for a purpose.
Five years later, that purpose—to serve others in the small river towns where they would travel—has become the subject of a book similarly titled, “Paddle for a Purpose,” authored by Barb and released in April of 2018 by eLectio Publishing.
Barb never shied away from an adventure. As a Carroll student, she visited New Orleans during January term to study jazz. As an educator in the Waukesha School District—where she taught for 30 years—she traveled to Kenya as part of a delegation that delivered supplies to a primary school there. She returned 12 years later to Kenya on another mission trip, this time with her son, Eric, and husband. She biked with her family from Waukesha to Minnesota one year. Then, to honor Eric’s high school graduation, they went skydiving together.
But when her husband, Gene, first proposed an “epic” journey in their 20-foot kayak down the Mississippi River, it wasn’t an idea she immediately embraced. It was 2012. She was 56 by then and admittedly not in the type of shape she thought would be needed for a more than 2,300-mile trip down to the Gulf of Mexico.
“I was struggling with this, whether I wanted to do an epic journey like that when I realized how little we knew about it,” she said.
She had, though, already proven herself as someone who could figure things out. Consider that the kayak itself was homemade and birthed from her father’s love of boats. He was the first to dream of its building. When a stroke left him in a wheelchair, he lamented that he might never be able to build his boat. Barb thought they could build it together and they did, with help from her son.
She met Gene in 2002, recalling, that when “he found out I was a boat-building woman, he couldn’t believe his good luck. He joined the team of boat builders and worked with me up in Green Bay.” They married in 2006. She also has three stepchildren.
Her dad would fall ill with pulmonary fibrosis and could no longer help with the project. Barb and Gene brought the kayak to Waukesha to finish it. Her father later passed away, in 2010. Someday, she said, she will pass the boat down to her son, Eric, as a family legacy.
It started with her dad, she said. “He made the ride special.”
Convincing her to take the ride involved a little bit of divine intervention. That came one day as she and Gene sat in the pews of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Waukesha. A new pastor stood before the congregation, focused on a sermon about love, love being something you have to do, not just express and not just feel.
“He said, ‘I challenge you.’ He challenged us as a congregation to do more out in the world. It was a really interesting concept but I felt a call to put service with our trip, to stop in towns along the way and stop to help people instead of just paddling a river,” she said. Gene, she soon learned, heard the same message. Once home, she was working in a room when he came in and asked her about the potential length of the trip. She hadn’t quite yet agreed to it but that quickly changed.
“He said in church he felt a calling to put service with the trip. Both of us looked wide-eyed and said, ‘Well, we can’t say that we listen to God if we hear God and don’t listen. We decided together it was something we had to look into. If it was meant to be, it would fall into place,” Barb said.
They met with their pastor about the idea. She recalled, “He said, ‘It looks like God’s fingerprint is all over this.’ It was a confirmation that we wanted to make it happen.”
A lot of things had to fall into place to make it happen, though. Barb was retired. Gene was not. He applied for and received a six-month leave from work and they started researching agencies they might help.
Barb and her husband considered how they could go beyond a single day of helping. The solution: blog about it. By sharing their experience and the commitment of those who regularly serve these organizations, the effort could have a longer and more meaningful impact, they believed.
“He was like, ‘Do you know how to do that?’” Barb said of her husband’s questioning on the blog idea. She told him, “’Nope. Not even a clue. But we can learn.’ So that’s what we did.”
They not only learned about blogging. They learned how to build and maintain a website, how to build content on social media platforms. They researched river depth and explored how to navigate the river. And they worked to get in shape, she said.
They identified charities they might visit during the trip and reached out to agency contacts. They found organizations overseeing community needs that included environmental initiatives, senior activities, a camp for the developmentally disabled, food pantries, homeless shelters, construction projects, animal rescue, mentorships and more. She said the response was overwhelming.
It was happening. They looked ahead to the likely challenges and obstacles of the feat and agreed that whatever went wrong, they would not blame each other.
“I never worried that it was going to be too much for our relationship, and it wasn’t,” she said. “There were some times when we had to bite our tongues...They call a tandem kayak a divorce boat. We didn’t know that until we were half way through the trip. Someone said, ‘Did you realize that?’ No. I didn’t worry about that at all.”
Once on the river, they had more than one capsize. They didn’t communicate effectively and put a hole in the hull of the boat. New skillset to acquire: boat repair. During the trip, they tackled tendonitis in Barb’s elbow, and Gene’s bout with poison ivy and an ankle injury.
“My husband came up with a motto. It’s not about the paddle, it’s about the people. That’s what sustained us and drove us,” she said. “All along the trip we met amazing people who helped us when we got in trouble and even when we weren’t in trouble.”
They were featured in several news articles, one of which caught the attention of a family in Brainerd, Minn. They offered the couple a meal, a place to do laundry. All they wanted in return was for Barb and Gene to talk to their children about service. “I was an elementary school teacher so you know I hopped on that one,” Barb said.
The blog they maintained during their trip about the organizations and the people serving within them served as the basis for the new memoir. It shares both stories of adventures on the river as well as with the people they met during the trip.
From the experience, Barb said, she learned, “God is still working in the world. I knew that but I had a chance to see it a lot more than I see it on a normal day-to-day basis when I’m busy with my own life. I learned a lot about honoring people who are in need. It’s not us helping them. It’s us helping each other.”
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