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Brothers finish excursion down Mississippi River

Their hands blistered and their arms bumpy with bug bites, two brothers from Arbutus have come ashore safely after a 48-day, 2,000-mile kayak trip down the steamy Mississippi River.

The brothers had a couple of close calls, a brush with tropical storm Erin, and some uncomfortably hot nights spent with mosquitoes as tent mates, but they said their high expectations for the trip were fully met.

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"I was just blown away by the treatment we received from people along the way," Alex Gupman, 22, said after landing Sunday in New Orleans. "We would ask them for water and they would invite us for dinner."

"The only thing is, there's not much night life out there on the Mississippi," added Rick Gupman, 17.

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The two averaged about 40 miles a day on a trip that began in June on a lake in Minnesota, a few miles below the headwaters of the Mississippi.

"We read 'Huckleberry Finn,' and thought we could just push off and float down the river," Alex said. "Wrong. We were always pulling against the wind. Sometimes we went backward. I think it would have been easier going upstream."

Alex, who spent five months in the Czech Republic last year, is a senior at American University, where he is taking international studies on a presidential scholarship. Rick will be a senior at Mount St. Joseph High School in Irvington. They have a brother, Steven, 12, and a sister, Jennifer, 23.

It was their dream to make the trip down the Mississippi, and they felt they were well prepared for it after years as Boy Scouts. But it wasn't all pleasant.

"Our arms were bloody from swatting mosquitoes," Rick said of their first night out. "Between that and the heat, we never got much sleep on the trip."

They had not a clue about tropical storm Erin as it made its way east of the Mississippi Valley early this month.

"We were incredibly lucky, because we stopped in Vicksburg for water and some people told us about the storm," Rick said. They stayed there for most of a day to avoid Erin's winds, strong enough to swamp their 21-foot, blue and yellow kayak.

They also had to put ashore to avoid the lightning from thunderstorms that circled the river on several occasions.

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And they had to cope with an ominous presence: the powerful tugs that push barges up and down the Mississippi.

"They create a whirlpool and some big wakes, so we had to learn how to deal with them," Rick said. "Most of the tugboat captains were nice, inviting us to stay on board overnight, but there were a couple of jerks who warned us to get out of the way and then whooshed past us."

L While dodging one tugboat, they hit a buoy and flipped over.

"We were really scared only one time, however," Alex said. "That's when we went over a 4-foot-high wing dam. We heard the sound of a waterfall as we approached, but couldn't figure out what it was. It scared both of us, but we just held on and went over."

A wing dam is a concrete wall built from the shore to direct the current into the river channel.

The brothers lived on cold oatmeal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and tuna fish. They ate most of their meals on the river.

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"We ran out of food only once, and we ran out of fuel for the Coleman stove once," Rick said. "We would put ashore and start walking until we found a town. Sometimes we would knock on a farmhouse door, ask for water and permission to sleep on the property. The people often invited us to stay for dinner."

The brothers were surprised and gratified by their treatment.

"People would come down to the shoreline with cold drinks, or hop in their boats and bring the drinks to us," Rick said. "They'd say, 'Don't you know it's 106 degrees and the heat index is 125 degrees?' People really took care of us all the way down."

L The brothers called their parents every Monday and Thursday.

"If we didn't hear from them in 24 hours from the agreed time, we would have instituted a search," said their father, Richard Gupman, a captain in the Coast Guard. "I'm relieved they're ashore safely, and now we'll hear lots of stories."

"They were well-prepared," added their mother, Anne. "They go camping every month and go canoeing on the Potomac every year with the Boys Scouts, so they've had plenty of outdoor experience. I'm proud of them, but I just want them home."

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The brothers are driving home from New Orleans in a rented car.


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