In 2005, Dennis Van Norman climbed into a kayak for the first time to spend an afternoon “Huck Finning” down the Mississippi River with his son and grandson. Little did he know that what started as an innocent, eight-mile kayaking introduction would eventually become a passion—or an addiction. He spent thirteen years, from his sixties through his mid-seventies, kayaking the length of the Mississippi, bit by bit, traveling more than 2,500 river miles from northern Minnesota to the southern tip of Louisiana in a boat built for one.
Threading a Kayak down the Mississippi is the story of how one traveler fully experienced and embraced the Mississippi River and its surroundings. In the vein of Jonathan Raban's Old Glory, Dennis's account casts light on the Mississippi River’s history, geography, and sociology, but it is a book about more than the river itself—it’s also about the individuals and characters living along the Mississippi’s shores. From the local foods and music to the customs and history, each experience is sandwiched between moments of pure serenity and those of sheer terror. This is the story of a journey of discovery on the country’s most celebrated waterway, and an exploration of the wonderment, joy, and fear that will inevitably grab hold of you when you’re sitting alone in a fourteen-foot plastic boat on America’s greatest river.
Dennis Van Norman was born and raised in a river town, St. Paul, Minnesota, and now lives in Maplewood. His childhood included playing in Indian Mounds Park, climbing on the limestone bluffs and cliffs overlooking the Mississippi River, and exploring the caves scattered along the river’s banks.
He earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas. His professional writing has been in the corporate world and includes a business journal publication, strategic plans, mission statements, and executive speeches. His writing for fun has included a regular column, "Random Shots from a Grassy Knoll," for a small-town Wisconsin newspaper, featuring different golf courses and the characters that crowded them. He also has published a book of poetry, Courtside Chatter, that covered his daughter Kelly’s four years of varsity basketball at Gustavus Adolfus College, earning him a Varsity Athletic Award and Letter as Honorary Poet Laureate.
When he is not traveling, Dennis still enjoys his regular morning walks along the timeless Mississippi River, at the foot of those same bluffs he scrambled about as a boy.
Whether you are a paddler or an adventurer looking for a guidebook to the river, you will revel in Dennis’s many stories, told in a tumblehome kind of way—a cascade of stories like the channels of the river herself—weaving in and out of each other, and bubbling, boiling, ricocheting round and round, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in chaotic fashion. . . . As you journey along with “Dangerous Eddy,” read between the lines and interpret the difficult choices made, and the hard miles paddled. Dennis makes it sound easy. But it’s not. You are holding the final paddle stroke in your hands. And lucky for us that Dennis decided to share the trials and tribulations!
“Dennis Van Norman writes that every paddler’s trip down the Mississippi River—and their accompanying experiences—are distinct. I have my own river adventures, but I found that Dennis’s section-by-section paddle sparked my interest. It's a wonderful way to accumulate stories for publication, and a rewarding adventure worthy of being told. And what a beautiful way to tell his story of life and survival in the river and on the road. He brings the reader along to discover not only today’s but also yesterday’s Mississippi, with grandeur, magic, and excitement. Dennis talks about growing older in his thirteen-year adventure, but from my perspective, he is a pup who might just be getting started.”
"Dennis Van Norman takes us on a fascinating thirteen-year sojourn in his quixotic effort to kayak the entire length of the Mississippi River. Starting as a complete kayaking novice, he grew into a legitimate 'River Man.' Dennis shares with us his river experiences through the full range of human emotions: serenity and solitude, purposeful engagement, and sheer adrenaline-fueled panic when dodging barges, rapids, and huge Asian Carp missiles. While the river is the main character, Dennis introduces us to many colorful people, historic towns, and delightful culinary experiences along the way. The book is a treat—for the mind and the soul."
“When your goal is speed, the river is simple. Reading Dennis’s book reminded me of what I missed. I missed the people, the stories, and the places that cradle those memories. Dennis Van Norman’s Threading a Kayak down the Mississippi showed me that a life without stories is no life at all. It is not to be missed.”
"Having grown up in South St. Paul, Minnesota, a major river city, I now have the pleasure of serving as its mayor. Dennis Van Norman's book, Threading a Kayak down the Mississippi, provides a comprehensive perspective of the Mississippi River and its people, from Minnesota to Louisiana, from modern times to Mark Twain's era of steamboats. As someone who is deeply invested in the river city I call home, I highly recommend this book."
"Sure, the Mississippi River is well worth reading about, as Mark Twain once wrote. It's even more worth paddling: to see the river from its surface. Dennis Van Norman has seen the Mississippi River, as this charming memoir and travelogue makes clear. As it introduces you to the river's eccentric cast of characters and glimpses its landscape, present and past, don't be surprised if this book compels you to pick up paddles of your own."
"I grew up on a channel of the Mississippi River and, along with many fellow Grey Cloud Islanders, acquired the appellation 'river rat.' But after reading Dennis Van Norman's book, I realized how little I knew about the river. I thoroughly enjoyed and was impressed by his account of kayaking the entire length of 'Old Man River,' especially given that his age placed him quite appropriately on it. Threading a Kayak down the Mississippi gives the reader an involving mix of history and geography of the river, sprinkled with a highly entertaining account of the river people Dennis met on his thirteen-year adventure."
"Not since Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain has there been such an elegant story about the mighty Mississippi. It’s not about the river, it’s about the people this river attracts. Threading a Kayak down the Mississippi captures with grace the essence of Dennis's journey and the people he met along the way. Great read."
"Threading a Kayak down the Mississippi follows in the footsteps (or wake) of Mark Twain along the Mississippi. It's a travelogue from Lake Itasca to New Orleans, with beautiful scenery, colorful (and generous) local characters, and numerous social currents and eddies. Dennis Van Norman offers folksy comments, insightful observations, and literary allusions. This is both a well-guided tour and an appealing narrative of life on the Mississippi—both his and the river’s residents."