ST. CHARLES, MINN. – It is the last week of September and the lava country of southeastern Minnesota is blushing a new color.
A sugar maple on a farm north of Saint-Charles is blazing orange, and several oaks on nearby ridges take on a red-purple tint.
But yellow is not to be outdone.
It sparkles from poplars at the bottom of rivers to hickory trees on the hillsides.
And in a striking spectacle, he is also present in the form of a canoe on the shoulders of Evan Hansen.
This is where the narrative departs from the typical fall scene. We can say that it is unique in the world.
Here, along Highway 74 near the entrance to Whitewater State Park north of St. Charles, Hansen stands with a Wenonah 10 feet above his head.
It is the color of fall, and its ensuing mission, I have come to see.
“It’s a little hard to miss,” said Hansen, 26, a smile on his face as he lowered the pedal boat to the ground.
Hansen is not moving the canoe from one stream to another.
He intends to move the needle on a major health crisis.
He carries the canoe as part of “Portage For A Purpose,” a trek through Minnesota to Wisconsin to raise awareness and raise funds for suicide prevention.
Hansen started on September 1 at a “Welcome to Minnesota” sign on the border with South Dakota and progressed east about 10 miles per day.
He has scheduled his hike to take place in September, designated as Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
I caught up with him by the side of the road on a hot, sunny day in early fall.
As we chatted in the shade of a tree-lined cliff, Hansen explained his motivation for the project.
“Recently four people from different circles in my life died by suicide, and I know my experience is not unique,” said Hansen. “I felt the urge to do something, to try something, to help.”
If you don’t know anyone who has committed suicide, you are lucky and rare.
In 2019, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, killing 47,511, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Data also showed that suicide was the second leading cause of death among those aged 10 to 34 and the fourth leading cause of death among those aged 35 to 44.
In addition, there were almost two and a half times more suicides (47,511) in the United States than homicides (19,141).
And the overall suicide rate in the United States has increased 35% since 1999.
I remember during my last year in college when a friend and fellow student visited me in my dorm. It was weeks away from graduation and he was one of the smartest students in our class. But he was clearly worried about the current career choices.
He approached me in part because of my position as a community counselor at the residence. But I was unable to perceive the depth of his despair. I focused on his bright future and tried to reassure him that everything would be fine.
About a week later, he committed suicide with a gun in his dormitory; I heard the report, mingled with the sounds of pistols starting at a track and field competition on campus.
In recent years, I have heard far too many stories of veterans who committed suicide. And a good friend here in Southeast Wisconsin also lost his brother to suicide in 2017.
Since research shows that most suicides are linked to a mental health issue like depression, Hansen decided to partner his project with the Southeast Minnesota branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI ).
All funds raised during his trip will be donated to NAMI, Hansen said. So far he has raised around $ 25,000; his goal is $ 100,000.
Hansen came naturally to his unique idea for the project.
He was raised in Rochester, Minnesota by outdoor enthusiast parents (Nicole and Jay Hansen) and after graduating from North Central College in Naperville, Ill., He worked in various jobs and started his graduate studies.
But he decided to take a break from college and in 2018 hiked the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia.
In 2019, he took a job in Ely, Minnesota for Outward Bound and continued to “seek his calling,” Hansen said.
The idea of a long portage has been going through his head in various forms for years.
“It’s kind of a Minnesota thing,” Hansen said. “But I didn’t want it to be a selfish goal. When these suicides touched my life, it gave me clarity.”
Hansen’s original plan had him portage the Superior Hiking Trail in northeast Minnesota. But it had to pivot when wildfires this summer closed public access to the hiking trail.
So he mapped out a 313 mile route – the same distance as the trail – through the southern part of the state. Instead of sleeping in campsites, he stays in houses. His parents are his main support team.
The change causes him to walk on road shoulders and through farmland, not exactly traditional canoe portage sites.
But Hansen, displaying his upbeat and dynamic personality, said the rerouting has its benefits.
“I may not be traveling along an established hiking trail, but I am going person to person and community to community,” Hansen said. “I definitely meet more people every day on this path.”
And yes, it is impossible to miss. The 10ft canoe atop its 6ft frame stands out like an oversized banana in the prairie.
It’s a hell of a sun visor.
And a whale with a sail.
Wind, not weight, was Hansen’s biggest enemy during the trek, especially in the open landscapes of southern Minnesota.
The Kevlar canoe weighs 15 pounds, and Hansen is carrying around 20 pounds of supplies in a backpack, including plenty of water.
Hansen is also carrying something else: the hull of the pedal boat is printed with the names of more than 500 people who have committed suicide.
“I am doing this to honor the memories of those who lost their lives by suicide,” Hansen said. “I also hope this endeavor will help shed light on the invisible burden that victims of suicide have carried and the weight of grief that their loved ones continue to carry.”
The canoe symbolizes the weight felt by those suffering from depression or other mental health issues, as well as the grief of the survivors.
Anne Sullivan, who lost her son to suicide, said she was grateful to Hansen for raising awareness of the need for mental health care.
She shares Hansen’s posts on social media with others.
“I’m looking at your canoe in every photo, looking for my son’s name,” Sullivan wrote in a Facebook post on September 30. “I know he’s there and every time you lift that canoe onto your shoulders I feel like David is transported to heaven.”
Hansen is on track to finish in the next few days when he plans to cross the Mississippi River to Fountain City, Wisconsin.
He doesn’t want this to be the end, however.
“It is only successful if it helps the people who live,” said Hansen. “Resources are available. Help is available. Please ask for help. “
Portage for one purpose: A fundraising page for Portage For A Purpose has been set up on 4Giving.com. Hansen’s goal is to raise $ 100,000 for suicide prevention awareness. All funds received will go to the Southeast Minnesota office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Wisconsin NAMI walks: The Southeastern Wisconsin National Alliance on Mental Illness will host fundraising walks on Saturday. In-person events will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Veteran’s Park in Milwaukee and Culter Park in Waukesha. A virtual option is also available.
For more information on the walks or programs offered by NAMI, call (414) 344-0447 or visit namisoutheastwi.org.
Suicide prevention hotline: If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or 911.