"What he had planned in his head from the start, if we got Jim
out all safe, was for us to run him down the river on the raft,
and have adventures plumb to the mouth of the river."
--MARK TWAIN, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
This is an article from the Sept. 23, 2002 issue
Martin Strel first read Huckleberry Finn when he was a
12-year-old living just outside the village of Mokronog,
Slovenia. On his family's farm in the foothills of the Julian
Alps, young Strel would close his eyes and imagine what the
great Mississippi looked like, picturing its curves and its
colors. Even then, Strel had a thing for water. He learned to
swim at age six in the Mirna River, a small waterway near the
farm. Using chicken intestines and rabbit skin as bait, Strel
would jump in the river and catch carp. By age 10 he was such a
prodigious swimmer that he challenged two soldiers to a two-mile
race. Strel won and was awarded a case of beer, which he gave to
his father. "I am a fish. Always have been," says Strel, a man
of few words.
But it wasn't until 1997 that Strel got serious about
ultramarathon swimming. That year, at age 42, he quit his job as
a music teacher and swam across the Mediterranean from Europe to
Africa, covering 48 miles in 29:45. Three years later he set a
Guinness record for longest swim when he completed the length of
the Danube--1,862 miles--in 58 days. During all this time,
simmering in the back of his mind, was his childhood dream to
swim the mighty Mississippi.
"No one has done it," says Strel. "That is why I try."
And so he did.
DAY 1 At high noon on July 4, amid the towering pines in the
woods of Minnesota, 225 miles northwest of Minneapolis, Strel
plunges into the clear blue waters of Lake Itasca, the headwaters
of the Mississippi. Slathered in lanolin, wearing goggles and a
wet suit and swimming freestyle, Strel at first goes so fast that
the three kayakers who are accompanying him strain to match his
speed. His stroke is textbook; he'll average about 20,000 of them
As will be the case for most of the trip, Strel says very little.
The only sounds are his arms piercing the water, his legs
kicking, his gasping for air. The kayakers have whistles to warn
him of objects in his path, but nonetheless he frequently scrapes
his hands and head. After covering 16 miles, he says his only
word of the day: "Drink." He then takes a break and has a drink.
Strel has crafted an ambitious schedule: Swimming 11 hours a day,
he plans to take 66 days to cover the 2,360 miles of the world's
fourth-longest river, ending in the Gulf of Mexico. To prepare
his body, Strel spent the previous six months swimming, hiking
and cross-country skiing for five to six hours a day. Not that
Strel looks the part of ultramarathon swimmer. He has, to put it
gently, a big belly. At six feet and 250 pounds, he more closely
resembles an aging middle linebacker than the typical long-limbed
swimmer. "My father is like a bear before hibernation," says
Strel's 20-year-old son, Borut. "He must store food for his long
journey. A little fat is good."
Even so, on the eve of his swim the kayakers--all of them American
volunteers--were flabbergasted to see Strel stuffing his face with
sausages and swilling beers.
DAY 6 Swimming in Minnesota's Lake Winnibigoshish, Strel is
draped in weeds that weigh as much as 10 pounds and trail behind
him for 20 feet like a long green cape, but he keeps his head
down and swims on. By day's end he has covered a total of 150
miles--only 2,210 to go.
DAY 11 Near Brainerd, Minn., the river is swollen by rain and
rife with whirlpools. Strel nearly gets pulled under by one in
the afternoon, which further erodes his flagging spirit. He has
blisters, bug bites and cuts all over his body. He has already
lost 20 pounds and is having trouble sleeping at night. "Too much
to think about," he says.
Along with his team of kayakers, there are four other people
helping Strel: two drivers who move his gear from one hotel to
the next; one cook; and one person who continually updates his
website. With the help of the Slovenian government, Strel secured
corporate sponsors to cover expenses for the team and to pay him
a nominal sum. Says Guy Haglund, one of the drivers and project
coordinators, "Nobody is getting rich doing this. This is all
about the thrill of the adventure."
DAY 34 Strel stops in Hannibal, Mo., the birthplace of Samuel
Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, and is given the key to the city. "I
am Huckleberry Finn," Strel announces. He is in good spirits
partly because, for the the past two weeks, numerous Slovenians
have stood on the banks and cheered; some have even jumped in and
swum a little ways with him. Like Forrest Gump as he ran across
the country, Strel attracts people who simply want to join him.
DAY 37 Just outside Alton, Ill., Strel yells, "Hot." A factory on
the bank of the river is releasing near-boiling water into the
Mississippi, forcing Strel to abandon the strong current in which
he's been swimming. Strel also encounters detritus such as
diapers, tires, bottles, cans and all manner of plastics in the
DAY 38 Strel is beaming. He reaches St. Louis in the late
afternoon. Here he traverses the 29th and final lock on the
Mississippi. He is happy to have the locks behind him because
they slow the current and force him to go ashore to walk around
them. Now that it is open river from here to the Gulf, the
current becomes noticeably faster, increasing from an average
speed of about one mile per hour to 2.5.
DAY 41 The day starts out like every other: Strel wakes up at 6
a.m. at yet another cheap hotel, this one in Grand Tower, Ill. He
eats a breakfast of eggs, ham, cheese and fruit and is in the
river by seven. Just before noon a violent storm rolls in as
Strel nears Cape Girardeau, Mo. His kayakers encourage him to
stop, but Strel wants to continue until their scheduled lunch
break at 12:30. At precisely 12:25, lightning strikes an iron
buoy that's only 10 feet behind Strel. The concussion of the
blast lifts him half out of the water. He is dazed but unharmed.
As he retreats to a nearby sandbar, he is visibly shaking. "Close
call," he says.
DAY 44 At twilight Strel decides to go a few more miles
downriver--one of the few times he and his kayakers stay out past
nightfall. In pitch-black conditions a barge shines its
spotlights on the group, blinding them. In the confusion another
barge nearly plows over Strel and the kayakers. They make
landfall at 9:30 p.m. near Tiptonville, Tenn., after covering 50
miles, the longest single-day swim of the journey.
DAY 56 This is the worst day yet for Strel. He has swallowed so
much polluted river water that he has constant pain in his
stomach. He floats on his back and simply kicks with his legs for
much of the morning. He's so tired, he falls asleep in the water
on several occasions. Nonetheless, aided by a strong current, he
covers 38 miles.
DAY 57 Strel wakes up in the morning, and the burning in his
belly has magically disappeared. He surprises his kayakers by
covering 21 miles before lunch. When he breaks for his noon meal,
he eats a soup laden with pasta and vegetables and drinks two
glasses of a Slovenian wine--just as he has during every lunch
break on his journey. "My secret weapon," he jokes of the wine.
"Then again, I must be drunk to swim the Mississippi." He swims
another 19 miles after lunch.
DAY 64 Just north of New Orleans the Coast Guard warns the team
to stay away from the right bank. An alligator has eaten a few
small dogs, and its whereabouts are unknown. The gator never
makes an appearance. Late in the day the kayakers hear Strel say
under his breath as he swims, "The mighty Mississippi. Hah! Soon
we shall see who is mighty."
DAY 68 It took two days longer than he had hoped, but at 11:32
a.m. Strel finishes his epic swim when he touches the large white
sign in the middle of the river that reads 0, marking the point
where the Mississippi disperses into the Gulf of Mexico. His son
strips off his clothes and, in only his briefs, jumps into the
water to give his dad a hug. "Tired," Strel says. "Very tired."
Two days later Strel is still tired. He has just returned to his
midtown New York City hotel room after enjoying dinner with the
president of Slovenia, and he's now telling the whole sprawling
story of his swim. He has lost 40 pounds since he first entered
the water, every muscle in his body aches, and his face is cut,
swollen and sunburned--just what you'd expect from someone who has
spent the past two months in the Mississippi.
"I think this was a good thing," he says, as he lies down on his
bed. "Sixty-eight days is long time to swim. I am just so happy.
So very happy. It was longest swim in history. Now I rest for six
He then smiles wonderfully and rolls over. Soon he will be
asleep. Soon the bear will be in hibernation.
DAY 2 Gets lost in swamp near Lake Itasca, where the Mississippi
DAY 16 Near Minneapolis, crosses paths with pleasure boats and
barges, both of which will dog him for rest of trip
DAY 26 Outside Savanna, Ill., experiences great hunger. "If I see
a stick, I will eat it"
DAY 37 A factory outside Alton, Ill., releases near-boiling water
into river, forcing Strel to abandon strong current
DAY 51 Near Greenville, Miss., encounters a series of five
whirlpools, which he powers through by turning on his back
DAY 66 Near conclusion of trip Strel and crew celebrate with
former Secretary of Defense William Perry--whom Strel had met in
Slovenia years earlier--in a New Orleans restaurant
Gulf of Mexico