March–April 2024

The Call of the River

Devin Brown was drawn to Minnesota by the Mississippi. Now she intends to follow it to the end.

Frank Bures

In the summer of 2012, Devin Brown flew to Minneapolis to help remodel the Apple Store in the Southdale Mall. Brown was a "visual specialist” from the Grand Central store in Manhattan—a coveted position, occupied by just a handful of people across the country. 

Below her as she flew in was a ribbon of water that wound through the city and would soon wind through her life: the Mississippi River.

When Brown landed, her great-aunt Gwen Leeds, who had moved to Minnesota in the 1980s, picked her up. A few days later, Brown drove to work in Edina. On the way she stopped at Lake Harriet, rented a kayak, paddled around, then headed to Southdale. 

“What I loved about Minnesota was how you could leave work, hop on a lake, then get home in time for dinner,” Brown says. “On the East Coast, you’re in traffic for forever to get outdoors.”

Brown’s aunt also took her to Nicollet Island, where they stood under the Hennepin Avenue bridge watching the Aquatennial fireworks. As impressive as the sky was that night, it was the river that made a deeper impression.

“I remember how calming, but also exciting and powerful, the energy that came off the river was,” she says. “It was compelling. I was intrigued. I wanted to learn more about it.”

Brown grew up in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, a mostly white commuter suburb outside New York City. At the time, she didn’t know why all the Black and poor kids, including herself, were the only ones in special education classes (she’s dyslexic), or why she was excluded from certain social functions, or why, in college, her first roommate tried to get her kicked out of the dorm by saying she was “dirty.”

“I’ve always been the only Black person, or Black female, in all-white spaces,” Brown says. “When you grow up like that, you don’t necessarily notice the microaggressions, because they’re just so normal and ingrained. But I’ve always just been a survivor. I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve gotten.”

After leaving Minneapolis, Brown went back to her 5:30 a.m. commute, her sky-high cost of living, and her stressful workplace. She felt burned out and had developed a limp her doctors couldn’t explain.

Most of all, she missed the outdoors. As a toddler, Brown had gone to a summer camp run by her aunt. Often, her family went car camping at a state campground, where she learned to swim. And as soon as she was old enough, she went  to Frost Valley YMCA Camp in the Catskill Mountains every summer, where she later worked as an adventure trip leader.

By the spring of 2013, Brown had had enough: She gave notice at Apple and went back to work at Frost Valley for the summer. Two days after she arrived, her limp went away.

Soon she started making bigger plans: She would move to Minnesota, and she would paddle the entire length of the Mississippi River, from source to sea.

“Devin really leans into what calls her,” says her friend Jeanette Fordyce. “So many people get in their own way, overthinking. But Devin is like ‘Nope. This is what it’s going to be.’”

Brown’s college classmate Alyssa Mollica attended her going-away party.

“Devin is incredibly inspirational,” Mollica says. “She’s tough, because she’s had to be. She’s incredibly kind. And she’s always done what she wanted to do, unapologetically. I remember meeting her in a poetry class on Robert Frost and thinking, ‘My god, she’s got it together at 18.’ I was just floored.”

In February of 2014, after cashing out her 401(k) and stock options, Brown landed in Minneapolis in the middle of the polar vortex. Slowly, she started building her new life. She had one summer job lined up to lead kayaking tours on the Mississippi, but when the owner saw her, he gave her an office job instead. Later, a fellow worker confided that the owner had said she didn’t “look like a kayaker.” She sent her letter of resignation. 

Instead, she got a job at Midwest Mountaineering during the week. On weekends, she took the Northstar train line to Clearwater to work as a software consultant at Clear Waters Outfitting on the Mississippi River. Each evening she would paddle upstream to an island, where she set up her tent for the night. In the morning, she would paddle back down to work.
“It was awesome,” Brown says. “At night, I could see the raccoon eyes, but they stayed away because I had a fire. It was an awesome summer.”

Summer ended. Brown kept working at Midwest Mountaineering and did other odd jobs to make ends meet, but it wasn’t enough. With her savings dwindling, she started looking for a viable career path.

One day after her bus ticket home expired, she walked past the Aveda Institute, where she saw an ad for its massage school. She said to herself: “Massage therapy. I’d be good at that.” She took the first available tour, enrolled on the spot, and started classes four days later.

Meanwhile, a lot of life happened. Brown became a single mom to a boy who is now six. Her grandmother, with whom she was extremely close, passed away. And her mother moved to Minneapolis to be with her new grandchild.

“She called me,” says Leslie Brown, “and said, ‘If you want to be in your grandchild’s life, I suggest you pack your stuff, because I’m not coming back.’ So I gave my job notice, packed up, put all my stuff in storage, and I came on out here.”

Slowly, things came together, and Brown’s dream of paddling down the Mississippi remained at the center.

“I had these goals I needed to put in place to build toward it,” she says. “Like: I need to buy a house so I can store the boat. And I need to buy a car that can carry the boat. And finally I got the house, and I got the car, and I got the boat. Now I just have to get the money to make it down the river.”

She also got more involved in the community, connecting people of color—especially young people—with the river. As program manager at Mississippi Park Connection, a partnership with the National Park Service, Brown led Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) affinity group paddles.

“Devin’s welcoming presence on the Mississippi River is infectious,” says Mississippi Park Connection Assistant Director Anna Waugh. “She is opening doors to hundreds of new paddlers across the Twin Cities and helping diverse audiences to fall in love with the Mississippi River. We’ve been able to serve way more people than in past years, thanks to Devin.”

Brown also works with the community youth organization Intentions and its Environmentally Conscious Youth program.

"We’re partnering with Devin to help get youth out into nature, do cleanups, and to spread the word about protecting our natural resources,” says Executive Director Yaya Cochran. “She’s someone young people really look up to. Every time we have kids around, they gravitate to her.”

One day in November, I meet Brown at Boom Island Park in Northeast Minneapolis. We put on our dry suits, set our boats in the Mississippi, and 
paddle upstream.

The last time I’d seen Brown with her kayak was at the start of the MR150, a 150-mile canoe race on the Mississippi we both competed in. But I hadn’t seen her for long: She had taken off like a shot and was soon out of sight, while I’d languished around last place. (See “Let It Flow,” September–October 2023.)

Today Brown slows down for me as we chat about the race. She ended up dropping out around mile 70, she tells me, for many reasons: The water was extremely low. She hadn’t been able to train much because her car was in the shop from an accident, which had also hurt her back. She had used all her fresh clothes and was badly chilled.

Yet there was another factor, one that she alone had to face: After the first portage, Brown saw a group of men in a backyard on the river. Just as she was thinking how nice it would be to have a home on the Mississippi, one of them looked over and yelled a racial slur.

The word landed like a bomb. Brown had never been called the N-word to her face. It shattered her peace of mind. It destroyed her sense of safety. She found another racer to paddle with for a while, which helped. She worked to pull herself together, but when darkness fell, she worried about going ashore.

“It definitely messed with her head,” says her friend Fordyce. “The river is Devin’s safe space, her place of grounding. And that was stripped of her. It’s just such a reality, how dangerous accessing the outdoors can be for people of color. She’s doing her part to make Black people feel comfortable out on the water, and to make herself feel safe. But she can only protect herself so much. It’s white people’s work to figure out how to not have that happen again. We all need to do a lot of work around that.”

On the river north of Boom Island, Brown and I paddle on. When I ask what scares her most about her upcoming Mississippi trip, she doesn’t hesitate.

“Racists,” she says. “The most dangerous thing on the trail is always other people.”

With that in mind, Brown has refocused her Mississippi journey more as a community event than a solo one, and she is working to find people who want to paddle sections with her. Because even though there might be dangers—human and otherwise—she’s going, unapologetically.

We move north on the river, past an abandoned railroad bridge where, the week before, a bunch of kids stood yelling, “Is that Devin? That’s Devin!” It turned out to be a group she’d taken paddling a month earlier through the Northside Safety NET.

Further north, we come to a small island with a heron rookery in its trees. At this time of year, the nests are empty.

“How many nests do you think there are?” I ask.

“Maybe a hundred,” she says.

“Have you ever seen it when it’s full of babies?” I ask.

“Yeah,” Brown says. “The energy of the island is very different.”

“They’re such cranky birds,” I say. “Most of the time they don’t like each other, but then they come together here.”
She looks up from the river, into the trees full of nests.

“Well,” she says, “there are things we do for survival.”  

Devin Brown will launch her source-to-sea Mississippi River attempt on Memorial Day 2024. See or follow her on Instagram at @afrodiskayak.