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Heeding a Stroke of Inspiration

A Slovenian is about to become the first person to swim all 2,360 miles of the Mississippi River, if pollution, lightning or gators don't get him first.

September 07, 2002|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GEISMAR, La. — This lonely stretch of the Mississippi River wakes to an inexplicable oompah, the rhythmic thumping of a tuba accompanied by trumpet and accordion. Five musicians stand on the muddy, overgrown bank--as if dropped there from the heavens--playing a Slovenian melody amid swarms of black flies.

The ruckus startles a passing towboat captain who idles his engine, peering through binoculars, distracted from an even stranger sight upriver.

Two arms thrash the water. A head occasionally pokes above the surface. Martin Strel is paddling, kicking, gasping his way toward the Gulf of Mexico.

It takes an eccentric to attempt such a feat, to dream of swimming the 2,360-mile length of the river some call the Big Muddy. His journey began in Minnesota headwaters and has progressed stroke by stroke, from dawn until dusk, every day for nine weeks.

Blisters and cuts mark his body. Barges rumble past as oblivious as elephants, swamping him in their wake. He has avoided snakes and alligators and, he says, survived a lightning bolt that missed him by a few feet.

Just as bad are the old tires, bottles, cans and empty propane tanks. He has suffered an assortment of stomach, ear and eye ailments along the way.

"Sometimes I have it very, very bad," he says. "But always there is tomorrow."

The 47-year-old Slovenian bolsters himself with a nightly dose of red wine, cases of which were brought along for the expedition. He takes strength from the band that has just arrived from his homeland, performing folk songs at various points along the river as he slogs toward the finish.

So close now, Strel wakes early each morning, slathering himself in lanolin and pinching back into his wetsuit, hobbling to the water's edge.

"Same," he says in an accent as tortured as the last mile of a long swim. "Each day is the same."

*

If you are looking for deeper meaning in the tale of Martin Strel, something about the human spirit or a Mark Twain-style saga about traversing the watery backbone of the nation, the man isn't much help. Essentially, he is swimming the Mississippi because that is who he is. He is a swimmer. He puts his head down and goes.

His son and a friend have traveled with him from Slovenia to drive his equipment along the banks, cook meals and arrange for motel rooms at night. A handful of Americans have volunteered too, including three kayakers who escort him down the river.

This is not the first time a swimmer has confronted the Mississippi. A Depression-era salesman named Fred Newton swam from Minneapolis to Baton Rouge in 1930 and a Los Angeles man, Nick Irons, duplicated the trip five years ago.

But according to people who keep such records, Strel would be the first to cover the river's entire length. He began at Lake Itasca, Minn., on July 4, and is expected to reach the Gulf by Monday, far eclipsing the mark he already holds in the Guinness World Records book for swimming 1,866 miles down the River Danube.

Strel hardly looks the type. His build is squat, not at all square-shouldered in the manner of a world-class swimmer. He has, for lack of a more delicate term, a good-sized gut.

"Maybe if you want to swim so many days, you have to be a little bit fat," says his son, Borut, 20, who minds the van full of wetsuits, towels and power bars. "Maybe other swimmers are thinner, but they are not as strong."

When the current runs swift, when Strel can endure wearing flippers despite the skin peeling off his heels, he covers 40 miles before sunset.

"Not human," says Matthew Mohlke, one of the kayakers. "No man should be able to do that day after day."

Mohlke, a 28-year-old Minnesotan, initially wondered if he had signed on for a pipe dream, but his suspicions were eased the first day when, as he wrote in a diary, Strel "swam so fast out of the headwaters that we could barely keep up with him. He hits rocks with his hands, with his head and with his knees. Jagged sticks puncture him, but he keeps going."

Debris was only part of the problem.

Eddies threatened to suck the swimmer under. At locks along the upper river, suspicious lockmasters--you're doing what?--made him get out and walk to the other end. Near Grand Rapids, Minn., the water was so rough that Strel became seasick and told a pelican skimming past: "I want to switch places."

His companions soon realized that he favored coming up for air on his left, which meant the kayaker on that side took the brunt of curses when he led Strel off course or into a hazard. Mohlke and the others agreed to rotate through what they called the "hot seat."

Within weeks, Strel's body was rubbed raw by his wetsuit, his head sunburned and the bridge of his nose creased by goggles.

"The mayflies are hatched and are thick on top of the water," Mohlke wrote. "I wonder how many Martin swallows each day when he comes up for air."

Asked about these hardships, Strel responds: "Why should I do this? A simple question that is difficult to answer."

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