Sam Norman On Potato Farming In Suffolk To Kayaking 3,734km
By James Amer
In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Mississippi River can be seen as a symbol of escape for protagonists Huck and Jim; Huck covets freedom from an abusive, drunken father; Jim a getaway from slavery.
For Sam Norman, kayaking along one of the longest rivers in North America was an exhilarating getaway from an otherwise mundane summer working on his now wife’s parent’s farm in Suffolk. One summer, Sam and two friends – Matt Fraser and Harry Hogg traded in long days working in the fields to this epic journey.
He was on holiday from university, working on Low Farm in 2012. It was post-potato harvest, and Sam was spending his days in Suffolk listening to explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ autobiography—Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know. “I remember thinking, I’m not working a potato harvest again,” he says, “let’s do something that’s a little more fun.”
Low Farm is on the edge of Waldringfield village and offers proximity to the River Deben. Something a little more fun could have involved launching a dinghy or sailing boat from the banks of the river. Crabbing or walks along a nearby small, sandy beach were also an option. But speaking to Sam, his need for adrenaline driven adventures comes through. The aforementioned wouldn’t have cut it, not by a long way.
“I googled the longest river in the world,” he explains, “which is obviously the Nile. I spoke to someone about what kayaking the Nile entails, and he basically responded by saying it involves being eaten by crocodiles. I realised that was a silly idea.”
Local options then? Perhaps the 95km River Waveney, the 76km River Stour, or the 54km River Deben?
Sam began poring over a list of the world’s longest rivers—which quickly discounted staying in Suffolk—until he found one in a first-world country. America’s Mississippi River took his fancy, and what started out as a pipedream of what the following summer could entail turned into reality just over 16 months later.
In that time, he worked with the two friends from school who would join him on the trip—Harry and Matt—to plan their goals for the expedition. “I know a lot of people who do these trips for a living and for fun,” he says, “and it’s all about deciding what you want to get out of it. We decided that we wanted to raise money for charity, but we didn’t want to touch any of that money for the actual trip.”
They were recent university graduates, cash strapped, and so naturally turned towards sponsorship and the support of family and friends to raise the money they needed. “All of our kit was sponsored by various companies, and we managed to secure a big grant,” he explains.
By the time the summer of 2013 arrived, and the three of them were primed and ready at Lake Itasca—the source of the Mississippi—they had raised over £16,000 for Help for Heroes, a charity that supports service personnel and military veterans who have sustained injuries, illnesses, or wounds in the line of duty.
The trip cost them no money, the main goal, says Sam. They were ready to face the waters of the Mississippi, with a full one-night practice run on a river in Suffolk amounting to the extent of their training.
3,734km is a daunting figure. Add on top of that the sheer volume of commerce that is transported up and down the river daily. The National Park Service website in the US states that the Mississippi River basin is responsible for 92% of the nation’s agricultural exports, 78% of the world’s exports in grains and soybeans, and most of the livestock and hogs produced nationally.
At its widest mark—near Lake Winnibigoshish—it spans more than 17km.
“The isolation is dangerous,” Sam explains. “You’re far from anywhere. As the river goes on it’s the human part that becomes treacherous. There are locks and dams three stories high with a big water flow and suction.
“Then there are 200-foot barges that have no idea you’re there, and the next thing you know they’re within 20 metres of you.”
It took Sam and his friends 80 days to complete the trip. For about 60 of those days, he says, they were sleeping in hammocks along the banks of the river. Safe from the dangers of weaving in and out of shipping lanes, Sam recalls the peril that accompanies sleeping in the wild.
“There were moments when it was difficult. We would see bears, wolves, and coyotes on land,” he says. “At one point in the evening, when we were all in our hammocks, we heard a pack of coyotes running around. We could hear the yapping noises, and it wasn’t until the morning that we realised those noises were coming from directly under our hammocks. You can only laugh at it,” he adds, “it happened but we were okay.”
Adapting to the demands of the wild was one of the most challenging aspects, says Sam. That, and the repetition. “It’s all day, every day,” he says, “there’s always a last-ditch attempt to get yourself out of a dodgy situation. Spending two days being chased by thunderstorms, for example, knowing that you need to get to the bottom of the river.”
It was challenging, Sam says, and it puts into perspective the dedication explorers like Levison Wood give to the trade. “Going out and doing these trips is amazing if you have the time and resources,” Sam adds, “but the reality is you have to dedicate your whole life to it—you have to be willing to make huge sacrifices for the work.”
Being with two childhood mates helped. “When you’re having a shit moment you just look at one of them, and they’ll usually throw something at you,” he laughs.
He recalls a day on which he was particularly struggling, when he was “having a bitch and a moan.” He was given a helping hand though, in the form of a carp—renowned on the Mississippi as nature’s acrobats, performing twists and turns above the water’s surface.
Sam retells the tale of looking over to speak to Harry at the moment one of the carps left the water—spotlight shining on it as if it was a jester on a West End stage—and hit his friend right in the face. “It was one of those moments,” he says, “where you’re like hang on, life’s not that bad, I’m sitting on the Mississippi River with my two best mates.”
The generosity of the American people—some of the most generous people he’s ever come across, Sam says—also assuaged their troubles on the water. They met a man in a bar who told them he’d just donated $100 to their just giving page. People donated to their food supplies, and some offered them a bed for the night in their homes. “I was blown away!” Sam exclaims. It’s that kind of act that kept them going, that made the daily porridge and cheap cans of chilli con carne easier to swallow.
“I’m massively proud of myself and the guys I did that with,” he says. “I try to translate that into what I do now. People can do things, and they are more impressive than they know. Your head is much more powerful than the rest of your body and if you want to do something you’ll do it. That’s what came out of the Mississippi.”
Sam—who by day works for a company organising sailing trips abroad and is a part-time member of the Army Reserves—has always had a penchant for adventure. “Not a year has gone by,” he says, “where I haven’t looked at a challenge and cracked it.”
He’s skydived, is a trained kayaker, and a frequent sailor. The soldiering mentality picked up from the Army Reserves is easy transferable. “Outdoor people are outdoor people, they just get amongst it.”
Sam plans next summer to tackle the Danube River—which runs through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Ukraine. But, exploring has to be balanced now with a job, a marriage, a mortgage, and the reality that these big trips take an incredible amount of planning and energy.
It’s about taking the adventurous mindset forward by looking for opportunities where perhaps someone has dropped out of an expedition event, or by organising weekend trips into the wild in and around Britain. He concludes:
“I’m still ticking those adventurous boxes alongside living a mainstream life,”
And that is a life without potatoes!