ERIC SHELTON/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — From left, Rob Treppendahl, Max Zoghbi and Bowman Hitchens load their kayaks onto a truck after stopping at the dock near Silver Street Saturday afternoon in Natchez. The group of friends is on a 60-day journey down the Mississippi River to raise

Trio of kayakers paddles in

Published 12:01am Sunday, August 14, 2011

NATCHEZ — As a few drops of rain turned into a light drizzle late Saturday afternoon, three specks showed up in the distance on the Mississippi River at Natchez Under-the-Hill.

Four or five people took a few steps down toward the river in hopes of getting a better look at the approaching shapes, and in only a few minutes, the shapes turned into three men in kayaks — heavily bearded, tanned, weather worn.

The men shouted hellos, smiled and waved, despite having just paddled 47 miles in 12 hours.

Bowman Hitchens, Max Zoghbi and Rob Treppendahl have been traveling the Mighty Mississippi since June 21 in hopes of raising money for the Gardere Community Christian School in New Orleans and for the Interfaith Compassion Ministries of Oxford — an organization that aids the homeless.

The trip totaled 2,300 miles, and on Aug. 20, the men will have finished it — from Lake Itasca to New Orleans — in 60 days.

Saturday was day 54 of their journey, which they’ve named A Wake in the Current. The voyage has not only helped them to raise nearly $35,000 for the two charities; it’s also changed them each on a spiritual, personal level.

“We’re three, young 20-somethings getting up at 5 a.m. every day to put ourselves out on the water,” said Zoghbi, 23. “It’s not just us doing that.”

What he means — and really, what any of them would say — is their journey has been made possible through their faith in God, who Hitchens, 22, said gave him the idea for the trip in the first place when he was hiking in Colorado last summer.

He’d been volunteering with ICM, he said, and he’d been praying about how he could help.

“The idea of a fundraiser came up, and God put it on my heart that Rob should be involved,” Hitchens said.

When he started feeling that maybe he should kayak the Mississippi, he shared the idea with Treppendahl, 23, who said he immediately agreed. His exact words, Treppendahl said, were, “I’m down.”

Treppendahl said he wanted to make sure he was entering into the idea for the right reasons, though, so he spent time praying about the journey from August to October 2010.

Zoghbi said he met up with Treppendahl in Baton Rouge in October — Oct. 22, 2010, to be exact — but two days before, he’d been sitting on the levee.

“I had a crazy idea to kayak a river,” Zoghbi said. “Rob came into town, and I told him what I’d been thinking, and he freaked out.

“And that was it.”

Some have questioned the trio’s motives for the endeavor: Is this just an excuse for a thrill designed an as opportunity to donate to charity?

They’re not offended by that notion.

“That’s a totally valid concern,” Hitchens said.

But he explains why the naysayers are wrong.

“While this is fun, it’s also the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” he said. “We’re in 115-degree heat every day. I’ve worked construction jobs, and this is harder.”

The manual labor is only half of the reason it’s more difficult — the emotional toll it has taken on them isn’t easy, either, they said.

But it’s worth it.

The guys rely on the generosity of those in the towns they visit for a place to wash clothes and bathe.

You won’t catch them in a bed, though.

Since they’re raising money for the homeless, they’re trying to identify with them — another thing Hitchens said they wouldn’t be able to do if they were merely donating money, rather than living the experience.

“But we’re not doing it to be martyrs,” Zoghbi added. “We really want to identify with (homeless people).”

Because they’ve committed so fully to the project, Hitchens said, Zoghbi experienced discrimination in a small town in Iowa.

They can kind of laugh about it now, though.

“I’m 6’4”, 200 pounds, half Arab, I have this huge beard, I’m wearing my sunglasses and my bandana,” he said, remembering walking into the Iowan ice cream shop.

He was also carrying their charger, which, they admit, looks like a bomb.

“I walk in, the bell on the door rings, and it just gets silent,” Zoghbi said. “The owner comes up and asks me what he can get me, he just keeps making sure I’m there for business.

“The guy was very rude.”

Treppehdahl said there’s a certain “turning point” between people seeing them and then hearing about A Wake in the Current.

“People stare at us like we’re bums,” he said.

But once they hear that they’re educated — Zoghbi has a degree in psychology from Louisiana State University, Treppendahl has a degree in business from the University of Mississippi and two days after the journey ends, Hitchens will begin his final semester before receiving two degrees from the University of Mississippi: one in history and one in religion — they change their minds completely.

“We have to check our pride so much, because you immediately want to defend yourself by saying, ‘I have a college degree,’” Hitchens said. “It’s been a humbling experience to allow people to judge you.”

They’re traveling in a group of three, but since they each paddle at their own pace, they said, there’s not much chance to talk with each other during the 12 hours a day they are en route, which means there’s a lot of left over thinking time. And after giving to charity, that’s really what the trip was about anyway, Treppendahl said.

“I’m a very detail-oriented person, so it’s been about stepping back and getting a bigger perspective on life,” he said.

“We did not know what we were doing. I’ve learned a lot of patience and learned a lot about accommodating other people.”

Zoghbi said for him, he’s learned that life is responding to things that are made clear to you, and that, he said, is what’s made the journey South worth it.

“As Christians, sometimes God calls you to do hard things,” he said. “This was made so clear to me that not doing it would have been foolish.

“From here on out, in whatever I do, I know that in the midst of my imperfections, God is always going to provide.”