As seen in the Clarion-Ledger
A few days ago, Matt Burdine saw a golden eagle and a bald eagle lock talons and fall hundreds of feet through the sky.
“The golden eagle won, by the way,” he laughed.
He has watched geese, ducks and great white pelicans make their graceful migration south. He has stared in amazement as nature bathes its leaves in autumn’s postcard colors.
Such experiences are why Burdine followed his heart instead of his college degree.
The 30-year-old native of Greenville is paddling the length of the Mississippi River — 2,350 miles — in a Wenonah canoe.
“I try not to think how many strokes it’s going to require,” he said. “I’m calling it ‘a million strokes for a cure” and I imagine it will be close to that. I plan on putting this paddle on the wall when I finish. It will be a fine keepsake.”
Burdine finds peace on the water. Always has.
But on this trip, he is seeking more.
In 2003, Burdine’s mother — Sallie Astor Burdine — died of breast cancer. The disease also claimed his grandmother.
He is making this journey to raise money for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. He has a website, set up through the foundation, where people can donate.
“Everybody has a special woman in their life, whether it’s their wife, mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, cousin or a special friend,” he said. “Breast cancer touches everyone. Someone is diagnosed with breast cancer every two minutes. But we are making progress, thanks to the research being done every day. And I set up the fund so that the money never comes to me, it goes straight to the foundation.
“Here is the cool thing: Every $25 donated will fund 30 minutes of research. And research leads to revelations. I’m hoping to raise $50,000, which would equal 1,000 hours of research. The fact that I’m floating down river for a cause certainly provides me with extra fuel.”
Burdine has a tough time discussing how the loss of his mother affected him.
“It’s deeply personal,” he said. “Certainly, it inspired me to live life to the fullest. While she was sick, she wrote a book “Who Needs Hair: The Flip Side to Chemotherapy.” She inspired me to always keep a flip side when things aren’t going great.
“That’s about as far as I can go into it. As I said, it’s a deeply personal thing that I’m not ready to share completely with the whole world.”
If things had gone as planned, Burdine would be working on Wall Street. He earned an MBA from Ole Miss in 2010 and headed for New York.
“I was up there for a few days, and it hit me right in the face — my heart was in the Colorado mountains. So I followed the calling,” he said.
Burdine works as a white water river guide during the summer in Buena Vista, Colo. and teaches snow skiing in Vail during the winter.
“I ski on the snow in the winter, and after it melts I float on it in the summer,” he said. “There is something very cool about that.
“Being a river guide, I already had most of the equipment I needed for the trip. I packed all of that, put a guitar on top of it and took off.”
He began on Aug. 24 at Minnesota’s Lake Itasca. He will reach the finish line — the Gulf of Mexico — sometime around New Year’s.
He covers between 20 and 40 miles a day.
“I’m not really pushing it,” he said. “I don’t have a set timetable to finish because when you take your time on a trip like this … that’s when the magic appears. There are some really neat towns along the way, where I will stop and get supplies every four or five days.
“I’ve met a lot of interesting people already, including what they call ‘river angels,’ who show spontaneous acts of kindness to travelers. The kindness varies. It might be somebody tossing you a cold beer, or it might be someone who drives you into town and helps load the supplies.”
He also has met breast cancer survivors.
“They give me a great gift with two words — ‘thank you,’ ” Burdine said.
Sparky Reardon, former dean of students at Ole Miss, described Burdine as “all Mississippi Delta, a little bit larger than life for a young man his age, but such a gentleman with tremendous charisma.”
Added Reardon: “I’m not surprised Matt has taken on this challenge. The one word I associate with Matt is ‘passionate.’ I saw passion in him when he was involved in student government, when he was involved in his fraternity and when he was looking for opportunities to serve others.
“It’s hard for me to comprehend him out on the river by himself without anyone to talk with. But knowing Matt as I do, I’m sure the eagles and ospreys and other critters that he encounters are getting an earful.”
The river isn’t the challenge, he said.
“It’s the mindset, it’s learning to appreciate it more and more every day, getting in the rhythm of it, being comfortable in the solitude,” he said. “Every day out here is like a Sunday, a special day. You’re never looking at the same thing because the river changes every hour … the way the sun hits it, the angle of the light.
“So does the weather. I don’t care what the forecast says, it will change. When you mix wind with current, strange things happen. And it’s getting colder. The other morning, it was 29 degrees and the winds are starting pick up.”
He is aware of the dangers involved. The current of the mighty Mississippi iwould be life threatening should the canoe tip over.
“While I can relax and enjoy it, I still must remain aware and focused at all times,” he said. “I’m blessed to have been on water all my life, so I think I have a good understanding of the current and what to do should something bad happen — though I’m not thinking that way.”
He sleeps in a tent on sandbars and cooks over an open fire. He reads. He counts the stars. He absorbs the sounds on the banks of the world’s fourth-longest river when the sun is on the other side of the planet.
He turned 30 on the 30th day of his trip.
“I didn’t plan it. It just happened, which doesn’t surprise me at all,” he said.
Most likely, Burdine will spend the approaching holidays paddling the final few hundred miles of his trip.
“My dad, Hank, lives in Vicksburg,” he said. “I might wind up coming by there on Christmas. That would be special, to have him come out and share this experience with me on Christmas Day.
“And I’ve thought about being out here on Thanksgiving. That might be one of the most beautiful ways to celebrate it — waking up on the river and being thankful for just being alive.”