Reality on the river
Matthew Mohlke is not a consumer of reality television. He does not stay up late at night to browse the endless channels filled with toddler beauty queens, New Jersey mob wives and men with five wives. If you asked him who Snookie or Honey Boo Boo are, he might think you were speaking a language all your own. “I’ve never really watched reality-based TV,” Mohlke admitted. It is not because the Fountain City man has a particular disdain for the genre, but, rather, Mohlke himself lives a life that many would agree is cut out for reality TV, and starting this Wednesday he will be the subject of such a program.
Mohlke is one of five men whose journeys down the Mississippi River will be the subject of History Channel’s “Mississippi Men.” While Mohlke is under contract not to reveal too much about the series, which premieres Wednesday, January 28, at 9 p.m., he said that the show will chronicle his three-month adventure down the Mississippi this past summer. “There are not too many guys who will put everything away to paddle down rivers,” he explained. “I guess I must be a rare type of strange person.”
While the Mississippi Men website bills Mohlke as “a skilled pool player who’s left a corporate job [to travel] down the Mississippi River on a homemade raft in order to embrace the simpler things in life,” his experience and passion for rivers goes deeper than a one-sentence description. Mohlke’s river journey he filmed for TV is not a spur of the moment decision made by a brooding young man dissatisfied with his existence in corporate America. In fact, he had already taken that journey down the Mississippi — twice — the first time nearly 16 years ago. It was 1999 after he quit his cushy job at a Fortune 500 sales company in Detroit. “I literally chased my sales manager down the steps on a Friday afternoon,” Mohlke remembered. After a few years in his corporate position, Mohlke began to grow tired of the day-to-day business of a big city. He can still recall running down to the parking lot after work to catch his manager. “I told him there were things I wanted to do before I got stuck into the whole career thing,” Mohlke said. He was 24 and took the trip after being inspired by American naturalist and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. It was tough; he lived on a $3-a-day budget and danger on the river was on his mind throughout most of the trip. Now at 40 years old, Mohlke is still in the pursuit of adventure, but with a clearer sense of self and the overall skill needed to withstand many consecutive days in a canoe or raft. “There’s a quote that’s something like, ‘the rivers never change, but I do,’” he explained. “Every year that I go down the river, it’s exactly the same, and I’ve changed so much. It’s a barometer of my personal growth as a human being.” His exploits on the Mississippi are notches in the timeline of his life, which narrate his transition from an adventure-seeking young adult to a full grown man with responsibilities and a family. Mohlke and his wife, Kristina, who works at Knitcraft, are expecting their first child. “It will take a couple years for the baby to be ready to go on river,” he said. “[We want to] bring her up in an environment that appreciates nature and [exploration] in an age of handheld devices.”
Not confined to the Mississippi River, Mohlke’s love of rivers, and nature as a whole, has taken him to the Amazon River and the Paraná River in South America, as well as many of the National and State Parks in the United States. “Piranhas scatter like sunfish,” Mohlke said of the varying amounts of danger awaiting on the Paraná. “There are Paraguayan drug runners going by. The Prefectura, which is the [Argentine] Navy, escorted us after they realized we were sitting ducks.” His Amazon River journey was part of a larger story that was the subject of the documentary “Big River Man,” which focused on Slovenian long-distance swimmer Martin Strel, who swam the 3,300 miles of the Amazon. “I was the navigator for three world record events,” he explained. “I was the guy with the map and GPS and radio. I [was the one who decided] whether we go left or right.” The film gained national exposure when it was shown at the renowned Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Mohlke also self-published a book about the experience, “Floating Down the Country.” He sold copies of the book out of the cars he drove while he worked as an auto deliverer. “I delivered rich peoples’ cars,” he explained of the job. During those seven years traveling the country in luxury vehicles, Mohlke said that he made it to all 50 states, most of the State Parks and to all 30 Major League Baseball fields. For Mohlke, the unusual job was fitting after his first Mississippi River adventure. “When you get done with a big trip like that, you don’t know what to do, you get depressed,” he said. “[You] can’t really go back to normal life anymore.”
A life dreaming on the river
A Minnesota native from Oronoco, Mohlke, who is a graduate of Winona State University, now lives in Fountain City, Wis., with Kristina and a couple of cats. When he isn’t exploring rivers, Mohlke charts the sometimes turbulent waters of high school, as a substitute teacher and the golf coach for both the Cochrane-Fountain City boys and girls golf teams. He also enjoys playing pool, which is a story line Mississippi Men follows throughout the series, and is currently working on another book. “It’s a coming of age story,” Mohlke said. “It’s about a junior high school age kid and the temptation and corruptions [he faces] as he grows up.”
With the excitement of an impending baby and a reality series, Mohlke hasn’t had the time to hammer out the details of his next trip, wherever it might take him. “I have some visions, one of which [is that] I would like to paddle from Seattle to Alaska,” he explained. Mohlke’s aspirations are not only a part of his future, but are also insights into his present and past. “Growing up I had maps of rivers all over my walls. I was always reading books about rivers and travel,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming about rivers since I was a kid.”
To learn more about Mississippi Men and air dates visit http://www.history.com/shows/mississippi-men/about.