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He is on a very long portage for a good cause

Rochester man is crossing state to promote suicide prevention

By Fiona Edberg - Staff Writer | Sep 19, 2021

Evan Hansen walks along County Road 16 west of Blue Earth on his way across southern Minnesota while carrying a canoe on his shoulders.

There is a rising mental health epidemic in our country. Countless individuals wage battle against anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder; the list goes on.

Though the battles are ubiquitous, they are also, unfortunately, often invisible to friends and family of individuals who fight them daily.

Depression and anxiety are not always easy to spot, but a man walking along the side of the road, hoisting a yellow canoe over his head, certainly is.

Recognizing this, Rochester native Evan Hansen shouldered a canoe and began a 313 mile trek across Minnesota to quite literally make visible an issue which often passes by us, unseen.

“It is an act of love,” Hansen says, “an act of symbolism to say mental health is not something you can see. It is an individual burden.”

Hansen has named his endeavor Portage for a Purpose. He intends to direct any attention it receives toward bringing awareness and funding to suicide prevention. Hansen has partnered with National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Southern Minnesota as the beneficiary of his efforts. The non-profit organization is dedicated toward providing mental health services for those who need it most.

Hansen takes suicide prevention close to heart.

“I have recently had four people from different circles of my life die by suicide. That’s four people too many,” Hansen shares via his Facebook page.

Hansen was moved to honor their memory, as well as shed light upon the issue which brought about their deaths.

It is not just Hansen’s journey, but the very canoe he carries which memorializes lives lost to suicide.

Hansen’s 15-pound canoe is much more than what it appears to cars whizzing by it on busy roads.

Close inspection of the canoe reveals hundreds of names printed across its surface.

Hansen inscribes the names of individuals who have died by suicide on the canoe as a commemoration. As Hansen explains, “It is a walking memorial.”

He adds, “It is not just somber; it is also a celebration of their lives.”

Hansen’s canoe currently preserves the memory of 350 individuals. He continuously adds more names to the memorial, whether they are submitted to him online or requested personally during his travels.

The inspiration for the endeavor had been brewing at the back of Hansen’s mind for some time.

“I got the idea in August of 2019 after I was done leading trips for Outward Bound,” Hansen says.

“I brought a lightweight canoe to try out in the Boundary Waters, and one person said, ‘I wonder how far I could walk with this?'” he continues.

Hansen thought the challenge could be an effective way to bring awareness to an issue which was meaningful to him. However, he waited for inspiration to strike.

“I had no reason to do it at the time, so I put it on the back burner,” he explains.

After recognizing a pressing need for measures to prevent suicide, Hansen found a purpose for his trek.

He began the journey on Sept. 1 of this year, at the border between South Dakota and Minnesota. He intends to travel across Minnesota toward Winona.

The 313 mile walk can also be measured as a 100,000 rod route.

“A rod is the standard length of a canoe,” Hansen explains. “It is how you measure distances in the Boundary Waters.”

Hansen originally intended to travel along the Superior Hiking Trail, but his plans were derailed due to wildfires plaguing the Lake Superior area.

He sees a silver lining to the change in plans, however.

“I meet more people this way,” Hansen figures.

His journey is flexible. He tries to walk 10 miles every morning, but the distance and time of his travels is always subject to change, as is the date of his arrival in Winona.

He hopes to complete his journey in early October, “If my body holds up and the weather cooperates,” he says.

Those who are interested in supporting Portage for a Purpose can visit the project’s Facebook page.

A post at the top of the page leads to Hansen’s site at 4giving.com, where he is collecting donations for NAMI as well as any requests for names which individuals would like memorialized on his canoe.

Hansen wishes “Happy trails” to those who are following his journey, and hopes they will consider supporting suicide prevention through donating to the cause.