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9-year-old and his dad kayak entire Cedar River to raise money for Make a Wish Foundation

Liam Winninger, 9, of Waterloo, sits in his kayak on the Cedar River. Liam and his father, Benjamin Winninger, set out o
Liam Winninger, 9, of Waterloo, sits in his kayak on the Cedar River. Liam and his father, Benjamin Winninger, set out on July 4 to kayak the entire length of the Cedar River and raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The duo finished the trip in 16 days and has raised more than $6,300 so far. Donations can be made until the end of the month.
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It was an adventure Benjamin Winninger and his 9-year-old son Liam had been talking about for a while.

“We would talk about kayaking, and wonder if people had kayaked Cedar River from start to finish, and a plan grew from there,” Winninger said.

The more they talked about it, the more the Waterloo duo wanted to give it a try, “and then one day we were like, why don’t we just do it?” Liam said.

But the Winningers wanted the trip to be more than just a kayaking trip. If they were going to do it, they wanted to make it mean something.

“And that’s when my dad said if we’re going to do something this big, we should do it for charity,” Liam said.

So Liam started researching charity organizations and set his sights on the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that helps fulfill the wishes of terminally ill children between the ages of 2½ and 17 years old. `

“I liked that if you raised enough money, you could help a sick kid get to do something really cool like go to Disney World or go to a water park or be a pirate,” Liam said.

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“After that, all that was left to do was plan and wait for the river and wait for the right river and weather conditions,” Winninger said.

The father and son spent a lot of time looking at topical maps and river charts for the 338-mile river, Winninger said. They also drove along several segments of the river and did some practice kayak trips to acclimate to the river current, speed and conditions.

Then, on July 4, everything fell into place and their journey began.

Winninger and his son put their kayaks in at Hayfield, Minn., and began their 16 day trip down the river — 15 of those days were spent on the water and one was spent waiting out some bad weather — down the Cedar River, then onto where it merges with the Iowa River at Columbus Junction, then across the Mississippi River — to their final destination in New Boston, Ill. Along their way, their family — Winninger’s wife and Liam’s two sisters — would drive out and meet them at their stops on the river, bringing them food and other treats and giving them a much-needed break from the never-ending paddling.

And as they traveled, they met interesting people, encountered lots of wildlife and racked up a bunch of stories to tell when they got home.

Liam said his favorite parts of the trip were “camping outside and eating spam every day.” He also liked it when he got to visit with his sisters, and at times — like when they were one the section of river close to home in Waterloo — he got to see some friends and spend the night at home.

The toughest part, Liam said, was staying motivated to keep going.

“On day five, I think we realized that we had gotten ourselves into something that was a lot harder than we expected — you know, endurance-wise,” Winninger said. “And Liam and I had this real deep discussion about whether we were going to continue and if we would have regrets not finishing. And as we thought about it, we saw a real boost in support and donations and feedback, and that really motivated us to keep going.”

“It was like it showed us that this trip wasn’t just about us or the money we were raising,” Liam said. “We realized we were doing something that meant something to other people. And I think after that we knew we had to finish.”

For Winninger, it was tough to pick out a favorite part.

“I loved the whole thing. I loved the challenge — the physical challenge. I loved being with my son. I loved pulling over and setting up camp on the sandbars and just being out in the middle of nowhere. I loved the conversations that we were having. And I just loved the fact that when we wanted to, we could just jump out of the boat and start swimming and just have fun. All of it was just an absolutely incredible thing that we were able to do together.”

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Winninger and Liam made it to Illinois on Friday, but seeing at they were so close, they decided to go a little bit farther and do a little kayaking on the Mississippi River. They got back home to Waterloo on Saturday, exhausted but happy and proud of their accomplishment and humbled by all the support they received during their journey.

Their goal — aside from completing the journey — was to raise $2,500 for Make-A-Wish Foundation. The pair had already raised more than $6,300 as of Monday and will continue accepting donations until the end of the month at https://secure2.wish.org/site/TR/WishYourWay/Make-A-WishIowa?px=5417079&pg=personal&fr_id=3423#.XxdPBabsbIX

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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