Lake Itasca to New Orleans
After a 7 hour drive I made it to Lake Itasca. It's beautiful here - a crystal clear lake lined with pine trees. The air is filled with the pine fragrance you only smell in the north woods and the mountains. When My friend Kent and I arrived at the park we were pleased to find out we could camp here for the low low price of only twenty five dollars. I will do my best to avoid paying to camp again on this trip. When we got to our site Kent set up his tent and I decided to paddle three miles down the lake to see the beginning of the Mississippi. There was a strong headwind and light rain on my trip up the lake. Not exactly ideal paddling weather, but pretty none the less. The rain stopped when I reached the head waters.
I had expected to see a small river, but this thing is tiny. At its widest point it is a massive four feet across before flowing through a three foot diameter tile under the road. I find this small river much more intimidating than a large one. It makes me feel a long way from home and an eternity from New Orleans. Tomorrow I'll shove off and leave the real world behind. Nothing about this is going to be easy, but I know all my troubles will be worth while. In the time it has taken me to write this letter, a woman has backed her Dodge van into a tree after first getting out to see how close she was. The guy three spaces down has set off the alarm on his PT Cruiser twice, and two loud drunks just backed their boat in across from us. I will do my best to avoid public campgrounds in the future.
My first day on the river. Kent and I were up early to take pictures of me and the boat at the headwaters. After that we loaded the boat and I headed downstream a short way and stashed it in the weeds. We went to a small cafe just outside the park for my last meal with someone I know for quite some time. After breakfast we went back to the boat and said our short goodbyes. After some awkward silence I paddled off. The river was extremely small coming out of Itasca, and my 16.5 foot long boat was definitely not the ideal craft to negotiate the twist and turns of the beginning of the mighty Mississippi. Shortly after leaving the park, the river flows into a series of ancient lake beds. The lack of incline in these lakes causes the river to meander terribly. I went back and forth through the oxbows bouncing off the banks on every turn. This kayak pinball was extremely tiring.
After the lakes the river goes into the woods which are beautiful up here. Unfortunately, when it went into the woods, it also went through a five mile long shallow rapid. I scraped many a boulder and had to portage twice. From the rapids the river enters another lake bed and begins to meander. I was able to get through much easier as the river was wider and the turns not as sharp. Just as I thought things were getting better, the river turned into a swamp. I spent two hours watching the grass blades under water to see if they were swaying with the channel. Now I am out of the swamp and at a nice campsite. I covered 38 miles today. Not bad given the size of the river.
More of the same. I am getting tired of being lost. I have learned to look at the grass on the bottom of the river for guidance. It often times bends in the direction of the channel. My method is far from foolproof, but it's the best I have so far. As the day wears on, the north wind increases. My weather radio says winds of 20 to 25 miles per hour with gusts of 30 miles per hour. I reach the last campsite before Lake Bemidji. I am concerned about big waves but decide to press on. Four miles later I reach the lake. The waves are big - four feet with occasional five footers. I decide to go for it. The channel leaves the lake three miles upwind from where I am. It takes me an hour to get there and I'm exhausted. I welcome the shelter of the trees. I pass an old man on roller blades. He asks me if I'm going all the way. I tell him yes and he wishes me well. After a 200 yard portage, I paddle several miles downstream to a beautiful campsite on a hill.
I leave my campsite about 9:30 AM. I am looking forward to today as it will be big lakes instead of marshes. I make good time across Cass Lake and the weather is beautiful and calm. Perhaps I'll be able to paddle the 15 miles strait across Lake Winnibigoshish instead of the 30 along the shore. I reach the Big Winnie and stop at a cafe to check the weather and eat a whole pizza by myself.
It's calm and supposed to stay that way so I head out. There is a point a few miles out where I have to turn so I focus on it. I've never paddled ten miles of open water before and it's not easy. I should have peed before I left. I make it to shore safely and relieve myself. As I am unloading my boat to camp, two old men pull up to the dock in a fishing boat. They ask me if I'm going all the way and tell me they were canoe racers in the fifties. We have a short conversation. They wish me luck and take off. I made 45 miles today. This is the first day that New Orleans has actually seemed possible.
Today has been more of the same. Marshes that wind on forever and countless lakes to get lost in. I am just out of Grand Rapids, which means I am in the 75 or so miles of headwaters I don't have a map for. I still have my GPS if things get hairy. I am nearing the half way mark on the headwaters and the river is getting bigger. I hope things will get easier soon.
Today was a day of rest for me. I camped at a questionable site in Cohasset last night. There was a sign that clearly said no overnight camping, but I couldn't see it from my tent and that makes it perfectly OK. I was on the water by 8:00 this morning and paddled the 10 miles from Cohasset to Grand Rapids with a one mile side trip because I went down the wrong finger of a lake and had to go back to find the channel. There is a dam in Grand Rapids that requires a six block portage - far too great a distance to carry a boat and all my gear, especially when I know someone in town with a car and a roof rack. I called Aaron and he came to pick me up. We went back to his house where his wife cooked me a wonderful breakfast of french toast. After breakfast I decided to take the day off. We all went fishing in Aaron's canoe. The lake was beautiful and the fish were full. Aaron caught one small northern. I didn't even get a nibble. The scenery was worth the drive. After the big fishing trip we tried our hand at mushroom hunting. Also a bust. Thank God for grocery stores! A short drive later we found ourselves at Cub Foods where I found everything I needed to resupply for the trip. Then it was back to Aaron's for a fine dinner. Tonight I will lay my freshly showered head on a real pillow atop a real bed. What luxury! Tomorrow will be a sleeping bag and my rolled up coat for a pillow. Life is good!
I would like to start out by thanking Aaron and Teresa for their wonderful hospitality. They invited me into their home, fed me, washed me, and gave me a warm place to sleep. I am eternally grateful for the hospitality. I got on the water about 9:30. This morning it was cold out. There was frost on my boat when I woke up. I am finally out of the marshes although the river is still extremely windy - picture small intestines - there is an obvious channel and the water is moving at about 1.5 mph. The tall marsh grasses and pine trees have been replaced by the maple trees I am used to seeing in the river valleys back home. I am also seeing cattle grazing along the river as well as once majestic old barns and concrete silos. I saw two otters playing in a backwater today and this made me happy. I love otters. As I was paddling through God's splendor today, I was ruminating on how there has to be a grand design to the world. Random chemical reaction could never have created a tree, an otter, a duck, or a child. I covered 55 miles today - my best day yet. As I write this, my tent is covered in mosquitoes. Perhaps the frost they predict for tonight will be a good thing.
Today finds me one week into my epic journey. I have covered 280 miles. Not bad considering the river here looks like a well done piece of spaghetti thrown against the wall. I know now that I am physically capable of making it to New Orleans, but mentally, life on the river is tough. I miss my friends, my dog, and my warm comfy house. Everything and more importantly, every one that I miss will be there when I return. I'll press on.
I just took a break from my writing to check out the splashing outside my tent. It was an otter playing in the river not 20 feet away. I watched it for 10 minutes. That is why this trip is worth it. The river has gotten much bigger. Today paddling is becoming much easier. The scenery is still maple and birch trees broken up by occasional houses and fields. The highlight of my day came in the early afternoon. I rounded a bend and saw a large brown animal swimming across the river. A moose! I thought of Donna and her love of all things moose as I grabbed my camera and paddled as fast as I could towards it. I soon realized this was no moose, but rather, a bear. I snapped one picture of it swimming and two of it on land. When I looked to the other side I saw its tiny cub standing on its hind legs. Unfortunately the cub disappeared before I could snap a picture. It was wonderful. I walked into the town of Palisade for a late lunch and to mail a letter today, and lthough I haven't seen myself in the mirror for a few days I must be getting fairly tan. This must come as quite a shock to these pasty northerners as I was asked twice what it was I had been doing to be cooked to such a shade. Today was beautiful and tomorrow should be more blue skies and warm sunshine. Paddle on!
Today was sunny and 80 degrees, but with a 30 mph wind from the south. The river meanders so much that the wind hit me from every direction. I found this random wind to be far more physically demanding that a straight headwind. I still managed to make 50 miles. The only high point of the day was that I stopped into the town of Aitkin for a heaping helping of hash browns, scrambled eggs, and sausage links. I think I'll try to eat out at least every couple of days. It's good for my spirits. I should be out of the headwaters in three days. A week and a half of paddling and 500 miles will mark my first milestone of the river. Then I can leave Minneapolis behind and look forward to Cairo, Illinois - the beginning of the lower Mississippi.
At the rate I am going I am worried I will be in the middle of the cities at about 7 pm on Friday. I paddled from 8 this morning until 8 tonight to try to make some miles. Unfortunately, I fought a strong headwind most of the day and had two tough portages. I only made 65 miles. I plan on going strong all day tomorrow and hopefully that will give me a good window to make it through town. If not, I may have to take a short day on Friday to get a little closer. I hate big cities and I'm not looking forward to paddling through one. Tomorrow is going to be tough, so this is all I will write for today
I came into the town of St. Cloud today and was greeted with a 300 yard portage. International Paper Company's dam and portage are dangerous. I can't believe they can get away with having such a thing. The take out is 200 yards up from the dam for no apparent reason, but the danger is the put in. The dam spills out on a bend in the river. The water recirculates into the dam at the put in. At least they were considerate enough to line the bank with jagged boulders. I was not at all comfortable with the situation as the current was pushing into the boulders and back up to the dam. After a few tense minutes I was safely down stream where I spied a gas station on the right bank. I decided to go up for a pop and a sandwich. There was a family dollar store across the street and I thought it might be nice to have some tunes to go down the river with.
I found a nice Walkman for eight dollars and headed back down to the river. After some channel surfing I found Patsy Cline on the AM dial. Let me tell you, I was cruising in style! A mile down the river I came to Sauk Rapids. My map said Caution! Class III Rapids. Scout before proceeding. They didn't look that bad so I headed in with Buck Owens singing Streets of Bakersfield. I didn't make it 100 feet before I hit a rock and was upside down. Scared of more rocks, I decided to swim rather than roll up. I gathered up my things and dumped out the boat. The radio was a goner. A little farther down river I met another paddler. He turned out to be a real nice guy. He was originally from Alaska, but was spending a year in Minnesota. He gave me some advice on the next few miles of river and wished me luck. After that it was another 300 yard portage and five miles down river to my campsite. In six miles of river I had two 300 yard portages and dumped my boat, not to mention the fact I spent eight dollars to listen to four songs on the radio.
I decided not to try to make it through the cities today. I came up short on miles yesterday after all of the festivities and the last thing I need is to be stuck in Minneapolis at night. I am about ten miles up from the Coon Rapids dam and my last portage. That will leave me plenty of time to breeze through the Cities tomorrow. The river has been moving at about 3 mph all day and the push has definitely made it easier to make miles. I think if I tried in current like this I would have no trouble making 70 miles a day. I paddled past an RV park today. The bank was lined with old people in lawn chairs doing whatever it is old people do all day. As I paddled past several of them clapped and shouted encouragements to me. Its cool to have groupies.
The cities are a crazy place. I portaged the Coon Rapids dam at 9:00 this morning. It was a surprisingly easy portage 50 yards up and over a sidewalk and plop back in on the other side. I set off paddling towards distant skyscrapers looming on the horizon. About 6 miles downstream I reached the St. Anthony lock. This is a set of two consecutive locks that drop over 100 feet. I have paddled over five hundred miles and have seen only a handful of canoes, but there were three canoes waiting to lock through. They were really nice folks, six people in all, two in each canoe. I was especially surprised to see canoes, given the strong head wind. They were just paddling through the locks for something to do. It definitely boosted my spirits to chat with some other paddlers.
At the next lock I met yet another group of paddlers. They had quite the armada. Two canoes complete with pirate flags, two kayaks, and one rowboat type thing with two dogs in it. I could tell by the looks of those college warriors that it wouldn't be long before someone was swimming. It wasn't. As they were waiting for the locks, two of the paddlers in a canoe got in a water fight and went over. They were righting their boat as the lock gates opened. I talked with them in the lock. They said the canoe thing just sounded like a good way to waste time. I wished them luck and paddled away. I'm sure someone swam again.
Paddling through St. Paul was pretty neat, giant sky scrapers on my left and river boats on my right. The cities don't have a run down section of town near the river like I expected. I was pleased to see that some cities do take care of their river front. After leaving the downtown area the shoreline is mostly wooded. From then on it turned into ugly industrialized shores with moored barges and loud foul smelling factories. I finally got out of town and found a nice island to camp on. I caught a channel cat and fried it up for dinner. Now I'm ready for bed and some jackass has started setting off fireworks on shore. I hope they lose a finger.
Last night after I finished writing, a pontoon boat pulled onto my island. I knew they saw me camping because they waved as they drove by. They were quiet until I was almost asleep. Then they set off some sort of obnoxious aerial cannon firework thing. They set one of these off about every ten minutes until midnight when they decided to crank up the tunes. I don't like confronting drunks as they are too unpredictable, but I need my sleep. I grabbed my flashlight and walked down to them. It was a group of about ten people sitting around a fire. I was greeted by a man of about 50 who was so drunk he could hardly stand, and looked as though he could vomit any moment. I kindly explained that I was already camping when they showed up and needed my rest and asked them if they could keep the volume down a bit. To which the drunk slurred, "Dude, just calm down. You're gonna have to calm down. I said, "I am calm. I just need my sleep." Again he slurred, "Just calm down. We're leaving in like an hour or half an hour. Just calm down." I left it at that and returned to camp. They turned off the music and shot off all their fireworks and left.
I awoke from my brief slumber to a strong south wind and heavy boat traffic. The waves were big, the wind brutal, and it was hot. I was passed by at least 200 boats an hour in 30 to 35 mph head winds. The heat index was 100 degrees. The two high points of my day were #1 - a guy gave me a beer at one of the locks. It was very tasty and I enjoyed it while I was setting up camp. #2 - I stopped at the Red Wing Marina in Red Wing, MN and the people there were wonderful. Best of all, they gave me free chicken. I loaded up on chicken and chatted with the folks on the docks for a while, then pushed off into the wind for a few more miles to find a campsite. Tomorrow I have to cross Lake Pepin, and it's big! The forecast calls for the winds to calm down and switch to the North overnight. I hope that's what happens, and I get a nice push across the lake. It could get rough out there. I was told Pepin is the Indian word for tears, and the lake was given that name because it sank so many canoes laden with furs. I don't know if this is true or not, but it sounds good.
I am certainly glad the holiday weekend ends today. My sleep was cut short again last night by another group of drunken voyagers. This time five boats showed up at the island across from mine at about 9:00. By this time they were already loud and stupid. As the night wore on the volume increased. The worst part of the whole situation was the fact that they brought along a woman with a terribly shrill voice - much like fingers on a chalkboard - and worse yet, when she laughed she sounded like a porpoise. I kept hoping someone would give her a fish so she would shut up. The revelry lasted through the night and my friend flipper, and her friends were still chattering away when I shoved off at 6:00 am.
The weather forecast was wrong, as usual, and I was greeted with a brutal south wind and four foot rollers on Lake Pepin. Half way through my uphill paddle across Pepin, I reached the town of Lake City, where I decided to stop for lunch. On my way to Subway, I spied a family dollar store where I was able to replace my eight dollar Walkman. Experience has taught me well, and I kept this one in a dry bag the rest of the way down the lake. As I reached the far end of the lake, I could see thunderstorms building on the horizon and thought it best to set up camp. And here I sit at 4:30 in the afternoon. The temperature has dropped from 90 to 70 degrees in the last ten minutes and the thunder is sounds very near. I only slept for
about an hour last night and I believe this will make a fine stopping point for the day.
The storms that followed me across Pepin blew over without so much as a drop of rain. Still I was grateful for the rest. I was hit by a brief storm about 4:00 am. I was warm and cozy in the tent and the storm was of no concern to me. My day started off with light rain and a gentle north breeze pushing me. I love paddling in light rain. The dance of the raindrops and concentric circles on the water is beautiful. Just before noon the rain stopped and I decided to fire up the eight dollar Walkman. It doesn't work. The damned thing won't stay tuned to a station and doesn't even work on AM.
I came upon an area where they were dredging the river to maintain a 9 foot channel depth. It was neat operation with giant pumps, pipes and cranes. I was marveling at this whole operation when ping! I hit a buoy at full cruising speed. Not a little plastic one, but a big metal navigational buoy. Perhaps in the future I'll look where I'm going from time to time to avoid such tooth-jarring experiences. The sunset tonight was beautiful! Here the river is lined with 600 foot tall bluffs, and the rain left steam rising from the valleys. There are rock outcroppings atop these hills that resemble the ruins of ancient castles. The water was smooth like antique glass and the sky was ablaze with reds, pinks, and purples. I wanted to find a campsite that would afford me a view of this celestial wonder, but was unpleasantly surprised to find that all of the islands in these parts are sporting a bumper crop of poison ivy. I paddled another ten miles and well into the twilight hours before finding a place that wouldn't leave me scratching in the morning. It is well past dark now and my dinner has finished cooking. I can see a cafe in the town across the river. I will go there for breakfast in the morning.
A funny thing happened on the way through the lock today... The weather today was beautiful, although a bit warm, and I was well on my way to making it into Iowa today and leaving my old friend, Minnesota. That all changed when I pulled up to the gate of lock #8, just a few short miles from the Iowa border. It was about 5:30 in the evening and I was looking forward to 10 to 15 more miles. I pulled the signal cord for lockage and was waiting patiently for the gates to open when I heard a voice from the dam. I assumed that someone was working there and that's why it was taking so long to be locked through.
The dam at the locks have a series of semicircle shaped steel gates that control the amount of flow over the dam by raising and lowering. The water flows under these gates rather than over them so that any wayward boats will hit the gate rather than go over the dam. There are also grab ropes hanging from above the dam for unlucky travelers to grab.I kept hearing noise over there and thought it would be best to go check it out. It's not like I had anything better to do. As I paddled away from the lock wall, I spied a small inflatable craft up against the gate with someone inside holding the safety rope. I grabbed my radio and called "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, There's a boat stuck on the dam!" The lock master called back, "Are you stuck on the dam?" I said no, and explained the situation. I was sure it was a little kid who had drifted away from whatever swimming hole he had been playing in. The lock master ran out and began closing the gates and threw the guy another lifeline. I will describe the scene as the lock master later described it. There was a skinny middle aged man laying in his Coleman raft with the grab rope in one hand and a beer in the other.
Soon the fire department arrived and set out in a motorboat to rescue him. I sat in my boat upstream taking pictures. I followed them in as they brought the weary traveler and his not so seaworthy craft to shore. He was so drunk he could hardly walk. Soon the sheriff showed up and started asking him questions. I eavesdropped on the conversation, as did most of the fire department. He said he had left Lake Onalaska yesterday which means he covered some fifteen miles in two days. He was on a week long journey to wherever the river took him. Unfortunately, he wasn't aware there would be locks and dams along the way, and didn't have a clue what to do when he got to one. That's how he got in his predicament. I checked out his gear as the sheriff inventoried it. A sleeping bag, a wooden paddle, a lawn chair, and empty eighteen pack, and half a pack of cigarettes. What more could a guy need? The cops arrested him for not having a life jacket. I was thanked by the firemen, the police, and the lock master for saving this man's life. He never thanked me.I sat down in the office and talked with the lock master and drank taxpayer funded Pepsi while I filled out witness forms. Everyone I met was extremely nice and it certainly made for an interesting day, even though it cut my miles short. I believe in reciprocity and hopefully this good deed, although unappreciated, will help to repay the kindness I have been shown on my journey.
I didn't sleep well last night. I kept thinking about that drunken idiot in his pool toy. Sure, it turned out funny, but if I hadn't seen him, I probably would have found his body today. I'm not sure I could continue if something like that happened. I made it into Iowa today. 700 miles and I'm finally out of Minnesota. I have been on this stretch of river before, and it's nice having something familiar. The weather today was calm and very hot. I have a hard time staying focused and paddling in the heat. It would be all too easy to pull over and fish the rest of the day. Still, I made 50 miles and will just have to get used to the heat. I'm sure it won't cool down as I move south.
Another scorcher of a day. Luckily, there are plenty of nice beaches along the way for a sweaty paddler to cool off. Down south I won't have that luxury. If nothing else, the water will be too nasty. For the first time, people are doubting that I will make New Orleans. In Minnesota every one thought it was great and wished me luck. In Iowa, the response seems to be You better get a motor! or You won't make it before the sun goes down! I want to tell them I've already paddled over 750 miles and not everyone's a fat lazy slob like them, but I don't. I just smile and paddle on.
Today Dave and Donna Pribyl came to visit me in Dubuque. It was nice seeing someone I know after so long on the river. They brought my maps of the lower Mississippi and food to stock up my boat. I can't adequately express how much their kindness has meant to me over the years. When everyone expected and wanted me to fail, they were there rooting for me. We had pizza and cookies and talked for a good long time. I was hoping they could watch me lock through, but the observation deck was closed. Still, it brightened my spirits to see them. They brought me a new Walkman radio, and once on the river I found a good oldies station.
I woke up late this morning and didn't get on the water until 9:00 am. I'm usually up and going by 7:30. Throughout the morning I had to push into a strong south wind. Thankfully, it tapered off in the afternoon. The tall bluffs that I have spent so many hours staring at are beginning to taper off and the landscape is becoming much more open. This makes my process feel much slower as I can see for miles. Tonight I have chosen a campsite on an island in Clinton, Iowa. I think I have made a poor decision as there is a swinging train bridge very near by. The tracks are quite busy and every train that passes blows its whistle at the guy who opens the bridge to let the barges through. He honks his horn in return. What a fun thing to do all night!
I didn't get a good night's sleep last night because only after I had set up camp did I realize how close I was to the railroad tracks, and train traffic was heavy. Tonight I have an island that appears to be quite peaceful and I'm thankful for that. I fought a strong headwind all day today but managed to make it through Davenport with plenty of daylight left. I really didn't want to spend another night in town. At lock and dam 15 I was given a key chain courtesy of the corps of engineers. It floats and you can put stuff inside it. What could be better than that!The river now is almost a half mile wide and I have been out for three weeks and 875 miles. It seems like Itasca was only yesterday, yet an eternity ago. I'm not sure I'm looking forward to this trip ending and going home. Sure, I miss my friends and my dog, but the river has become a way of life for me as well as a reprieve from all my problems. Whatever happens out here, good or bad, is only temporary and tomorrow is always a fresh start. Out here I move fast enough the past can't catch me. Back home is a different story. It's supposed to rain tonight, so I need to seal up everything in my boat. I should do that every night. Some morning I just might wake up to wet stuff.
For once the forecast was right. It rained all through the night and into the morning. I slept in until 9:30, which is quite late considering I'm usually up by six. I sat in the tent and read until 11:00 when the storm finally blew over. I was glad to get back on the water. There's not a lot to do in a three by eight foot tent. Once on the water, I was greeted by my old friend, the South wind. More than rain or cold, I hate paddling into the wind. It's like driving around with the parking brake on. I find my spirits getting a bit low after three days of head wind. I had hoped to be in Missouri by now, and it's still 75 miles away. I went through lock 16 today in the rain. I pulled my boat into the lock chamber and the lock master asked where I put in. I said, Itasca. He shook his head and said, There's something seriously wrong with you, and walked away. He didn't even bother to ask where I was headed.
Now that I've set up camp, I'm enjoying the breeze. I have all my things hanging up to dry from the morning rain, and the mosquitoes aren't too bad. The sky is a beautiful cloudless blue, just starting to turn pink as the sun sets and a towboat pushing fifteen barges lumbers by. The guys on the deck are having a barbecue and I wave as they pass. I'm cooking chili and that's not bad either.
Another windy day. At least today it was mostly a tail wind, but usually quartering so that I had to constantly struggle to keep the boat straight. I had to go through two locks today and as I got to the first one, I saw that a barge was just pulling up to lock through downstream. This can take over an hour, so I portaged the dam. Downstream I stopped for dinner and the same barge went by. I followed him to the next dam where I had to portage again. I was excited to pass the confluence of the Skunk River today as it runs very close to my house. I had visions of a grand river dumping into the Mississippi, but was somewhat disappointed to see it really doesn't get much bigger between my house and the big river. Tonight I set up camp on an island and paddled into Dallas City, Illinois as I was told there was a bar there with all you can eat chicken for $4.99. This was far too good a deal to pass up.
The big news of today is that I'm in Missouri. I'm nowhere near New Orleans yet, but I'm in the South. This also means I am getting near St. Louis, something I'm not looking forward to. I locked through in Keokuk this afternoon and the lock chamber there is 1200 feet long instead of 600 like the ones I've been through before. It was quite impressive.Right now I'm trying to get ahold of my friend, Brian. He and his girlfriend are coming to meet me tomorrow. (Keokuk dam power plant is shown at left).
Brian and his girlfriend, Salina, came to visit me in La Grange, Missouri today. I am truly lucky to have such wonderful people in my life. Kent drove me to Itasca; Alan and Gina are keeping my website running smoothly; Dave and Donna came to visit me in Dubuque; and Brian and Salina came to Missouri for me, not to mention everyone else that has helped along the way. There are some wonderful people in this world. Brian, Salina, and I met in the city park in La Grange. From there we drove to the casino for an all you can eat buffet. I got my money's worth out of that. After dinner, we tried our hand at gambling. Brian won three dollars and I lost one. From there it was back to the park.
I woke up this morning and it was cold and windy out. In Minnesota I had heat indexes of 100 degrees and in Missouri the high today was 69 degrees. I made it five miles into a brutal headwind before deciding to give up for the day. The forecast calls for severe thunderstorms this afternoon although they haven't begun yet. I sat and listened to the radio for a while this morning before becoming bored and walking up the railroad tracks to Hannibal. I came to some sort of third rate amusement park and decided to check it out as they didn't charge admission. There were a few stores selling overpriced crap and bumper car rides. The only thing I found of interest was the cafe which looked pricey, so I returned to my boat for dinner.
I found a plastic duck decoy and decided it should go to New Orleans with me. I tied him to the deck of my boat and named him Sparky. Without paddling I'm stuck with a lot of time on my hands. I am far enough south to have run into a new species of tick. I had one crawling on me today that looked like a regular tick, but with a yellow dot in the middle of its back. That
pretty well covers the excitement I've had for the day. I think I'll fish for a while before it starts raining if I can manage to cast in this wind. If nothing else, I'll catch up on sleep. There is a tourist boat that goes by every hour with circus music blaring on the loud speaker. I haven't a clue why anyone would pay to listen to that crap. It's a shame the wind doesn't stop them like it does me.
I sat in my tent last night listening to A Prairie Home Companion on NPR as a thunderstorm raged outside. I couldn't help but think of all the times I'd listened to that very same program riding around in the old blue pickup with my dad. These are the memories I try very hard to keep in the front of my mind. I awoke to the sounds of thunder this morning and looked out of my tent at horizontal rain and whitecaps on the river. I really wasn't looking forward to another day of rest, but I made breakfast and picked up where I had left off on the book I was reading last night.
About noon the rain stopped and the wind let up a bit. Although it was still cold, I could see my breath this morning. I decided to pack up and head out into the gloom. By the time I reached Louisiana, Missouri about twenty miles down stream, the headwind and overcast skies were really getting me down, so I walked into town to find something to eat. I found some surprisingly good gas station pizza, and called Donna and Gina back home. I didn't get hold of Gina, but left a message and was able to talk to Donna. I returned to the river with a full stomach and a load off my mind and was pleased to find that the wind had almost stopped. I paddled another 10 miles downstream and found a beautiful sandbar to spend the night on.Life out here has its hardships -- the wind, rain, and cold, not to mention the bugs, but there is peace and beauty in being on my own. I have absolute freedom out here. No schedules, time clocks, or bosses. I begin every day with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. Everything tomorrow holds in store is brand new. I've never seen it before, and I'll never see it again. I missed out on a great deal of my childhood. Perhaps this is my chance to get back some of what I've lost.
I checked my maps last night and found that I was 74 miles out of St. Louis. That would be a marathon paddle even if there weren't any locks in the way. Commercial traffic is getting heavy and it's not uncommon for me to spend an hour and a half waiting to lock through. With two locks in the way, I decided to take it easy and have a two day leisure paddle into town. The weather today was beautiful for a change, mostly sunny skies and a high of 72 degrees. After an hour wait to lock through, I stopped in Clarksville, Missouri for breakfast. I spent the rest of the day listening to talk radio out of St. Louis and enjoying the beautiful day. I covered more miles than I intended and will only have 25 miles to cover tomorrow, but what the heck. There are a few small towns along the way to waste time at, and I still have one lock to get through.
Today was an easy paddle -- 25 miles to go and all day to get there. I found a restaurant that served excellent fried catfish for lunch. After my meal, I leisurely paddled to the Mel Price lock and dam and locked through. This lock and the one after it run two lock chambers. One 600 foot for smaller boats like me, and one 1200 foot for the big tow boats. I got right through. Because of the fast friendly service, I have decided to lock through at the chain of rocks dam rather than portage it which I've heard can be risky. I am really looking forward to paddling under the arch tomorrow. That has been one of the milestones I have dreamed about for the last year and a half. I am half way done with my trip and with no locks to slow me down, I am excited to see what kind of daily miles I can make.
I was on the water at 6:00 AM this morning with the hopes of beating traffic at the lock. After the Missouri River dumps into the Mississippi, the big river makes a bend. The Army Corps of Engineers has built a dam across the river and a twelve mile long canal that cuts off the bend. Inside the canal is the lock. I had to choose between portaging the dam or locking through. I chose the canal. (canal entrance at left) It was a terribly boring paddle to get to the lock - 11 miles of straight channel with rip rap and levees on each side. Because of the lock there was no current in the channel to push me along. When I got to the lock I was informed it would be a three hour wait to get through, but they squeezed me through after only half an hour.
I was under the impression that the St. Louis arch actually went over the river. I have even been in it when I was little. This isn't the case. It sits next to the river. This was a bit of a let down, but still exciting. After downtown I came to the industrial area. I have never seen so many barges and towboats in one place. It was quite difficult to discern which ones were moving and which ones were stopped. I felt uncomfortable about being there, but didn't have any close calls. Once out of town, I found the scenery to be quite beautiful. The river is lined with tall limestone bluffs and white sand beaches. The water is much dirtier after the Missouri joined the journey to the gulf and there are also quite a few trees floating in the water. I pulled up to a sand bar to camp tonight and when I got out of the boat the sand vibrated as it settled beneath my feet. When I slide my foot or hand across it, it sounds like car tires squealing. I have never felt sand like this before, but I like it.
When I woke up this morning it was hot and windy. As the day wore on it only got hotter and windier. I hate paddling into the wind, and there have been far more windy days on this trip than calm ones. I was looking forward to arriving in Chester, Illinois, this afternoon, as it has been several days since I have eaten out and I was just about out of water. I landed under
the bridge into town, grabbed my water bags and proceeded to trudge up the hill into town. I got to the main road where the speed limit was 35 and there was a lot of traffic. Surely I would come to a gas station or restaurant before long. Wrong! I walked for a mile in the oppressive heat past several busy intersections and two signs pointing to the business district. I never did see any signs of commerce and gave up.
I returned to my boat and headed down river where I spotted a small bar. It was almost 3:00 PM. Surely I could fill my water bags and get a burger there. Wrong! I walked up the hill and was greeted with a For Sale sign in the front window. There was a water spigot on the back of the building, but it had a padlock on it. There was a small church across the street and next to it, a hospitality house. From the sign out front I learned that this house was provided by the church as a place to stop for newly released inmates from the state penitentiary in Chester. The sign on the door said closed, but I rang the doorbell anyway. When no one answered, I helped myself to the garden hose. I found another sand bar to camp at with squeaky sand. I love walking on it. The wind has died down, but it's still hot. It will be uncomfortable sleeping weather tonight, and according to the forecast, for the next few days. Today is June 15th. I have been on the river for one month and over 1200 miles now. I have been through five hundred miles of the headwaters with its brutal portages, thirty locks and dams, and five states. In two days, I'll be on the lower Mississippi. I am proud of what I've accomplished so far.
I woke up this morning and paddled into Grand Tower, Illinois, with food on my mind. It had been several days of eating out of the boat and I was ready for some real food. I stopped at the post office to mail off some letters and inquired about restaurants in town. The lady told me there was a gas station eight blocks away and that was all Grand Tower had to offer.I walked to the gas station and had to settle for a pre-made sandwich, a bag of chips, and a Pepsi. Still, it was better than nothing. A bit further down river, I met a small group of paddlers. I haven't met another paddler since Minnesota, so this was kind of a big deal for me. It was a couple of local folks in a canoe and two retired folks in kayaks who were just passing through in their motor homes. They had gotten together and decided to take a trip on the big river. We chatted for a bit before I picked up the pace and moved on.
I had hoped to stop in Cape Girardeau for groceries, but the town is sealed off from the river by a giant wall. Apparently they don't like trash like me drifting into their city from the river, so I moved on. About 4:00 this afternoon, the south wind really started to pick up. I listened to my weather radio and it called for more stiff winds and thunderstorms through the weekend. There certainly has been a lot of wind this year. Outside of the wind, things have been going quite well for me. I have met a lot of interesting people and have seen some beautiful places. My journey hasn't always been easy, but it's always been rewarding.
I had hoped to make it to Cairo, Illinois and begin the Lower Mississippi today, but the weather had other plans. The forecast called for thunderstorms in the afternoon, so I got up early hoping to make it the 35 miles to Cairo before they hit. I made it to within ten miles of town when the wind picked up and thunder started crashing. I set up camp under some willow trees on a sand bar to wait out the weather. It was 6:00 by the time the rain stopped and the wind died down. Since I already had set up camp, I decided to call it a day. Tomorrow's forecast calls for more of the same. Hopefully there will be enough of a break in the weather to make some miles. I need the rest, but I hate sitting. I can't control the weather, so whatever happens, happens. I just have to make the best of it.
I woke up to a thunderstorm this morning. The foul weather lasted until noon. I packed up my things and was about ready to head out when a new round of storms rolled in. I quickly set up my tent and waited out the rain. An hour later I was on the water pushing into a fierce headwind. I would have given up for the day, but I really wanted to make it to the mouth of the Ohio River and the beginning of the Lower Mississippi. It took me over two hours to make it eight miles to the Ohio, and I had to scramble to set up camp before the next round of storms. There is a town two miles downriver from my campsite. Hopefully, tomorrow will bring good weather and a good breakfast. After the storm passed this evening, it cooled off and the weather is beautiful, although it looks like I may be blessed with a little more rain. Living outdoors is a lot less fun in the rain. (Confluence of Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at right)
My first day on the lower Mississippi went well. I paddled into Hickman, Kentucky first thing this morning. I met a nice gentleman at the boat ramp who directed me to a cafe in town where I could get breakfast. After a heaping omelet and an order of biscuits and gravy, I was fully fueled and ready for a day of paddling. The river here is big, nearly a mile wide in spots. The current, although moving along quite nicely, is calm and easy to paddle. The water is fairly low right now with many of the boat ramps ending three feet before the river. I am glad the water is low. I do not think I would want to be out here in a flood, and from the looks of the banks, it is not uncommon for the river to rise eight to ten feet above its current stage.
Later in the afternoon, a fishing boat pulled up beside me. Joe and Vicki were just out cruising the river when they saw me and wondered where I was going. I told them my story and Joe told me he dreamed of taking his boat to New Orleans. I told him he should. Before they left, they gave me three grocery sacks full of junk food. I have been impressed with how nice southern people have been to me, and now I have a few days worth of snacks. It has been hot today and it still is. I am sweating just laying in my tent. The flies and mosquitoes seem to enjoy this weather, which makes it even more miserable. The high tomorrow is supposed to be in the upper nineties. It is hard to believe when I started this trip I woke up to frost.
Another scorcher of a day. I woke up sweating at six this morning. It was dead calm outside and extremely humid. My sweat-drenched body was completely covered in and by the time I broke camp, and the flies had bitten my ankles enough to draw blood. I took a quick dip in the river to cool off and started paddling. I soon decided this was a morning better suited for floating than paddling. I would paddle for a few minutes, then float for a while with my arms and legs dangling in the water. By mid-morning, a breeze picked up from the south. It was hot, but at least the air was moving, and I was able to start moving.
I came to the town of New Madrid, Missouri, where in the early 1800?s, a massive earthquake caused the Mississippi to flow backwards. I walked into town to refill my water bags and find some groceries. I talked to some people on the levee that were taking pictures of the river. They asked about my boat and I told them of my journey. People down here are so much more excited about my journey than they were in the Northern states. It makes me feel good to know people are interested in what I?m doing. I have received several emails from people I don?t know wishing me luck and this also helps. I need all the support I can get to make it through this heat. I found a grocery store in town. Unfortunately, they had almost no groceries. I filled my water and bought some cookies. I decided to try the family dollar store and was pleased to find everything I needed there. I packed my boat and headed downstream. I dropped my cell phone in the river yesterday and have had it on the deck of my boat drying out since. I tried it this afternoon and was pleased to find that it still works. The only thing wrong with it is there is condensation on the screen and I can?t see what it says. At least it works. Tonight it is dead calm and hot again. The forecast calls for a low of 77 degrees. I hope it cools off a little soon, at least at night, but I expect it to stay hot for the most part.
It was miserably hot again today. I expect it to stay that way for the remainder of the trip, so rather than complain about the heat daily I will let the reader assume it?s hot unless I say otherwise. I stopped in Caruthersville, Missouri this morning for breakfast. I had to settle for gas station food, but it was better than nothing. I also had to get some supplies. There?s nothing quite like filling your water bag in a gas station restroom and buying toilet paper and bug spray to make a person feel like a bum.
I have a wonderful swimming hole in front of my campsite tonight. It?s deep, calm, and cool with a sandy bottom. For the last week I have been camping where the current was to swift to swim and I had to sit on the bottom and let the sand find its way into every crack and crevice in my body. The chaffing is inevitable. Nothing feels better after a day of paddling in the hundred-degree heat than a good long skinny dip. I think I?ll take another in the morning. I wish I could spend more time outside the tent at night. The cool breeze would feel nice, but the mosquitoes are vicious down here. All night long I hear the buzz of hundreds of mosquitoes trying to get into my tent, not to mention the ones already inside, and if I lean against the mesh door in the night, they stick their pointy little mouths through the holes and bite me. Each morning the cockpit of my boat is filled with daddy long leg spiders, mosquitoes, and from time to time, cockroaches. Each morning it takes several miles of traveling before I am able to evict all my guests. Several times in the early hours of my trip I will feel something crawling on or biting my leg and have to pop my spray skirt and throw some nasty thing overboard. I am still enjoying my trip. Even if it does mean living in harmony with the insect world and having sand in places sand was never meant to be. Each night I am excited for what the next day will bring and extremely proud of what I have accomplished so far.
I didn't sleep well last night. I woke up thirsty and unzipped the flap to get a drink of water which I keep just outside the door. Later, I awoke to the sound of mosquitoes buzzing and covered in bug bites. I had left the fly unzipped about four inches. More than enough for this hungry swarm to let itself in. I spent the next half hour chasing mosquitoes with my flashlight and smashing them against the wall of the tent. When I had finished, there was blood smeared everywhere and my tent looked like a crime scene. I spent the rest of the night scratching my wounds. I am struck by the solitude of the river out here. There are no visible houses, bridges or roads. From time to time I see a lone fishing boat, but for the most part, it's just me and the barges. I haven't seen a pleasure boat or jet ski since before St. Louis and I don't miss them one bit. I can paddle for twenty miles out here and not see another person. I can go for hours without hearing a motor. I enjoy the peace.
Unfortunately, all this solitude is making it harder for me to resupply and mail letters. My cell phone almost never works anymore. This doesn't really bother me any, but I know people back home worry when they don't hear from me. There is a storm moving in tonight and I am sitting on a log enjoying the cool breeze that precedes it. I have had very little rain on this trip and I hope I don't get a whole bunch in the future to make up for it. I have been trying to decide if I am looking forward to going home or not, and I really don't know. The river is a truly magical place and I know I will always miss it, much like I miss my first love. What we had was beautiful and intimate, but it has to end sometime.
It rained all night and into the morning. I was startled from sleep several times throughout the night by loud crashes of thunder. Along with the rain came cooler weather, and since it rained until 10:30 this morning, I got to sleep in. After the rain stopped, I packed up and hit the river. Two hours later I was paddling through Memphis, which I learned on the radio has had eighty six murders this year if you count the two last night. I needed water, but didn't want to leave the boat unattended. I came to a tour boat docked along the shore. I asked the people working there for some water. They obliged, although I think it was only so I would leave. I was rounding a bend in the river after I had left town. I always take the inside of the curve to save miles, and because the barges always swing wide and it might get hairy being between a barge and the bank. I met an oncoming barge. Instead of staying on the outside of the curve where he belonged, he started moving towards me. I moved outside of the channel, missing the buoys by only a few feet. I held my ground as he began to pass only fifty feet from my boat. When I was halfway down the line of barges, the towboat cut its engines. I thought I was going to get yelled at for being so close, but when I got beside the boat they told me they had seen me a few times up river and just wondered where I was going. I told them what I was doing and that from a kayak it's kind of scary when a barge turns toward you.
There was a beautiful sunset tonight and now I can see lightning in the distance. I don't mind the rain as long as it's not severe. Tonight I am going to bed in Mississippi. My next and final state will be Louisiana. When I think back on the little creek I started out on in Minnesota, it's hard to believe what I've accomplished.
I woke up this morning to more rain, though only sprinkles. I packed my things in the mist and took off. I had expected to make Helana, Arkansas this afternoon. My map didn't show any towns in between. About twenty miles into my day, I could see the outline of a giant building on the left bank. Neither my GPS or my map showed anything there, but it looked as though it might be a giant hotel in the middle of nowhere. As I drew nearer I saw that it was a casino. I don't like casinos; the noise, smoke and people bother me. I do, however, like all you can eat buffets. I decided to go in and chow down. My meal cost nine dollars, but the food was quite good.
After dinner I called my friend, Kent, to wish him luck. He's getting married today and I would have been a groomsman if I were home. I'm glad I didn't have to wear a tux. It seems that lately everyone I know is getting married. I would have like to have been at the wedding, but Kent has his dream and I have mine. Unfortunately, they are both happening at the same time. I'm glad he understood. I came to Helena tonight with plans of buying groceries. My plans, however, were thwarted when I hiked over the levee only to find a canal between me and the town. As it was getting late, I decided to camp and try to negotiate the canal in the morning. The only place to camp nearby was a small island with a very big sign that read keep out. I decided to throw caution to the wind and hide my campsite in the trees. There weren't any footprints around, and I'll be gone first thing in the morning anyway.
I walked over the levee into Helena this morning. I found myself in the main street district. The streets were deserted. There were no people or cars anywhere. The streets were littered with empty beer bottles and trash. It was as though some giant party had ended and no one had cleaned up yet. I walked down the street. Most of the stores along the way were abandoned, their insides filled with construction debris. Those that appeared to still be doing business had signs on the door reading no public restroom, or store has no money or beer. Everywhere there were barred up windows and signs warning of security alarms. After several blocks, a pack of eight mangy dogs began to follow me. It was too creepy for me. I returned to the boat, dogs close behind. When I got to the water they began to fight over a dead fish. The whole thing was like a scene from a horror movie. Helena may have a good part of town, but I wasn't in it, and I was glad to get out of there. My morning wasn't a total loss. There was a casino across the river with an all you can eat breakfast buffet. I got my money's worth and waddled back to the river.
This evening as I was thinking about stopping for supper, a group of boaters called me over to the sandbar where they were having a barbecue. They were about my age and thought what I was doing was neat. They shared their burgers with me and made sure I had beer and burgers to take with me. It's over 100 miles to the next town and it was nice to meet some good people before I go into the woods for a few days. I still needed to get groceries soon. I probably have two weeks worth of food in the boat, but with so few towns between here and New Orleans, I would like to stock up. It is a beautiful night tonight. There is a cool breeze blowing off the river, and with a sandbar nearly a mile wide between me and the trees, the mosquitoes aren't bad at all. I think I'll just sit out here and enjoy the evening for a bit. Perhaps I'll even be lucky enough to have the mosquitoes stay at bay long enough to look at the stars for a while.
I stayed up late last night to enjoy the cool breeze and the stars. I threw out a line and found that the catfish were biting. It was one of the nicest evenings of my trip. I paddled all day today and didn't see any other people. Only the occasional barge broke the silence. I am starting to get bored with the scenery. There are no tall bluffs here. For the last five hundred miles, the river has meandered through land as flat as that in Minnesota. The outside of the curves are lined with rock, and on the inside there is a giant sandbar, often over a mile wide. Every turn is the same.
Tonight my campsite is on a sandbar across from a housing development. I have seen very few houses lately and this cluster of cookie cutter houses strikes me as extremely ugly. Even with the hand of man evident everywhere I look, on the river I have been able to feel as though I am in the wilderness. That feeling is hard to get when I am in plain view of so many SUV driving soccer moms. Tomorrow I will continue my quest for groceries in Greenville, Mississippi. It's a pretty big town and I imagine the grocery store is far from the river. If nothing else, I'll get a good meal.
I talked to a few fishermen today about getting groceries in Greenville. All I have heard is that it's a rough neighborhood, especially by the river. To get into town I would have to paddle five miles up a canal, then turn around and paddle five miles back to the river. That's pretty far out of the way just to get shot, so I decided to try to get groceries in Vicksburg in a couple of days. I stopped on a sandbar for lunch and saw the tracks of an extremely large snake in the sand. Later, when I was back on the river, a barge pulled up beside me. The guy said he had seen a four foot rattlesnake earlier today. I hadn't even told him about the tracks in the sand. I will have to be careful about walking in tall grass down here. Pretty soon, I'll have to watch for alligators, too. I will admit I'd like to get a picture of one. Especially since I didn't get to see a moose up north.
I was kept up most of the night by a pack of dogs roaming my sandbar. I would awaken to the sound of them barking and fighting nearby and yell at them. They would leave for a bit and then come back. This morning I saw dog tracks within twenty feet of my tent. I stopped in the town of Mayersville today hoping to get some groceries. They didn't have a grocery store, but they did have a gas station. I was able to refill my water and pick up a little junk food. At least it wasn't a total loss. Tonight I am eating catfish in an effort to conserve what food I have left. I don't mind eating fish; it just takes a long time to catch and clean them. I often find myself still setting up camp well after dark on days when I fish. I really never thought getting groceries would be such an issue down here.I have more I would like to write, but it is getting dark and the batteries are dead in my flashlight. I was unable to find any batteries in Mayersville. One thing I would like to make note of about Mayersville is that it has a prison. I know this because they have the prisoners out unsupervised in their striped jumpsuits doing yard work and cleaning up around town. I found this a little creepy.
I looked at my map this morning and saw that there was a public boat ramp with several commercial docks nearby about fifteen miles downstream. I thought this would be a nice place to stop to refill my water. When I got there the boat ramp didn't exist and the only dock belonged to a gravel quarry. Probably not a good place to wander around looking for water. As I paddled by I said, God, I wish someone would just drive me to the grocery store. It had been almost two days since I had seen another boat on the river, aside from the barges. Less than twenty minutes after passing the dock, a jon boat pulled up next to me. In the boat I met Bruce Reid. He works for the Audubon Society in Mississippi. He told me that he had through hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1980. His wife made me sandwiches.
I asked about a grocery store in Vicksburg which was about twenty miles down river. He said there wasn't anything near the river, but gave me his phone number and offered me a ride when I got to town. When I reached Vicksburg, I called Bruce. He picked me up at the boat ramp and took me back to his office where I was able to look at my website and check my email. The site looks great. Good job, Alan! From there, it was off to the grocery store. It was several miles into town and I would
have surely gotten lost walking. Bruce told me about the history of the town and the river. It was nice to talk with someone who cared so deeply about preserving the river. The Audubon Society is doing some great work in this area and I would encourage anyone who can to donate.
After the grocery store we returned to the boat. I couldn't thank Bruce enough for helping me out. In two days I would have been out of groceries. I have found that the lower Mississippi River is nothing like I have been told it would be. During high water, the current would be dangerous, but now it is calm and easy going. The barges do kick up some massive waves, but only directly behind them. The pleasure boats wakes were much worse up north. The shorelines are undeveloped and often beautiful, and although the water is somewhat polluted, it isn't the cesspool I was told it would be. There are rivers in Iowa in worse shape than the Mississippi. The lower river has been by far the easiest paddling of the whole trip.
Nothing all that interesting happened today. I am on a fairy remote stretch of river and there aren't really any people out here. Barge traffic was heavier today than I have ever seen it. I suppose it will get worse as I move south. The only time they really bother me is when I want to cross the river. There's nothing I can really do about it so I suppose I'll just have to pick a side of the river and stay there. I wanted to listen to my radio today, but was only able to pick up two stations. One was hip hop, the other a religious channel. I decided it would be a good day to just listen to the river and let my mind wander.
I reached Natchez, Mississippi about 2:00 this afternoon. My next big town will be Baton Rouge. My map showed a casino in town and I thought it would be a good idea to hit the buffet. Judging from the number of obese people boarding the boat, I was looking forward to a good one. Unfortunately, I was let down. I spent eight dollars for food that was mediocre at best. At least I didn't leave hungry. I refilled my water and headed out.
This evening, I came upon some people grilling on a sand bar. I made sure to pass close by, hoping for a handout. Sure enough, I was invited over for hot dogs and beer. Shortly after stopping, a storm began to approach. The boaters took off and I set up my camp. The wind picked up out of nowhere. I retreated to my tent to avoid the stinging sand. Had I not stopped for the BBQ I would have been caught on the water and it could have been quite bad. I honestly feel that someone is watching out for me on this trip. After the wind died down, another boat stopped by. A kayak is somewhat of a novelty on the Lower Mississippi and attracts a fair amount of attention. I talked and drank beer with these boaters for a bit before they took off. I turned down an offer to ride back to the bar with them. There are many reasons why that could turn out badly. Even without a trip to the bar, I am feeling pretty good tonight. At least everyone has been friendly.
I found a great classic country station on my radio and stayed up late last night enjoying the music. I woke up tired this morning and found that my great station from last night plays all hot new country in the daytime. I put the radio away preferring silence. The morning was hot and hazy. I knew a thunderstorm would be coming. By mid-morning a dark cloud was moving across the horizon. I was expecting a quick storm so I put on my rain coat rather than set up camp. The thunderstorm passed quickly, but an hour later it was still raining. It was evident I either needed to hit the water or set up camp. I decided to paddle. The rain continued for five hours. There was no wind and the cool rain was a relief after all this hot weather. Lately, many of the upstream towboats have been throttling back their engines as I pass. When they are considerate enough to do this, they make almost no wake instead of the two to four foot waves I often run into in their wakes. I'm sure this wastes a considerable amount of diesel fuel, but it makes paddling easier. Hopefully, more of them will start doing this.
The morning started off beautifully, bright sunny skies, cool temperatures and a light breeze. Things went down hill from there. Just like yesterday, a dark bank of clouds started rolling up river around 11:00 am. I pulled onto a sandbar and flipped the boat over to keep the rain out. The sky got dark and lightning started flashing. The thunder and lightning lasted for about an hour. There was no rain. After the storm passed, I hit the water and it began to rain. Soon the rain quit and was replaced by thunder and lightning. After another dry thunderstorm, it began raining. I paddled in the rain for most of the afternoon. There is more rain in the forecast. I hope it holds off for a few days. All my stuff is wet. I hate getting up in the morning and putting on wet sandy clothes, not to mention the fact that all my things smell even worse wet than they do dry. I pulled up to a ferry landing today to throw away some trash and stretch my legs. It was here that I met my first Cajun. He was a fast talker and I really couldn't understand what he was saying, so I told him I really needed to make some more miles today and took off.
I should have just stayed in bed today. This morning as I was getting into my boat a bee started flying around my head. I took a swing at it with my paddle and missed. Now it was pissed and coming after me. As I got up to run I dropped my Walkman in the water. I picked up my radio and turned my attention back to the bee. It was surprisingly persistent, but I finally got it with the paddle. I put the radio on the deck of the boat to dry until the mid-morning storm arrived. Once again I had a morning thunderstorm. I was caught with no good place to stop, but saw an abandoned hunting shack on the bank. This looked like as good of a place to weather the storm as any and I pulled my boat onto what I thought was a sandbar near the cabin. I stepped out of the boat and into mud nearly to my waist. As I fell into the muck I broke the antenna off of my radio/GPS unit. It doesn't work without it. Hopefully I can get a new antenna in New Orleans. After freeing myself from the quagmire I pulled my boat ashore, grabbed my cooking gear and some lunch and headed to the cabin. It was a small plywood shack sitting about ten feet off the ground on stilts. I climbed the stairs and tried the door. It was unlocked.
Inside, the floor was dusty and covered in dead bugs. There were two rooms. One had a bunk bed with two mouse-eaten mattresses. The other was a kitchen. There was even a sink and a toilet, but no running water. The only thing of interest I found was a half bottle of Crown Royal on the kitchen counter. I thought about taking it, but with all the generosity I have been shown I thought it would be bad karma. Some hunter might return to his long forgotten cabin this fall to enjoy a drink only to find his bottle missing. I wouldn't like that. I went back outside to cook lunch where it was cleaner. I sat under the shack and ate as the storm passed. As usual, lots of lightning and very little rain.
After covering four miles and waiting out another storm, I paddled into Baton Rouge. From here to the Gulf the river is deep enough to allow the passage of ocean ships. I saw two giant oil tankers docked at refineries. It will certainly be interesting to meet one of these leviathans on the water. They look like they could make a killer wake. Tonight I am surrounded by the sounds of fireworks. Luckily, none are very near. Still, I find them annoying. I haven't had a very good day and need my rest.
I tried out my Walkman radio this morning and found it had come back to life. I was pissed about it all day yesterday and was very glad to have it working again. I really need to quit throwing my electronics in the water. I was plagued by thunderstorms again today. I had to wait out four storms and set up camp tonight when a fifth rolled in. I waited out one storm in a cattle pasture. I should have put on my sandals before looking for cover. I hope I never step in a cowpie barefoot again. The storms are supposed to continue through next week. There hasn't been much rain. Just enough to keep me and all my things wet. My tent and sleeping bag smell horrible. They didn't smell good dry, but things have worsened considerably after a few days of being wet. I met my first moving tanker ship today. She was a red and white boat named the Happy Bee. The two things I learned about these giant ships is they are fast and quiet. I will have to pay close attention to avoid being run over. The wake was tall, maybe five feet, but not steep. I didn't have any trouble getting through it.
The river is now very deep and wide. Most of the sediment that gave the muddy Mississippi its color has dropped out, leaving the water a deep clear green. There is almost no current and sandbars are few and far between. Most of the bank is lined with rip rap, and the parts that aren't, are often bottomless mud. The peace I so much enjoyed on the lower river before Baton Rouge has been replaced by the roar of big diesel engines on the towboats, and the noise of busy machinery in the factories that line the shores. Gone too, are the seemingly endless uninhabited tree lined banks I had come to love. They have been replaced by the chimneys of factories and refineries spewing foul smelling smoke and fire into the atmosphere.
I am completing this last stretch of river as a matter of principle. Aside from the initial thrill of seeing ocean liners, there is nothing down here that compares with the beauty of the rest of the river. The thunderstorms continued today. The first came at a very bad time. Two big ships had just passed one another and the water was already rough. The wind picked up and the waves quickly became big enough to make me nervous. The only place to land was on the rip rap. I gave the boat quite a pounding by the time I got out and drug it onto the rocks. It then began to pour. I stood in a downpour for well over an hour. I couldn't have possibly been any wetter. When the rain finally let up I got back on the water. It rained off and on for the rest of the day just to make sure I didn't get too dry.
My last day on the big river. As I write this I am twelve miles from New Orleans. Two hours of paddling will bring me to the completion of my journey and my dream. Today the weather was better than it has been. It did rain, but only briefly and no lightning. There was a bit of a breeze today and with all the boat traffic I was hitting some pretty big waves. In many places I was able to paddle between long rows of moored barges and the shore. This was nice as it protected me from both the waves and the traffic. Most of the time I was forced to paddle out in the open and hope for the best.
My journey won't end tomorrow. I will be meeting some people who live in town (a friend's daughter and her husband) to see what Katrina has done. I have never met these people and can't help but feel I am imposing, even though they seemed very nice the times I talked to them on the phone. At least there is someone waiting for me at the end. Dave and Donna can't come down to pick me up until the sixteenth, so from New Orleans my paddling friend, Travis, will take me to Gulfport, Mississippi where I will spend the rest of my time leisurely exploring the Gulf of Mexico. I am sure this, too, will be an adventure and I will share it on my website. Tonight I stopped early to enjoy my last night with the big river and a bottle of brandy.
I made it. I'm in New Orleans. Last night's campsite was only a few miles from my final destination so I slept in a bit this morning. I couldn't help but feel sad when I set out for the last time this morning. For almost two months the river has been my constant companion. When I started, the water was barely deep enough to float my kayak. Now it supports ocean liners. I neared the bend where I was to meet Dana and Jason, my contacts in New Orleans, and called them on my cell phone. Soon after the call I realized I had overshot my final destination by several miles and had to paddle back upstream to meet them. They and their two children were standing on the bank with a sign that said Welcome to New Orleans. What a wonderful way to end the trip! We carried the boat a block and a half from the river to their house. I was able to check my email and get cleaned up before Dana showed me around town. The people down here have an unbelievable struggle ahead of them. Much of the town is completely destroyed. I found it to be both amazing and depressing in its scale.Tonight I will sleep in a bed for the first time since Minnesota. Civilization is going to take some getting used to. In just over a week I'll be home