When I was 19, I’d already kayaked from Cincinnati to New Orleans. I loved the lower Mississippi, below the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi, and I considered paddling some of the Mississippi again, from St. Louis down, once I reached it.
So, I hitched a ride west with two fellow camp counselors and only when we were in Wisconsin did I realize that one of my friends was going to Bemidji. So, heck, I thought, I might as well paddle the Mississippi, just skipping the stretch between Baton Rogue and New Orleans is called Cancer Alley. It’s industrial and not an easy place to paddle or camp, but I loved the rest of the lower Mississippi and wanted to paddle it again.
I had a pitiful map, merely a Minnesota road map, and when I reached the Twin Cities, which was 600 river miles south, I upgraded to proper river maps, the ones used by the tows. My boat was a 14’9” kayak made from a kit.
The primary problem was I left on September 14th and so winter chased me all the way downriver. My problem was also a perk, since the cooling, shortening days had chased most pleasure boaters off the river and most of the parks alongside the river had closed for the season, so I’d be the only camper with cops typically saying they’d keep an eye on me.
The first few days were a little confusing; much marsh with multiple channels. I eventually learned that the Park Service made a map for the fledgling river and my road map told me next to nothing, but it was still a pretty paddle.
However, Lake Winnibigoshish was a beast. I followed the shoreline at first, but it was calm and I decided to cut across the lake. The wind rose and the waves hit me again and again and again in my torso. I cursed and cursed and cursed my stupidity. I landed in pretty big surf and that wasn’t pretty, but a guy in a truck bed camper saw my pitiful plight and made me tea and dinner.
I would not have been able to continue if I hadn’t brought my wet suit, but even with neoprene, many evenings I was so cold that I’d pitch my tent and make dinner with the heels of my hands as my fingers were useless. One night, the wind roared up the river valley and blew so hard and long that it kept disinterring my tent stakes, no matter how deep I buried them, and collapsing my tent.
Many people were kind, feeding me or inviting me into their homes. I would drift under multiple eagles in trees and have whole islands to myself. I was pinned by the wind on Lake Pepin, which gave me a day to fall in love with it long before it became a day trip for Twin Cities’ folks. At one lock and dam, the lock master invited me to stay the night in his equipment house, as I’d done once or twice upriver. It had been so windy that day that I’d made little progress. I’d spotted an abandoned amusement park near the river and spent hours exploring it and had hunkered on this bank and that, so I stupidly said, “No.”
When he opened the lower lock doors, the wind immediately whipped me sideways. I struggled to paddle downriver. I knew the nearest island was Devil’s Island. Being easily spooked, I didn’t want to stop there, but the storm drove me into it. I ran aground about a mile upriver of it and had to slog through the night, thunder, and lightning. The island was well-named because its massive trees had exposed roots as thick as the trunks of most trees and I had to slither through to find a place to pitch my tent in the dark. All night long, the trees groaned and in the morning, I just wanted to begone, so I left early, came around the point of the island, and saw two guys who looked like they were from another time. I read a book about another Mississippi River trip and its author had the same experience; the nighttime slogging over a reef in a storm, worming through the roots, and seeing those two guys.
I loved the Arch in Saint Louis, but spent too long being a tourist, so I paddled across the river to camp in East Saint Louis. I sure had a pretty view of St. Louis!
Even though I’d reached the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi two years prior, its size and energy again stunned me. So much roiling and whirling.
Speaking of roiling and whirling, I had an aircraft carrier-sized tow pinch me between its engines and the bank. It so agitated the water that there were crashing waves and whirlpools. One wave fell on me, snapping my hull and breaking through my spray skirt. It took all my strength to reach the shore and I simply sat and watched the water heaving until night.
My campsite was the worst for me because I caught poison ivy and it was inside of me too, so I swelled and grew ever more miserable.
I stopped the next morning at a town, sat, and stared at my leaking kayak. A cop stopped and asked if I needed help.
What exactly do you need?
“Some duct tape.”
So, he drove me to a plumbing supply house and the guy behind the counter produced the biggest roll of duct tape I’ve ever seen.
“How much is that?” the copy asked.
“Uhhh,” said the clerk, thumbing through the pricing book.
“We’ll be needing the kayaker’s price,” the cop said.
At first the clerk was confused.
Then he said, “Uh, free?”
The cop nodded and smiled.
A couple days later, the day before Thanksgiving, some oceangoing sailboats and one powerboat passed me. The powerboat stopped and asked if I wanted a ride. I was tempted because the poison ivy had gotten worse and worse.
At first, I declined, but then I asked, “How long before you reach Vicksburg?”
“Tomorrow,” the younger man said.
“I’m coming aboard,” I said, knowing Vicksburg would have a hospital.
However, first I had to survive that night.
The five boats in their little flotilla wanted to anchor out of the current, as the tows’ wakes could lift their anchors and send them on a Mississippi River sleigh ride. They saw a Coast Guard boat coming out of a channel behind an island and radioed about the depth.
“Plenty of water,” the Coast Guard said.
The Coast Guard was right about there being plenty of water for a powered craft, but not enough water for keeled craft.
Now, aboard my boat was an older man, Royal, the owner, who talked a big game, but played in the Pipsqueak League. Royal had convinced Jim, the younger man, to join him because Jim was the real deal. A 24K river man with a 15-foot boat full of his fishing and trapping truck, powered by a 35-horsepower engine. In short, a lot of gear.
One of the oceangoing sailboats was in the lead and it suddenly pitched forward and turned. Jim and I were piloting our powered craft with twin 300 hp engines on the flying bridge.
I tapped Jim on the shoulder, pointed to the sideways sailboat, and asked, “Is it supposed to do that?”
“They’ve run aground!” said Jim, which required ropework and teamwork to pull them out of the shallows in the rain and in the gloaming.
However, when Jim gunned our big boat, the painter that was pulling his 15’ boat snapped. The other three boats were sailboats and Jim’s life was drifting downriver.
So, I fetched it. In the dark. In the rain.
The banks were too steep to properly tie the broken painter to my boat, so I wrapped it around my torso and pulled.
I could hear all the folks on the five boats calling and calling for me and when I appeared out of the dark, I was the hero.
Except I felt horrible. Poison ivy + exhaustion = MISERY
The five boats had been preparing a Thanksgiving feast all day. Turkeys. Taters. Pies. I just went hid in the head and went fetal.
When we reached Vicksburg, I got two shots, one in each cheek, and pills.
“Worst case I’ve ever seen,” the emergency room doc said.
But the drugs worked and I resumed paddling, but not before Jim properly repaired my hull; I saved his boat. He saved my boat.
In Natchez, I met a wild man from Michigan and we went down a slough to see the Sprague, the largest paddler wheeler ever built. She was decrepit and glorious.
Baton Rogue ended my trip. Three months and two thousand-plus miles. To celebrate, my friends who met me in Baton Rogue took me to Brennan’s in New Orleans. I love that city. I love that river.