Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Broken Paddle, Tacky Boat
by missmolly

Trip Type: Paddling Kayak
Entry Date: 06/05/1976
Entry & Exit Point: Other
Number of Days: 49
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
My dad helped me build a kayak, which I then paddled from Cincinnati to New Orleans.
I read Huck Finn when I was in fourth grade. That book was beyond me, but I bulldogged through it, deeply concerned about why that stupid Tom Sawyer kept arguing to amputate Jim's leg to free him (Yeah, the humor whooshed over my head.). Still, the stretches of simply riding the river stuck with me, so my dad helped me assemble a 14'9" Phoenix kayak kit, which came as the top, the bottom, cockpit, and the foot braces.

It was still tacky when I set it into the river, but its lack of a full curing was the least of my three problems, for that was my first moment in a kayak and I bought my paddle from L.L. Bean for $14.99. You'd think that L.L. Bean would only sell good stuff and much of their wares are great, but that paddle was junk's junk, i.e. if junk were alive and interested in collecting junk, it would collect that paddle.

It snapped midsection within an hour or two, so now I was down to two canoe paddles, as a bisected kayak paddle makes two canoe paddles. Then one of the canoe paddles snapped where the blade flared. So, now I was down to one canoe paddle. Then that snapped in the same place, so now I was down to a two blades and I managed to reach the shore paddling one of those, where I tried to hitchhike to a town to buy a canoe paddle, assuming a kayak paddle would be out of reach.

My first ride was a woman who said, "I think we have an old canoe paddle in our garage."

She did!

And I paddled that old paddle to Louisville, where I hitchhiked to a paddling shop and bought a real kayak paddle, spending $40 of my $110 budget.

Thank goodness people fed me! Oh, they loved to feed me and when you paddle all day, you love to be fed. Here are some of the people whose kindness left an imprint:

Mac and the boys: Mac was a retired engineer, as gray and weathered as driftwood. He had four boys in his charge and they were thrilled to be on the river in a motorboat almost as old as ol' Mac. I remember sitting on a pier with Mac and watching the river flow past and Mac saying, more than once, "Isn't this something? Isn't this something?"

Then there was an stooped painter and his wife who lived in the cabin that they'd built. When I was told to stop at the painter's house, I thought I'd be visiting a house painter, but he was a fine artist and his wife was a fine cook. She made me a meal from what she grew and raised and it was as pretty as it was tasty.

Then there was the family in New Madrid, MO who found me on the river and took me to their home and called all their kin for a feast with the paddler.

Perhaps the best was a man in Memphis who took me home to his wife. He worked days, so she and I played board games. When he returned in the late afternoon, we'd hurry to the river. We'd cast half a dozen lines, he would fall asleep, and I'd run back and forth, setting a few hooks, but mostly missing fish.

I loved the Ohio River, which is 39% of the water the Mississippi takes to the Gulf, and that 39% t-bones Old Man River at Cairo, IL. It's all roils and whirlpools. I was spun more than once. Standing waves too. A scary two-mile stretch.

FYI, don't ever stop at Cairo or Mound City and or any Illinois river town save Galena. Mark Twain wrote about the perils of river towns and what he said holds true in Illinois. Iowa, on the other hand, is a wonderful place to beach a boat and buy some grub.

I slept in a couple churches and at a couple pastors' houses, which they offered instead of their church, but mostly I slept on islands.

The lower Mississippi is Heaven. Big islands and big sandbars. Imagine Florida's beaches before air conditioning was invented. Cool backwaters to explore. Alligator gar as long as my kayak paddle. No houses on the shorelines, unlike the upper Mississippi. In fact, you can climb the levees and you still won't see houses. Everything's set back because people remember when the river rose and gobbled houses.

The first night on the Mississippi, the river rose and I awoke to waves lapping against my tent and my kayak floating freely. After that, I always dragged my boat and gear far from the water and every night for the rest of the way, the river fell, giving me lots of exercise.

No houses and people made for long, lovely days alone. My only companions were the occasional tow pushing barges and the rare paddle wheelers, with their calliopes and lights. There are few towns, like Vicksburg and Natchez, so you have to make sure you have enough food to paddle from one to the next.

Breaking camp in the morning was always interesting, for critters would crawl under my tent as I slept. The farther south I traveled, the more Jurassic they seemed, centipedish mini-monsters, all fangs and attitude. I'd lift the tent and they'd rear and snap.

The best time of the day was when I simply sat on the sand and watched the river pass, often backdropped by distant, silent lighting.

Of course, I'd say to myself, "Isn't this something? Isn't this something?"

Below Baton Rogue, the river is the upper opposite. It's called Cancer Alley and it's all industry and bustle. I slept one night in a work tug because I couldn't find a place to pitch a tent. Another night, I slept outside the barbed wire and lights of an industrial facility.

When I reached the ferry landing where friends would fetch me, a man asked me, "Where ya comin' from?"

"Cincinnati!" I said with pride.

"Fine. If you don't want to tell me," he replied with disbelief and disgust.