Mainers Runnin' Rivers: Walsh, Knoblock and Higgins on the fabled Mississippi
By Jasper Walsh
It was over a year ago now, in the cold depths of February when it happened.
The touring kayak I had my eye on finally went on sale. I walked by that kayak every day, 40 hours a week as an employee of EPIC Sports. So I did what any experienced, self respecting out door crazy man would do, I bought it on the spot, with my credit card.
I have a theory that in February, all of us who live in Maine start to die. Our brains break down slowly, due to lack of sun light, fading summer memories and pure hatred for wind chills. February is when I have my best ideas for summer trips.
I had been trying to convince my friend and fellow EPIC employee to Darian Higgins to take two months off and paddle down the 2,552 mile Mississippi River, the fourth largest and third longest river in the world. The mighty Mississippi drains water from 31 states and parts of Canada and it is just sitting there waiting for us. It was easier to convince him now that I was making payments on my new Wilderness Systems Cape Horn 170. He and our third partner Rachel Knoblock, his then girlfriend, now fiancÚ, pooled their money and bought a new tandem Wilderness System North Star. Now the three of us started planning and making payments on our plastic river Cadillacs. We had decided on a two-month, self supported trip.
Fast forward six months.
We all worked summer jobs and saved some money, convinced our families we would be alright and loaded all of our gear and 20 days worth of food in to Darian's Toyota Corolla. Our friend Merri Beth used some vacation days and we drove for 35 hours non stop across southern Canada to the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca State Park in Northern Minnesota.
Little did we know that there was a serious draught in this part of the country so the "mighty" river was less then 4 inches deep in spots. We packed up after a few photos and drove 30 miles north to Lake Bemidji, where we would start our paddle the next morning.
The Mississippi forms a large question mark in northern Minnesota. It gathers volume by draining into and out of a series of small lakes and Bemidji was our first.
Paddling a touring kayak with 20 days worth of food and water is like nothing else I have ever experienced. (Think paddling a kayak with three eight year olds holding on to the back and dragging them through the water.) Our first few days were long and hard but we hardly noticed as we were distracted by the beauty of the river and of Minnesota.
We spent our time paddling through old pine forests and we spotted deer, black bear, bald eagles, hawks and once a lone wolf.
As the miles ticked by we went into and out of more lakes, around dams and spent a good deal of time walking our boats through shallow spots. We were told by some of the river folk we met along the way that this is the lowest the river has been in its record history.
We were paddling 20 - 30 miles a day, stopping for lunch on a sand bar and setting up camp at night on beautiful white sand beaches. It is hard to believe that this terrain is Minnesota and Wisconsin. The first 750 miles of the river were, quiet, peaceful and beautiful. We wound our way through small farming towns and met some colorful locals. We were even invited, on the spot, to a redneck wedding that was being held on the banks of the river. We stood around, drinking beer with the bride's uncle. He asked us the same questions we would be asked by people all the way to New Orleans. "Why would you want to do this ?" And we were about to answer him too but the wedding march started and he had to run.
By the time we had made it to the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, we were working our way up to 40 miles a day. We were all stronger and by now the blisters on our hands had started to disappear. Leading up to the Twin Cities the river would get wider almost daily we continued to see eagle, heron, owls, hawks and pelicans but we also started seeing an increase in commercial traffic. We paddled through industrial parks, chemical plants, scrap metal dumps and coal shipping terminals. This is the mental picture I had of the Mississippi, not the lazy, pine shaded miles we had just finished.
The Twin Cities also mark the beginning of the use of the river for barge traffic. We entered into the first of Army Corp of Engineer sanction lock and dams. The first, Upper Staint Anthoy's Falls is a steel and concrete chamber 400' x 56', we paddled in and two huge steel doors closed behind us, holding back all the water we had just spent two weeks pushing against. A horn sounded and we began our 49 foot drop to the water level below the falls, a very cool experience and our first of twenty nine lock. As the lock doors opened we entered a new section of the river, a more developed one.
From here south we would share the river with pleasure boaters, fisherman and barges. The tow boats here on the "upper" Mississippi (North of St. Louis) were huge diesel powered boats capable of pushing 15 barges at a time. South of St. Louis we saw barges pushing as many as 37. Huge boats mean huge wakes so we spent our time trying to stay out of the clearly marked shipping lane and dodging 8 foot standing waves thrown up from the three propellers of each barge.
This was a drastic change for us but we quickly got used to the traffic and the new current. We paddled our way through Iowa and Illinois with little change in our days. Up at seven am, breakfast and paddling by eight, put in twenty miles by noon, eat some food and paddle another twenty miles by five, find a nice beach and set up camp. We fell in to a schedule and spent any free time we had swimming, debating serious topics or throwing rocks at each other. Life was good.
Every once and a while we would stop at a marina along the way and fill up our water bags, eat some ice cream and rest a bit. Rachel had organized all of our food deliveries from home, so we about 500 miles between each food package which we had mailed to marinas along the way. Each day or so we would pick up another tributary and the river would get wider and stronger, pulling us towards the Gulf of Mexico.
We stopped in St. Louis, our half way point, got out of our boats and walked around the arch with our life jackets on. We had just paddled 1133 miles in 33 days and were happy to stretch our legs a bit.
From St. Louis south the river changes yet again. Bigger, wider and stronger currents were a quite a gift. On the "northern" section of the river we would paddle along at 4 or 5 miles an hour, now we were moving at 6 or 7 which made for some long days, 51 miles was our record.
Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana slid by with little change of the river. We stopped in Baton Rouge just three days from our take out in New Orleans. I made some last minute phone calls to my father who was driving down from Maine to pick us up and we were confronted with the last obstacle.
From Baton Rouge south, the Army Corp of Engineers maintains a shipping channel 300' wide and 45' deep so that huge ocean going ships can motor upstream to a cluster of oil refineries and industrial parks. These ships are amazingly large, they would literally block out the sun as the chugged past us. We saw ships from Singapore, The French Antilles, Sweden and Panama all working their way up river to pick up or drop off goods, and along side them, two tiny plastic kayaks working their way down stream.
We pulled into the port of New Orleans 56 days and 2,530 miles from where we started. We were tired and dirty but happy. We had followed this river from its headwaters where we walked across in ankle deep water down stream to a world wide shipping port where we were just dots on a radar screen. The river was kind to us and offered us sheltered places to sleep and wowed with its beauty.
I would wholeheartedly recommend this trip to anyone. Do some research and get a copy of the Army Corp of Engineers navigational charts and start working your way downstream! Live Life.
Jasper Walsh is a native Mainer and outdoor addict. He thru hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2003. Rode his bicycle across the country in 2004 and is always planning his next adventure. Have any ideas? Get a hold of him at Walshboys@hotmail.com
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