Bald eagles and cattails abound in Minnesota's river of grass

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Editor's Note:

Dave Hardesty of Cape Girardeau began his six-week solo kayak trip down the Mississippi River July 30. Hardesty will share the adventure with Southeast Missourian readers through letters he writes along the way.

DAY 3, Aug. 1, 2005:

This day started out great.

I enjoyed the view up river from the bluff while I ate breakfast and watched a bald eagle cruise the river after I got under way again.

While negotiating the ox bows through a wide valley of cattails, I came across a large beaver lodge.

After that cattail maze I came into Wolf Lake. The map indicated the river left the lake less than a mile to my left. I scanned the shoreline with binoculars looking for "No Wake or Wash" signs or buoys that would mark the outlet. I saw neither, so I started paddling along the left shore. After I had gone about a mile I suspected I'd missed it.

I asked some fishermen but they were no help since they were out-of-towners too. Continuing on, I asked a couple of camp counselors.

By that time, I was at the far end of the lake. They knew where the outlet was and pointed it out about 500 yards to the left of where I entered the lake. The sign was covered by the cattails.

So I spent an hour circling a lake I didn't even need to go into. It gets worse. I was about to reach the first of two big lakes that I had decided not to paddle across. This was Cass Lake, the next would be Lake Winnibigoshish, or "Winni." Before leaving home, I'd arranged with a local outfitter to portage me around Cass Lake.

I called him this morning to finalize the place and time to meet. After the time lost in Wolf Lake, I had to hustle to make it to the meeting place by 2 p.m., but I made it.

The outfitter had told me he would pick me up after taking a load of canoes to Grand Rapids. At 4:30 p.m., I was still waiting. I finally gave up on him and asked a brother and sister -- Danny and Linda Kingbird, descendants of original Minnesotans -- who drove up in a pickup truck.

They dropped me at a campsite on the east side of Cass Lake just below the dam. So most of the day was wasted.

This is a state park campground. The camp hosts are Reynold and Karen Brix and they have been very helpful and friendly. Reynold called the host at the Lake Winni campground and arranged for him to portage me tomorrow. That was a big help.

They also invited me to their evening campfire. I met another friendly couple there. They wanted to hear all about the trip so far and shared tips with me about what was ahead -- more vegetation-choked river.

Up here the Mississippi should be called the Grass River. I'll be glad when I get past this grass. They said it would probably clear up where Leech Lake River joined the Mississippi, about 40 miles from here. I'm trying to remain optimistic about tomorrow.

I've set my watch to get up at 4:30 a.m. for an early start.

DAY 4, Aug. 2, 2005:

Got back on the river at 6:30 a.m. The morning mist was still on but burning off. I had 12 miles of cattail bogs to zig-zag through before reaching Lake Winni, the third largest lake in Minnesota. The main channel was deep and fairly clear. A few times I had to watch the underwater grass to determine the real channel.

I saw several eagles today, which is always a treat. Three river otters burst out of the cattails barking and swimming toward me.

Not knowing what else to do, I barked back and slapped the water with my paddle. Barking back works on most dogs, too. I use it when I'm jogging.

I made it to Lake Winni at 9:30 a.m. and this time my portage man was waiting. Cass and Winni lakes are both big enough to be dangerous for canoes or kayaks. Waves of four feet or more are likely in high winds.

I saw my second snake while putting in below the Lake Winni dam. A park ranger said it was a copper belly and nonpoisonous. Minnesota only has one venomous snake, the timber rattler. The park ranger said it's only found in the southeast part of the state along big rivers, such as the Mississippi. Thanks a lot!

From the dam, I paddled 16 miles to a campsite called Gamblers Point. This one is on a high bluff again. I guess that is so you can get above the mosquitoes, but it means carrying camping gear up a steep hill after a full day of paddling.

When I first got to this site and started unloading, the mosquitoes and flies were worse than ever. I had to break out my Army surplus mosquito head net. It comes down to my shoulders and really works.

With the 14 mile portage, I made 42 miles today. A mile above this campsite another river joins the Mississippi. It has the unappealing name of Leech Lake River. With the added flow, though, the Mississippi now looks like a river.

It has changed color as well as size. At Lake Itaska, it started as clear as our float streams in Missouri. It started changing to the color of weak tea in the first bog I encountered. From lake Winni to here it has become darker and darker. Now it's almost black.

I had some bad luck as I was getting out of my kayak at this campsite. I broke my favorite wooden paddle. My brother gave it to me before I even owned a kayak. I'll have to use my spare paddle now. I think I can patch the wooden one good enough to use as a backup.

I've stopped using my camp stove and propane. That is less I have to carry up these bluffs. I found my instant oatmeal tastes just fine cold and eaten out of the packet. My rice with tuna or chicken is good cold as well.

If all goes well, I should make it to Cohasset tomorrow, 26 miles downriver. I will recharge my cell phone there and have some real food.

DAY 5, Aug. 3, 2005:

I made it 29.7 miles today. This was the hottest day so far and very humid. Woke up to rain at 4:30 a.m. Didn't get on the river until 7:30 a.m. trying to wait out the rain.

After 13 miles, I stopped and stretched my legs at Schoolcraft State Park. I arrived in Cohasset around 3 p.m. I cashed some travelers' checks, took four days' worth of dirty clothes to a coin laundry then went to a restaurant and ordered up the biggest burger with chili cheese fries.

The food I brought with me is low fat, high energy. My body was craving some fat. I rarely eat that kind of food at home. I swapped stories with a retired telephone guy at the restaurant.

The river scenery was nonstop cattails, cane and other water grass or wild rice. No trees or hills. I've had enough of that. I hope this next section of river has some variety.

I'm camped at a Corps of Engineers campground, the Pokegama Dam. I'll have to portage this dam in the morning.

Like yesterday, the only bad luck I had came at the end of the day. I was caught in rain while setting up my tent. I managed to keep the bedding and the inside of the tent dry. Since this is a public campground with lots of recreational vehicles and no showers, I had to take my daily sink bath inside the tent.

I brought one of those little plastic wash tubs that hospitals use. The tent I'm using is my brother's small, two-man tent. With my bedroll and my other gear inside there's not much room for bathing. In the process, I turned over the tub of water. So much for a dry bed tonight.

After drying everything out as well as I could, I decided to call home before attempting another bath. While talking to my wife, Marla, and joking about something worse happening, it did. I found a leech attached to my right foot.

What a way to the end the day! I sprinkled it with salt and it turned loose of my leg. Make note -- get more salt.

I did finally get my bath. I also used aluminum tape and duct tape to repair the broken paddle. I'm trying to lighten my kayak by getting rid of miscellaneous items I don't use. Portaging these dams is a slow process by yourself an and I have several yet to do.

At Grand Rapids, three miles down river, Minnesota Power has a dam and they offer portage assistance.

Day 6, Aug. 4, 2005:

I paddled 43 miles today, must have been those chili cheese fries. Actually, it was the combination 20 to 25 mph northwest wind and a strong current flowing southeast. I was making around 7 mph and just pushed until I almost ran out of daylight.

I ran late because I didn't get on the river until 8:30 a.m. today. I had to finish drying things out and portage the dam where I was camped. I'm planning about 35 miles tomorrow. That is, if I can get up again.

Thirty-five miles will put me at a Corps of Engineers campground that should have a shower. Oh joy! I sure hope it does because I'll have to paddle a mile upstream on the Sandy River to get there.

Below Grand Rapids the river has changed a lot. The current is strong and the river is wider. At least three rivers have joined the Mississippi, Leech Lake River, the Sandy River and the Vermilion River.

The best part is the scenery has finally changed too. No wetlands today, all hills with pine and hardwoods. It is a welcome change. I was so bored with the wetlands, I started counting how many paddle strokes it took to go a mile. Just one arm was 420 strokes per mile, 840 for both.

Went 43 miles today. That was 11 hours in the kayak with two 30-minute breaks to stretch. It was too long.

My $1 radio from the Teen Challenge Thrift Store just told me the temperature is supposed to drop to 49 degrees tonight. Glad I brought my Goretex jammies!

DAY 7, Aug. 5, 2005:

Made camp at 5 p.m. today. That's a lot better than starting at almost 8 p.m., like I did last night. The mosquitoes throw a come-one-come-all feast around 8 p.m. each evening and I was the main entree last night.

By stopping earlier, I can clean up, eat outside and be snug in the tent before the evening feeding frenzy.

I didn't have that strong a tail wind today, but still made 30 miles. Tomorrow is going to be a short day because I'm only 23 miles from the small town of Palisades.

I plan to stop there, camp and find a place to recharge my cell phone. I may do some laundry too and of course I'll check out the local cafe.

I hope the park isn't too far from town. I like to eat in small cafes when traveling. You meet some nice people and get a better feel for the town than in a franchise joint.

The river continues to grow and change color. I passed a lot of farms with beef cattle. Craving a more varied diet, I keep seeing the cattle as deluxe double cheeseburgers on legs.

It's not that I'm hungry all the time. I get plenty to eat every day. I guess I'm having withdrawal pains from being able to eat whatever, whenever.

The woods here are very quiet compared to back home. Here it is as quiet as ours are in the winter. The first couple nights I heard some owls, but not much since. Minnesota sure doesn't have the reptile or amphibian population Missouri does. I don't think I've heard a frog all week. I rarely see fish jumping or swimming.

The landing at tonight's campsite was a challenge. The river is low so I had to cross a 2-foot-wide strip of soupy, sucking mud. I know what that kind of mud can do. When my brother Steve and I were kids, we had to be pulled out of that kind of mud while picnicking on a river.

Getting back on the river in the morning won't be much better. At least I was able to wash the mud off tonight.

Tonight I'm 233 miles from Lake Itaska. In 47 more miles I'll be halfway to the twin cities.

To be home in the six weeks I promised Marla, I have to average 30 miles a day. It is 1,295 miles from Lake Itaska to Cape, so 1,062 miles to go.

I try to stay focused on one day at a time. The total 1,295 miles is too daunting, so I'll just take it one mile at a time and pray.

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