Around the bend: Cape to Memphis, Part III

Saturday, April 10, 2010
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Note: Dave Hardesty continues a day-by-day account of his Mississippi River kayaking trip, an adventure shared with his friend Danny Rees.

Day three, Monday, 09-24-07

We pushed away from the bank at 0710 this morning. We need to get an earlier start from now on. I am the slow starter, not Danny. He is fast at everything he does, including breaking camp.

Clouds moved in right after we got underway this morning but soon cleared and stayed clear all day.

After 32.5 miles of nonstop paddling, we arrived in New Madrid, Mo., at 1300. That was five hours and 50 minutes of sitting in the kayak. My legs are a little unsteady when I first get out after that long. It takes awhile to get your "land legs" back under you. Your brain continues to rock and roll with the waves and the rhythm of paddling.

We walked into town to the "Grill" café. The waitress told us there has been a café on that spot for at least 60 years. There was a picture on the wall to prove it. It was from 1947, when the original building was an old train car. I felt at home since I had lived in an old wooden boxcar for about five years when I was growing up in old Illmo, Mo. Danny and I were hungry for vegetables but found only sandwiches available since we had missed the lunch special for the day.

A local commercial fisherman told us about his run-in with the infamous jumping carp that are so thick in the big rivers now. He was hit in the head by a 54-pounder. The impact knocked him off the seat of his boat. The carp landed in the boat and, after weighing it, he cut it up for bait but caught nothing on it. Some of them are big enough to knock a person out of their boat. I have seen several near Cape but only a few so far on this trip.

Two guys in a big pontoon boat landed at the ramp the same time we did. They were from a northern state and were headed for New Orleans. They needed to refill their gas cans and it was a long walk to the nearest gas station. A local fisherman gave one of them the keys to his truck and let him use it to go fill up the gas cans. I have seen and heard of this kind of generosity many times since I have been traveling on the river. It still surprises me.

In August of this year, this kindness toward river travelers was abused in Caruthersville, Mo. During a riverfront BBQ cook-off contest, a man came up to some of the competitors saying he was canoeing down the river from Ohio to New Orleans and was looking for a place to get a hot bath. One of the men gave him the keys to his car and motel room, telling him to go to the motel, get cleaned up and come back for a BBQ dinner. The guy took the keys, ransacked the motel room and stole the car! We later heard he had the nerve to call the good Samaritan and offer to sell him his car back! He did eventually get caught and wasn't a river traveler at all. He had just walked into the crowd and used that story to play on the kindness of these folks along the river. The above incident is why Danny and I are glad to have Lynn Medlin as our contact waiting for us in Caruthersville.

We left New Madrid around 1500 facing a 15 to 20 mph headwind. To make matters worse, my drop down skeg wouldn't deploy. It had jammed with mud from our landing. The skeg is vital to keeping the kayak tracking straight in winds. If I couldn't get it to work, I would have to get off the water and clear the jam somehow.

Using my body weight and the paddle, I managed to keep TPII facing the wind until the river water had softened the mud enough to allow the skeg to fully deploy. What a relief! Now all I had to concentrate on was judging the wind direction, timing the breaking waves to avoid filling my cockpit, and a passing barge from both directions! Between the high winds and barges, there were plenty of high swells and breaking waves from two directions at the same time. I didn't have my spray skirt on and by the time I got to calmer water where Danny was waiting, the water level in my cockpit was up to my seat cushion. While Danny held the two kayaks together for stability, I pumped the water out of mine. He had fared better than me and didn't need to pump out.

Since passing Cairo, Ill., the river has gotten much wider than it is at Cape. The barge tows are bigger, too. We have seen several with 40 or more barges. The scenery is pretty monotonous. Except for the bluffs near Wickliffe and Columbus, Ky., it is all pretty flat with river bottom willows, cottonwoods, soft maples. Since the river is low (10 feet at Columbus) there have been plenty of exposed sandbars for camping. We have seen lots of deer as well as a flock of pelicans above Columbus yesterday. Tonight we saw a coyote on the sandbar we are camped on. They will probably be singing for us before morning. Right now two owls are talking back and forth across the river.

As wide as the river is here, it is no problem staying out of the way of barges. We run just on the outside of the channel buoys and usually on the inside of any bends in the river. We did get surprised by one barge coming up from behind us this afternoon. The wind was blowing in our face and we couldn't hear his engines. We were in no danger because we stay out of the main channel.

By noon tomorrow, we hope to be in Caruthersville. Lynn will meet us at the ramp and take us someplace to eat and a store to restock on water or whatever else we need.

Rain and storms are predicted for tonight through Wednesday. I have the kayak anchoring the windward side of my tent. I hope I don't need it. So far it is a quiet night. We had a beautiful sunset and there is a full moon shining as I write this at 2150.

Thanks to the noisy dredging operation across the river from our camp last night we didn't get much sleep. The only noise we should hear tonight is passing barges and coyotes, unless the storm moves in.

Less than a mile upstream from where we are camped, we passed someone else camping on this side of the river. They had an old v-bottomed boat tied up to the bank. There was no engine on the boat but surely they had one. We figured they had the engine up in camp working on it. That is the problem with those gas engines; they need frequent maintenance. Our kayak engines just need a constant supply of food and water and they will run all day, although mine seems to slow down considerably in the afternoons.

Day four, Tuesday, 09-25-07

We camped five miles above Tiptonville, Tenn., last night and woke up to a chorus of coyotes near our camp around 3 a.m. They can sure make a wide variety of sounds. I enjoy listening to them.

No rain fell last night but the sky was cloudy when we left camp at 0630 this morning. Barge traffic was heavy, too. We saw eight before 0730.

The skies opened up and rained on us around 0930. It was just rain, no lightning, so we kept on paddling. At times the rain was so hard we couldn't see the other side of the river. We both had our spray skirts on so we didn't get our cockpits flooded. Although the rain was hard, it didn't last long. As soon as Danny dug out his poncho and put it on, it stopped. Later when he took it off, it started again. I told him he should leave it on. We got thoroughly soaked three times before we got to Caruthersville at 1300.

Lynn Medlin met us there as he promised. He was a big help taking us to Hays grocery store to pick up a few supplies. We tried to buy his lunch at the casino restaurant but he had already eaten. He also gave us a tour of his town and showed us the progress that has been made rebuilding after the tornado two years ago. He kept us laughing with his jokes and fishing tales. I'm glad we got to meet him.

At 3:30 p.m., we left Caruthersville and made camp just above the I-155 bridge. Since more thunderstorms are predicted tonight, we picked a sandbar behind a wing dike. We put our tents up next to the stone dike so it would break the winds if they came.

A light west wind started blowing just as we got settled in our tents and brought with it the strong smell of rotten fish! Danny climbed over the dike and found three partially eaten large dead fish. Using his paddle, he covered them with sand. We immediately enjoyed the improvement in our local air quality. Later a big buzzard came back to continue his meal that our noise had probably interrupted. All he found was three mounds of sand. If looks could kill, Danny and I would have been buzzard dessert that evening!

Danny found some jawbreakers in Caruthersville, so he is a contented paddler again. I picked up some wet wipes to try bathing with instead of water in a plastic dish pan. If it works, I can greatly reduce the weight of water I usually carry and have to replace. I tried them tonight and they worked good enough for a river rat. Danny gave me the idea, which goes to show you can teach an old river rat a new trick! He is also trying to convert me to barefoot paddling. The verdict is not in on that yet.

This river just gets wider and wider and the barges get bigger as we move farther south. Just before we got off the water this evening it was as smooth as glass until a barge passed. The flat brown river was turned into a waterscape of rolling swells looking like a giant brown parachute being lifted up and down by a circle of people.

With only 104 miles to Memphis, Tenn., Danny and I have to decide whether to push on in Friday late or camp another night and come in early Saturday. We may have to change the pick-up location. We'll see how it goes the next two days. Our charts don't show anymore towns on the river between here and Memphis, but we both have plenty of supplies to get us there.

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