Around the bend: Cape to Memphis, part IV

Monday, May 3, 2010

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

Day five, Wednesday, 09-26-07

Wind, rain, thunder and lightning describe the fifth day of this adventure on the river.

At 0640 we were ready to push away from the bank and the protection of the rock wing dike when I decided to shed my t-shirt and put on my Gore-Tex all-weather running jacket instead. It turned out to be a good decision. We were never out of the rain long enough to dry out all day long. At times the rain came down so hard the surface of the river turned silver from splashing rain drops. After the first downpour, we were treated to a double rainbow when the sun tried to peek through the overcast sky.

There were no towns on the river for us to stop at today so it was just "crank, crank, crank," as Danny would say. We stopped for lunch on a sandbar during a short break in the rain. Three times we took shelter on the bank when the lightning got too close. We finally got off the river at 1645 and it was still raining.

Despite the soggy day, we still managed to get 40 miles closer to Memphis. That leaves 64 miles to go. We plan to do 35 Thursday and the last 29 Friday. That should put us in Memphis by 1300 Friday. Marla and Colleen will drive down after they get off work to pick us up around 2000.

We are camped tonight on a sandbar near a ferryboat. It appears to be one of those privately-owned ferries used by farmers to get equipment back and forth. We soon found out we had guessed right about the ferry because we got to meet one of the landowners or farm manager. We're still not exactly sure what his title was but he made us very sure what he thought of trespassers on "his" sandbar. He proceeded to tell us that we were on private property and camping or trespassing of any kind was not permitted! He went on to say they have had a lot trouble with vandalism and theft of their equipment at this remote location. His name was Fred and he started giving us this riot act while we were both zipped up in our tents trying to change clothes and get dried out and warm. Danny came out of his tent first to talk to him and try to calm him down. I think he had expected to find younger and more impressionable people in the tents. What he found instead was a guy who looks like he bench presses Buicks for fun. By the time I came out of my tent, his tone had softened considerably and his hands shook noticeably as he fumbled his cigarettes out of his shirt pocket. He reminded me of Barney Fife nervously trying to get that one bullet out of his pocket. I asked for the name and phone number of the landowners so we could call and ask for permission. That seemed to put him at ease and he said he would let us stay tonight only since we looked "OK." Before leaving, he told us to run off anyone else we saw hanging around there during the night. Evidently we had gone from suspicious river rat drifters to trusted guard dogs. We thanked him and assured him we would not take a single combine or tractor with us in the morning when we leave at first light.

Danny and I had talked about the legalities of camping along the river. I told him I had read in the Missouri Conservationist magazine that camping is legal along public waterways anywhere below the normal water line. We both agreed that what is legal and what is allowed may be two different things. Staring down the barrel of a shotgun held by an irate landowner on a remote sandbar is not the time to argue legalities. I'm glad cool heads prevailed on both sides tonight.

Our dinner tonight was supposed to be a couple MREs that Danny had brought. The steady rain has ruined that plan; maybe tomorrow. Tonight we will both be eating cold snacks in our tents.

The NOAA weather forecast calls for clearing Thursday afternoon and much cooler temperatures. I'm glad I brought my Gore-Tex jammies.

Day six started a little later than usual. We chose to wait out a morning rain and pushed away from the bank at 0740. With only 35 miles planned for today, we were in no hurry.

Hoping to make things a little better for river rats coming after us, we left Mr. Fred a note thanking him for agreeing to let us camp and told him to look us up if he is ever in our area. A little goodwill never hurts.

Today was as pleasant as yesterday was miserable. We both have lots of wet clothes and equipment to dry out. We will get off the water early this afternoon so we can string up clotheslines and take time to clean out our kayaks.

I had a couple exciting moments today. One thanks to a passing cabin cruiser that didn't bother to throttle down as he should have, and the other thanks to a bad choice on my part. The first happened about three miles after leaving camp. We were landing at a boat ramp to see if there was a town as the chart indicated. Danny had already landed and I was nosing up to the ramp when we both saw the whitecaps rolling in from the passing cruiser. I had to do some fast back-paddling to take the waves bow first and keep from being pushed up on the riprap. The second thrill came just three miles farther downstream. We were approaching a bend in the river where we needed to cross to be on the inside. Danny had already crossed. I stayed on the outside of the bend to investigate a huge whirlpool and some eddies at the end of a wing dike. I also wanted to get some pictures of an oncoming barge with a very unusual load. The barge I took pictures of was followed by another barge that was moving pretty fast (for a barge) and was throwing up small mountains of brown, churning river behind it. My bad choice was to cross over too soon after the second barge passed. The small churning mountains were gone but I didn't take time to notice the even bigger whitecaps that were behind them. It was quite an exciting ride across. A couple times the whitecaps lifted the front half of TPII well up out of the water and set it crashing down in the trough behind it. Since I didn't have my spray skirt on, my main concern was taking the waves bow first to keep from filling the cockpit, which I managed to do. When I pulled up close to where Danny was waiting and watching the show, he said he couldn't believe I had chosen to cross in such rough water. I agreed.

Situations like that can come on you so quickly on the river or anywhere in nature. It is easy to get lulled into enjoying the beauty around you but that beauty can turn to danger in an instant. I was careful to make better choices the rest of the day.

The whirlpool I had been checking out was one of the biggest I'd seen so far. It had to be at least 30 feet across. If I had paddled into it, it would have spun me around like a weather vane on a Kansas barn. The size of the Mississippi below Cairo, Ill., is impressive. By the time we reached Osceola, Ark., the wing dikes were as long as the river is wide at Cape Girardeau. I guess it is due to the greater volume of water that the whirlpools and eddies are so much bigger, too.

The unusual barge load was some kind of massive super structure. There were two of them, each about 100 feet long by 30 to 50 feet high. Because they stood so high, the tow boat pilot's forward view was partially blocked and a smaller tow boat was attached to the front corner to help guide.

Below Osceola, the scenery began to change. We are now seeing occasional bluffs on the Tennessee side. Some are stone while others are of red clay. Kudzu covered about two miles of bluffs right down to the river's edge. This is the first real change of scenery we've had since Wickliffe and Columbus, Ky.

In a big bend below Osceola and a Corp of Engineers dredge boat operation, we met up with a couple men headed upriver in a johnboat. We pulled close and held our kayaks and the boat together while we visited and drifted down the middle of the river. They were from Tennessee and gave us the location of good camping spots we were going to come to by evening. We told them about our less-than-friendly reception on the sandbar last night. They said that is getting to be a common problem. Rich, absentee landowners or corporations buy or lease huge tracts of land along the river and act like they own the river, too. They guessed where we had camped before we told them, so it must happen often. We were told a husband and wife team in kayaks was a day ahead of us heading for New Orleans. They had started at Lake Itasca, Minn.

Noticing there was no fishing gear with them in the johnboat, we asked what they were doing out on the river. One of the men was on his way to swim across the river! He said he had wanted to do it when he had turned 40 but didn't, and wasn't going to wait any longer. We wished him luck but had to move on because of an oncoming barge.

I just remembered that I saw an eagle today. It was during my exciting crossing this morning. I was too busy at the time to really get to enjoy the sight.

Just before we stopped for lunch, I realized we have been traveling with royalty. Monarch butterflies are on their migration south for the winter. After I noticed it and pointed it out to Danny, we started seeing more and more flitting along the river. To watch their erratic way of flying, you would never think they could make it all the way to Mexico.

Just above Osceola we met the commercial fisherman we had talked to at the Grill cafe in New Madrid, Mo. He didn't think we had gone very far since the last time he saw us. We said it would be much different if we had his 40 horsepower outboard motor and he was using paddle power only.

We are camped on a long sandbar in a straight stretch of river. The coyotes gave us a brief serenade at dusk. We will probably have visitors and more of their music before morning.

It is 2121. I started journaling pretty late this evening. This is our last night on the river for this leg of our adventure to the Gulf of Mexico. We celebrated tonight with a big supper of MREs and stayed up late talking and watching nature's television, our campfire. I didn't use a campfire at all between Lake Itasca and Cape. The main reason we had this one tonight was to dispose of trash.

From here it is only 29 miles to the marina at Mud Island in Memphis. We plan to be there by 1300 tomorrow. The girls won't be able to pick us up until about 2000. That gives us plenty of time to find some hot food and check out the sights a little.

My wristwatch alarm will not be set this night. With such a short distance to go and plenty of time to get there, we plan to sleep in. We've earned a lazy morning. At Memphis, we will have paddled 270 miles and averaged 38.5 miles per day.

We have both enjoyed the trip thus far and each other's company.

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