Around the bend Memphis, Tenn., to Vicksburg, Miss. - Part III

Monday, September 6, 2010

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

Day three

Oct. 20, 2008

Last night was cold again but we both slept a little warmer. I was comfortable until about 0400 when my feet started getting cold again. I should have put them back in the dry bag. I will tonight.

We are 40 miles south of Helena, Ark., on a sandbar at mile 620. We had another day of clear, calm weather perfect for paddling.

We saw more very nice river cabins and houses today. They all look fairly new and in a very remote part of the river. At least it seems remote to us looking from the river. Danny said Hank Williams Jr. has a cabin around here somewhere; maybe we saw it today.

The whole day had been calm and the water flat as glass until about 1600 and five miles above tonight's camp. That was when we made two bad decisions. The first was not to cross to the inside of a bend. The second was to cross to the inside of the same bend. I'll explain. We originally chose not to cross because a barge was coming downstream and it was too close for us to cross safely. An even bigger barge was waiting to go upstream as soon as that one passed, so we had to wait for it, too. The one going upstream was pushing 42 loaded barges. The props were sending a string of 15 high-rolling rooster tails of churning angry water behind it. Danny and I had plenty of room and continued paddling downstream on the outside waiting for the churning water to calm down so we could cross over. As we waited and drifted into the outside deep channel, the water next to the bank kept getting crazier and crazier with big boils, whirlpools and eddies. The water ahead looked worse than out in the channel behind the recently passed barges, so we decided to make our crossing. The rooster tails were all gone so it looked OK. Wrong! A towboat pushing that many barges upstream leaves a really long trail of bad water behind it. As we crossed, the water was choppy as we expected. What we didn't expect and really tested our paddling skills was the resurfacing of the rooster tails, opposing high waves and whirlpools! It was an exciting crossing to say the least and a lesson learned. While in the middle of it, I kept thinking of a song we sing at church: "Peace Be Still." That will be enough of that kind of excitement for this trip!

I am very late getting started on my journal tonight. I couldn't stand myself and had to take a foot tub bath. The wet wipes can only do so much. I feel much better and smell better too. Chicken and oatmeal was the menu for dinner tonight; very filling.

The cell phone has worked each night so far. I keep it turned off during the day to conserve the battery. I have called Marla every night, of course, and also called my brothers and our daughter Erin. I called to check on a few friends from church who are having health problems. They are family, too. I sure miss calling Dad and updating him each day. He was my biggest supporter for this continuing adventure.

Footnote 11/17/08

One of the people I called that night was my good friend, Carl Long. Besides Marla and Dad, he was the person I called most frequently. He, along with Sam Jarrell, was one of my river mentors when I was planning this adventure several years ago. Thirteen days after I got home, Carl passed away at his home. He will long be missed by many. He was a good friend and a man who lived his faith each day.


Danny and I decided the adjective "huge" just isn't big enough to describe the size of the river down here. He says it is vast and I agree. The view is panoramic from bank to bank and up and down stream. The water level is very low right now, so normally it would be even bigger. Our kayaks look like specks on the back of this wide river. On some stretches we can see three or four miles ahead and our puny efforts at paddling don't seem to be getting us anywhere, but we have to keep pulling on the water knowing each stroke puts us four feet closer to our daily goal of 40 miles.

When we reach Vicksburg, I'll have seen 1,877 miles of this river. Looking back, I can see at least four distinct changes in its character.

At first the river was, of course, a small, shallow, clear stream. When it became big enough to actually kayak down, it was still as clear and free running as our Missouri float streams. It was that way all the way to Coon Rapids Dam. That was the last dam I had to portage before reaching the twin cities.

From Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn., to St. Louis, it becomes a working river with commercial barge traffic every day and crowded with cabin cruisers and recreational watercraft every weekend. In that section, the river is basically turned into a stair stepping series of 28 lakes behind the 29 COE locks and dams. In the twin cities, Upper and Lower St. Anthony's locks/dams started the steps down to the level of the river at St. Louis. They are followed by locks and dams one through 15; next is 15A and then 16 through 22; there is no 23; the last four are 24 through 27. The river behind each dam is referred to as the pool and has very little current.

The third change comes after the last dam at St. Louis. From there it becomes free running again. The barge traffic increases in number and size and the recreational traffic all but disappears. Compared to its size above the twin cities, you would have to say it was now a big river.

At the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers near Cairo, Ill., the fourth change is immediately evident. What appeared as a big river above Cairo now looked like a two-lane highway joining a multilane super freeway. From Cairo on south, so far, everything about this river just keeps getting bigger. The barges are longer and wider, the wing dikes reach out from the banks farther than the river is wide at Cape Girardeau. The eddys, boils and whirlpools have grown up, too.

What changes await us between tonight's camp and Vicksburg and from there on to Mile Zero? We can look at our charts and get a sense of what is in store, but only by paddling it a day at a time will we know for sure. I do know, from many I have talked to, to expect another big change at Baton Rouge. From there on, we will be dealing with oceangoing ships as well as river barges. We will also be in alligator country.

This old river was first discovered by humans in the long lost fog of the past and "rediscovered" by each wave of pioneering humanity as they headed west in their own quests. Danny and I are discovering it all over again just for ourselves. Just being "told" it starts in Minnesota and ends in Louisiana might be enough for most folks, but we're from Missouri and... well, you know.

My imagination is getting too far ahead of itself. I need to come back to where we are now and take it day by day.

It is late and the air is getting colder. I need to make one more trip out on the sandbar and then bundle up, stick my feet in the dry bag and try to get some sleep.

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