Taming the Mississippi

Jim Post singing Mighty Big River

In 2004, two of my college friends and I decided to paddle canoes from the headwaters in Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota to the Twin Cities. We all had experience canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, so it wasn’t a stretch to think we could paddle the five hundred miles to the Twin Cities. It took us four years to reach that goal, beginning each year at the place we ended the previous year. Once we reached the Cities, I suggested that we paddle to Iowa, since that is where I live. Gradually our goals changed: first it was the Iowa border, then the Missouri border, then St. Louis, and finally, after jesting about it for years, the Gulf of Mexico! We were 50 years old when we started, and nearly 65 when we finished. The trip became a life-shaping venture for us, and was something we talked about and planned for year round.

The Mississippi in northern Minnesota

The three of us paddled every mile, but we also went through nine other friends for whom one week of paddling was enough. We had drought years where we could barely scrape through the shallow water, and flood years where it was next to impossible to find a place to camp. The worst year was in 2011—the water was so high that we literally paddled down the streets of flooded river towns in Illinois, and had to camp on levees, docks, and house porches. In a normal year, we camped on sandbars or islands in the middle of the river. We carried our food, tents, and cooking equipment with us so that we were totally self-sufficient. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t stop at a Dairy Queen if we happened to spot one from the water!

Camping on a sandbar

People ask, “Wasn’t it dangerous?” The barges really were the least of our problems. You can see them coming upstream nearly an hour before they reach you. You can hear the ones that sneak up from behind. The current, however, is unforgiving and relentless. Submerged logs and trees, wing dams, and demolished docks require constant vigilance. Storms also had their way with us. We heard tornado sirens go off when we were in the middle of the river with no place to go. One night we were asleep in our tents when we heard the sirens go off. The tents began to blow sideways and we were holding down the corners so they didn’t become airborne with us in them. After the storm was over and we emerged, our canoe was gone! We had turned it over and tied it up, as usual, but the wind must have gotten under it, picked it up, snapped the rope, and blown it out into the river. That was a terrifying moment, if only because we had no way to rescue ourselves without a canoe! Eventually a fisherman picked us up and drove us southwards in his john boat so we could look for the canoe, but it was never seen again. That was the end of that year’s paddle, and we had to purchase another canoe for the following summer.

Our small kayak competing with a barge for right-of-way

It was very interesting to watch the flora and fauna change as we progressed south. In northern Minnesota we were eaten alive by mosquitoes morning and evening. In southern Missouri, there was nary a one. There were loons and geese at first, later they were snakes and diving birds we didn’t recognize, and finally alligators and sea birds. The pine trees of the north gave way to mostly deciduous trees covered with kudzu. We saw bald eagles everywhere. But almost nowhere did we see people enjoying the great Mississippi. It was like a ghost river, except for us and the barges.

Other changes had to do with the size of the river. At the headwaters, the river was just a few feet wide, and by the end it was usually a mile or more across. Between Minneapolis and St. Louis there were twenty-seven locks and dams. By law, the locks have to allow any watercraft to “lock through,” which means we never had to portage around the dams! It was both a luxury and a thrill to go through the locking process. The very first lock, however, wasn’t so much fun—we didn’t know the drill and our canoes nearly got sucked down as the lock was draining. After St. Louis the Army Corps of Engineers pretty much left the course of the river alone. It began a meandering course, as opposed to the relatively straight line of the northern half. That didn’t mean, however, that the speed of the current slowed down at all. The power of the river is incredible!

Sharing a lock with a sternwheeler

At the end of our journey, almost to the gulf, we paddled through tall grass with an occasional cypress tree. Eight miles later, the years and miles of fighting the current suddenly faded into a gently undulating sea. We were taken by surprise at the calm of the Gulf. As in life, we were accustomed to frantically flitting from day to day, commitment to commitment, task to task, campsite to campsite, and suddenly, of a day, the fight was over. If only the transition to heaven will be as peaceful as our last two days on the Mississippi!

The three of us who paddled every mile: Deb Lenox White, Deb Stephens Knutson, Anne Sherve-Ose

A complete accounting of this thirteen-year expedition is found in Mississippi Misadventures: Thirteen Trips of a Lifetime. You can purchase a copy by writing to Anne at anneso2423@yahoo.com

Photos on this post courtesy of Deb Lenox White.

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