September 7, 2010–New Madrid, MO

The excellent conditions of the past few days have spoiled me, for today would have been considered average by upper Mississippi standards.  It was very windy, 15-25 mph, all day long and naturally from the south.  This created much turbulence in the water.  It was overcast and rained on me throughout the afternoon and evening.  I had anticipated an increase in the river’s velocity, with the additional flow from the Ohio River, but curiously this was not the case.  In fact, my pace seems to have slowed to 5-6 mph.  These unpleasant conditions and reduced rate of travel brought a subdued spirit to today’s progress.

I pushed hard all day to make New Madrid, in hopes of treating myself to a big, hot dinner and possibly even a room for the night, as today is my birthday.  However, my exertions were in vain as New Madrid is too small a community to provide such comforts to a river traveler.  I contented myself that there was a break in the rain sufficient to make camp before the rains resumed.  I heated a can of chili under my shelter and am now safely in my hammock out of the weather.

Crickets, frogs, and splashing fish make for a constant and pleasant lullaby.

Day 46:  65 Mi.

 

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September 6, 2010–Angelo Towhead, Cairo, IL

Another excellent day of river travel.  The terrain has flattened out considerably, with no bluffs to break the monotony of the skyline.  It’s amazing such a small absence can so greatly add to mental boredom.  The river has been dramatically devoid of wildlife, so when a creature is spotted, I feel a sense of satisfaction.  Saw a large turtle fling itself to safety off a 10 foot embankment on my approach.  Also a lone bald eagle, which I haven’t seen in a great time.

Stopped for lunch on a sandy embankment and found a small open motorboat wedged in the trees and rocks.  It no doubt broke loose during the flood and found its way to this final resting place.  While by no means a fine craft, I’m sure its owner misses it dearly, yet has no means of alerting him to its location.

I attempted to shave a mile or two off my day by traveling through a small chute around a towhead.  It did save me some time, and was also cause for some excitement.  A wing dam spanned the entire chute, causing a large hump in the water and considerable turbulence beyond it.  As I crested the hump and descended into the frothy chaotic water, I experienced a rush of adrenaline not felt since Sauk Rapids, long ago.

North of Cairo several fires burned beyond the trees.  I’m not sure their purpose, but the smoke in the air gave that section an eerie aspect, and all was tinted orange from the smoky air above.

I am presently three miles upstream of the Ohio River, on a sandbar.  I had intended to camp on a fine sandy bank a mile earlier, but as I beached I could hear reports of pistols, so I quickly pressed further, knowing I would be rather uneasy camped in the vicinity of mysterious gun play.  I am curious how the nature of the river will be altered by the massive influx of the Ohio.  I have but one foot of elevation between my camp and the river, and hope dearly that it will not rise and ruin my night’s sleep.  I have tethered my boat to the tent, in a form of an early warning device.

Day 45:  60 Mi.

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September 5, 2010–Near Hamburg Landing (Mile 62)

I continue to make excellent speed and am in high spirits.  A fine day for river travel, except for the 20 mph headwind I encountered several times.  It does not seem to be accompanied by the white caps, as it was north of St. Louis, and for that I am supremely grateful! Such a wind is now an irritant, but no longer an impediment to my progress.

Observed more geese today, heading north, and also I detect the faint tinge of yellow to some of the trees on the bank, reminding me that autumn is nigh.

I am camped in the most satisfying position of the entire journey, I believe.  A soft expanse of packed sand, shaded by many leaning trees.  The sun is setting across the river; it’s about 75 degrees, and just a hint of cooling breeze.  Very peaceful, no mosquitoes! It would seem, for reasons unknown, that the east bank is rich in such attractive sandy shores, while the west bank tends to offer four-foot-deep mud.

Day 44:  63 Mi.

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September 4, 2010–St. Genevieve, MO

The needed parts arrived earlier than expected, to my satisfaction.  The repairs were quickly accomplished, and I was back on the water by 11:20.  I could not have asked for more agreeable weather today—the temp in the upper 70s, with a mild breeze.  The scenery very pleasant, sandy banks and dense brush, only occasionally marred by industry.  Some type of insects making a continuous drone from the forest, so powerfully that I could hear them from both banks when in the center of the channel.  Aside from them, I was treated to an almost perfect silence for most of the way.

The barge traffic much reduced from yesterday.  Saw the largest load to date, barges stacked four across and seven deep.  Above St. Louis, the maximum was always three by five.  Also observed a small squadron of Canadian geese, squawking above me—the first seen since Minnesota, probably.

I decided to call off the day’s journey in St. Genevieve to enjoy the historic elements of the town.  The mud along the riverbank so thick and deep that I sunk mid-thigh in the lugubrious ichor when climbing from my craft.

The town is very quiet and charming and claims the distinction of being the first town west of the Mississippi.  There is a fine large Catholic church, and many historic homes.  Took supper in a tavern built in 1855.  The impressive maple bar-top was carried from a foundering steamboat to the tavern by ox cart in 1855.

The strong current is a delight, as I am able to travel distances that once took all day with relative ease.  It also improves my mood, for the scenery passes quicker and I have a little more visual variety, albeit only variations on trees and bluffs.  Nevertheless, as that is how I track my progress during the day, it lends to a greater sense of satisfaction.

Day 43: 33 Mi.

 

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September 3, 2010–Kimmswick, MO

The violent thunderstorm of last night had spent itself and today was one of the most agreeable climates of the voyage.  As I pushed away from shore, I was pleased to see that my comfort and ease within the kayak was not diminished by time spent away, and that she glided across the calm canal as bonnily as ever.

As if by design, the final lock on the river was open and awaiting my arrival.  I exchanged pleasantries with the lockmaster, pleased to be free of the often lengthy ritual of passing through, yet sad to no longer have a regularly occurring distraction and periodic milestone by which to gauge my progress.

The canal soon merged with the channel, and the skyline and arch of St. Louis loomed ahead.  The river below the locks, during normal conditions, seemed equal to the river above during flood stage.  This suggests to me that I made the right choice in avoiding this region until flooding subsided.  Perhaps it was well that the flooding did occur however, for it allowed me to gradually become accustomed to the swift water, debris, and roiling surfaces.  Had all been calm, I would have perhaps felt shock at the speed of the free-flowing current below the dams.

Passing through the harbor was unsettling, for the sheer volume of docked barges, plodding tugs, and industrial riverside mayhem obscured the approaching river traffic.  I was twice startled to find a tug with 18-24 barges steaming down on me, its movement camouflaged against a backdrop of steel and rust.  It was during the second of these flights from an oncoming tug that I felt a familiar jerking of the motion of my pedals.  Upon close inspection, I could clearly see that the teeth on the rotating cog that operates the flippers were wearing off.  A similar malady affected my craft above St. Paul, but I had thought the problem solved.  I was particularly perturbed, as I had inspected the teeth for wear two days ago, and found none.  While my propulsion was still 100% functional, I knew failure was just a matter of time.  It might very well last 100, or 300 miles, however the failure would certainly occur.  Likely brought about by vigorous, rapid strokes, the likes of which would only be employed in an evasive maneuver, or when straining against the current when heading upstream.  In other words, it would break when I most needed it.

This was cause for some despondence as I was merely two hours into my day, the first in two months.  Yet given the rapidity of the current and the volume of barge traffic, I was unwilling to delay a solution.  I stopped at a dilapidated marina some 20 miles south of St. Louis and arranged for spare parts to be delivered.  I have taken a room nearby to await delivery tomorrow.  With any luck I can make the repairs quickly, leaving enough daylight for 15 to 20 miles.

More on the river: Roughly nine miles past St.  Louis, the river returned to itself—sandy banks, wooded shores, little in the way of traffic or docked barges.  It was a welcome relief from the harbor.  The water is very warm, and seething oddly, as though no current exists at all.  It pushes my bow about, and occasionally seems to suck down a bit.  Roiling waves appear from time to time.  I cannot decide if it was always so, yet time away has dulled my synergy with it; or if its nature has changed below the locks.  The mark of industry is heavily upon it in the form of pungent scents—petroleum, musty grain, rock dust.  The banks are dense with small willow trees.

Despite the mechanical setback, today left me with a feeling of success.  I was without pain, discomfort, fatigue, or atrophy; the currents were swift enough to make good time, yet manageable; the weather fine, my spirits high.

Day 42:  28.5 Mi., 1 Lock

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September 2, 2010–Granite City, IL

My plans for departure seem to have proven prudent, as I was able to complete my remaining preparations in an unhurried fashion today.  Indeed, I have felt most at east and, if I may say so, self-satisfied.  By 3pm, all of my re-supplies were neatly arranged, all equipment was cleaned, tested, and re-packed.  I decided against loading up the boat today, on the infinitesimal yet rational chance that my possessions would be stolen on the eve of my departure.  Thus feeling well prepared and calm, I devoted the remainder of my afternoon and evening to cultural pursuits.

Where I Kept My Boat

The highlight was my visit to the Basilica Cathedral, so designated by the pope for the splendor and craftsmanship of the 83,000 sq. ft. of mosaics within, unparalleled in any other North American city.  Perhaps the entire western hemisphere.  Done in a Romanesque exterior and a Byzantine interior, the inside of the domes bejeweled with rich reds, blues, and purples.  It was quite a stunning sight, and worthy of reverence.

Flooded St Louis Waterfront

I also made tour of a local dining fixture, a sporting event, and a musical performance at the University.  And I couldn’t resist a trip down to the waterfront to steal a glimpse of the river, which I hope will treat me with as much leniency and favor below St. Louis as above.

Floods Receded

The turbid waters flowed along at a nice clip, and were dramatically lower than when I left 2 months ago.  In retrospect, I crammed a substantial amount of activity into the latter half of my day, yet never felt rushed (it is however now midnight) and I realize it was all an attempt to distract myself from the growing anxious feeling in my gut, knowing that tomorrow morning, the ram will have touched the gate and there is to be no turning back.  I hope sleep comes with no struggle tonight.

Day 41

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September 1, 2010–Granite City, IL

I donned my familiar and discolored river wear and loaded up my backpack at 4:30 this morning.  It felt good to once again have all I needed to sustain me carried on my back.  Flew to St. Louis, by way of Phoenix, landing at 14:30.  It was overcast, grey, and raining.  Despite the heat and humidity, the rain and dark skies lent a foreboding to my afternoon.  Took a train to downtown, then a bus across the river to Illinois.  Rented a car in Granite City and took a deep breath as I arrived at my boat.

The exterior was unchanged and I was greeted with but a minor stench from the interior.  There was a jelly-like scum building up inside, and a small infestation of grubs, but nothing that couldn’t be easily remedied.  I was compelled to dispose of the majority of preserved foodstuffs within, keeping only an unopened jar of peanut butter, some steel cut oats, and a pint of whiskey.  Whilst unloading the bulkheads, a small snake slithered inside and was removed gingerly by its tail, with no small amount of coaxing.  Not being familiar with the snakes of this region, I wasn’t keen on being bitten.

Back at my motel, I took stock of my gear.  Most clothing items were mildew-ridden and required laundering.  All the water vessels had grown brackish and green within, no doubt contaminated by a minuscule drop of river water.  They would need to be sanitized with a bleach solution, as would the entire interior of the boat.  My ammunition had been corroded and compromised by the moisture and was disposed of.  The stove needed dismantling and cleaning, but now functions properly.  The tent and hammock, my biggest concern, were relatively untainted so I hung them up to dry.  All of this was accomplished in my grimy, squalid motel room, and it is now quite a sight: gear strewn about and hanging everywhere, the sink and shower brown with filth.

Around 10pm I made a trip to the market to replace my provisions and restock certain expendables.  I am feeling agitated in anticipation of resuming at last.  There is still work to be done tomorrow, so I shall depart Friday, early as possible.  This will allow a relaxed pace tomorrow, possibly some time to enjoy St. Louis in more favorable climate than in June, and time to remember last minute needs.  Thus I might begin on Friday with a peaceful spirit.

Day 40

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August 30, 2010

Flood conditions and the resulting harbor closure persisted into early August.  About that time I was contracted for employment on a two-week film shoot.  I am much contented with my time at home, and my coffers partially restored.  Tomorrow I will return to St.  Louis to resume the journey.  I am expecting the worst of conditions for my boat and my gear, as I was prepared only for a two to three-week hiatus.  I have been assured by the agents of the company with which my possessions remain, that all is in order and nothing is missing.  Yet I am quite certain the dark moist interiors of the bulkheads will be thoroughly overrun by mildew or worse.  I am very eager to resume this adventure; the past two months, while initially dispiriting, are now a mere moment of distraction from my true purpose: to arrive in New Orleans!

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June 25, 2010–St. Louis

I have decided to heed the counsel of those most familiar with this river, and not proceed until it is below flood stage.  As this is expected to take at least 10 days, I will fly home to Los Angeles and wait in the company of my wife and friends, and the comfort of my own home.  Incidentally, St. Louis is not recommended this time of year, as the exceedingly hot and muggy climate makes nearly any action taken outdoors into a mighty struggle against lethargy.

 

Photos of my days in St Louis can be seen here.

 

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June 22, 2010–Granite City, IL

The weather fairer today—just as hot and muggy, but with clouds and a small breeze to cool me.  Passed dramatic bluffs to the east, in the area of Alton.  Approached the massive confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, with some trepidation.  Not only had I been warned by the lock masters and tug pilots encountered along the river of the dangerous clashing of the mighty currents, but I’ve recently had a dark dream wherein my vessel was capsized by a mighty onrush of river from the west.  I secured all my gear as tightly as I had in the first week of travel, and donned my life jacket for the first time in weeks.  Alas, even with both rivers above flood stage, I found the conditions no more hazardous than the last 100 miles.

I relaxed again and settled in, ready to pass through the Chain of Rocks Canal.  This man-made corridor stretches some five to eight miles in a perfect line, linking St.  Louis Harbor with the river above the Chain of Rocks, thus allowing traffic to bypass this rough section of river.

While passing through Mel Price Lock (#26), I was informed that the harbor past Lock 27 was closed to all small craft by order of the Coast Guard, due to extreme high water and hazardous conditions.  Radio chatter between the lock and approaching tugs regarding my journey took on a grim tone, as I overheard words such as “suicidal” and “nuts.” I was eager to see what lay at the end of the canal.

First, however, I had to reach Lock 27, which proved to be more toilsome than I could have imagined.  There was only a moderate headwind, yet I found myself working vigorously just to make my standard pace.  It was so wearying that I was obliged to conclude that the current in the canal was flowing miraculously upstream! I was loath to stop peddling to test my theory scientifically, yet it seemed a certainty that I was somehow heading upstream.  Numerous barges and tugs choked the canal, and I used the radio frequently to arrange my safe passage.  The tug pilots seem to me a courteous and able lot, and were most accommodating.

As I neared Lock 27, I hailed them to request passage, and was informed that the harbor was indeed closed and as such they would not be allowing me through.  Again, I was treated to inquiries on my sanity, and concern for my well-being.  I made contact with the Coast Guard, hoping to arrange a pass, but met with the same treatment.  The conviction with which these river men warned me about the dangers of such a flooded river began to stir in me feelings of confusion.  Had I not just passed several hundred miles in similar conditions without incident? Was I perhaps fortunate to have made it so far? Or were they all over-reacting, assuming me to be a novice, unprepared for what lay ahead? There would be time later to ponder that and my next course of action.  The immediate concern was for a way off the river amidst such a sprawling industrial no-man’s land.

Fortunately I was able to hail a nearby marine fleeting service, and was granted permission to take out on their property.  I wandered about the docks, eventually finding a supervisory type, who was disinclined to allow me to roam about, but did ferry me to the main office.  It took some negotiating, but eventually I had audience with the president of the company.  As is often the case, the man at the top was all too willing to be of aid.  In fact, when fully informed on my situation, he so much as forbade me to return to my boat.  Apparently currents such as these have been known to flip even tugs.  He was adamant that I not continue until conditions mellowed.

Again, I was torn between the seasoned appraisal of a wise river man, and my own experience and observations of the river.  The combined weight of this fellow and the lockmasters and pilots encountered over the last few days prevailed.  A worker was detached to bring my boat up from the water to be stored at their facility.  I contacted my mother, who was meeting me in St. Louis anyway, and made my boat and equipment secure.  I must now contemplate my options, which seem to me at this point:

  • wait for the river to fall below flood stage, then continue
  • transport my boat around Lock 27 and risk the harbor
  • transport the boat south of the “Extreme High Water” zone and then continue

In any event, I was looking forward to several days of exploration and enjoyment in St.  Louis, so I do not feel pressed to make a decision at this time.

Day 39:  32 Mi, 1 Lock

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