Travelers of all shapes and sizes are found on the river. This beefy, 40-ish fellow camping in Dubuque paddles a 10-ft kayak. He started in Minneapolis, towing two small inflatable rafts for his gear -which included an ice chest and a folding chaise lounge chair- but lost much of it in the storm. Said he was in his tent when the storm hit, and the tent would have blown away had he not been inside. Then it did blow away when he exited to cling to a tree for fear of blowing away himself. He’s about 6-ft, 250-lbs. He clutched the tree so tightly that there was a raw spot on his nose from being mashed against the bark. Then the top of the tree snapped and landed in front of him. He had a picture of it on his cell-phone, and showed it around like a proud papa shows off a picture of his newborn.
He’d been a machinist in a prior life, until a workplace accident crushed part of his skull. There was no obvious disfiguration, but there had been reconstructive surgeries, missed work, headaches, and such. Now he collected a modest disability payment each month sufficient to buy sundries. Said he’d been depressed for a couple of years – unable to keep a job, his car or home. As a last-ditch I-don’t-know-what-else-to-do move, he bought this kayak and set off down the Mississippi. Said that during six weeks of travel he’d lost 50-lbs and was happier and more content than in years.
At the same campsite I noticed a new tent at dusk. There was a bicycle outside it, but not a fancy touring bike, more of a beat up 10-speed cruiser. Either way, having once taken a several month bike-tour myself, my curiosity was piqued. But it was only at dawn the next day that the tent’s occupant was revealed – a stooped little old lady who looked to be 80 years old. As I broke camp, she emerged from her tent with a bag in tow and tottered on her bike up to the restrooms, disappeared inside for a few minutes, then settled outside on a bench to enjoy a cigarette. My first impression was that she was a hardy soul wandering the byways, but she may have been a homeless person managing to scrape by. I hope it was the former, for that’s certainly the more romantic notion. We did not speak or otherwise acknowledge each other, she seemed to prefer it that way.
My Sabula families. The lovely people in the picture above are the Camp Host family and neighbors at South Sabula Lakes Park. Ready to quit paddling for the day, I approached two men chatting at the Host site to enquire about camping. Learning the place was full, I started to leave until called back with: “You can pitch your tent between our two campers. One tent is allowed at each site”. How nice, not only was I welcomed into their group (great company around the campfire that night plus a stellar breakfast of pancakes and bacon the next morning) but each family, separately, approached me about making a donation to Juvenile Diabetes – completely unsolicited. I’m a lousy salesman, but great at stowing away pancakes.
The campsite was cozy, with RVs packed like sardines, but the atmosphere was similar to a family reunion. Indeed, many families had come yearly for decades – my people for 35 years. On a funny note, met the ranger that evening as he passed through to ensure things calmed down at 10 pm Quiet Time. He was a county employee, and I mentioned meeting one of his Ranger brethren at the Old Mill Restaurant in Bellevue. I ate at the bar, the fellow sat down next to me and we visited for a few minutes. Turns out Bar Ranger was Camp Ranger’s boss, and Camp Ranger chuckled over the fact that I met his boss at a bar (technically a restaurant, but that’s not as good a story). Oops. Small world.
The next day’s travel included a 15-mile push through the lake-like area leading to the Fullerton, IL and Clinton, IA lock. Locks and wide stretches of river each sap the current’s strength, and the two together can be tough work. The locals told me several times, proudly, that this stretch of Mississippi River contained the widest naturally occurring part of the whole river – so to be careful of weather blowing in.
The sun was hot that day, but a cool tailwind helped. Stopped at this sand bar to greet people and offer Source to Sea cards from my dwindling supply. Per usual, people recalled hearing of the intrepid gray-bearded travelers who passed through a few days earlier. In my experience, those over age 40 are more likely to have heard of the trip – probably because they listen to news and read newspapers more frequently than younger generations.
Paddled up a slough a half-mile to Rock Creek Marina. Paddling upstream is no fun, but it certainly teaches where the currents flow, and thus is useful for paddling downstream too. Tent camped the first night, then, as rain and winds were forecast for the entire next day -and as there was no hurry- rented a small, spartan cabin for a second night. This was a county campsite, funded and staffed by county workers. Very nice and accommodating.
Campsites frequently are on the honor system, meaning if you arrive after hours you are obliged to insert the amount due into an envelope and put it in a slot – like at some car parking lots. But that also means having the correct amount (usually $12 to $16), or else overpaying with a $20 bill. At this site I rolled in just as the woman was leaving for the day. I did not have correct change, plus preferred to pay via credit card; she told me to come back in the morning and we’d settle up then.
The building was on stilts, which caused a minor sway factor. That night I’d just drifted off to sleep when awakened by the building shaking and heavy footsteps coming up the stairs. Startled awake and unsure at first where I was, the first thought was that I was in a Jack and the Beanstalk nightmare and the Giant was coming to get me. The door handle rattled and I let loose with an: “Oy!” It kept rattling and I let loose with a much louder: “OY!” that surprised even me and sent the footsteps rapidly back down to solid ground. I flung open the door to see what was up and a Ranger and his vehicle were down below, with two apparently tipsy people headed back toward him. They were partying with others at the campsite, needed late-night lodging, and he, seeing no car in front of my cabin, assumed it was empty and offered them my perch.
It was a shock, but he came up and apologized saying: “I’m sorry, it was my fault” Those are hard words for some people to say, but he did so effortlessly. At which point I laughed and said; “no problem, everyone’s been really nice here” then went back inside and promptly fell asleep.
Met the cutest elderly couple. Asked about the truck camper and learned it’s a 1967 model. They bought it when they married, in 1967, and took it on their honeymoon to Biloxi, MS. 48 years later they’re still rooming and roaming together. Mentioned to them that my parents honeymooned in Biloxi too.
Stopped for lunch in Clinton, IA. Tied up in an out-of-the-way spot in this marina and ventured ashore. This pic is notable for two reasons. About ten feet up the wall of that lighthouse is a plaque denoting the the high-water mark of a flood 20-yrs ago. The water can get very high, in spite of the best efforts of the lock and dam system. Secondly, the canoe filled with flowers is a Ouachita canoe – made in Arkansas, my home state.
Pulled into a downtown dock at Le Claire, IA. A lot of the river towns offer a modest place to tie up, with a parking lot and maybe a bathroom. Often a random car or two is sitting in the lot. People like to visit the river and eat a bite, or maybe visit with each other. Of course there is always concern over whether someone will mess with my stuff, but the cover over the canoe hides the contents and that alleviates some concern. I tied up in a spot that would at least make people work to access my boat, and wandered off to explore the sleepy downtown area.
Approaching the lock in Le Claire, I experienced the same plight faced as at four of the last six locks – a barge locking through would take at least an hour to complete its mission. Unfortunately for me it was getting dark, and then it started to rain. Uh Oh. I donned my poncho and sealed things up as best I could while on the water, and debated my options. With bad weather, a good starting point is to head closer to shore while debating. Seeing a gentleman standing nearby, I headed for him and once again my concerns disappeared. Ray drolly noted my predicament and suggested I bunk in their Doghouse, his term for their boathouse. The houses face the water along here, in front of them is a roadway, and in front of the roadway is a little strip of land where homeowners can maintain a boathouse – though, in recent years, new zoning covenants restrict that option as far as new construction is concerned. Ray and Sandie invited me to use their shower and also invited their friend Margie over. She’s a pistol – with a quick mind, a quick laugh, and she’s a bit of a rebel for she’s been taking off on her own and doing adventurous things since an early age. Very much enjoyed the visit, as well as sleeping in the doghouse and listening to rain on the roof.