A boat is headed toward me, and it’s moving fast.
I’m paddling across the river, aiming for a channel on the far side. Starting out there was no one else in sight, but now a lone boat is heading upstream. It’s tough to see it clearly, as I’m looking into the sun, but it appears to be a large Jon boat (blunt bow, flat bottom), with a console and big awning. If it’s like others I’ve seen then it’s around 26-ft long, 8-ft wide, and made of metal – a heavy boat.
It’s not a concern, but bears watching. Countless other boats have come at me and things always unfold the same way. I veer one way or the other, they see me and change course, usually while still hundreds of yards away. Sometimes they slow down, which is a nice gesture, but counterproductive for it makes their wake larger than if they maintain speed and keep the boat up on plane. But that’s okay, wakes are fun.
Everything should be fine. Am broadside and thus more visible, almost three-quarters of the way across the river, well past the boat lane, and the sun is behind them. Yet the boat continues coming straight at me.
I could cross faster by angling downstream, but would miss my cutoff. Making it is not necessary as all paths go to the same place, but I’ve been angling upstream to get to it, paddling hard, and at some point it got personal. By golly I’ll make it or die trying.
A glance over my shoulder suggests that it may be the latter. There is no one else around, I could get run over out here and no one would be the wiser. The Mississippi River is probably great at keeping secrets. The boat is now uncomfortably close.
Paddling harder, still heading for the shoreline, I hear a male voice ring out: “We’re gonna check you!” “What?” I yell back. “We’re going to check you!” he repeats. “What does that mean?” I ask. “We’re going to make sure you are legal and have all your safety gear.” he says, as they pull up alongside.
Oh, it’s the Coast Guard. I couldn’t see that until now.
The boat holds two thick-necked guys who look to be in their 20s. I reach over and grab their boat while one of them grabs mine and we drift downstream together, their two big outboard motors burbling at us. Our boats are rocking in the waves caused by their fast approach and it’s a struggle to keep them from banging together.
The guy up front asks why there’s no registration on my canoe. “I’m from Tennessee and no motor means no registration required.” is the answer. “Really!” he states, more than asks. I show my PFD (life preserver) and enquire “What else do you need?” But that’s it. We chat a few seconds, they ask where I’m headed: “Trying to make that channel over there” I reply, then can’t resist adding: “to get away from all this traffic.” “You better go” one of them says “we’re almost past it.”
So I go, and make the cutoff, barely.
That episode was perhaps the scariest part of the whole trip: more than rapids and strainers early on when I didn’t know yet how to steer, more than 30-knot winds and whitecaps on the lake that day when the sky spat heavy snow on us, more than locks, tows, barges, currents, and searching for a campsite in the dark my first night alone.
Those were humbling events that made it clear how insignificant we are in this universe, but they involved Mother Nature, and Mother Nature is indifferent.
Humans are perhaps never indifferent, yet we’re often inept.
I don’t know if those guys have esteem issues and need to preen, or they don’t grasp that life is different in a canoe versus a motorboat, that we don’t feel safe until your course obviously doesn’t include running over us. And to be fair, we little guys are probably just as guilty of failing to appreciate concerns that captains of lumbering towboats have regarding our antics.
But the Coast Guard guys should know better. Approach as fast as you want, but not straight at us and certainly not full-bore straight at us until you’re almost on us. Aim to one side or the other, then close the gap at the end.
Five minutes later my pulse is back to normal and the situation is comical. The whole trip I’ve been muddling along, faring reasonably well, but also chastising myself daily for bone-headed moves, usually with the comment: “TG, what are you doing? You’re hopeless, Why, you’re using your iPhone map as your only navigation tool, for crying out loud!”
In the back of my mind is always the thought that someone will see through my lack of river cred and call me out, saying: You’re not fooling anyone! Stop this nonsense right now and get back to your cubicle!”
Haha, those two guys had their shot, but they missed it, so I kept paddling.
The river level was high, the current fast.
Near Quincy, IL, were many snapped trees – ferocious storm a week earlier.
A Floating dock. Passing it a week after this pic I saw an old houseboat tied-up, along with two hounds slumbering in the sun and a lean, middle-aged fellow doing chores. Wish I had a pic of the boat but didn’t have my camera or phone that day. Chatting with the owner, learned it to be a rare, all-aluminum model from the ’60s, still mostly original except for 1200 watts of solar on the roof. It was powered by two 15-hp outboards, either of which, I was informed, could propel it upstream. Love to meet that guy on a day with time to kill, for he had stories, but today there was a schedule to keep.
Driftwood Campground. Getting to the campsite involved paddling up to a community park, stashing the canoe in brush, then making two 30-min roundtrips lugging gear. Once again I regretted sending the portage cart sent home after Minneapolis. With it I could have wheeled the canoe and gear to the campsite in one trip – better for me, safer for the canoe.
I reflect fondly on the time here as the ‘summer camp’ portion of my trip. My campsite was great, but there’s always room to tinker. I’ll share a few of the changes and daily routines.
The first 36 hours were a monsoon, with severe puddling and a small stream near my tent. During times like that there is not much to do but sleep and read. Once my electronics were drained of juice, I actually pulled out a book! Then the sun came out and turned the place into a sauna. Something needed to change. My tent is great for keeping out rain and bugs, but not good with standing water or letting in breezes – in direct sunlight it’s an oven.
It needed drainage, shade, and a breeze, so I moved it closer to the edge of the hill, under the cover of a healthy tree and then cantilevered a tarp over it. The new spot had gravel mixed into the dirt, but bumpy surfaces are not a concern – a tarp doubled over underneath protects the waterproof tent floor from punctures and an air mattress inside cushions my bones.
The pic below shows the view from inside. The overhang of the tarp created an awning, so I spread my poncho on the ground for flooring, placed a Thermarest mattress on top of it for lounging and used my dry bags as a backrest. The new porch was a favorite spot to sit and read and catch a breeze coming up the hill.
There were several monster storms and lightning is always a concern, but exposure was limited as the hill continued up behind me and all around were trees taller than mine. The storms came from the northwest and those sides of the tarp were anchored to the picnic table and tree. The other sides were connected to heavy logs by bungee cords. During storms I’d remove the sticks and bungee cords and throw the logs on top of the tarp corners. This kept things snug.
The bungee cord around the tree allowed the tarp to be raised or lowered, depending on how strong the wind was that day.
Down the hill was the campground office, bathrooms and laundry room. The office had a small library and table in it, and was often available for use during the day if the owner was around, and it had central AC!
Swam several times per day for exercise, and again after dark to cool down before bed. Life is good at Driftwood Campground. Thank you to Denise, the owner, who works tirelessly to keep it beautiful and who does a great job accommodating her guests.
Two days after arriving at camp, returned to check on the canoe and discovered the water level had dropped three feet. Upon arrival it was well up the concrete ramp, but now there were 20 yards of muck between the ramp and water. My rubber boots sank in halfway up the calf and got ripped off my feet if I tried to walk in it.
This mud phenomenon is common when the river level drops. High water levels deposit gushy mud, and the mud remains after the water level drops. It makes climbing up river banks quite the adventure. There are websites that predict water levels, and I was following them, but they didn’t predict the extent of this drop!
Ultimately, I carried the canoe a quarter mile across a field and through woods to put-in, which was no big deal. It weighs 50-lbs and can be carried over my head, or dragged for it is made of durable Royalex. With the portage cart, I would have rolled it and my gear a mile toward town and put-in at another boat ramp.
My only concern during this time was nutrition. Didn’t know yet how much weight I’d lost, but it was 30 pounds – probably a few too many. Felt great the first eight weeks of the trip, but weak at the end. However, I think it was due less to insufficient calories than to their poor nutritional content. Bought several six-packs of vanilla Ensure to bolster my diet. They’re not bad, especially in the evening with a shot of bourbon added.
There is a great life lesson to paddling long distance, and it is that if you don’t do it yourself then it will not get done. You can work hard, or smart, or both, but no one paddles for you. There is no bailout, even though we live in a time when bailouts are the norm. The trick to succeeding is really no trick at all, you simply get up early and go all day – day after day. And you exercise the same discipline regarding food intake.
I was beginning to fall short on both counts, but my inspiration was fading too. The river had become more like an interstate than the meandering country road that it once was, and I’m a country road guy. Early on there was always a bend just ahead, with new vistas around it. Now, frequently, I could see ahead for miles and paddle for hours to reach a distant landmark.
At this point I started making plans for a new trip, the only question was when to end the current one – probably soon. The river succeeded in taking me well outside my comfort zone, and in the process I learned how to paddle and live in a tent. Now it was time for new vistas, in different climes. The river will be here later, and it would be exciting to see it in the springtime.
Below are houses that caught my eye during hikes to the Dollar Store. Roundtrip, it was an hour of walking, but I enjoyed the exercise.
After two weeks of summer camp, it was time to move on.
Arrived at this lock to find it occupied by an upstream tow, thereby maintaining my stellar record, but there was something different this time, something different about me. I’d passed through twenty locks by now, and though I initially sounded like a rookie on the walkie-talkie, today I sounded like a pro.
After informing the lock master of my wish to lock through, I heard him relay that information to the tow captain in the lock. The captain likely heard my comment as we’re all on the same radio channel, but relaying it is a formality and he needs to be aware of my presence. Tows kick up a lot of wash. At that point I asked the lock master to please relay to the tow captain that I would not need special accommodation, for I would lift my boat out of the water onto the rocks until the tow was clear, then immediately put-in and lock-through – if that was okay.
After stowing the canoe as promised, I clambered over the rocks to sit in the shade of a tree and eat lunch, then strolled down to talk with a barge-hand prepping a barge. It was glorious weather that day.
I must have said something right to the lock master, for when I eventually locked-through he told me to paddle out as soon as the gates opened enough to fit between them, versus awaiting the horn. There can be turbulence around the gates, either from river currents or from the motion of opening them, and no one offered me this option before. Score!
Paddled into Hannibal at dusk, saw a bunch of people on the deck of the Hannibal Boat Club and enquired about campsites. This was their cue to say: “Forget that nonsense, come on up here and share our cold beer and boiled shrimp.” but instead they suggested visiting the river park across on the Illinois side.
Haha, hello plan B.
Didn’t have a good feeling about this park. Couldn’t put my finger on it but dragged my canoe up next to my tent and slept with one eye open. All went well, though, and the next day I packed up, paddled back across, stashed the canoe at the Hannibal marina and explored the town. It’s touristy, every state has towns like that, but it’s also old, pretty, friendly, and had steep hills. I liked it.
Tom Sawyer’s dad’s office was the small, white frame building to the right. The family home is not visible here, but is across the street from the office – as is the famous white picket fence.
The Titanic Lady grew up in the little house pictured above.
Ravel and Vivaldi are in the ‘hood.
Returned to camp at my Illinois park again that night. Met nice people again, but also found the place discomforting again. Too much boozing, too little common sense.
The next morning I packed my canoe for the last time. Decided to stop the trip in Hannibal.
But first we watched the American Queen inch up next to our bank, and debated whether it would fit under the bridge. The smokestacks drop down, the paddle wheel is cosmetic, and I hear it costs a fortune to travel on that thing. Beats me why anyone would travel that way when they can go by canoe and sleep on the riverbank.
You can see evidence of the side thrusters working hard above
Thank you to Hannibal Boat Club. I didn’t get to enjoy your boiled shrimp, but you let me stash my canoe on your premises for a few days. That made my boat happy, just as air conditioning and a refrigerator in my motel room made me happy too.
Before closing the last chapter of this journey, several comments are due.
One, as wonderful as the sights were that scrolled in front of me each day, it was the people met along the way that gave the trip the most meaning.
Two, my impetus for going was alluded to in an earlier post, but never addressed. Three people prompted the timing behind this trip, three people who all died in 2014. Two were family, one was like family.
First, my client and friend, Jim, who helped me appreciate that one’s reach should always exceed one’s grasp. Jim, you’ll be pleased to know that every day now brings challenges that take me out of my comfort zone. Often I’m unsure what to do next, yet keep plodding ahead. Jim was 86.
Second, my Uncle William, who loved the outdoors and camping. He and our beloved Aunt Ruth were unable to have kids, so he became an avid Scout Leader for more than 50 years. Uncle William, you’d love the camping, but would be horrified at my knot-tying skills. Uncle William was 86.
Third, my Nephew Thomas, who killed himself. On paper, you couldn’t create someone less likely to suffer from depression: star athlete, smart, handsome, popular, talented. But with depression, those don’t matter. It may be a malady without physical symptoms, but “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Thomas was 17.
Today, Oct 10, 2015, he turns 19. Happy birthday T.
18 months ago I started planning a summer canoe trip down the San Marcos River in TX, for Thomas, his pals and a few family members – but he checked out before then. I’m okay with that, for he found the peace that he couldn’t find on earth … #livelikeT
I took that canoe trip anyway, a year late and on the Mississippi river, but all three of those guys were with me every day and we had a blast. And of course my other family members came along too, as they always do, for I take them everywhere in my heart.
Back in Memphis I placed my canoe in the storage locker containing my other belongings, tended to work matters for a couple of weeks, and started prepping for a new trip. The new trip takes us through TX, NM, CO, UT and AZ
In fact am already several weeks into it, with many pics and stories to share. So far they include: hiking and mountain biking in Palo Duro Canyon, TX; getting attacked by rodents in Villanueva State Park, NM; feasting at the Saturday Farmer’s Market in Santa Fe; dancing around a roaring campfire and watching the blood moon while at 8000-ft in Valles Caldera National Preserve; summiting Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in NM; Getting kicked out of Chaco Canyon and then harassed by locals (?!) and visiting the Ghost Ranch, near Abiquiu, for what was meant to be a few minutes but became four days.
Right now I’m hunkered down in Durango, Co, getting caught up on work and focusing on my second job – which is, of course, relaying these stories to you.
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In closing, one final note:
In the Hannibal Motel where I shacked up for a few days until catching a ride home, there was a man residing in one of the rooms. He looked a mess: dirty, shaggy, missing half his teeth.
He was a homeless guy renting a room in an otherwise respectable budget motel – same as me.
He frequently left his door open to the open-air breezeway and was friendly, but I always walked quickly past his room on the way to mine. I wasn’t looking to make friends. Then on my last day there I walked past him, down the road from the motel. He was sitting in the shade of a bridge, had a bicycle with him, and several bags, but was swaying and clutching his arthritically mis-shapen hands. He was in pain, it was etched on his face. We chatted a while. He was indeed homeless, said he had a small pension, enough to survive on the road and offer an occasional treat – like a motel room for a few nights. He’d come to town from Arizona, by bus, to bury the second child he’d had to bury in his 60-odd years. Don’t know what happened, didn’t ask; it didn’t matter. His pain was obviously not just physical. He was hungry for a friend, for kindness. So I asked him to hang out a little longer, said I’d be back, then went to my room and collected items that might appeal to him: Tylenol, wet-wipes, extra toiletries, food, the last of my bourbon, even bought him some smokes and took them all to him and we chatted some more.
It was my way of paying back, a little, all the niceties shown me.
“As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
Every day is a gift. See you in the Southwest.