Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Night Paddling

I had the worst nights sleep as the tugs were shuffling barges in our vicinity non-stop all the night through. The first time I woke and looked at my watch it was barely midnight. I knew then it was going to be a rough one. Kobie and I had planned an early getaway and were on the water paddling at 6:45 with just barely enough light to see. As there was a hint of fog we opted to paddle behind some barges parked on the side of the river. We were literally chased down by a tug and told by the captain that it wasn’t safe to be behind the barges as they can be pushed into the shore or pulled away for that matter and the shear cables that lash the tugs to the shore could snap taut with tremendous force. We thanked the captain and paddled in amongst the massive ships in the fog at dawn.

It would just be too much to ask to have a third day in a row without wind. We were quite pleased with the temperature (mid 60’s) and the level of sun (partly cloudy to mostly sunny), but our nemesis the wind made himself known.

As we paddled in the main part of the river we were right back into the mix. It seems that many of the boat workers begin at 7 AM as many shuttle boats were buzzing about bringing people to their floating place of work.

The highlight of the morning was passing by New Orleans International Airport as watching the planes take off and land gave us something to do. And it wasn’t long into the day that we approached New Orleans proper.

Just before entering the city there was a several mile section of cargo docks. While only a small few were in use, I was well impressed by one particular dock that was unloading a container ship. The ship had to have 500 or more containers on it. You know, the ones that are about the size of an 18 wheeler. The guy operating the crane booming the containers off the dock had his work down as it barely took him any time at all to get the crane on a container, hoist it up and then down on the truck waiting on the dock. There were several dozen truck lined up like a taxi rank at an airport waiting to receive their passengers. When I came through New Orleans on my bike I had several thoughts about containerized cargo transport so I won’t go into it again, but the link is found here.

Also just before the city proper was a large warehouse where they store all the new Mardi Gras floats. In looking up through the large windows we got a sneak peek at what is in store for this years parade.

As we passed though New Orleans proper we had to dodge two ferries, one of which I took across the river earlier in the year on my bike ride. Saint Louis Cathedral, an icon of the French Quarter and the oldest Catholic cathedral in continuous use in the United States was in view as we paddled past and south of New Orleans.

I guess the guy in Kiethsburg was wrong that we couldn’t paddle past New Orleans.

South of New Orleans the river belongs to the big ships, as barges are far and few in between. I get a kick out of passing the anchored ships and looking at their place of registry on the back of the vessel. The new countries today were the UK, Philippines, Korea and UAE though the old favorite Liberia made a good showing. I also like some of the names that the ships are given: Mega Donor, Great Scenery and Asphalt Victory, among others. Some of the ships have a registration in Asia and I can be certain that something is lost in the English translation.

There were a couple of times as we paddled along when a ship snuck up on us. How does a ship six stories tall sneak up on us you might wonder? Surprisingly, the ships are much quieter than the barges and faster as well, able to travel over 15 knots. In the past we only had to look behind us every ten or so minutes. We learned the hard way that now sometimes even every five minutes isn’t enough.

By the end of the day we paddling 11 hours 34 minutes. Some of you may have done the math and no, there aren’t that many hours of daylight in a day. Not at this latitude anyway. Late in the afternoon we found a potential place to camp but we just weren’t ready to be done paddling for the day. As there are roads running immediately down both sides of the river we had to reach an area where the road turned ever so slightly inland allowing us a place to tuck our tents. As it was New Years Eve as well, we wanted to be better hidden than we would normally want to be on a Wednesday night.

We paddled on into dusk which I enjoyed. The sun was setting and there was enough light to enjoy the calm water in that the wind had dropped. Normally we are conservative in our decision making and wouldn’t paddle past dark if it could at all be prevented, not least of which that our boats don’t have any lights and we would be operating them illegally. The river was flat calm and my map indicated there was absolutely nothing on the left hand side of the river other than a stone revetment running along for the next 10 miles. Not having to dodge refineries, cargo docks or anchorage areas made following the bank quite easy. Another reason for our decision was that there was a ConocoPhillips plant on the opposite side of the river for several miles and there were enough lights on the plant to provide sufficient illumination to read a newspaper had I so chosen. The plant looked like a futuristic city, something from the film Total Recall perhaps. To add to the experience there were also two large stacks over a hundred feet high that were spitting flame out the top.

As the night wore on we even had several fireworks shows. One was in New Orleans directly behind us, which didn’t make viewing easy but we saw some fireworks nonetheless. In an odd way I like fireworks in the distance that I can see but can’t hear. While hiking the Appalachian Trail on July 4th I had the same experience.

The evening on the river did provide at least one thing to get my heart racing; paddling through a school of fish. Kobie and I had been talking alligators and shortly thereafter I must have gone through the middle of a school of fish, actually striking a few with my paddle. The water erupted in activity leading to some initial confusion on my part. It took me a few second to figure out exactly what was happening.

We were able to get off the river and camp a couple hundred yards away from the road, exactly as we had hoped in looking at the map. We were tucked in a swampy area with some road noise but we were hidden. If I were an alligator it looked exactly like the kind of place I would want to hang out. A run in with one of those is not exactly how I want 2008 to end.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Rush Hour

It was another sunny morning. There was ice on my kayak but that was of little consequence as there were no clouds to block the rising of the sun. There was also no wind and the day was supposed to warm up to 70 degrees. Oddly enough, it was the wettest that my tent has been in the morning. I couldn’t have gotten the rain fly of my tent wetter if I would have sprayed it down with a hose. It was drenched inside and out from condensation. Packing the tent was like folding dripping wet newspaper.

The area we were paddling had little free space on the river banks as there was one type of dock or another. Traffic on the river was also quite heavy. Our morning involved a game called “What’s that smell”? There were some pungent offerings including: coffee, dry dog food, soy sauce and wet mowed grass on a warm day, among others. The ships in the area were laden with all manner of dry goods.

In watching the barges and ships being loaded and unloaded it is so inefficient and wasteful. The oceangoing ships are picking up or dropping off cargo and are loaded to/from the barges we have been seeing for the last month, which incidentally don’t seem quite so big anymore. Everything is craned into or out of the ships. While they may use several cranes at a time, there has to be a better way, not least of which when a crane isn’t right on the mark, some of the cargo is lost overboard. I don’t have the answer right now, but there has to be a better way.

By late morning the sky clouded over but it was still the two nicest back to back days we have had in over a month. The day seemed as if it was going so slowly. Miles were hard to come by, but we were making the distance. By the time we stopped for lunch we had covered the same near 30 miles as the day previous so it wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed. Lunch took us far longer as we had to dry all our gear. It was another yard sale on the side of the river.
As we paddled along we saw ships from Hong Kong, Macau, Denmark, Bahamas, Italy, Singapore, China, Malta and Marshall Islands, but the big winner was again Panama. There are many reasons for a ship to register in one country or another, but needless to say, the ship needn’t necessarily have any true association with the country. It seems that Panama and Liberia are the easiest/lest expensive/least restrictive countries in which to register a ship.

One counterintuitive happening on the river is that the smaller tugs create more of a wake then the massive ocean goers. I would attribute it to the shape and speed of the boats. The large ships create low rolling wakes whereas the smaller boats give off a steeper wake.
Just to add some visual clarification of what I am talking about when I say “oceangoing ship”. I am referring one similar to that in the picture on the right. If you notice a small yellow thing in the bottom right corner, that’s Kobie in his kayak. You may have to click on the photo to enlarge it.

We paddled through a heavy commercial area with barges all about as well as the tugs servicing them. It was like a bunch of worker ants working for the queen. The river was rife with activity. At one point we noticed a Giant oceangoing ship coming up behind us (that was actually the ships name, Giant 3) and a barge that was being parked ahead on our right. “No problem”, we thought we can cut in between the two. Within seconds another tug was coming head on trying to pass as well as yet another tug from behind coming to assist the barge that was being parked. There were a lot of moving parts and it was getting a bit hairy, but everything was still mostly under control. At least that was what I thought. Amongst the maelstrom of marine activity another massive ocean going ship, that I hadn’t even noticed, was passing the giant ship, forcing it further inside towards us. One of the ships unleashed its horn at what I could only assume was us. Not having any other options than getting run down by a several hundred thousand ton ship we dashed for a pocket of free space towards the shore between a group of barges that had been sitting. We made it out of the mix just fine, but hearing the deep horn blast of the ship was disconcerting to say the least.
Most of the boat workers we saw along the river gave us a blank stare as if they were looking at dinosaur swim down the river. I am guessing they don’t get many kayaks and I don’t blame the kayakers out there for not wanting to paddle on the lower Mississippi River. I can think of some nicer places to go out for a Sunday paddle.
There was one oceangoing ship that looked like the repo man taking away a tug and all his barge containers. The whole lot was loaded up on the ship and being transported someplace or another.
Two pelicans were quite curious and flew awfully close to us. Normally birds fly away, but these two circled as if they were vultures hovering over carrion. I kept my paddle up to defend myself but it didn’t come to that. Other than pelicans, there are an incredible number of ducks on the river; in the thousands.

Towards the end of the day we had a couple of shouting conversations with barge workers. One of the tugs was one of those that we encountered in the earlier incident and he said quite simply, “You’re crazy”. One captain asked where we were coming from and when we answered summoned us over. We back paddled to give ourselves a few minutes to chat and the captain offered us a drink. As we were in waves kicked up from a barge, we passed on the offer but queried as to where we might be able to throw up a tent. He knew the area well and told us that just beyond his boat was the only area on the side of the river for quite some time that wasn’t revetment.

Kobie and I paddled a bit further and were able to tuck away in an area that was somewhat secluded though not at all quiet. We were just across the river from a ship dock where they were loading an oceangoing vessel with some type of grain. I was somewhat concerned as to what we could find so near to New Orleans, the murder capital of the United States, but it was as quaint as we were going to get on the side of the Mississippi River. We just hoped that we could punch through New Orleans and wind up safely on the south side of the suburbs tomorrow night.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Sun, Oh Glorious Sun

I woke up to a cloudy gray morning, but the sky quickly cleared and was a glorious shade of blue. There was also a strange yellow ball of fire in the sky that I think might have been the sun. I haven’t seen it in so long I forget.

It was a beautiful sunny day with only enough wind to ripple the surface of the water. The current wasn’t flowing as strongly as it had been, but I wasn’t about to start complaining. The main river channel has gone from nine feet deep to 45, so there isn’t quite the same flow. I thought about the 45 foot depth and contemplated if I should perhaps be a bit more cautions on the river. As I reflected upon it, it really doesn’t matter if the depth is nine feet, 45 feet or 145 feet as in any case I wouldn’t be able to stand should I fall in.

I broke out my visor, sunglasses and sunscreen; the first time in far too long. It was warm, it was sunny, there was little wind, we were close to the end of the trip and we just loving it. Kobie and I chatted away the entire morning. Among other things, we talked about the movie Fargo that we watched yesterday and how we would launder the million dollars that one of the characters had obtained illicitly. As I had worked in Anti Money Laundering on one of my compliance gigs on Wall Street I had a few ideas.

At noon we heard what sounded like the largest doorbell alarm in the world. We were paddling through a massive industrial complex that spanned both sides of the river. There were loudspeakers along a several mile stretch of the river where sound was piped and it wasn’t quite in unison. Better still was a voice coming over a loudspeaker that echoed across the river as if it were God speaking to us: “This is a test of the emergency warning system”. After the announcement there were a series of attention grabbing tones sounding as if the world was coming to an end; sirens wailing and horns blowing. I think it may have been the same sound used in some movie signaling that Earth was being invaded. Kobie and I looked askance at one another and found our own quiet amusement in the cacophony.

By lunchtime we had knocked off 30 river miles and stopped on a bank with a steep muddy drop off. As Kobie stood up and was getting out of his kayak, the boat slipped backwards while he tried to jump forward, resulting in him standing up to his waist in the river. He couldn’t have chosen a better day to step in. Most of his stuff was dry by the time we finished our lunch. Also during lunch I rang a shipping company to see what it would run to ship our kayaks from New Orleans to New York. The answer: a thousand bucks. Surely they must be joking.

On the river we have seen far more ocean going ships. The ships origins span the globe including: Panama, Denmark, Liberia and even Singapore. Kobie could have caught a ride back home with the Singaporean ship. There would have even been plenty of room for his kayak.

The smaller tugs that are shuffling all over have been quite courteous. While they do come closer to us than larger barges, they have all to this point slowed down as they approached. One fellow even came out of the cabin to ask where we were headed.

It was slim pickings as to where we could camp. There are roads on both sides of the river with little in the way of an area in between to pitch a tent. We did however find a spot where the road turned away from the river ever so slightly allowing a small patch of trees to grow. To make the spot more inviting the shore was covered in white shells. We had a small campfire, more to keep the mosquitos away than for warmth, but it was supposed to get down in the mid 30’s overnight. I didn’t care if it got down to five as long as the day was warm, sunny and had a decided lack of wind. 180 miles to go.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Rain, Rain, Go Away...

I heard but two rumbles of thunder overnight, leaving me with hope that it would be a clear morning. As of late Kobie and I have been getting up by 6:30 as sunrise it right around seven, but today a persistent rain was falling. By 8:30 it was more of the same and Kobie and I hadn’t yet spoken a word, so we were both thinking the same thing as we sat in our tents waiting for a lull in the rain.

We have been quite fortunate in one regard on this trip as for the most part we didn’t have to set up or break down camp in the rain. As the sky was unusually dark with the threat of lightning, we opted to sit the early morning out. We faced the usual problem that often arises in mountaineering: what to do while stuck in a tiny tent waiting for the weather to break. While in mountaineering it can be weeks at a time that one is stuck, we really hoped it only be a few hours for us. These days though there is technology to effectively use or kill time as you see fit: laptop computers, MP3 players, cell phones and PDA’s.

Sure enough there were a few rumbles of thunder in addition to the rain that kept us sealed in out tents. While the rain isn’t much fun, it isn’t necessarily unsafe as is lightning. I really didn’t want to take a chance. The worst thing about missing out on paddling in the morning was the utter lack of wind.

As soon as the rain stopped, the thunder picked up significantly. Kobie and I used the opportunity to survey the sky, stretch our legs and battened down the hatches in the calm before the storm.

The wait to start paddling was the worst part of the day. Will we even be able to paddle? Will we not be able to paddle? While we might be hemmed in the entire day, it is not knowing that is so frustrating. It was almost a relief as the day wore on and Kobie and I decided that we would stay put for the remainder of the day. I can think of better ways to spend a day then sitting in a tent, but with the thunder and threat of lightning I was fine with it.

In the intermittent breaks in the rain we would get out of our tents to stretch, survey the situation and talk about how we hoped the weather would be different tomorrow. Invariable though, after only a few minutes we were chased back in our tents by the rain.

We had a leisurely lunch in my tent and then watched the movie Fargo. We had intended to watch Fargo in Fargo, but we were sidetracked in North Dakota. I spent the better part of the afternoon going through all the contact numbers in my phone and catching up with some folks that I hadn’t spoken to in quite some time. I mixed it up by staring at the ceiling of my tent and even resorted to playing games on my cell phone.

By seven in the evening I was ready to go to sleep, but as I am not four years old figured I should at least stay up until eight. That was all I managed.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Roundabout

Where is the respect these days? It seems that people in motels have no consideration for other guests, thinking that they might be, I don’t know, sleeping. Kobie and I were up early; or at least earlier than we would normally be on the nights we stay in a motel. It seemed it would be hit or miss as to whether we were going to have thunder showers during the day, though there was some sun among the cloud covered sky. One thing was for certain, the wind was ripping hard out of the southeast. It may have had something to do with the record high temperatures that had been hit in the area yesterday, with further record breaking possibilities today. Finally, some unseasonably warm weather.

When we checked out of the motel, instead of walking all the way through town to get back in the river we walked all of a quarter mile and dumped our kayaks in the Port Allen/Morgan City Canal. The canal connects Morgan City, LA with the Mississippi River in Port Allen, LA with a 60 mile long canal right near where we got out. We had several miles to paddle to just get to the Mississippi River and before getting there we would have to go through a lock. There was no current in the canal so I felt sluggish paddling along, having been helped by the flow of the river for the last 2,000 miles. The canal was less than 200 feet wide so we stayed close to the shore to duck out of the wind.

We thought we were done with using locks on this trip, but we needed to rise 15 feet to the elevation of the Mississippi River. It was the first time on the trip we were going up in a lock as opposed to down. I had phoned the lock yesterday to preclude any problems and check that there were no restrictions for kayaks. I radioed the lock as we approached and they sent us right on through. The canal is a little used waterway save for recreational boaters and there really aren’t many out in the winter. As we were in the lock, the guy working it said to be prepared for heavy winds as soon as he opens the Mississippi Riverside lock door. He wasn’t kidding.

As we got out into the open Mississippi we tried to sneak behind the barges parked on the side of the river though it wasn’t always possible. There were occasions where we had to paddle in open water. My three biggest concerns, which should come as no surprise, were: the tugs, the waves and the wind.

The tugs in the area were small and basically shuffling around one barge at a time to position them with the larger barges. The little tugs give absolutely no breathing room when they pass, so we had to be especially mindful when they were near.

The second concern was the waves that were throwing us around. It was akin to the day we arrived at Mhoon Landing in the pitching waves, but this time the wind was in our face, allowing us to take the waves head on. It wasn’t as if the waves themselves were dangerous, but we had to keep a close eye on what was coming at us. It generally involved lots of climbing the steep face of a wave and then splashing down on the back side. As a tug was passing one of the crew waved just as I was going over a wave. I am a firm believer of always waving back and did so. I crashed down the other side of the wave making a tremendous splash, taking the brunt in my face. I did my best to act as if it were normal and paddled on.

Concern number three is no surprise. I really enjoy a leisurely paddle, but when the wind is blowing there is nothing leisurely about it. I have to focus on what I am doing and keep my kayak pointed in the proper direction. The wind does all it can to push me in every direction I don’t want to go. With the increased and closer range traffic, I need to be especially diligent and at times paddle had to paddle like mad.

The day was warm, in the upper 70’s, though in the wind and being soaked it didn’t feel 70. It wasn’t uncomfortable though. While we didn’t even cover 20 miles with our late start and having to take the time in the lock, there was a nice easterly stretch of river that allowed us escape the wind. It was also one of those times where the river wound around so that we would have to paddle nine miles to get to a point exactly one mile away as the crow flies. I found it amusing how Kobie and I paddle close to one another and chat when the wind and water is calm, but when we round a bend and the wind howls we spread out as it is business time.

We had a floating lunch, more along the lines of what we thought it would be like when we envisioned the concept, coving some distance while we enjoyed our lunch sitting in the kayaks. At one point though I must have gotten stuck in an eddy so that when I turned around to look for Kobie, he was a quarter mile down river.

In checking the weather radio there was a report of heavy thunderstorms expected in the area just around sunset, so Kobie and I decided to give ourselves a little extra time to find a decent place to camp. The problem was that tree cover was quite thin and we were approaching another city.

We went ashore to find a decent campsite, though there was a deer hunting stand immediately near where we wanted to camp. We checked out the stand and it seemed as if it hadn’t been used in quite some time. We doubted that the owner would choose this night to begin using the stand again, so we settled in.

By 6 o’clock we were set up, done with dinner, had all our nightly chores complete and the rain had not yet come. We opted to sit outside and watch a movie on Kobie’s laptop. Much to our annoyance, mosquitos were back in the game. There were far fewer than up north, but they were no less annoying. By the time we went to sleep at nine, nary a drop of water had fallen from the sky.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Baton Rouge, LA

Waking in the morning Kobie and I still needed to resupply before hitting the river. As it would take us a quite a couple hours to do so, as well as occupy some time to do all the things we should have done yesterday, we made the call to stay put for the day. It was a shame as it was as nice a day as we had seen in a couple of weeks for sure, but having gotten to see Ken and family for Christmas was totally worth it. When stepping out of the motel room it felt like we stepped out into some tropical vacationland. The air was warm, in the 70’s, the humidity was fair and there was a breeze that was akin to that of the South Pacific.

The name Baton Rouge was coined by French explorer Sieur d”Iberville and dates back to 1699. As his exploration party ventured up the Mississippi River he noticed a long pole with animals and fish skewered upon it, covered in blood. The pole was a boundary between two Indian tribes as to their hunting grounds. Not too surprisingly, Baton Rouge translates to “red pole” in English.

The city of Baton Rouge was largely untouched by the Civil War as the Confederates gave it up without a fight, choosing to instead consolidate their troops elsewhere. Baton Rouge boasts the tallest capital building of any of the fifty states, measuring 460 feet tall.

Kobie and I took the four mile walk to Wal-Mart and in another less than bright decision walked over a bridge with almost no shoulder for half a mile. We wanted to stretch our legs, but on the way back we took a cab.

While Kobie was for some reason stymied on his computer, I went to a motel down the road to use the internet and check a few things that might be of interest going forward. One item of note was the potential of thunderstorms for the next two days. It figures.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

White Christmas

Like a child waiting to open presents on Christmas morning, I just couldn’t sleep. It might have been the barge traffic, but I was up. It could also have been the interest in getting to Baton Rouge. As it turned out, we were exactly 1.5 miles from the bridge.

As we approached the city the smell of petroleum and petroleum products filled the air. In the 50’s and 60’s the area experienced a boom in petrochemicals which is quite evident while paddling the river.

As it turned out, we would have a white Christmas! It wasn’t the traditional white Christmas, but rather one enshrouded in fog. While the morning started out fine, the fog worked its way in, truncating our field of vision.

It was Christmas and I thought that perhaps barge traffic might be a little lighter, but it wasn’t. One of the ships in the river was the first ocean going vessel I have seen on the Mississippi so I knew we had to be getting close. Baton Rouge is the farthest inland city that deep water ocean going vessels can reach as the Interstate 10 bridge doesn’t allow progress further north in that its clearance in height prevents it.

On the clogged sides of the river where there weren’t loading areas for barges, there were barges themselves stored on the side of the river, lining the bank. The line stretched down the river, but there was generally space behind the barges of 30 or 40 feet where Kobie and I could paddle. It kept us out of traffic on the river where visibility was decreasing by the minute.

We followed along the wall of barges, but at one point got cut off by a barge that touched the bank. The barge there was lashed together three containers wide, but as luck would have it the curved front section of the barges lined up showing daylight on the far end. There was an odd current running through, but we were able to use our hands along the side of barge where we needed. It may not have been the smartest thing we had ever done, but it seemed safe enough and in any case, I am still alive to write about it.

We paddled along to just shy of the second bridge through the city, Interstate 10. We were able to get out on a rocky landing at the old Port Allen Ferry Terminal. As we stopped in the park that now resides there, a police officer came over to see what we were up to. He even offered for us to leave our kayaks at the police station, but we wanted to have our kayaks with us so that we could clean them and lug our stuff to a motel. It would have been no fun having to carry the contents of the kayak without the kayak to pull it in. So we rolled on the four miles to where we knew we would find several motels.

Finding a motel wasn’t exactly straightforward as the first place wanted north of a hundred bucks a night, more than we cared to spend. I ran across the street to a Best Western and instead of going into the lobby went around the side of the building to check if there were external doors for the rooms that would allow us to get our kayaks in. Before I got very far a woman came out yelling at me that I need to leave the property as I am trespassing. I said that I just wanted to look at the property as we were considering staying there but she then threatened to call the police. Little did she know I already had the police on my side. Again I was told to leave or I would be spending the night in the Port Allen jail. I no longer wondered why the parking lot was empty, but I wasn’t able to find out where she did her receptionist training.

Finally, the third time was the charm. Well, we had to settle for it as they didn’t have any internet access or laundry facilities. We also learned that everything in the area other than the gas station was closed; that included that Wal-Mart.

Just after checking in my phone rang. It was Ken. He again said that he would pick us up for Christmas and bring us to Lafayette for some home cooking and a family Christmas. Today we had a road and were fired up. I would get to see Ken and his family as well as chow down on some Gumbo. It was great to be in a family atmosphere for Christmas. I missed last Christmas with my family as I was in Los Angeles. The year prior I flew home on Christmas Eve from India and a year further back I spent Christmas in the Cook Islands.

It was great to see Ken’s mom as I spent a good deal of time at her home growing up in Long Island. I also hadn’t seen Ken's kids since pedaling my bike through the area back in April of this year. It was murder on my shoulders picking up his 40 pound daughter and lifting her to the ceiling, but I can’t resist. I always thought I would be “bad cop” had I any children, but I am not so sure. I am getting soft.

Christmas was just as it should be, celebrated outside and in shorts. I ended speaking weather with some of the folks there and they mentioned the snow they just had. Apparently it was only the third time there has been any accumulating snow in Lafayette in my lifetime; that last in 1988 and 1973 before that.

Our fun had to end eventually and Ken drove Kobie and I back to our motel. What a great interlude from our time paddling. It was a great way to recharge both in the time off from paddling, but also from a psychological perspective.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Variable Weather

The morning was warm and with that, fog hovered on the surface of the river. At least there was little wind. That was how the day began anyway. A wind picked up, but again, we had the benefit that it swept the fog off the water. I guess we really can’t have it all. I did prefer the wind as sight is such an important sense on the river.

The temperature was up to snuff with what I hoped for down south. Given all the cold we had to deal with, it was nice to have some heat even if it wasn’t a clear day. At one stage a warm current of air rode in on the river and with the humidity, it was too much. I stripped down to my PFD and paddled along with bare arms and a Santa hat. I can only imagine what the barge captains thought.

The weather was being fickle and couldn’t decide what it wanted to do. Rain gave way to sun which yielded to drizzle, only to repeat the process in various sequences. All at once though rain came lashing down; the worst we have seen on the water. I kept my head down and paddled, periodically looking over at Kobie to make sure he was still there. Translucent pearls sprung up from the river as the drops of rain punched the rivers surface; millions at a time. The rain worked its way down my rain jacket, under my spray skirt and into my lap so that before long I was sitting in a pool of water on the seat of my kayak. It wouldn’t have made any sense to stop paddling as we would have only gotten wetter had we exited our kayaks.

After the rain had stopped the river was calm and the surface of the water smooth. If only we could have more of the post rain river. It was a delight paddling along. We kept a good pace and the miles just seemed to melt away.

In the afternoon we paddled with a blue sky over one shoulder, but there was only a 15 minute stretch where we actually had the sun find the gap in the clouds. At that point we were actually annoyed that the sun poked out as it meant having to fish out sunglasses.

I had thought about getting to Baton Rouge by the end of the day. It would have been our longest day on the water yet, but there was a chance we could make it. I mentioned to Kobie that if we made it by days end the motel would be on me. For some reason I was hoping to wake up in a bed on Christmas morning. As the sun was setting the temperature cooled off and the fog returned to the river. As much as we might have wanted to get to town, Kobie and I have always been sensible in our decision making. As we could barely see the barges parked on the side of the river 20 feet away while there was still daylight, as soon as the sun ended its work day our visibility would have been exactly zero. We only had to make it to the first bridge north of the city, but we didn’t quite get there.



We poked along the parked barges until we came to the end of the line and found an area that we might set up camp. The spot we found was questionable, but it was just another one of those times that we were out of options. It didn’t help that it was called Devils Swamp. I leveled out a patch of sand on a ledge not 10 feet from the laving waters of the Mississippi River.

As we were setting up camp the fog lifted for a minute to reveal the bridge we had be hoping to reach. It had to be less than two miles away, but not only did we have little light left, the fog rolled back in as soon as we had a chance to see the bridge.

Sitting in my tent, I got a call from my friend Ken in Lafayette, who is going to be collecting us at the end of the trip. He wanted to pick us up and bring us back to his place for Christmas as he lived an hour away and this was the closest on our journey that we would be to his home. The only problem was that we were in Devils Swamp and nowhere near a road. As much as I appreciated the idea, it didn’t come off, leaving us in the swamp.

I don’t think I have ever camped so close to a capital city before and in this case it was in ear shot of many a waiting barge. One particular barge waited for over an hour with its engine rumbling before moving upriver. I felt as if I was a homeless person trying to sleep on a subway platform in New York City.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Nuances of the River

Despite having camped in a ravine, the theme continued of having a number of barges disturb us over night and deer that was persistent in coming through camp. If all those hunters we passed knew how easy it was to find deer, or rather, let them find us they would be shocked.

We were thrown to the wolves first thing in the morning with a heavy head wind. What might have taken us 20 minutes to paddle last night on a calm river took us an hour.

As we rounded a bend we found some cover allowing us to increase our speed from three miles per hour to seven. We noticed that the tree tops weren’t swaying even in the slightest, so we hoped that the wind had dropped. How wrong we were as when we rounded the bend we were socked with the equivalent of a 2x4 in the face. It seems that even if he wind spares the tree tops, it will, much to our chagrin, funnel down the river.

As I checked my map I noticed several large written warnings indicating that there were a few hydroelectric intakes as well as old river control flow channels in the area. And this was a warning to huge barges. It didn’t take more than paddling on the other side of the river to avoid the inflows but it left us at the mercy of the wind. At one point as we passed an intake there was a barge coming down river as well as one going up. The river was wide, but not to the point where all vessels could pass one another safely. The upriver barge paused and let us passed on the outside before he hit the throttle and motored north.

Having absolutely fought the wind the last few days my right shoulder was shot, feeling as if someone was repeatedly jabbing a dagger in it. I am sure I will be able to muddle through the last few hundred miles of the trip after coming this far, but paddling against the wind will not be fun. Sleeping on that shoulder is just out of the question.

We paddled through some chop on the river caused by the uneven, rocky river bed. Some of paddling was fun, much like white water rafting, but at other times I was just being shoved around and had water dumped on me.

We stopped in a sheltered cove for some lunch which was brought to an abrupt halt by some rain. In the warmth I was able to smell the rain on the hot asphalt used in the revetment on a summer day. I also found some fossils in the rocks that were used in teh revetment. Just after lunch we left the state of Mississippi and would now being paddling for the remainder of the trip with Louisiana on both sides of the river.

The latter part of the day was like paddling in a wind tunnel. The highlight was that were able to cut across a large sandbar while rounding a bend as the water level was high enough to cover it in its entirety. Not much of a highlight really.

We wanted to have a campsite by 5 o’clock so we began looking at 4:30. By 5:15, after having come to an area of cliffs and a “No Trespassing” sign, we finally managed to find a campsite across a maintenance road for one of the river lights. It wasn’t ideal, but it would be home for the night. It didn’t help that we had spurts of rain as we set up camp.

Monday, December 22, 2008

In and Around Natchez, MS

Somewhere in the neighborhood of a zillion barges passed our campsite overnight and there was a deer that repeatedly invaded our camp and would grunt before it ran off in a huff. The temperature was only in the mid 20’s overnight, so it could have been worse, but I was hoping that it would be the final cold night of the trip. I have said that before.

In trying to get back in the water the landing we got out of the night prior was no longer there, but had sunk below the surface of the river. I managed to sit my kayak on the bank parallel to the river and then slide down into the water. If that went wrong it would have gone very wrong.

We had a strong current running with us, wind was light out of the northwest and barge traffic was heavy. The temperature was tolerable, kicking around in the 30’s all morning. I put it on autopilot and paddled along.

Just before the town of Natchez, MS, I noticed a nodding donkey, a type of small oil well. The up and down motion of the head of the well powers a submersible pump in a borehole; it is pretty much the same principle of a bicycle pump pushing air in a tire. The area is rich in oil and the yellow pages of the town reaffirms the case as the phone book has over 25 listings for oil related services, from exploration, to pumping services to maintenance.

When paddling into Natchez, MS I noticed many homes perched on the cliffs above the river and oil production facilities down below. Some of the homes appeared magnificent on the cliff. It reminded me somewhat of the La Jolla cliffs just north of San Diego, CA. Were the La Jolla cliffs a bit smaller, had houses on them and were on a river and not the ocean it would have been more similar; a bit of a stretch perhaps, but that is what came to mind.

As we pulled onto the boat ramp in Natchez the sun that had been out all morning vanished behind the clouds and refused to show itself for the remainder of the day.


I was hoping to stop in and see what the town of Natchez was all about, but it would be limited to going to the nearest bar at the top of the boat ramp and filling up on water. We had sufficient food to make it to Baton Rouge, LA and probably enough water, but Kobie was low, so we wanted to turn the probably to a definitely.

The town of Natchez, MS is one of Mississippi’s oldest, having been founded in 1716, more than 100 years before it present capital of Jackson. Even prior to European settlement the area was home to the Natchez Indians.

Natchez is also the southern terminus of the “Natchez Trace”, an overland route to Nashville Tennessee. Boatmen from as far as Ohio and Pennsylvania, mostly in the early 1800’s would float their goods down the river systems to Natchez or New Orleans to sell their wares (including their boats) and then walk the back to their home along the Natchez Trace. Hmm, sounds like a potential trip for Kevin Knieling, Adventure Traveler.

I would have to come back should I want to see first hand all that I learned about Natchez. Across Natchez was the town of Vidalia, though there is no relation to the onion of the same name. It is Vidalia, Georgia from which the onions derive their name. There is actually a specific growing region for Vidalia onions with defined boundaries, much like the wine producing regions in France.

Kobie and I had an abbreviated lunch on the boat ramp in the cold wind. We made quick work of our food and I climbed back into my kayak nearly shivering. I would remain cold for the two hours following lunch.

Getting back out on the water was a mission as I had to fight the increasing number of waves crashing on the boat ramp. I made it off the ramp and turned to head downriver, but ended up getting stuck on a section of the boat ramp that had broken off and had submerged itself underwater. I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened, but my skeg would no longer retract in its entirety.

It seemed that in the afternoon we came across boat traffic in bunches. I hadn’t thought about it, but much like traffic on the road, it too must back up. It is probably akin to passing a truck on a mountain road. You have to wait until the road is wide enough and there is no traffic coming from the other direction. It is just on a much larger scale.

Kobie and I pushed along late into the day. We thought that if we had a solid day, it would be possible to get to Baton Rouge in just two more days paddling. When we finished for the day we left ourselves 100 miles from Baton Rouge.

We had a very sheltered campsite off the beach, over a small hill and in a gully. There was plenty of firewood and it got us out of sight of the river. The weather was to remain cold for tomorrow with the typical strong headwind.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Sky is Falling

At the 1 AM check the water level had risen four feet up the bank, though only a foot in depth. At my 4 AM check the river had only advanced another couple of linear feet and half a foot in depth. If the water did rise to a point that we would have gotten flooded it wouldn’t have been a torrent, but rather a trickle which gave us comfort as we slept. I did however keep my knife at hand in the event I would have to extricate myself from the tent in a hurry. Other than having to put our kayaks in the water in a different spot, the rising water played no role over night. The morning was a different story.

We didn’t exactly get a jump on the day, but we were still hoping to crack into the 300’s of miles to go by the end of the day.

The current was running hard with the rise in the water level. The warm temperatures must have caused some snow melt further north and assisted in pushing us along at one point over 10 miles per hour. We were moving. The heavy winds that were forecast didn’t materialize in the morning as predicted, much to our pleasure. Despite not having gotten an early jump on the day as it was forecast to be quite windy and figured it would be a short day, it seemed that we would make some time and turn it into a full day.

While stopping for lunch in a sheltered stand of trees I checked the weather radio, which was spewing as if the sky were falling: “cover all exposed pipes, bring in all pets, be sure the elderly have a working heater”. It was forecast to be the coldest night of the year, but this was Louisiana and not Minnesota. We could handle low 20’s.

In rounding the bend on a section of river we ran aground on a massive sandbar, I could see birds standing in water up to their ankles, but thought we had paddled far enough towards the channel to find the deeper water. Had we come through yesterday we would have been on dry land. I managed to clog my skeg with sand and was forced to leave it retracted. In the variable wind the nose of my kayak was being waggled around like the wattage needle on a parents stereo when they have gone away for the weekend.

We had reached what we thought would be a good daily mileage goal by lunchtime, but in the afternoon a heavy wind caught up with us. It was only on a several mile section of the river and we even had a side of the river on which to find shelter, but we were caught by surprise. We battled to the proper side of the river which was a third of a mile away. I seemed to only paddle on the left side of my kayak to fight the wind from muscling me in that direction. It did a number on my shoulder that after the rest in Greenville had felt so good. As soon as we neared the bank the wind was shut out by the trees on the side of the river. We were able to hug the shoreline for the remainder of the day.

We opted to end the day somewhat prematurely as we wanted time to set up camp and collect the necessary firewood as Jack Frost would be nipping our noses when the sun slid behind the tree line. By the end of our somewhat shortened day we still managed to bite off a 46 mile chunk of the river. In the last three days we had knocked off 130 miles. We can cover some good distance if we have even marginal conditions.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A New Low

It was another warm night and this morning I woke up with my tent bone dry. When setting out in the morning Kobie and I noticed that the water level had risen several feet as the landing upon which we came ashore last night was much smaller than it had been.

For the third day in a row we had some fog to contend with, though it was fairly light and not as much of a nuisance as it has been. A south wind picked up and blew a majority of the fog off the river.

To start the day Kobie thought he would play a game of “slap the nun”, as we know referrers to paddling close to and slapping a nun buoy with the paddle. In this case though the slap turned into a full on body check. The current pulled Kobie in and he put a block on this thing that would make an NFL lineman proud. Kobie stayed upright, though he was soaked from his meeting with the buoy. All I could do was laugh, that is, of course, after I knew Kobie was OK.

There was one barge after another coming up river, keeping us from using the main channel. The barges were all relatively small, pushing only a half dozen barge containers, but they still kept us from where we wanted to paddle. There was however one barge that was shoving along standardized freight containers. Whereas a truck would carry one, each barge container was loaded with 24 of them. This barge had about a half dozen filled with barge containers, not to mention that it was carrying barges with other cargo as well. The barge appeared somewhat ungainly as the barge containers aren’t meant to carry shipping containers but rather loose bulk cargo, such as coal or grain.

With the rise in the river level the majority of the wing dams were underwater, with perhaps a few bits of rock poking above the surface of the water on some. It is still no secret that they are there as when the water passes over them it becomes turbulent. Even if there was no change in the water our speed slows down significantly when approaching the wing dams as they block the flow of the river. They way I looked at it was: with the wing dams fully covered, they were pushing the maximum amount of water into the channel and helping to move us along.

The wind was out of the south and if I was disappointed the other day when we could barely muster 2.5 miles per hour, I was absolutely frustrated today when on one section of river we barely moved in a forward direction at 1.5. When people ask how I cope on these long trips I always say something like: “It sounds long, but with each paddle stroke I will be a little closer to my goal”. Unfortunately for me, today with each paddle stroke I was only ever so slightly closer to my goal and were I to stop paddling I would be further from it. I am not saying it is easy I am just saying it is true.

The wind for tomorrow is forecast to be in the diametric opposite direction as today, so will be at our backs in the range of 25 miles per hour with higher gusts. While you might think that it would really help push us along, it doesn’t. What ends up happening is that it creates a chop on the water that Kobie described best as “riding a drunken horse”. The waves pitch in every direction and it becomes unsafe. With the wind in our face, so too are the waves, but we can see what we are up against and our kayaks take waves much better head on.

We paused for lunch on a beach out of the wind and managed to keep the sand out of our sandwiches. As we ate we were visited by a new nuisance, the fly. We were swarmed as we tried to sit and enjoy our lunch. I can’t remember the last time I was able to sit and enjoy lunch on the river. If it isn’t flies, it’s the wind, if it isn’t the wind it’s the cold, if it isn’t the cold it’s the rain. I will again ask to catch a break. I guess I shouldn’t complain, the temperature hovered just around 70 and the sun did make a halfhearted attempt a shining through the clouds. There was a periodic hint of sun, though it didn’t require sunglasses or even a brimmed hat, but I was focusing on the positive. I saved a bunch of money on sunscreen this last month.

We didn’t have the same luck as yesterday when the wind stopped just after lunch. Having a battle royale with the wind held us up for part of the day and we had to decide what to do as we approached the city of Vicksburg, MS. Either we had to camp before it, stay in the city, or camp after it. We opted to slog it out as just as we approached the city the river turned to face due south and into the head of the wind.

There is very little sprawl to the city of Vicksburg, but the several casinos right on the river were doing a brisk business for late Saturday afternoon. The wind was forecast to pick up and blow from the north, so we were looking for someplace sheltered to camp. After turning down several options, we settled on a flat section of an island that was rather low lying. As the river level was again supposed to be on the rise, it may not have been the best choice, but it was already after five and the sun was below the horizon.

We set up camp in some soft mud, indicating that the river was at that level not too long ago, but we were out of options. Kobie and I agreed that we would each get up once in the middle of the night and check the river level, he at one, me at four. We braced for some rain overnight, a high of 45 tomorrow and 30 mile per hour winds as we fell asleep to the sound of water rushing over the top of a wing dam.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Welcome to Louisiana

The nights sleep was a hot and sweaty one though to wake to a temperature of 65 degrees. I was pleased in that the fog had mostly cleared, however I wasn’t happy that it was 20 mile per hour winds that did the job. Not only did I wake to the sound of wind hitting my tent and rustling trees, I had a couple of mosquito bites. To add insult to injury, my sleeping bag and the entire inside of my tent for that matter were soaked with condensation. I don’t mean a little, I am talking that I could pour the water out of my tent. It was going to be another one of those days. The wind was forecast to drop as the day progressed, so I was able to use that information as motivation.

There was still some periodic fog on the water, but not nearly as it was yesterday. There was even the periodic blip of sun. As for the fog though we learned to get a good read of the river when the visibility was decent and when a bank of fog moved in we could paddle from memory. We also planned our route based on the fog, choosing one side of the river or the other as to its ease of navigation were we in zero visibility.

The condensation had an additional effect in that my efforts to take any photos were thwarted, as when I pulled out my camera the lens would instantly cloud over.

As I paddled I was thinking that other than the two surprise encounters with the pelicans and the beaver I really haven’t seen much in wildlife recently. To be able to prove me wrong, a fox and a deer each made an appearance.

By mid morning we pulled off the river out of the wind to take five. It was a rarity for us to get out of the kayaks before stopping for lunch, but my back ached and I wanted to stretch a bit. We were in a cove out of the wind and the sun chose the most opportune time to make an appearance. Kobie and I sat on a log in the nearly 70 degree sun overlooking the river. It was such a pleasant interlude to the morning that I didn’t want it to end. I can’t recall the last time we had the opportunity to get out of the kayaks and remove clothes as opposed to putting more on. It made my day.

While the wind was blowing there was little in the way of waves. Some sections of the river did look calmer than others, but it was an illusion as a small layer of fog was covering the water making it appear smooth.

Shortly after our break we hit the last state of our trip, Louisiana. While we still had nearly 500 miles to go, it was a milestone. The river now borders Louisiana and Mississippi, though Louisiana will be only one of three states or provinces through which we have paddled that will not be bordered on the other river by another state. The only exceptions are where the river flow has changed from its original position when the state boundaries were drawn. That is also pretty much gives the answer to the trivia question I posed the other day as to how we could be paddling south with the state of Mississippi on both sides of us, but Arkansas to the east.

We stopped on a sandy beach for a late lunch. We couldn’t really get out of the wind so we had to make do. I aired out my sleeping bag as it was soggy with condensation, but with the wind blowing the sleeping bag acted as a wind sock and a pile of sand was deposited in the foot of the bag. We didn’t fare much better with lunch. Our sandwiches had a gritty texture and made the periodic crunching noise between our teeth.

We climbed back into our kayaks to face the afternoon. Much to our surprise and delight as we began paddling the wind ceased. The river became calm and the current carried us along. There was the periodic breeze that brought a pocket of extremely warm or cold air. The differential between temperatures in these pockets could well have been 35 degrees. There were sections of the river that were simply a blur as the heat was radiating off the surface of the water.

Traffic was light on the river as it was only afternoon when we saw the first barge since leaving Greenville. We may well have passed several yesterday, but we sure didn’t see them.

In the midst of our paddling Kobie and I were trying to figure out when we last had two good weather days in a row. Our criteria aren’t very strict: reasonable temperature, low wind, perhaps a bit of sun and little precipitation. We gathered that the last two nice days in a row were just after Thanksgiving, and one of those included snow flurries. Today certainly wasn’t going to be the on the front end of two consecutive nice days as we caught some rain in the afternoon. It didn’t rain particularly hard or for very long, but it was enough to make everything wet. Shortly thereafter, as if to tease us, the sun showed itself for only the briefest of moments.

As we were looking to wrap up the day there was a guest appearance from the fog. As I had been scanning ahead I had an idea of where we could possibly stop. I had seen it downriver before the fog rolled in, but it was just one more thing to make our life complicated. We ended up finding ourselves a secluded little campsite and our first in Louisiana.

On a positive note, my Poison Ivy, if that is what it even is, seems to be healing nicely. My legs look as if I had been dragged on pavement, but the itching has ceased and things seem to be on the mend.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Fog, Fog and More Fog

Looking out the window in the morning did nothing to inspire me to get paddling for the day. I knew once I was out on the water everything would be fine, so getting mentally prepared was the main battle. It was fairly warm, but it was foggy to the point where visibility in town was perhaps a couple hundred feet.

Dennis, the gent we met on our walk into town offered up a ride to the river and we jumped at it. Dennis picked us up at the hotel and we threw the kayaks on the roof of his car for the ride down to Warfield Park. As we were getting packed in the car a friend of Dennis’ came by and told me about a 500 pound shark they caught at the mouth of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. His advice to me: Don’t celebrate by going for a swim. As far as getting back to the river, was it far easier than on the way in. Thanks Dennis. .

As we got out on the river we could see very little. When I say very little, visibility was in the range of 30 feet. The plan for the day was to be vigilant as it was impingent upon us to spot the barges. The barges would have no possible chance of seeing us on the water. We were hoping to just stick to the shore and stay out of everyone’s way, but of course it wouldn’t work exactly as such.

It also seemed as if I hadn’t been paddling in forever, but the two days rest did my shoulder well.

An hour after leaving Greenville the fog lifted, but only long enough for us to cross to the other side of the river and then returned thicker than before. Paddling through the fog was eerie as the water was also very still, unusual for this part of the Mississippi River. The fog could have been in a horror film or a TV crime drama. I could envision it, two kayakers are paddling along in the fog and they come across a severed hand. I also had visions of seeing a barge break out of the fog 20 feet away, barreling down on me. I could actually picture what the front of the barge would look like as it cut through the fog becoming visible.

Kobie and I paused often listening for the engine rumble of an oncoming barge. We heard a barge coming upriver with sufficient warning, but as it was passing another barge came from upriver that snuck up on us without hearing it until it was passing. We couldn’t see a thing but the engine noise was unmistakable.

At one point when I was paddling along I thought I was looking at land on the other side of the river. After about 10 seconds though my eyes refocused and it was a wing dam 30 feet directly in front of me. Kobie and I would have to paddle out along the side of the wing dam protruding several hundred yards in the river, forcing us nearly in the main river channel. It wasn’t like we only had one wing dam to contend with but rather a dozen. There was always a heavy flow of turbulent water as we rounded the dams. Worse yet was that on one particular dam there was an eight foot whirlpool that was at least four feet deep. I wasn’t sure what effect that would have on my kayak and quite frankly, I really didn’t want to find out.

As we didn’t want to have to paddle up each wing dam and then back into shore only to have to come back out at the next dam, we decided to navigate by compass in the fog from the end of one dam to the next. It was somewhat disconcerting giving up the safety net of being able to see the land, more so when I heard the rumble of an 8,000 horsepower diesel engine somewhere nearby. We were in a river and not the ocean, so even if we ran off course as long as we didn’t hear any barges, we should, in theory be in good shape.

While navigating by compass is easier than you might think with good maps, the reliability of my map was somewhat questionable. I feel comfortable in the use of a compass, but as Kobie is a scuba instructor he can navigate quite well by compass underwater in near zero visibility so surely he could do it above. Throughout the afternoon we heard about a half dozen barges, but didn’t see a single one.

As we paddled in the fog I was startled by a big noise just in front of me. It had come up so suddenly without warning that my heart began racing. It turned out to be a bunch of pelicans that spotted us and took flight.

Late in the day the fog above us cleared ever so slightly to allow the smallest slice of blue sky to be seen. I still couldn’t see a thing on the river until the fog cleared just enough to see some people on a sand bar. They were loading up a quad with gear following their hunting trip and if the fog hadn’t cleared just that bit it would have been entertaining hearing them yet not seeing them. What wouldn’t have been entertaining would have been if they took their boat out again and couldn’t see us.

We were able to find a decent campsite which I was happy about as there was no way I was going to cross to the other side of the river in an effort to camp. Everything was so still without even the lightest whisper of a breeze. There was also a fantastic echo right next to the wing dam where we decided to camp.

We set up camp on a small overlook about 50 feet above the river. Were their actually a view it might have been a nice one. In camp I just didn’t feel right, to the point that I had a feeling something was going to happen. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it may have had something to do with the fact that we were at near 100% humidity and that it was over 60 degrees at 6 o’clock. We even had the sound of crickets and cicadas. I was shocked though when sitting eating dinner and was set upon by…a mosquito!

As I was walking down to the water to check things out later that evening I was clambering down some tree roots and was startled to come upon beaver. We stood at an impasse for a moment until it charged at my legs. I don’t think I can claim that it was attempting to attack me, but rather looking for an out. I think it is fair to say that we were both surprised and the encounter left our hearts beating a little faster.

In the evening I spoke to my dad who mentioned that it was some ungodly cold temperature in Winnipeg, so I had to call Dawn, one of the girls who set Kobie and I up for this trip. In spea

king to Dawn she confirmed that, yes, it was -35F. That is a minus sign in front of the 35 in case you missed it. Again, I think I will be happy with the temperature we have now. The coldest temperature I had camped out in a tent was somewhere around -20F, but at least I had the gear for it. I don’t think I would be quite so prepared for that right now.

If you want to get a little idea as to what it is like to paddle in the fog, take a look at the little video clip below:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Greenville, MS...Again

On another dismal morning over breakfast Kobie queried if I was sure that I didn’t want to see a doctor about my rash. He had a rough nights sleep and his shoulder was aching. He made the suggestion of perhaps taking another day off and I had no objections. It seems that the drier, balmier weather that is constantly being predicted never materializes. It is so frustrating to think that we will have better conditions that never appear.

I called around to various Doctors offices and clinics with limited success. The most promising was a clinic that collects a $250 retainer, but couldn’t tell me how much the actual doctor visit costs. I understand that there may be ancillary fees for exams or what have you, but as far as I know all doctors charge a base fee for being seen. It wasn’t like my health insurance would cover the visit so I would pay cash. I was sufficiently frustrated in the US healthcare system and decided to take matter in my own hands.

I went for a walk to the grocery store to pick up supplies for a home poison ivy cure. I have been out of the regular mix of New York City for nearly four years, but I still can’t seem to adjust to the speed down south. Everything moves sooooo slowly. On top of that I can’t always understand what people are saying with their southern slang. I have no problem with that, but I wished they would be a little more efficient.

I administered the home poison ivy remedy which involved scouring the areas of the rash with a scrub pad and then dousing ordinary household bleach on it. Oh my! That certainly got my attention. I haven’t felt anything like that in a long time. Not only that but I chemically burned large patches of hair off my leg.

I know what is going to happen. My rash is going to be OK for a week until I will have to get professional medical care. I will have to sit tight for a few days while it is 80 degrees and sunny.

On the opposite side of the weather spectrum I found out from Jamie & Jane, our friends in Frontenac, MN that it was minus 20 Fahrenheit there today and Lake Pepin was completely frozen over. I don’t feel so bad anymore about the weather we have had.

Another interesting little tidbit I learned about Greenville is that it is the birthplace of Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. I always loved Stadler and Waldorf.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Greenville, MS

The city of Greenville was named after an American Revolutionary War hero, Nathaniel Greene. Greene was enlisted as infantry but earned the rank of major general through his efforts in the war, becoming a trusted advisor to General Washington.

The city is located on the eastern bank of Lake Ferguson, a former oxbow of the Mississippi River. Like so many other cities along the Mississippi, Greenville was affected by a major flood, in their case in 1927. The year prior the US Army Corp of Engineers built a series of levees and asserted that it would preclude any future floods. Titanic anyone? On April 16, 1927 a 1,200 section of a levee north of the city collapsed. It is about what I have come to expect from the Corp of Engineers. Six days after the levee collapsed the floodwaters hit Greenville, covering downtown in 10 feet of water.

I sat most of the day typing to update the website. The most interesting thing that happened in my morning was that the Federal Reserve cut the target Federal Funds interest Rate to between zero and .025%, the lowest ever. It was also the first time a range was used as opposed to a single number. A rate of zero is not all that easy to achieve. While the US dollar has made some ground against other currencies, it was set back by the interest rate cut. On a positive note for potential homebuyers though, mortgage rates will drop.

In the afternoon I ventured out to do laundry which turned out to be an adventure in and of itself. There were no laundry facilities at the hotel, nor a laundry mat nearby, so I was going to try one of the other motels. The next motel also didn’t have laundry facilities. The third didn’t either, but said that they send their guest to the hotel yet a little further down the road. Bingo. The next problem was that they didn’t have any detergent. Finding detergent involved a walk to K-mart and having to buy a full sized bottle of detergent. When I got back to the hotel, someone had just thrown a load of laundry in the only washer. Laundry took nearly three hours. It is just one of the little things I have to contend on this trip.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Out For A Walk

It rained on and off overnight but was the warmest night in several months. My sleeping bag didn’t get zipped the entire night. Kobie and I arose early in an effort to make it to the town of Greenville, MS at a reasonable hour. We were excited about the day as it would potentially end with a hot shower, but as we were packing up a brisk blustery wind kicked up. Also, as we got done packing it wasn’t quite light enough to yet to get on the river. As our luck would have it, it began to rain. As we waited for the sun to do its work Kobie and I hunkered down under his little tarp to try and stay dry. We squatted on the sand with our back to the wind and waited.

As the morning became light visibility was still only about a mile. It left me particularly vigilant about checking for barges. Fortunately, before long the fog lifted to some degree allowing us to scan the river more easily.

We kept out heads down and kept paddling through the morning. We were 16 miles deep before we stopped for a break. I also realized that if I am going to get wet, I prefer paddling in a steady drizzle than having waves dumped over me. While most nights we don’t have the luxury, I was getting by thinking about the fact that by days end I would potentially be sleeping in a bed under a roof with four walls.

One of the problems of having so much time to think about things going on in the trip is that when any small event occurs I begin to recalculate my idea of timing in the trip. On a day like today when a heavy wind would blow for a few minutes I would rethink my initial conclusion that we would make it to the town of Greenville. When the wind stopped and the current helped us along I would think that not only would we get there, but we would arrive early. Micromanaging a trip such as this isn’t very productive as there are so many external variables that I can’t possibly calculate with any degree of accuracy any of the outcomes. Just when I think we have something in the bag a tornado could come along and change things significantly. It is difficult at times as I have so much free time to think about everything yet nothing as I am on the river.

Kobie and I thought that we would arrive in Greenville, MS by about 3 o’clock. We arrived by 1:30. At least to the area we needed to get off the river to walk to town. We needed to paddle on a small outlet from the river to get as close as we could to the city of Greenville. The area we were in was a commercial maintenance area for tugs as well as a loading area for barges.

We got the kayaks up out of the water and on the kayak carts for the walk to town. As we were in an industrial area every vehicle that passed us seemed to be a pick up truck or was towing a trailer. There were several scrap metal dealers in the area and I witnessed may loaded up vehicles making a drop off and come back past with so much free space.

One guy stopped to ask what was up and then take our photo. He offered to put the kayaks in the back of his pickup truck, but as he had a tool chest that shortened the bed of the truck is wasn’t feasible to get even half of the kayaks in. I looked at every vehicle that passed and said yes or no, meaning yes our kayaks would fit on the vehicle or not. If ever someone were to take pity on us ever again I was hoping today would be the day.

After nearly an hour we made it to the main road. We carried on and made a stop at the Mississippi Welcome Center. While there were free drinks at the welcome center, they didn’t have much good news as to how far we would have to walk to find a motel. We continued on.

By hour two walking along the road Kobie and I were cracking up. When we got to a red stop light we would have a red light challenge as on the TV show Cash Cab. Name five countries that start with the letter “M”. Name five animals that start with the letter “E”. Well?

As we walked past a house with a “No Trespassing” sign hung above the front door we kind of figured that we weren’t in the nicest area of town.

It was somewhat disheartening when I saw a sign for the Days Inn indicating that it was still another three miles. At least we had a worst case scenario. Little did I know we would have to use it. We had several people stop to ask what we were doing or even if they could help, but the folks that stopped didn’t have a vehicle equipped to carry a couple of kayaks. We received many a strange look. I figured I should call the newspaper so that they could do a story explaining why two guys walked down the street with kayaks.

One of the folks that stopped was Dennis, who was a canoeist and could understand the jam we were in. He mentioned that he would try to give us a ride back down to the river when we were ready to go. We would be very grateful.

As we pulled up to a traffic light in a lane of traffic, a police officer came from the cross road and pulled in sideways in front of us. In the manner of the span of the red light, we explained what we were doing and why we were blocking a lane of traffic during rush hour. The officer held some traffic back for us as we made our way across the intersection and on to the shoulder of the road.

We arrived at a couple of motels that advertised “Day Rates”, so as tired as we were we kept walking. We arrived in front of a motel that was until recently a Best Western. I didn’t have the energy to walk the few hundred feet to the Days Inn. We walked 7.6 miles since getting off the river pulling our kayaks the entire way and I was done. We knew we covered some distance on the road when we passed two separate McDonalds.

The motel was formerly a Best Western as it no longer seemed to meet the quality requirements of the chain. We had to switch rooms as the first didn’t have a working TV, but he new room we were given was twice the size so we could more easily get our kayaks inside. While the chambermaids also had a somewhat dubious definition as to what the word “clean” means, it was still far superior to the Relax Inn in New Madrid. It even beats the worst Best Western I stayed at which was in Jaipur, India. As I was waiting to get on the elevator, the doors opened and as if it thought it belonged there, a rat got off the elevator. As I was in India, all I could do was laugh. I was so tired that anything would have been fine for the night.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Warmth!

I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to getting on the river as the wind was supposed to be a continuation of the previous day, but much to my surprise the water maintained a relative level of calm.

Given my penchant for burning, melting or otherwise inadvertently damaging my clothing by fire, I decided that I just wasn’t going to wear pants anymore while paddling. If I don’t wear my shorts while paddling I can’t get them wet and hence don’t have to dry them out. I am going to paddle in my underwear. I sit in a kayak all day so no one will be any the wiser, that is if they don’t read this. I will have to find some other clothing to burn in the fire.

As we got on the water it began to drizzle. The precipitation was light, but made us grumble about what we might have in store. Fortunately for us though, the drizzle ended as quickly as it began.

The first 10 miles of the day came much quicker than I ever would have expected given the forecast of high winds from the south. We were however traveling in a westerly direction for the most part and was how we explained the phenomenon of us making that distance so quickly.

The temperature was a surprising 60 degrees by late morning. I could see the warm radiated air blurring the surface of the river as the breeze blew, much like in the desert or on pavement on a hot day. I was hoping that it would become the norm for the last 600 miles of the trip. While I am wise to the fact that colder temperatures are just a few days away I believe the worst of the low temperatures are truly behind us. I am sure we will still hit freezing temperatures, but I suspect it will be just below freezing and not in the teens.

Kobie and I spotted a lovely boat ramp to assist us in getting off the river for lunch. We unpacked our food and as soon as we did so, as if on cue, it began to rain. The rain didn’t persist and allowed us to have our lunch while remaining dry, but our lunch was further uninterrupted. What are the chances that a boat would come in to use the ramp in the 20 minutes we were sitting to eat our lunch. 100% apparently. Kobie and I had to move all of our lunch supplies off the ramp as well as our kayaks. A 14 foot fishing boat pulled up with the most unfriendly people on board, barely managing a grunt when I gave them a big “Hey, How is it going?” Akin to having a deer strapped to the hood of a car, the boat had a bear strapped on similarly. This made me think of a few things. First off, perhaps they were grumpy and in a hurry as they had taken the bear illegally. Second, Kobie and I really haven’t been taking the proper safeguards at camp if there are bear running around. It was a good reminder to keep all food sealed in the kayaks.

The second interruption during lunch came in the form of a dog that wandered by. At first we thought he belonged to the hunters, but as they left the dog hung around. Kobie made a new friend as even when we were back out on the river the dog chased us along the bank for over a half mile.

There was a very narrow section of river where a barge had to be helped around the bend by a small tug. There happened to be two barges coming up river as well which left us very little room to pass on the inside, so we paddled across the front of the oncoming barges. We passed in front of the barges without much difficulty, though we did move at top speed. As the barge motored passed us, it threw up the largest waves we have experienced on this trip. While the waves were shallow rollers, with no threat of them breaking into whitewater, I had a blast paddling over the six to eight foot waves the barge had created.

Throughout the day we kept waiting for the wind to blast us but it never happened. As we came around each bend we thought we would be walloped, but the wind never materialized.

Kobie and I realized that it was staying lighter later in the evening. At first it was a little confusing as to why that was happening as we haven’t yet arrived at the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice. When I thought about it though, in the past week we had come west across more than two lines of longitude. The distance between each line of longitude varies depending how far north or south of the equator, but we had come probably 100 miles west since Cairo, IL. It may not have been hours that we gained in sunlight, but even a few precious minutes of daylight gave us the opportunity to cover river miles.

At the end of the day another small milestone for us was picking up a new radio weather channel further south. We left the behind the station from Memphis, TN and picked up that from Jackson, MS. Not only did it give us a more accurate idea of the weather we would encounter, but it also proved that we were making southerly progress. The new broadcast had far better wind predictions in store which I was pleased about, but they hadn’t changed the prediction of rain.


At the time we should have been thinking about a campsite, we saw on the map something labeled “Catfish Haven”. We figured we should see what it was as it could well be a campground. Of all things it turned out to be an airstrip.

I really enjoyed paddling in the waning minutes of dusk as it reminded me of warmer days paddling on the Red River several months back. The river was calm and the trees were still. I didn’t want to stop paddling.

We did find an adequate campsite. It helps that in less than 10 minutes we can level a sloping section of sand big enough to pitch a tent. In this case I was doing it in my underwear and bare feet. It felt odd being outside in bare feet and having so many insects about. It was 63 degrees at 6 o’clock. It was also the first night in many that we didn’t have a fire. At least it meant that none of my clothes would be ignited.