Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Misery on the Water

Kobie and I woke up at 6 AM in an effort to beat the rain that was supposed to move into the area in the early morning. When we woke up at six we had in fact beaten the rain, but in the time it took for me to yawn and wipe the sleep out of my eyes, I heard drops on my tent. We decided to give the rain a few minutes to see if it would taper but both of us nodded off.

I woke to the sound of Kobie shouting at me. I must have been fast asleep as he said he had been trying to wake me, from the comfort of his sleeping bag of course, for the last half hour.

We packed up camp in a light rain which wasn’t completely horrible, but not ideal either. At least I didn’t have to get my feet wet as I got into my kayak. Perhaps I slept too long or in the wrong position as my rusty gate hinge of a right shoulder was giving me some grief, as was one of the herniated disks in my neck. I kept an easy cadence in the morning paddling along in the increasing rain.

The day of awful weather that we didn’t get leaving Dubuque had set upon us now. It was cold, windy and all around unpleasant. It made paddling past the Holiday Inn Express right on the river in Le Clair, IA somewhat disheartening, no less that it was right next to a marina with a boat ramp and what looked to be an ideal place to store our kayaks. The many restaurants just beyond the motel that would serve a hot meal didn’t go unnoticed either. We gave this one a pass but ifthere was another motel further up on the side of the river, to me, it was a sign that God wanted us to be warm.

As we rounded the bend I saw a sign in front of the Blackhawk Bar & Grill indicating that it was 39 degrees at 11:22. I also noticed that a gallon of gas was $1.99. Take that OPEC.

As we paddled up to Lock and Dam # 14 I recall thinking that I rather wait than have to get out of my kayak in the cold and portage around the dam. I was wrong. The near hour we sat in the wind and rain waiting for the lock could well be the worst hour of the trip. It was utterly defeating to have to sit in the wind and freeze. While paddling I was just warm enough to want to keep moving along, but once I was no longer generating body heat, it was a different affair. I could hardly close my fingers or wiggle my toes as I sat in my kayak shivering, watching several hundred thousand tons of cargo being moved down river ahead of us.

While in the morning the river was narrowest it had been in a long time at less than a half mile wide, the river quickly became nearly two miles across. It was no longer a quick jaunt to get to the other side of the river to get out of the wind or for anything else for that matter.

We were nearly in the Quad Cities, which is a geographic area of the mid-Mississippi region where five cities that are clumped together essentially forming one mass of urban sprawl separate by one river. Originally the area was called Tri-Cities and should now in theory be named Quint-Cities, sometimes names just stick. One thing we were sure of was that with five cites clumped together the area would offer little in the way of places to camp.

We skirted around the back of a small island north of the main Quad Cities area and found a small park. As there was a fisherman getting ready to go out on his boat we asked if camping was permitted. In receiving a disappointing answer, we paddled on towards the heart of Quad Cities. While the weather did improve ever so slightly that a night in a tent wouldn’t have been horrible, there was no place to set up said tent in the midst of the urban setting.

A heavy fog hung on the river so that visibility was under a mile. While recreational traffic on the river was nonexistent as it was a rainy Tuesday with the weather hovering right around 40, there were still barges on the river. The good thing about the barges is that they aren’t very fast. After I turned around and made sure there was no barge immediately behind me, I was good for 20 minutes before thinking about turning and looking again. There was one point where I thought a barge was coming up river, but it turned out to be a small island with a couple of trees on it.

Kobie and I resigned ourselves that we would have to stay in a motel and thought about stopping in Moline, IL, but thought better of it as Bettendorf, IA seemed to be a larger city. Also, loosely translated in German, Bettendorf means “village of beds”, so we hoped we might be in luck.

We pulled onto a boat ramp just under the I-74 Bridge in Bettendorf, IA. The first thing I saw up the road was a motel sign. I figured we were set, but little did I know it would only get better. There was a pickup truck and a school bus sitting at the boat ramp, so we waved to both and went about our business of shivering and making ourselves look remotely presentable as we hoped to not be turned away from the motel.

While getting our kayaks out of the water Bill got out of the school bus and asked what we were up to. We talked for less than a minute before Bill mentioned that we would be welcome to stay with him and his wife. Bill was an avid paddler notching thousands of miles on numerous paddle trips including some in the arctic. More importantly though, Bill knew exactly how we felt at that moment: cold, shivering and wet. Bill is retired but drives a bus for special needs children on a part time basis so he had to finish he shift, but said he would come and collect us if we could find some place to keep warm for an hour.

The gent in the pickup truck that was also at the boat ramp pulled up an chatted with us for a bit as his wife sent him out of the house so she could vacuum. While I always enjoy speaking with people, I was wet and cold looking to make myself dry and warm, which wasn’t going to happen as I stood on the Bettendorf boat ramp.

Kobie and I rolled our kayaks into town all of two blocks and sat in a diner called the Village Inn. I ordered a Minestrone soup that not only warmed my stomach, but also my soul. I was still chilled to the bone, but I knew I had bottomed out and it was only going to get better from here.

Bill turned up at the diner in his truck with a roof rack. A true paddler and a tool to make transporting the kayaks a non event. Upon arriving at Bill’s home, his long time friend and paddle partner Ron was there. As Bill wasn’t sure his rack would work for our two kayaks, he had initially called Ron to see if his truck might be better suited, but it all worked out.

Bill and his wife Ann were great hosts, pointing us to the shower and washing machine before turning us loose. Bill, Ann, Ron, Kobie and I shared some stories over pizza and beer, not just of paddling but covering a broad spectrum. As much as I love traveling myself, taking a close second is hearing the stories of others who have traveled. Hearing stories from the older generation makes it better still. I said once before that in all the ways we now have to document things in everyday life, the art of storytelling is being lost along with the storytellers who have lived the tales.

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