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Summer 2004 Issue
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My heart was racing. If I so much as twitched the wrong butt cheek I was sure we were going to capsize. We hurtled down the face of the wave as the entire bow of our canoe disappeared beneath the frigid waters. What were we thinking when we committed ourselves to this hair-raising ferry? My knees, jammed against the hull of the canoe, began to slip. “Oh God, don’t slip, please don’t slip, not now…”

I clenched my toes in my knee-high boots trying to get a better grip through the thick rubber. Another wave. The water rose well over our gunwales and spilled across our homemade spray deck, worn thin by years of use. We were barely in control, and our progress seemed undetectable. I kept paddling, harder, and with more focus than ever. Sweat saturated the layer I wore beneath my life vest. My throat began to burn. I was fighting to keep my fear in check, but I could feel myself tense-up…not a good sign. If we swamped we’d never make it to shore. The 40-degree water would sap our energy long before we could even swim out of the shipping lane. And then? No barge captain would see us, or even if he did, he wouldn’t be able to stop his load before it ran over us. I cursed myself for getting into this situation.

A half an hour earlier, our attempt to canoe down the Mississippi River had looked very different. We had been standing on a wind swept sandbar in Kentucky, looking across the wide Mississippi at the small town of New Madrid, Missouri. It was mid-November, and, after several days of frustratingly slow progress, fierce head winds had finally forced us to pull off the river. So there we were, windbound, with little clean water and only an odd assortment of remnants left in our food bag. Though New Madrid barely makes it onto most maps, to us it could have been Paris. Like a mirage in the desert, the town had a seductive force. Visions of self-indulgence danced before my eyes. A café. Cheeseburgers. Pizza. A movie theater with a reclining seat. All this and more could be ours… if only we could get to the other side of the river.

 

From our vantage point, the crossing didn’t look so bad. Sure, there was an upriver wind and a downriver current, which, when combined can produce steep waves, but it didn’t look that bad. And what kind of adventures would we be missing by holing up in our tent for a few days on a desolate sandbar? Especially when New Madrid lay less than a mile away? If we didn’t make the crossing we would never know. So like Odysseus’ sailors, tempted by the Sirens, we let down our guard and began the perilous crossing.

Luck was on our side that day, and somehow we managed to navigate the tumultuous waves and conflicting currents. And what we found in New Madrid, like so many other stops along our route down the Mississippi River, was well worth the daring trip.

Our canoe trip from Chicago to New Orleans was anything but well thought out. We departed in late October, on a whim, after increasing gas prices forced us to delay our long-planned road trip throughout the U.S. We had quit our jobs and rented our house, making the need to do something — anything — a necessity. It occurred to us that we could launch our canoe in the local sanitary canal, a mere mile from our house, and paddle all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, all for free! Within a day the idea had taken shape and we were busy overhauling the canoe from its last extended trip. A can of paint and the words “Chicago to New Orleans or BUST!” painted down each side of the Old Town Tripper canoe sealed the deal.

On the first day, as we paddled away from Lake Michigan and toward the Gulf of Mexico 1,500 miles in the distance, we were filled with the nervous excitement of embarking on a great adventure. Though we each had extensive experience with remote wilderness canoe tripping, the idea of an “urban expedition” was completely new. Would we be able to find camping? Would we have clean sources of water? What would it be like to go through the locks and dams? Would we run into any unruly people? And if so, would my bear mace protect me from an intruder of the two-legged type? We quickly learned that most of our concerns were unfounded. Camping was plentiful, due in part to the extremely low water at that time of year. Locating drinking water wasn’t a problem either, as most people in the river towns were more than happy to help us by filling up our water containers, or driving us to a store where we could buy bottled water. Though we unknowingly timed our departure to coincide with the height of duck hunting season, I got used to paddling past camouflaged armed men. The sound of gunfire in the early morning became our alarm clock, and after a few nights on the river I was falling asleep as easily as if I were paddling in northern Canada.

Our goal to reach New Orleans before Christmas was lofty. Not only would we have to average more than 30 miles a day (with little help from the current) but we would have to cram our paddling into the short daylight hours of November and December. Though we considered paddling after dark, our first attempt at this ended on the Illinois River when a passing barge, which chose to direct its glaring spotlight on us instead of the river ahead, hit a sandbar and ran aground. We quickly realized that, like the Illinois River, the great Mississippi is no place to be in a canoe after dark, especially in 40-degree water. Giant eddies, undetectable wing dams, significant whirlpools and surging boils are just a few of the hazards that awaited us. Additionally, the frequent barges, whose huge engines could be more than a quarter of a mile behind the front of the vessel, were often ominously silent and dangerous.

Part 1 | Part 2

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