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Old Man River
A Journey Down the Mississippi River
By Annie Aggens

Part 1 | Part 2

We paddled virtually non-stop, whenever the sun was up, taking breaks only infrequently to chow down a sandwich, go to the bathroom, or spin the dial on our portable radio. Only when we passed a town, historical landmark, or struck up conversations with fishermen did we stop our rhythmic paddling cadence. The reason for our dogged determination was simple. Snowstorms and icy temperatures followed close behind, taunting us like an annoying sibling. Just outside of Memphis, Tennessee they caught up, and bit us hard.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve paddled in foul weather before, but this ice storm was at another level. For two days we were battered with blowing snow and sleet that coated all that we owned with two-inch thick ice. Our canoe became too heavy to lift, and our tent poles flexed with the weight of the frozen sleet. From inside our tent, which was becoming increasingly small from the weight of the ice, we listened to National Public Radio coverage of the worst ice storm to hit the Midwest in decades. Schools were shut down, highways were closed, power was out, and we were stuck on a cold, wet, barren sandbar in the middle of the Mississippi River.

Our troubles, however frustrating, paled in comparison to others who have traveled that stretch of river over the years. Indeed, within miles of our lonely sandbar, one of the greatest U.S. maritime tragedies occurred when the Sultana, a civil war steamer overloaded with recently-released Union POW’s heading home, exploded and sank within yards from shore. In a matter of hours, it is estimated that over 1,700 people lost their lives, more deaths than on the Titanic.

I never knew the story of the Sultana before I paddled over her watery grave. In fact, I must admit to not knowing a whole lot about the “Old Man River” prior to our journey. Sure, I read Huck Finn in high school, and had even browsed captions of Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi,” but I was astonished at the intensity and depth of history that we were exposed to every day of the journey.

Take, for example, the short stretch of river between St. Louis, Missouri and Cairo, Illinois. Within a day of St. Louis – whose own history reads like a modern adventure novel — is the haunted Fort des Chartres, a primary fur trading fort on the Mississippi River, and home to Illinois’ first building. A couple of miles downriver is Saint Genevieve, Missouri, the first permanent European settlement west of the Mississippi. Founded in 1735, St. Genevieve has the largest concentration of colonial French buildings in North America, and it is the only surviving French colonial village in the U.S.

Less than a day’s paddle downriver from St. Genevieve is Chester, Illinois, the official home of Popeye; and another day’s paddle, much of it along the tragic Trail of Tears (which claimed the lives of 3,000 to 4,000 Cherokee) lands you in Cape Girardeau, the most northern “southern” town in the Civil War (and more recently the hometown of the controversial Rush Limbaugh). A few miles further is Thebes, Illinois, where high on a bluff overlooking the river lies the historic courthouse that held Dred Scott during his landmark trial. Across the river and down a mile or two is Commerce, Missouri, whose fertile soil boasts an award-winning vineyard.

 

In the days before we departed, we got some good advice from the friend of a friend who had paddled the river years ago. “The Mississippi stays the same the whole way down,” he said. “But the adventure lies in the people you meet along the way.” These words of wisdom changed our trip. Instead of priding ourselves on being self-sufficient, we regularly relied on complete strangers for common necessities, such as rides to the grocery store, fresh water, advice on the river, and even home-cooked meals. Many of these chance encounters often developed into real friendships.

There was Jerry, the Vietnam fighter pilot, turned air traffic controller, turned winery owner, who met us on the riverbank and insisted that we join him for a private wine tasting at his vineyard. Then there was “Fireball,” the soybean farmer from Meridosia, Illinois, and his friend Shirley Anne, who adopted us for an afternoon and ensured that we had no lack of hot chili or cold Budweiser. The beer and chili hit the spot, but it was Shirley Anne’s detailed explanation of growing up in southern Illinois in the 1930s that I remember most. There was the ex-mayor of Vicksburg, Mississippi who gave us a personal tour of the battlefield at Vicksburg National Monument; the firemen of Gramercy, Louisiana, who served us homemade jambalaya on Christmas Eve; and the older couple we met near Lutcher, Louisiana, who told us that after a lifetime of working hard and investing their paychecks wisely, they finally realized that the only bank in the world with any real value is the memory bank. Amen.

On our final day, we nervously navigated the industrial ports of New Orleans, and fretted over our proximity to ten-story tall tanker ships, whose propellers alone were bigger than our canoe. There we were introduced to the post 9/11 era of Mississippi River travel. After declaring our presence to the larger ships over our handheld VHF radio (so as not to get run over) we were informed by the US Coast Guard that we were traveling in “secure waters,” and that we had, in fact, been under video surveillance for some time. They gave us specific directions regarding our approach to a cruise ship docked a mile downriver, and told us that if we so much as changed our direction slightly toward the cruise ship, they would immediately arrest us.

As we passed the cruise liner, the French Quarter, our final destination, became visible. When we pulled off the water our welcoming committee consisted of a homeless man playing drums. “Where’s you come from?” he asked, having not seen us approach. We pointed to our canoe and said, “We just paddled here from Chicago.” He simply shook his head in disbelief and yelled at us to get off his stage.

In the end, it took us 60 days to paddle from Chicago to New Orleans. Our journey, like Huckleberry Finn’s, was really an adventure into the human soul, and the shifting currents of the American spirit. As Twain once said, the Mississippi River is nothing less than “the body of the nation.” It feeds us fertile soil, it carries our precious cargo on its back, and it offers itself selflessly for our recreation. For many people who value its unconditional companionship as it rolls on — always to somewhere else — it is also a confessional. Yet the Mississippi, it seems, has secrets of its own. Secrets that make it hard to predict, and impossible to control. Like a song, the river meanders along, through its own alluvial valley, penetrating the hearts and souls of those who live within its reach and beckoning adventurous spirits. I hear its song without words, but some people have heard it differently, and they sing out in deep soulful longing, “That Old Man River, he must know somethin’ but don’t say nothin,’ that Old Man river, he jus’ keeps rollin,’ he keeps on rolling along.”

Part 1 | Part 2

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