By: Eric Persha
The dread of a failed attempt on the Sierra’s grand Evolution Traverse echoed in the back of my mind. My computer screen glowed with work, but one last moment of procrastination pulled me toward my friend Josh’s blog, which was chronicling his 70-day, 2,300-mile canoe trip down the entire length of the Mississippi River. I tapped my finger lightly on my desk, picked up my phone and sent Josh a text.
Three weeks later I was gazing at St. Louis’s iconic arch, dimly lit from my hotel room windows while enjoying my last night in a comfortable bed for more than a week. It was Missouri-humid outside and had been raining for two days prior to my arrival. Josh had invited me to join him for the four hundred miles of river that stretched from “The Lou” down to Memphis. I justified the trip with my upcoming birthday and a “when will I ever get to do this again” story to my all-too-understanding wife, Anna. After a few hours of sleep, we awoke early to the ding of an iPhone Emergency Alert for a flash flood warning, chuckled a bit and made our way down to the river.
The Mississippi River’s drainage basin touches 31 U.S. states, two Canadian provinces and covers more than 1,245,000 square miles. While the river starts at Lake Itasca in Northern Minnesota as a reed filled winding creek, by the time it has made its way to St. Louis, collecting the flow of many other rivers, it is a massive body of quickly moving water. The flood conditions raised the river several feet, gathering debris that was previously sunning itself on the banks and turning the river into a kayaker’s version of the arcade game Frogger. Considering my experience in a kayak could be counted in single digit hours, I glanced at Josh, smiled, and said, “I’m in over my head again, aren’t I?” He quickly responded, “Just wait until you see a barge the size of two football fields coming directly at you.” I started unfolding my Oru Coast kayak as Josh loaded up his solo canoe.
Once I actually joined the movement of the water, it was relatively calm and the paddling was relaxing. Josh and I reminisced about past trips, argued the finer points of political theatre and free-styled a few hip-hop verses. It was hard to realize how fast we were moving until we sped past a buoy or approached the side of a parked barge container. After three hours we had already gone seventeen miles and Josh squawked, “we are cruising” in a southern drawl that he had somehow already adopted, and that only grew more pronounced with every mile of river.
We pulled up to a boat dock in Kimmswick, Missouri and, faster than we could smile and say hello, the dock owner, Bud Light Mang-o-Rita in hand, was driving us into town on a beat-up golf cart. Our quickly acquired local guide gave us the lay of the land and the scenic tour of this small Southern town, population 158. We settled on an outdoor beer garden for a local brew, followed by heaping plates of brisket and crawfish étouffée at the one and only smokehouse in town. Half way through our plates, a couple started peppering us with questions about our trip. Within five minutes of conversation they organized to pick us up twenty miles down river so we could join them at their sprawling horse ranch for grilled burgers, a hot shower and a plush couch to sleep on.
This first off-river encounter was indicative of almost every brush with civilization we had along the river. Suggestions for great places to grab food, a cold six pack of beers, a local fisherman’s favorite sandbar to camp at and new friends to share a campfire with. Some might call it Southern hospitality or even the act of “river angels,” but for me it was an insight into the humanity of people across the world. Turn on the news, scroll through Facebook or open up a newspaper and you would believe that we live in an endlessly dangerous world, but we don’t. It doesn’t matter if your views or language or values differ, the one thing that binds us all together is our shared compassion. We are connected by a general interest in each other and always jump at the opportunity to help a stranger. After waking up to the smell of homemade biscuits and gravy, a stout cup of coffee and some time with the horses, our hosts dropped us back off at the river and we continued our journey toward the “Home of the Blues.”
Our goal of completing 400 miles in seven and a half days meant that we needed to paddle a lot…55 miles a day, to be exact. Josh had explained that doing the trip on my timeline was going to be exhausting, but it didn’t hit me until day two, how much work it was actually going to be. Think about getting in your car and driving someplace that is 55 miles away, then think about getting in a kayak and doing that same distance. Now do it seven days in a row. It is probably a good thing I am not an experienced kayaker, or I would have known better. Just as the realization of our remaining distance to Memphis started to sink in, we heard yodeling. This is when we met Hans.
Hans started his journey in Lake Superior, paddled the entire western shore of Lake Michigan to Chicago, then worked his way down the Illinois River and ran into us 60 miles south of St. Louis. We quickly learned that this was only one of his grand tours of the world, as he had already biked around the world five times and kayaked across Siberia. He is 76 years old. Yes, you read that correctly. I suddenly had a revived vigor for the remaining mileage and a new compatriot filled with hours of stories.
The days passed by with a steady regimen of waking at dawn and eating a breakfast of warm oatmeal in our boats as we floated down the river. Most days we ate lunch in a small river city and fell victim to the luxury of an ice-cold soda. We stopped frequently and swam in the river to cool down during the midday sun and always found a soft sandy spot to build a campfire and sleep under the stars at night. We indulged in cell service to make calls to our loved ones, which for me was especially rewarding when I could FaceTime with my 10 month-old daughter Caterina and my wife Anna. After spending several nights in the Sierras away from small towns, people and a cellular tower, I bathed in the unexpected joys that made this trip just a little bit sweeter.
The comfort of a few LTE bars was especially helpful when I had an unexpected issue with my boat. I damaged one of the ratchet straps just behind the cockpit and it meant that I couldn’t fully seal the boat, which also compromised the rigidity of the stern. While it only meant a few more sponges full of water to be bailed from my boat, I wanted to check on it with over a 100 miles remaining on the trip. I texted my friends Roberto and Ardy at Oru and after a few pictures, they had me use one of the shoulder straps used to carry the folded up kayak to cinch together the boat. It was a brilliantly simple solution that carried me through the remainder of the trip.
Memphis approached quicker than I expected and I unsuccessfully held my excitement to be finished from Josh, who still had another 800 miles to the Gulf. A real shower, a comfortable bed and a 90-minute massage are always the best after a self-propelled trip through the wilderness. As an admitted non-water person, I felt relieved to finish my trip, but happy to have been a part of the journey my good friend was on.