- 1 load of laundry
- 1 ear infection
- 1 broken camp stove
- 2 grocery store trips
- 2 pieces of lost equipment (one of Greg’s gloves and one of my 5-finger water shoes)
- 2 nights trespassing
- 3 separate rashes (one on the bottom of my foot, which is the worst)
- 3 jars of peanut butter
- 3 nights in stranger’s homes
- 4 river showers
- 4 separate tows from other boaters
- 5 other thru-paddlers
- 5 real showers
- 6 letters to my love
- 8 thunderstorms
- 9 locks and dams
- 10 instances where other boaters have approached us and asked “are you OK?”
- 11 free meals
- 19 free adult beverages
- 72 bug bites (12 on one butt-cheek alone)
- countless smiles and waves from fellow boaters
Day to day life on the river can be the most peaceful experience or one misadventure after another. It occurs to me that I’ve only told you about the high points and grand events of my journey, leaving out the kinks, quirks, qualms, and camping. To set the stage, Greg and I are a bad sitcom; no plan ever seems to pan out like we expect but always ends in a belly laugh. We balance each other out extremely well. He carries isopropyl alcohol wipes – I do my dishes in the river. He reads warning labels – I singe my arm hairs off with the camp stove. He memorizes the charts – I read the river. Somehow, we manage to keep everything afloat and have one hell of a time.
Here are a handful of experiences that represent a “normal” day on the Mississippi River:
Salvador Dali Beach – After getting a tow against the headwinds by some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet in a pontoon boat, we stop into the small town of Guttenburg (pronounced with a “gut” rather than the German “goot”) just after a lock and damn. This lock has grand stands, so there’s a crowd of tourists watching me fight the headwinds to get into the gates along with eight pleasure boats. We are gawked at from both the inside of the lock and the outside. We get the normal conversation:
Man with sunburn and 150 horsepower engine: “So where did you start?”
Me: “William O’Brien State Park on the St. Croix River.”
Man with sunburn and 150 horsepower engine: “No shit!”
Me: “Yes shit.”
He stops for a second, makes a circle around us with his fast boat. Even when idling, his wake rocks our boat dramatically. He comes back around again.
Man with sunburn and 150 horsepower engine: “So where are ya going?”
Me: “The Gulf of Mexico.”
Man: “No shit! Want a beer?”
After locking through, I muscle us out of the lock, feeling very empowered to have fought the headwind with dignity. Usually when Greg paddles us through a lock, we get borderline sexist comments about me making him do all the work – we even had two old men pass us and motion a bull-whip to me once, like he was my servant or something. This tends to really bother me. We find the Guttenburg public access, which is almost entirely underwater, so we tie up to the railing, which is still above the surface. We find a little cafe with wifi and biscuits and gravy. There is a woman there who has traveled to every state in the nation; we probably talk to her for three hours.
When we leave, we ask two old men in a fishing boat where we can find a beach to camp at that’s above water. They recommend a sand bar that comes in right before a river with a name that neither of us can pronounce. We start paddling. The entire right Iowa shore for the next five miles is underwater. There is either mucky swampland or rocky bluffs. The islands are nothing but submerged trees with a swift current running through them. The Illinois side is a pristine sandy beach. Every twenty feet is a sign the size of a Volkswagen telling us not to trespass or camp. It’s an old US Army “project.” We looked up the Wikipedia page for it and it vaguely mentions buried artillery. After a couple more miles and a fast setting sun, we’re tempted to brave the Army beach. Buried artillery can’t be any worse than sleeping in a swamp. We start to paddle that way when the bend opens up to the most beautiful sandbar imaginable. It was about the size of a football field and surrounded by dead and submerged trees that were still standing in the water. The sand was the whitest we’ve seen so far and the water was almost as clear as it had been 300 miles north. No vegetation actually grew on the little island, so the eerie dead trees reaching into the pink, sunset sky gave the whole scene the look of a Salvador Dali painting, (not unlike the one in my room at Hotel de Ville).
After setting up camp, Greg goes on a mission to make a fire. I get the bright idea to take advantage of the alone time and take a much needed river bath in the pseudo-clean water. I can walk out past the trees and into the current without going in over my knees. The shallow water is incredible, until the mosquitoes find me. What started off as a serene and almost religious experience ended with over 50 new mosquito bites, most of which ended up on my butt cheeks. The stars come out and our beach is positively trippy in the moonlight. Greg eventually makes his fire, plays his little homemade drum, and sings Cree chants to the heavens while I lay in the tent, looking at the stars and rubbing hydro-cortisone cream on my cheeks.
Dubuque - We hear on the grapevine that Dubuque has an amazing Mississippi River museum and that it’s pivotal that we stop there just to see the largest photograph taken of the entire river. The photo is infamous for being so detailed that one could actually see boats traveling in the channel. You can’t, really. Still, the museum was awesome. We were lucky enough to find a landing right below the building, saving us from going redneck style and tying off to a tree in a riverfront park. The cleat to tie off to was bigger than my forearm and my little raft looked like a toy sitting down there, a shiny red toy. The first exhibit we encountered was the boat workshop. It’s walls were covered with rusted antique tools, and the ceiling was hung with all kinds of homemade canoes. I was enamored with it.
I’m convinced that Greg is the best museum-partner in the world. He asked just about any question you could imagine and kept the staff on their toes. After seeing the freshwater aquarium (complete with a 400 lbs alligator and a very depressed looking snapping turtle the size of an inner tube), we met Chris, the most inspiring person I think I’ve ever encountered. Chris is an outdoor enthusiast and conservationist. He’s led canoe trips in Canada and hunted Mule deer in Wyoming. He taught camp kids in the swamps of Alabama and has even shot a black bear. Chris also fell face-first off the roof of a three story building while working construction. He landed face down, which saved his life. Had he looked a couple inches left or right, had he flinched, he would have died on impact. Chris is brave. Because he didn’t look away, he ended up in a coma for over a month and a wheel chair for two years, but he lived. And he lives well. Each day, he teaches kids at the museum about the wild life in the Mississippi river. He’s in the beginning stages of planning a handicapped program for the museum to make it more accessible for everyone. Chris is animated and friendly. Kind and outgoing. Patient and funny. Children light up when they learn from him.
After visiting with Chris, Greg and I put a tent up on some sand under the Dubuque bridge. We walked to a nearby pavilion for a decadent ramen noodle dinner and a sunset.
Ioka Island – Just south of Sabula, Iowa, Greg and I found paradise. Just as we were trying to find a beach to camp on, we spot this sliver of land about 300 feet long and 25 feet wide. For shits and giggles, we ferried over to it with hopes of exploring. We found Ioka Island, short for “Island Of Kick-assery.” It was so small that the Army Corps. of Engineers didn’t even bother putting it on the charts. The little bit of sand high enough to camp on was the perfect size for a tent, and the trees just ached for a hammock to be strung between them. With a wicked strong breeze whipping through the trees and the sound of the waves hitting the shore, we were lulled to sleep by the peaceful sounds. We loved the serenity so much that we stayed the whole next day, writing, drawing, filming, and napping in bliss. When we left in the morning, we heard a large splash on the bottom tip of Ioka. To our surprise, a big old doe had jumped off the island and was swimming through the rough current back to the mainland. In Native American traditions, the doe is the totem of gentleness and represents the ability to move through life and obstacles with grace. I’d like to apply that to my journey.
The Reese Family – After having each paddled 3 miles in 40 minutes (which is going pretty hard with a slow current), Greg and I noticed a little fishing boat trailing slowly behind us. The man in the boat was laughing like a madman, just letting loose a full-belly laugh that echoed over the water. He nearly hit a buoy. After a minute or two, he came a little closer, stood up and yelled “Howdy! Y’all are a bunch of yahoos, aren’t ya? I’m a yahoo too.” He stood about six feet tall and had an American flag fanny pack that looked like it had come straight out of 1982. This is Dave, the nicest man in the world. Dave took us home with him to meet his parents, fed us each 4 ears of sweet corn, and even gave us the shirt off his back, literally. His family owns Springfield Armory, one of the most renowned gun manufacturers in the world. He wanted to make sure we each had an armory t-shirt, so he gave us his. Dave’s mother and father are named Bob and Carol, are both in their seventies, and travel the world. They have hunted game on every continent and fished in more rivers than I can count on my fingers and my toes. In their trophy room, I asked where they had shot this great big horned exotic antelope at and they couldn’t remember whether it was Africa or Argentina. They are epic figures, Bob and Carol. If I can accomplish half of what they have done in their seventy-some years, I will feel as though I’ve lived life to the fullest.
The Casino – Today was our last day together, Greg and I. To celebrate, we’re staying at the Isle of Capri Casino in Bettendorf, Iowa. It’s a big bizarre ship that doesn’t have the mechanisms to move itself. Even if it’s just for gambling, what’s the use of a ship that can’t travel? There is poetic irony at it’s best. On the top deck, there are over 500 emergency life jackets, 200 of which are youth sizes. The rationale was that neither of us have ever been inside a casino and we both love to people-watch. The casino floor was a whole other world to me – a shiny and sticky world. A cellophane world. We are dressed like hobos and lugging our packs and coolers up the escalator. The only visibly clean articles of clothing either of us own are our new Springfield Armory shirts, the shirts off of Dave’s back. We are walking conundrums. To my surprise, no one looks at us funny. In the casino, everything looks glittery, like the end of the movie Footloose. It seems like all of the slot machines are making their electronic jingles and sounds to the same key. No one is really talking, so the space is filled with the echos of the slot sounds, giving the room a strange, ethereal quality. We each ordered a white Russian and observed the various names of the machines. Asian Princess. Tigress. Kitty Glitter. Lady Luck. Most of the themes dealt with animals, women or both. A middle aged man from Chicago drinking bloody Marys taught me the basics of slot-machines and let me gamble away his money for the better part of an hour as I asked him questions about his race horse. He was a perfect mixture of patronizing and kind. We broke clean.
I think the hardest part of this whole journey is the energy it takes to move fluidly between all of these different worlds we find ourselves in. In a matter of hours, we shift from the serene power of the natural world, like an island covered in nesting birds or a secluded sandbar, to something completely foreign to us, like a casino or a floating biker bar. In a matter of days, we’ve eaten at two different family’s tables, slept in the wild, in a campground, and in someone’s hunting trophy room. We’ve floated through industrial zones, army zones, towns, cities, and the immense wild that surrounds this pulsing river. Traveling fast paced through the lives of others and the different worlds we’ve encountered is utterly exhausting. At the end of the day, it’s a relief to set up a tent, curl up in my sleeping bag, and let the night settle around me.