Posts Tagged “wind”
John had invited me to join him on an all-day paddle he was scheduled to do Saturday with a father and son, so I was awakened early from the hammock I had set up behind his shop and overlooking the Sunflower River, with John offering me coffee and oatmeal and introducing me to Ellis Johnson, a younger brother of Super Chikan Johnson, one of the outstanding blues players flourishing in Clarksdale. Ellis himself is more dancer than musician, he said, and he is also a fisherman, and he told me about the huge turtle he caught the other day.
Tim, a prep-school fundraiser, and his college-age son, David, showed up and got outfitted, and then we all headed out to Quapaw landing and put in. It’s my first paddling since above Memphis, and it’s hard to articulate how happy I am to be back on the water. It’s a strange reality that as the boundary between water and land gets more porous down here, with all the back channels and bayous and swamps, getting to the river from land actually gets harder and harder, so my bike rides don’t really bring me close enough to the river to fully satisfy my river jones. It makes sense: the bottomlands are a no-man’s-land where it is not practical to imagine permanent roads or houses. The river side of the levees are in a sense already the river.
Paddling with John, who knows this river the way I know the streets of New York City, is really a wonderful experience. We did all sorts of things I would never have been able to do alone. Instead of freaking out about the big stuff floating down the river, for example, we took advantage of its speed and power. We tied off to a huge tree that was plowing downstream and just effortlessly coasted down through the windy stretch. I was finally truly rafting the Mississippi! A giant barge and tow were coming downstream at the same time, and watching it pass us at an excruciatingly slow pace — since we were traveling nearly as fast — reminded me of that endless circus trailer in Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies.
We stopped at two different blue holes to eat and explore, and then John began to take us into back channels, wending through groves of trees. I could happily paddle back through thickets finding oxbow lakes and odd back bayous for many days to come. I think what I like the very best about this lower river is these liminal spaces, neither land nor river, exactly, but some curious inseparable hybrid of the two.
John took us through one final back channel right near sunset, and we paddled into the setting sun surrounded by birds and the departing light. I didn’t want the day to end, but paddling up a good ways and then across the main channel in the dark was tiring enough that I was happy when we finally landed and Ellis pulled us out and took us home to Clarksdale.
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Mary started paddling today from Fort Defiance so that she could have her own experience of the confluence, and had planned to do thirty miles, but the headwind was very strong, and it took her five hours to make it to Columbus, only fifteen miles downriver. I had gone down on the Missouri side to wait for her, and I was really relieved when she texted me: it’s the first time in all these months of traveling that I was really worried about the whereabouts and safety of my traveling partner. Rather than driving back up to the bridge at Cairo and down the Kentucky side, Google very kindly told me to take the ferry at Hickman, and routed me north to Columbus over really beautiful back roads.
After I gratefully retrieved Mary, we decided to stop into the diner in town for lunch/dinner and were reading the chapter about Columbus in Life on the Mississippi when Jim Kerr came in to check out the folks with Vermont plates and the red kayak on the roof. What a delight this man is: the last of a family who settled here in the 1810s, he is a self-described radical who spearheaded a successful effort to keep a giant garbage dump from being located here, has worked towboats and dredges on the river, hauled racehorses on land, worked in real-estate and insurance, and has a soybean farm in the bottomlands. He drove us over to a beautiful crumbling house with an incredible view of the river that he rightly thinks would make an excellent artist’s colony; and then showed us to the state park, which has an equally gorgeous view. It also has trenches that were built by confederate soldiers during the war; our hammocks are hung from trees that line the trenches. I imagine I will dream tonight of honorable boys dying valiantly for the wrong side.
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Posted by Eve in Journal, tags: bike, kayak, water, wind
So I’m driving back from dropping off Rafaela at the Quad Cities Airport (I felt really bad that her whole visit was taken up with searching for the lost gear: not much of a river trip for her, that’s for sure), and as I was heading over the Burlington bridge, the phone rings and it’s the Lee County sheriff saying he thinks they’ve found the kayak just down from the Green Bay launch caught in some trees and reeds. EXACTLY as I had hoped; exactly as I had asked you all to dream! We had gone out looking very slowly and carefully yesterday, and hadn’t found it, but maybe the wake from the boats in this morning’s bass tournament dislodged my kayak from where it had snagged! So I go sit impatiently in the library for a bit and the sheriff calls again and tells me to come down to the Fort Madison launch. I drive down and find John Pawling from Lee County Conservation and the sheriff, James Emmett, standing there with my kayak. Not only my kayak, but ALL the accessories: paddles, life jacket, skirt, safety gear, even my well-used boat shoes and slightly stinky gloves. EVERYTHING!
And then John looks up at my roof rack and says “Where’d you get that bike?“ Cindy and Tom had lent me one of their bikes yesterday, and we had made a plan to meet up in New Orleans when I’m done with the journey for them to retrieve it. (A fine excuse for a trip to NOLA, don’t you think?!) John says, ”I’ve got your bike, too.“
Can you imagine?!? It turns out he saw it locked up at Ortho landing and thought perhaps someone had stolen it and hidden it down there, so he cut the lock and brought it back to the Lee County storage facility.
It’s hard to describe how it feels to have imagined I had lost everything, and suddenly have it all restored in the snap of the fingers like this. The Lee County Conservation folks even gave me a new lock to replace the one they had cut!
So I spent the rest of the day driving back and forth several times between Fort Madison and Burlington: returning Cindy’s bike, picking mine up, heading out to River Basin Canoe to buy a lasso lock for the kayak, and calling all the amazing people who had offered me replacement kayaks and bikes, written articles to get the word out, offered money to re-outfit, places to stay, searchboats to go look, to tell them the miraculous outcome of this story.
And I’m going to choose to believe that the wind pushed my boat six to ten feet down the beach into the river all by itself. No kids, no vandals, no theft, nothing like that. The outpouring of kindness from the people of Burlington and Fort Madison and Keokuk has been such an amazing gift to me. And the support and love from all of you here and on Facebook means so so much: I really feel like I am carrying all of you with me on this journey: you are keeping me safe, and all shall be well.
If you want to make a gesture in support of the people of Lee and Des Moines counties, and all they’ve done to make this story have such a wonderful ending, you could send a donation to either Des Moines County Conservation or Lee County Conservation.
And I’m heading down to Quincy and Hannibal this weekend, to the heart of Huck and Jim territory, and Lincoln/Douglas territory, and the Underground Railroad, and more cool stuff I can’t even predict, and it’s gonna be GREAT!
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This morning I went to the Joy Baptist Church in Fort Madison. I think it’s the first time I’ve been to a Baptist church, and it’s a step towards visiting a form of Christianity that is pretty foreign to me. People were very warm and inviting, there was lots of enthusiastic singing of hymns that are definitely not in the Episcopal hymnal, and the pianist was really good (the song-leader guy said she used to be an opera singer in NYC, check it!) And the sermon was a discursive journey through Philippians by a pastor who evinced utter certainty about the efficacy of beating children (it was Family Day), along with the utter certainty that he is saved. Towards the end of the service, we were asked to raise our hands if we are sure we are saved, sure that we are going to heaven. I couldn’t raise my hand, (as I left, one man patted my shoulder and said “Keep coming back,” sort of like at a 12-step meeting) and it got me to thinking that probably according to these folks I am not really a Christian, not really a believer at all. I left the service thinking hard about what it might do to a person’s life if one were to live it in the utter certainty of salvation and forgiveness, sure of a beautiful upcoming afterlife. One might embrace his sinfulness and brokenness, as this pastor did in his sermon, but insist nonetheless that heaven certainly awaits him. He said at one point, “I am not interested in justice, I am interested in mercy.” Yes, I can follow that, I can, but I don’t like the self-satisfied certainty of this guy’s approach, which colors all his pronouncements, all his opinions. God’s mercy is very strange indeed, (as Graham Greene so beautifully articulates in Brighton Rock,) but I don’t think I would want to live in the certainty of mercy as opposed to justice. I think perhaps faith in justice and hope of mercy might lead to a more generous and honorable life, but what do I know?
A few other little things I am beginning to notice. The regional accent has begun to change. Maybe south of Davenport it began — certainly by Burlington you can begin to hear vowels that sound vaguely Southern to me. Also, the church activities are divided by gender (I began to notice this at the Presbyterian Church in Le Claire last week, actually) — the men are asked to do maintenance work on the church and the women (ladies, actually) to cook and serve lunch, for example. And it gets me thinking about how gender roles are so deeply embedded in our culture, in most cultures of course, and how very lucky I feel to go to churches in both New York and Vermont where you aren’t required to have breasts to serve on the hospitality committee and don’t have to have a penis to preach.
I had planned to do a second split day of paddling and biking after church (yesterday was my first day of implementing this wacky plan of putting the bike at the pullout point, paddling the kayak down to the bike, and biking back up to the car, and it was very cool to have this doubled experience of the river from both the water and the land), but when I got to the launch where I had left the kayak, I realized the wind was against me at about 13-15 mph, and would definitely make for too long a day on the river. So I decided to check out the restored Fort Madison, a very early 19th century settlement that was once the only stop between St. Louis and Prairie du Chien. The soldiers had burned the fort to the ground when they abandoned it in 1813, and it was reconstructed about twenty years ago by volunteers from the maximum security prison here in Fort Madison, led by a lifer named Walter Smith. I ended up having a long conversation with the historian who runs the place, (I didn’t get his name), who was dressed up in period clothing as the Lieutenant of the fort. The actual Captain had been a brutal man, so awful that the doctor assigned to the fort had complained to the authorities about his behavior. I got a detailed description of the various tortures the Captain regularly visited upon the fifty or so enlisted men under his authority. Do you suppose he also was sure he was saved?
Walter Smith, the prisoner who headed up the rebuilding effort, is in his seventies now, if he is still alive. Perhaps he is at the penitentiary still. I’d be interested to know how he thinks about his several years’ work heading the team that re-built the fort. Do you think he is sure he is saved?
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Today’s paddling was one of the harder days I’ve had. Most of it was in Lake Pepin, which swallows any current the river might have at this point, and the wind is not your friend: it comes from the south, and I was paddling mostly east, which makes for a choppy journey. And it got really sunny and hot as the day went on: I thought I was about as tan as I get, but I got some more color today. I was expecting lots of drunken powerboaters and waterskiers (waterskiing was invented on Lake Pepin, who knew?), but thankfully there were hardly any until right before Lake City, where I finished up. There was one guy who had moored his boat in a bit of a cove and was draped asleep, buck naked, across the stern. I definitely had a twinge of jealousy at the sight. I can’t drape myself (naked or clothed) over the back of my kayak, a definite drawback on a beautiful late summer day like today.
The bluff at Frontenac State Park is called Point No Point, and it really is well-named: you see it from a distance as a well-developed point that seems about a mile off, and you paddle for probably more than three miles, and suddenly you’re at the town of Frontenac, and the point never actually materializes as a point. It’s a very curious optical illusion, and it pleases me to be tricked by it just as it has tricked riverboat pilots and fur traders (and pleasure boaters, too, no doubt) for generations.
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Today was a really fun day of paddling: partially because the wind was with me and the current is picking up more and more, so without any particular effort, I did my twenty miles in less than five hours. This whole area has a bunch of islands made from logs that got stuck on their way down the river, but there’s no navigation anxiety, you can basically take whatever channel you like: they all end up down the stream one way or another. Very fun!
My stint today took me past Camp Ripley Military Reservation, so the sound of heavy artillery was a very strange accompaniment to my peaceful paddle down the river. The target range was blessedly out of sight, but I did see various military vehicles and lots of DANGER signs on that side of the river. I took them seriously and mostly stayed on towards the east bank of the river, the non-military side.
And for the first time in days and days, I actually saw some people! I passed three boats of fishermen today: the first set were very pleased to hear I had started at Itasca and was aiming for NOLA; one guy said he sees at least one long-distance paddler every year and had been waiting for this year’s. The second boat was completely stuck in the reeds, their motor having inhaled the green, which I guess is not a good thing for a motor. One of them said he wished he were in my boat today, asked where the next boat launch was, and was not happy to hear eight miles downriver as the answer. I told him if he cut loose he’d probably float down without needing any engine, but he didn’t seem too eager to try it. Note to self: if powerboating on a river in low water, go UPSTREAM of your launch point, so you can float back down to your car if you run into trouble. (although WHY one would want to power through these waters is a bit of a mystery to me anyway…)
My man Mac found a campsite (with shower!) and scoped out a rather tony Carnegie Library here in Little Falls, and I could happily spend the rest of the day here, but I want to explore Little Falls a bit. There are A LOT of layers of history here, and I want to see what traces of it I can find…
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