Tag Archives: kayak

outing myself

This morning the phone rang while I was in Walgreen’s in La Crosse and it was Nick Lichter, who wrote The Road of Souls, an account of his 1991 solo journey down the Mississippi that we’ve been reading and re-reading as a sort of treasure hunt. Nick seems to have a knack of finding cool out-of-the-way things that we’ve not always successfully tried to find ourselves. We drove around Itasca State Park one afternoon looking for the marker commemorating the first sermon preached at the headwaters (by Archdeacon Gilfillan) to no avail — we even asked at park HQ and nobody knew; and we found the Chief Hole-in-the-Day Business Park (not kidding) and a set of beehives northeast of Little Falls, but not the burial mound of the Chief we were actually looking for.

But Nick found us, no problem, and invited us to stay with him and Margaret, whom he met on his trip (talk about life-changing!) and their three children in their house just up a coulee in La Crosse. And he suggested I go take a look at the Franciscan convent a couple blocks away since I had a bit of time before picking up Mac.

So when the laundry was done, I headed over to the Franciscan Sisters’ Motherhouse, and Sister Dorothy gave me a tour of this really beautiful chapel, which among many treasures has faux Norwegian pine columns that I can only call glorious, and she was so kind and so free and so playful in that way nuns and monks can sometimes be, and when they are it is just the best ever. And she left me at another chapel where there has been a perpetual prayer for peace going since 1 August 1878. When the bell rang the hour, everyone got up and recited some prayers including that line about doing the work God has chosen for us to do. And I know it sounds completely dumb to say this, but I really feel like this journey is the work I have been chosen to do right now. I don’t really have a clue why, exactly, I mean, prior to a year ago I really had no particular connection to or interest in the Mississippi River, it’s not like I’ve been fantasizing about doing this journey since childhood or anything like that. It just came over me and now here I am. And I feel pretty foolish posting this for all of you to read, and you are totally welcome to scoff if you like. I mean, really!?!? God told her to paddle down the river. Whatever. But there it is.

Anyway, as I was leaving, Sister Dorothy hugged me and blessed me, too, so now I think I can go to Catholic Church one of these Sundays after all. I’ll carry Sister Dorothy with me and everything will be fine.

After retrieving Mac, we headed over to Nick and Margaret’s and had a really wonderful evening with them and their children. Paddling the river builds a very deep connection, that’s for sure! And Nick’s way of immersing himself the history and stories of the river along with the physical, tactile experience of being out there is something I appreciate very much. They offered us their vacation house just down the river in Ferryville, so we’ll be spending some more time with Nick (and maybe his family, too), and I’m really looking forward to that.

highway 61 visited


Mac and I are now happily ensconced in the public library in Wabasha, which is another winner of a small town. We were marveling earlier at how you can never guess which of these towns is going to be a favorite: Red Wing was good, Lake City was blah, Wabasha is great. Population size, date of founding, none of these things tell you in advance where you are going to find a certain excellent mix of history and vibrancy, civic pride and personal warmth. But it’s totally obvious when you’ve found it, that’s for sure!

Today is Mary Kay’s first time kayaking on her own, and Mac and I sat down with her last night after dinner to pass on all the pointers and tidbits we could think of that she might not have internalized in her days of paddling with one of us. It made me realize that after nearly 600 miles of paddling between us, Mac and I really do know some stuff about this undertaking. Somehow having Heather and Mary Kay here is causing Mac and me to look at our relationship to the river in a new way. Talking about it this morning, Mac said it’s sort of like after you’ve been in a new relationship for a little while and you sit down to talk through what’s going on. Phase One is definitely over. Probably has been since we reached St. Paul.

And along with the limestone bluffs lining the river, a new thread has entered the journey: Highway 61! You know that Highway 61, with the famous crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for being able to play the blues, starts in Duluth, of all places? The birthplace of the unrecognizable Bob Dylan?! Cool, no? (We watched Pennebaker’s brilliant Don’t Look Back in the tent last night in his (or its) honor.) Highway 61 joins the river for real at Hastings, and will be with us to the very end.

10,000 lakes; 1000 pictures

I’m sitting in a snack bar overlooking Lake Calhoun in the city of Minneapolis, and of course it has free wi-fi and power outlets wherever you might need them: the Twin Cities being one of those places that seems to regard wi-fi as a public good, very handy. It’s been a delightful and very full few days in the Twin Cities: but totally out of the rhythm Mac and I had developed over the last ten days or so, so I’m WAY behind on blogging. Suffice it to say that Mac paddled from Anoka to NE Minneapolis, a neighborhood I had never spent time in before now, which has a very cool new library in an old brewery; I paddled through the entire city of Minneapolis and to the border of St. Paul on Friday, which required me to go through THREE locks (I was very scared beforehand, but it was actually very cool and manageable, and the lock wardens or tenders or whatever they are called were very kind and friendly and didn’t seem to mind using all this huge technology just for me and my tiny kayak.)

Phillip and Preston, our incredibly generous and unflappable hosts for all these days at their very cool place, which has its own blog, took us on an amazing walk after my kayaking day to a new park in St. Paul that has been reclaimed from being a railway yard. It had previously been an encampment for the Ojibwe and there’s a magic cave there. And the walk continued up into a place called Swede Hollow, a sort of camp where immigrant workers in the nearby brewery lived up until the 50’s or something.

Friday night we all had dinner at Maura and Jeff’s, Saturday we said goodbye to Richard and welcomed Heather and Mary Kay as new fellow-travelers, and celebrated by going to the State Fair, oh my oh my oh my!!! this totally fascinating conflation of rural agricultural stuff right in the MIDDLE of the city of St. Paul, very very cool.

anyway, I could write for days about all these excellent adventures, but I think I’m just going to post some pictures and leave it at that for the moment. I’m pretty fried and today is a day of rest, right?!?

here are a few photos from friday, the day I paddled from NE Minneapolis to St. Paul

blowing in the wind


It was my kayaking day today, and I started out happily from right below Blanchard Dam. Mac and I looked for some cross rocks before I started out. My cousin Meg would have found a bunch — she’s an expert at finding Petosky stones on Lake Michigan — but Mac and I didn’t succeed in finding even one.

The river was rougher than it has been: it’s wide enough here that you get pretty serious swells, which my little red sportscar of a kayak handles just fine. But as the day went on, the wind got stronger and stronger, and it was completely, fiercely, against me (coming from the south), and this stretch of the river doesn’t meander much, so once the wind is against you, it stays against you. And then, because of the upcoming Sartell Dam, the current subsides to basically zero, and here I am on this damn lake of a river, with the wind so strong I am paddling against whitecaps, using all my strength basically to avoid being blown upstream again. And I’m passing houses of a size and grandeur that, I’m sorry, just seem ridiculous to me: what family could possibly need a summer house of 12,000 square feet or something?!? McMansion summer houses with six boats moored out front: jet skis, pontoon boats, etc. etc.

So there I am madly paddling away just to stay still, and this very cool little 70’s era powerboat pulls up, and the guy says, “You’re paddling in the wrong direction today!” I agreed, and he told me his house was about a mile and a half down on the left, and that the place I had planned to meet up with Mac and pull out was still another six miles beyond that, and that I was welcome to stop at his place for at least a bathroom break or something.

After he left, the river did do one meander, which was enough for me to stop and text Mac about why I was so late, but when the river turned again I was back in the brunt of this insane wind, so when I got to Gary and Debbie’s place, pictured above (check the flamingos!), and Gary came out to usher me in, I decided I really had had enough, and pulled in. I called Mac to come get me, and when he arrived, Gary and Debbie invited us to stay for dinner, which we gratefully accepted, and Debbie showed us her orchid collection of something like 200 plants (I see this in your future, Yvan!), and introduced us to their parrot, Etta (for Etta James), and fed us an excellent meal, and were altogether generous and lovely folks. They live up here full time, Gary works at the Sartell Mill, and Debbie is a serious runner, like 70-miles-a-week serious(!) and they have two grown kids who work in the Twin Cities, the girl as a zookeeper, how cool is that?! Gary built their house himself, (nowhere near 12K sqft) so we talked a bit about housebuilding, too. And they told us about the upcoming Minnesota State Fair, which we may have to go to. I’ve never actually been to a state fair, so maybe it’s part of my education.

Anyway, I’m writing this the next day, and I’m STILL pretty fried. It’s a great lesson that even though I’m getting stronger and more experienced at this kayaking biz, it will still kick my ass when it feels like it!

go with the wind


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…

a song and a dance


I had a marathon paddling day today (thirty miles!!!) because there aren’t many choices for pulling out along this stretch of the river. So one choice was to do two days on the river, camping overnight at one of the sites available only from the river. I considered doing that, because a river-access-only campsite sounds really cool to me, but then I realized I would have to forego coffee the second day, because I’m not really set up for coffee in the wild, so I decided I’d rather do a long day of paddling. I put in at Jacobson campsite, which we had happily lived in completely alone for two days: it’s a “primitive” site, meaning pit toilets, no shower, but a really excellent source of very cold, very clean water, so we were totally happy there. Mac and Richard had kayaking days when we were at that site, which had absolutely no cell service, so I did a lot of reading, about which more later, and tried a run one morning, but the mosquitos on the ATV trail were brutal, so I gave up after about a half hour.

This part of the river feels very different from the headwaters section before all the lakes. By now the volume of water has about doubled, the DNR maps tell us, and the municipal boat ramps are mostly located at late 19th century ferry crossings, each of which has the requisite steamboat wreck lying in the bottom of the river. At the beginning of the 21st century, it is pretty difficult to imagine passenger boats steaming up this part of the river: it has reverted to something closer perhaps to what it looked like in the early 19th century, when the French were trading with the Ojibwe, and logging and settlement had not yet begun.

In the course of an entire day of paddling: 8 am to 6 pm, I saw precisely one other person: a guy fishing from the side of the bank. I heard plenty of people though: most of this area is farmland, and behind the layer of trees lining the bank, you can hear the sounds of farm machinery and glimpse farmhouses and even a vacation home now and again. But the river itself is too low for powerboats: only the most knowledgeable or foolhardy would risk running an engine through these waters, and fellow self-powered boaters are few and far between. Kayaks and canoes are a real rarity, strangely enough, given that they are the ideal way to travel on the river up here.

I got out and took a lunch break at Ms. Keto campsite (get it?!) where the banks were a clay-mud that was so dense and thick, it actually brought back my childhood fear of quicksand. One step in that mud takes you down about a foot, and you feel like your feet will never emerge with your shoes still on them, and trying to get into the kayak while extricating from that muck is really a trick!

We had planned to stay at Big Sandy Lake, but the campground was full, so Mac and Richard set us up at the town park in Palisade, which is this great little town. I can’t explain it, exactly, but Palisade feels like what one dreams a small town would be like. After dinner in camp, I proposed we get some ice cream (it’s finally really hot summer weather) and as we walked up to the gas station/general store, a woman outside greeted us and said “Are you here for some ice cream?” and proceeded to serve us with some amazing quality of shared pleasure in the treat. I don’t know how she did that exactly, but I want what she’s having. Her co-worker at the register said something about the kids dancing in the parking lot, and I said, “Well, you have to dance somewhere.” and the ice-cream lady said, ”Yes, my youngest daughter is all about a song and a dance, that’s all there’d be if it was up to her. It’s great to be around her.“ I’m not making this up, people. Here we are in this tiny town (population 118), the sort of place my urban prejudice imagines is rife with gun-toting meth-heads looking for trouble to stave off meaninglessness, and instead, the gas station is the locus of a kind of magical quotidian joy that treasures serving ice-cream as much as eating it, and dancing in the parking lot on a summer’s evening as the perfect entertainment.

charged again


kayaking day today on a real summer day — the river through this area was straightened by the loggers so it’s practically a canal, no trouble to find the channel. and on some turns you can see the Blandin Paper Company smokestacks ahead in Grand Rapids, sort of a weird and unexpected sight in this waterway that’s nearly completely empty of people. two powerboats passed me, heading up to the lakes, but other than that, my company is birds and insects, and no doubt lots of fish as well.

when the wind was with me, I would stop paddling and just feel the current and the wind easing me downstream. when it was against me, if I stopped paddling, I would end up at a complete stop in an excellent equilibrium of upstream wind and downstream current.

I’m getting comfortable enough with this kayaking business that I begin to be able to just ease into thinking in that nice, loose, relaxed way that I so enjoy on a long car trip, with the added pleasure of the mild physical exertion of paddling. I could definitely get used to this life! a good thing, since I’m going to be doing this for a while!

one of the things I was thinking about was the whitman poem, and corey and steve and yvan’s comments on it, which I really love. I’m thinking that perhaps by “charged with”, Whitman didn’t mean that contentment and triumph are demanded of him, but more that the energy of contentment and triumph fill him, like an electrical charge. I like thinking of contentment and triumph as a continuum, and that they are visited upon me, not as an act of will, but by my learning to be conductive..

go with the flow

We woke up to the first sun we’ve had since arriving up north, a very welcome thing! packed up camp and headed to the next landing so as to avoid a small bit of the river that even the DNR warns is tricky to navigate, figuring it would be good to avoid a repeat of yesterday’s adventure. the idea was for Mac and I to split the day’s paddling, so Mac put in and had an untroubled run to the next landing, and then I suited up and put in for what we planned as a quick four mile stint to the next landing, Pine Point. we met Andy and Bettina, who were heading out for the same patch of river, and Andy warned us about the part after Pine Point landing, which he and the DNR agree is really tough to navigate. so the plan was that Mac and Richard and I would all meet at Pine Point landing, pull out, and head to Bemidji for internet and laundry and a night in a motel. cool.

so I get in and start paddling and pass Andy and Bettina and the man I assume was Andy’s dad (I didn’t meet him properly) and say goodbye, and it’s really great out, sunny and warm, and I strip down to my bathing suit and I’m happily paddling away, and I pass what I think might be Hennepin Creek, marked on the map, and I keep paddling, and I keep paddling, and I don’t see Pine Point. there IS no Pine Point. and I keep going and going, and the wind comes up and it gets overcast, and I put my shirt and lifejacket back on, and at one point I begin to think I am paddling around in circles, but I know that’s simply not possible, because I am always heading downstream, and at another point the wind is coming straight at me and the tops of the reeds are blowing upstream and the only way I can know I’m going downstream is by looking at the underwater reeds, which always do point in the direction of the current, and I keep paddling, and by now I’m sure I made a wrong turn and I’m on Hennepin Creek, and I look at the map and there is a bridge over Hennepin Creek about six miles down so I figure I’ll pull out there and flag down a car, and I’m working hard not to fret about how much the guys will be worrying about me not arriving at Pine Point, and I just keep paddling, keep losing and finding the channel in this reedy swamp, keep getting my hopes up when I get close to a stand of pines, and keep having my hopes dashed, and then suddenly there’s a campsite: Iron Bridge! not four miles, but twelve miles from where I put in! and I’ve made it through the un-navigable part of the river, the part that we had decided to skip! and I’ve done it basically without a map because I thought I was somewhere else entirely! and I feel TOTALLY proud and great about this and simultaneously really worried about Mac and Richard, who are probably completely freaking out that I haven’t yet arrived at Pine Point.

SO I flag down a car, and it’s Maureen, who calls the cops to have them go to Pine Point and tell Mac and Richard to come get me here, and she waits with me til we’re sure the guys are on their way, and she is totally kind and generous and interesting and fun and seems not to be in a rush at all. Maureen, if you read this, THANKS AGAIN for your kindness!!!

so the guys show up and we head into Bemidji for the fabulous Super 8, which feels like a totally luxury hotel: shower, internet, and bed. What more is there?!?

scary, but not dangerous

well, after all these weeks of departures, the trip has actually begun for real! we got up to a very cold morning, got suited up, and Richard left on the bike for the headwaters, while Mac and I drove to the boat ramp we’ve been using for our practice runs and I put in to Lake Itasca and paddled about a mile over to the headwaters. There was a pair of loons this time: couldn’t get a picture because it was too windy and I was too excited and the combination made me sure I would capsize the boat if I tried to turn it broadside to get a shot. Mac and Richard were waiting at the tourist spot: we did the standard photos, and then carried the boat down a few yards and I put in again. it was so shallow and narrow, and there were a few downed trees, so I had to get out a few times to pull the boat. then there’s a culvert that I’m not skilled enough to paddle through, so we portaged around that, and then I was finally on my way.

oh my god. it’s just amazing. starts as this creek almost, not much bigger than sugar hollow brook, the stream that runs through my land in VT, but it’s totally overrun with reeds to the point that you are completely surrounded by reeds with no visibility and just paddling downstream and hoping for the best. it’s a little scary, but it’s not really dangerous: the perfect combination, in other words. the kayak is really too big for a river this size: it sort of like trying to maneuver an american car through the streets of say, siena or something. but it is very maneuverable, and as I begin to understand how to control it with just shift of weight and stuff, I manage better and better with the turns in the river. and there are amazing amounts of wildlife: birds, turtles, levolulia (dragonflies: there are 30 different species of dragonfly here), and even a river otter or a beaver or a muskrat or some such (a swimming furry mammal: I am too ignorant to know which) and it is much more wilderness than I was expecting: no mile markers, no signage, no sign of human habitation AT ALL until you suddenly come to a bridge and the county road and there’s Mac standing there to make sure I’m good, and I take a bit of a water break and then start again and go maybe another three miles to this absolutely beautiful campsite, Wanagan’s Landing, which has water and a shelter with a picnic table, and the guys have set up the tents and are reading away and I festoon the car with all the wet stuff I can find, eat some lunch, and now have set up a beach chair right at the river’s edge where I am writing this.

The idea is to start with half days at first, until we can get acclimated, and I am very glad to have done an easy day like this: not more than six or seven miles. I would be happy to hang out at this campsite for the next month, to tell you the truth, it’s really just a magical place. The access from the road is over about two miles of rutted two-track, so while it is possible to drive the car in and we don’t have to pack in tents and food and stuff, it’s remote enough that I don’t expect we’ll see anyone else at all until we leave here.

I wish we had thought of staying here rather than at Itasca State Park, which is sort of like tenement life transposed to the outdoors, PLUS they charge you for the opportunity to camp cheek by jowl. if you are going to do this trip, forget about the State Park campsites and stay in these great free sites instead!

at the headwaters

yesterday each of us took a turn on Lake Itasca in the new kayak: wow, a totally different experience than the recreational kayaks I’ve used in the past. sort of like how a powerful sportscar is different from my beloved father’s honda accord: it responds to every move you make, so you better decide the moves you want to make! the paddle is really great, too: light and sized for my hands. I’m amazed at how much easier it is to move through the water: ninety minutes of paddling felt nearly effortless and I’m not at all sore today. I paddled up to the actual headwaters and then drifted among the grasses and lilypads to see if I could feel a perceptible pull to transform lake into river. It’s a funny thing: Lake Itasca is just a northern lake like a thousand other northern lakes: for the duck family or the loon I passed as I paddled to the headwaters, this lake probably doesn’t seem charged in any particular way: but we have a whole story, we ALWAYS have stories, and I really enjoy picturing this circle of lake focussing into a line, a directed stream that will grow and amass into this incredible, powerful river. And I think of my friend RIck in Pittsburgh, and how “his” water will join this water here, and I realize it’s just simply impossible for humans NOT to lay our own narratives on nature. it’s just what we DO. to whatever degree I can, I will avoid sentimentalizing this journey, romanticizing it; but there’s absolutely nothing I can do to avoid humanizing it, and I wouldn’t want to if I could.

I have to tell you I was really moved by that loon. my mother joycie’s favorite bird. very very excellent to see her as I start out.


there was an article in the NYTimes the other day about hammocks as an alternative to tents, so at REI the other day, I picked up a “Brazilian” hammock with a mosquito cover, and I have been sleeping in it every night, with a tarp over the bottom half so I can look at the trees and stars when it’s clear but scrunch down a bit and get out of the rain whenever I need to without getting out and adjusting the tarp. It rains on and off all day and night here in Itasca: Mac pointed out that 20% precipitation means just that: not 20% chance of rain, but it’s gonna rain 20% of the time.

I LOVE this hammock and totally recommend it to any of you campers out there: forget the tent and the sleeping pads and all that! A little hammock that fits in a stuff sack the size of a softball along with a sleeping bag and a tarp for rain are all you need!


Watching the woman filling water jugs at the campsite this morning I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of years women have been carrying water. (why women, I wonder? water is seriously heavy!) but anyway, there she was like the model of the type, leaned over the source (a faucet, not a stream, but still), willowy, her hair shadowing her face, and the water so fresh and clean and new. she turned and I could see her, and she was younger than I had placed her, she had seemed so calm and implacable filling her jugs, I had figured her for a woman who had finished raising her children.


Because I have VT plates, people of course assume I am from VT. I have mixed feelings about this.