Have you ever had one of those ideas that at first seems a little on the mad side but then starts to grow on you? To the point where you think it is normal but everyone else thinks it is (more than) a little on the mad side?
Well that’s what happened to me. I had just finished a trip driving a dog sled team across the Arctic regions of northern Europe and was asked what was next. So naturally I replied “Kayaking the Mississippi”. Trouble is I said it once too often and found someone as mad as me, who also thought it was a good idea, so we decided to turn an idea into an expedition. Fast forward just under a year and there we were standing on the shore of Lake Itasca, Minnesota, looking at a sign declaring this to be the start of the fourth longest river in the world.
My paddle partner, Grace Alsancak, and I researched as much as we could from other people’s expeditions but nothing could prepare us for what would follow. One source of help was a Facebook page dedicated to people who undertake such journeys and we made some friends on that who proved invaluable to us on the journey.
So there we were on August 7th, at the start of the mighty Mississippi with our kayaks loaded with over 150 pounds of equipment, only to find that the river is not deep enough to actually paddle the boats! So for the first two miles we walked and pulled them behind us. After that it got harder. The river passes through an area that is covered with bulrushes and wild rice and we literally had to pull ourselves through. Oh, and they are about six feet high, so we couldn’t actually see where we were going.
The next two and a half days saw us battle through more vegetation, fallen trees, beaver dams and areas of total wilderness that had been described as ‘stunningly beautiful’. We described it as the ‘green hell’. When we did emerge onto the first of the lakes we would cross, we were confronted by the surreal sight of people sitting on sandbanks in the middle of the lake having a picnic.
The river started to widen and pass through Minnesota, something it does for just over 800 of the 2,350 miles of its length and we were subjected to a never-ending vista of tall trees lining the banks. We camped at various places along the way; some were sites provided by the state authorities, most were just grass banks but perhaps the most memorable was at Lake Winnibigoshish. Big W is 26 miles from top to bottom and 13.5 miles across and the map warns against non-powered travel across. Never ones to pay heed to warnings, we set off early and made it across but not before we had to negotiate 3-4 foot swells as the wind whipped up the surface.
The top third of the river is harnessed for hydroelectric power and the dams for these required the kayaks to be manhandled around them. Some were quite easy; the one that was just over a mile walk and then 75 steps down to the river wasn’t. The other un-easy bit was at a town called Sauk Rapids. The clue as to what was difficult is in the name and, yes, I did end up out of the kayak while crossing them.
Below Minneapolis the river is used by commercial traffic in the shape of barges, rather large ones. Each unit carries 1,600 tonnes and they fasten nine of them together, making the craft some 900 feet long and 100 feet wide. To navigate the river they make use of locks that are open for all craft; we just had to take our turn as sharing was not an option. By now we were doing around 40 miles a day and managed to find a town every three or four days, so we could re-supply and find ‘proper’ food to eat, which made a change from the dehydrated stuff we carried.
Just north of St Louis, we had an encounter with severe weather, as in seven and a half inches of rain in five hours, and had a couple of days off to let the storms pass and rest a while. From there the river gets wider again and the lock systems stop, so the barges get bigger, up to 45 units fastened into one craft. The good news was that we were now doing an average of 50 miles a day, with one day seeing us paddle 61 miles, with only a 45-minute stop for lunch.
As the river nears its end, the landscape changes from trees to industry, with chemical plants and oil refineries lining the banks. The boats also get bigger, 250,000-tonne ocean-going ships that sail almost 400 miles up the river to Baton Rouge. And they don’t make a sound but do produce six to ten-foot waves.
So 2,350 miles and 58 days after we set off we arrived at mile zero and the Gulf of Mexico, with a tremendous sense of achievement and huge grins. Fortunately, we got picked up and taken back upstream by the River Police.
We didn’t just do it because it was there, although that was part of it; we did it to raise funds for The Theodora Children’s Charity, who provide children’s entertainers to hospitals, including Bradford and Leeds in the UK, so far raising £18,000. A book detailing the expedition ‘Ole Man (on a) River’ is available through eBay and all proceeds will go to the charity. There is also an illustrated talk and bookings are being taken.
Don’t ask what’s next just yet; I need to recover from this one first.