Friday, July 13, 2012

Mississippi River Canoeing, Part 3: River Boys.

At the end of week two we meet a district manager for a chain of pawn shops.  After he had a few beers he decided to come talk to us about our trip. We chatted with him and Stephen played him some tunes on the banjolele. He decided that we were "River Boys," which he yelled loudly to us in the middle of the night. It was an interesting title but it might have been a good fit. I'll try give you some idea of what our life was like when we were not paddling.
Cooling off on a hot day.
When the day got hot we liked to spend our time in the river. We would float down river with the current,  swim back to the beach, run back to camp and start all over again.
Morning paddling
Going to bed to this every night was amazing.
Almost every day was different depending on where we camped, the weather we faced, and how many miles we did, but if there was an average day this would be it:

4:00 am: Wake up, make breakfast, take down tents, pack the canoe.
5:00 am: Paddle.
9:00 am: Second breakfast, then paddle. (Just a snack and a 20 min. break.)
12:00 am: Lunch, nap. 
1:30 pm: Paddle.
4:30 pm: Snack break, then paddle. (Just a snack and a 20 min. break.)
5:00-8:30 pm: Find and set up camp, make supper, repair things.
10:00 pm: Try to be in bed.

We ate five times a day to get enough calories and keep up our energy. Regardless, by the end of the trip all our clothes got very saggy and loose.
Tasty mix of rehydrated vegetables, summer sausage, milk power, and a bit of salt and pepper to trick us into thinking there was no sand in our food. 
Some tasty mulberries which grew in great abundance along the river.   Andrew ate maybe 5 gallons of these on the trip. 
Tasty mac+cheese with milk power to make it creamy.
Fighting extra strong winds and crazy waves for the first half of the week had left us at the verge of exhaustion when we met a fisherman by the name of Jacob. We had a lovely chat with him.  He told us that he had not dared to take out his 24 ft. motor boat with a 75HP engine because of the waves that he had just seen us fighting in our canoe. After a bit more chatting he told us where to find a good beach, and offered to give us a 3 ft. flat-head. Which was very generous even though we had no proper tools to clean it. Nor had either of us done it before. But we had agreed never to say no to anyone who wanted to help us so we ended up with a huge fish. After eating the same food over and over again it was great to get other food.
Our Flat-head supper.
 We ate it for lunch and supper!
Andrew watching the fish fillets roasting over a bed of coals.
The tiniest island we every slept on. I'm standing right near the one end. 
On the sinking sand island we started joking about how sand was everywhere, and we decided that it was best described by the five stages of sand thanks to the Kübler-Ross model.

The five stages of sand:

Denial – "Sand is not a problem." or "I like sand."
Anger – "I hate sand in my food" and "Why so much sand in my tent"
Bargaining - "Fine. I have sand on my feet and hands, but it's not in my cup or in my sleeping bag"
Depression - "There is sand in all my food, clothes, gear, and all over me."
Acceptance – "No big deal, I haven't showered this month either"

It might be hard to understand why a little sand can be so irritating but think that our tents were our homes for the month, our sleeping bags our beds, and, well, food is food.
Andrew setting up the stove.
The fish that jumped into our boat. Andrew is trying to flip it out with his paddle but we had to grab it and chuck it out.
It the space of a few days we had quite the adventures with jumping fish. One maybe 3ft-long fish jumped over the front of the boat just missing Andrew.  Just 20 minutes later a huge fish jumped in front of me, right over the canoe soaking me and leaving a fishy smell for hours.
The Arch after 642 river miles and 25 days 
Of all the names we where called, and there were many (including angels by a baptist pastor who asked us to give a good report to his dad when we got back up there), I think the name I would be most proud of would be brother. During all the challenges we faced it was great to having a brother facing them along side of you. Beaches would have seemed more lonely and the sun sets less vivid, without having someone to share them with. Andrew said it best after coming back from a float while I was busy reading. "Floats just aren't as fun when you're alone." I would not have wanted to do this adventure with anyone else.  

 It was great to see so many amazing things and face so many challenges together especially as we could do it as brothers.    

Monday, July 2, 2012

Mississippi River Canoeing, Part 2: Mariners

Maybe the funniest name we were called was mariners. Our set of charts referred to us this way. Although a real mariner might have been insulted by our referring to ourselves in this way, we felt very smart as we learned to read the charts better and how to call into a lock properly.

It would go something like this.

Us: Lock 14, this is pleasure craft. (We didn't have a official name so we just said pleasure craft)

Lock: Lock 14 back. (This just meant they were listening)

Us: We are south-bound, about 10-15 minutes away. Can we approach or do you have something in there? (This was to check if there was a barge in the lock. Barges take a long time to lock through and it would be dangerous for our canoe to get too close to one.)

Lock: (we hoped to hear this...) Ya, just come on down Cap'n. We'll fill up the chamber for you.

They probably thought better of calling me Cap'n when they saw our tiny canoe.
The book of charts and the VHF radio, how we know where we were and got through locks.
It's interesting how you start paying attention to different things on the river.  We were always aware of things that you would never think of in the city. We got quite good at judging the speed of the current so as to be able to land on a certain beach rather than much further down the bank.  Being aware of wind direction became second nature to us since it affected us in paddling and knowing which way to angle our tents. They say you can't see the wind but we sure saw it in the waves it kicked up or in the dark water you see approaching when the wind is gusting. We got quite good at reading the surface of the water for eddies or objects just under the water. 
A barge exiting the lock as we approach.  This is three of 15 containers on this barge -- three wide and five long.
For all the skills we imagined we had, we had to respect elements much bigger and stronger then us, the main three being wind, barges, and locks and dams.

There was nothing you could do against the wind except paddle early in the morning or in the evening to avoid it as much as possible. But there were many days that we fought strong south winds and nasty waves which brought our speed down from 6MPH to around 2MPH. One day when fighting 35MPH winds gusting to 45MPH we did 30 miles. If there had been no wind we would have done 70.

We always gave the barges as much room as we could; they had the right of way because it took them 1.5 miles to stop.
This is a further-off shot of a full barge. We tried to stay far away from them because a number of people we met told us that we would be sucked under and die.

The barge captains assumed that we didn't have a VHF radio and were concerned about us, so we heard some interesting radio traffic.

As we where coming up to a lock early one morning we heard this:

Mary Sue: Lock 17 this is Mary Sue, you got Lewis and Clark up here, two boys in a canoe heading your way.

We had a good laugh about that but we were thankful that they were watching out for us.
Passing a barge early in the morning.

 The gates of Lock 19 opening. This Lock could fit the largest barge with no problem.
By this time we had gotten very good at getting through locks, and it was kind of old hat. Then we came to lock 19. It was huge. Remembering how small the canoe was we were thankful for radios and lock masters watching out for us as well.
Lock 19, one of the biggest locks we ever saw, 1200 ft long and a drop of 46ft. The darker brownish color shows how far down we came.

A tow boat at 1:00 AM with it's running lights on.  For size comparison you can see Andrew with the canoe dropping off one of the barge men  
Continued in Mississippi River Canoeing, Part 3: River Boys. 

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Mississippi River Canoeing, Part 1: Adventurers.

Over the course of this trip we were called many things, crazy, ambitious, river boys, angels, among many others, but I think the term we would have used to described ourselves when we pushed our little boats into the swollen Mississippi river above St. Paul that morning would be adventurers. 
The trip was already in danger of not happening before it even started. High water levels caused by extreme amounts of rain had closed the first three locks that we had planned to do the first day. We had briefly considered delaying the start of the trip till the water levels went back down but it would have been at least a week and we felt if we didn't start now we never would, so we simply started a bit below the locks.
So we set off into the fast current which whisked us past sights we knew all too well from the land. It was the feeling that you have when you leave your neighborhood for vacation, seeing everything you know and just wondering what adventures lay around the next bend.
Barn's bluff in Redwing as seen from the river.
Locking seemed very scary to us at first since we'd never gone through one before and weren't sure how the radio worked.  We found, however, that locking was very easy.  You could just pull a little rope 200 feet away for the lock and the lock master would get you all set up.
The high water levels seemed to bring a curse as well as a blessing. Many of the sights we could have camped at were submerged. As a result we started having to put in more miles then expected each day just to find a place to put up the tents. Here we were able to find a great campsite and set up all our tents! That's my tent on the left, then Stephen's and Andrew's on the left. One side effect of all the paddling we were doing was that as we were falling asleep we would get the illusion that we where still in the boat and that it was rocking while going over waves or a barge wake. More than once we woke up in the night in a fright that the water had risen into our campsite.  It's odd how the river plays tricks with your mind.
Despite my best attempts to fix it, my kayak had been getting progressively more leaky as waves finally brought it to the end of it's life. The decision was made to finish the trip with just the canoe.  I was sad to say goodbye to my kayak since it meant I would not be able to go all the way to the gulf; but I was happy to spend more time with my brothers.  After some repacking and reorganizing we had quite a comfortable set up with one person resting in the middle on a kind of makeshift seat. Immediately we where happier.  We would each paddle for 2 hours and then take an hour resting in the middle. In Stephens case playing the harmonica. 
Andrew and Stephen backing the canoe into a handicapped parking spot in a flooded parking lot.

 The last campsite for the week was this tiny slip of sand which we called sinking island since it was slowly washing away. 

As the week came to an end we realized the trip would not be exactly as we had imagined it -- more paddling and fewer campsites then we had hoped for. But these are things that all adventurers must face.

Continued in Mississippi River Canoeing, Part 2: Mariners