Friends! … It’s official!!! On Wednesday, April 24th, with the gear loaded in a Prius Hybrid wagon and an Epic 16 boat nestled in a V-bar roof rack, we leave the NYC suburbs bound for Bemidji MN. This page will be added to regularly during the trip so visit often.
We will arrive in Bemidji after three days driving and arrive at Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi, on Saturday, April 28th.
Bemidji is 31 driving miles from Lake Itasca, 55 miles on the water because the start of the river is winding and shallow. The weather is brisk (nighttime lows in the 30s) and there is still ice in the center of the large lakes so I planned to hug the shore on those lakes.
The paddling started at 47.239819, -95.207674 and I expect to start the journey in the 9-11 AM range. I know that my brother Frank captured it on video from the Mississippi Headwaters webcam but I am too frugal to pay the extra fee to post video on this blog. For a video overview of the full trip, enjoy this David Rush production (Source of the Mississippi).
I am not sure that we will get to all of the following, but they were recommended by the river paddlers group: Bemidji MN (Paul Bunyan & Babe the Ox); Grand Rapids MN (Judy Garland Museum); Little Falls MN (Charles A. Lindbergh House & Museum); Twin Cities MN (and visit the Nyman’s!); Red Wing MN (Pottery Museum of Red Wing); Wabasha MN (National Eagle Center); Harpers Ferry IA (Effigy mounds national monument, National eagle center); Dubuque, IA (National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium); Davenport IA (Bix Beiderbecke Museum & Archive); Keokuk IA (Paddle wheel /river museum); Hannibal MO (Mark Twain … stuff); Memphis TN (Beale street, National Civil Rights Museum, Sun Studios & Stax Records); Vicksburg MS; Natchez, MS (Under the Hill Saloon); and of course New Orleans!
Lake Itasca MN to Bemidji MN
There are few fellow adventurers in April. With night-time temperatures in the 30-degree range and the water, which I have to trudge or inadvertently swim through, as cold. The cold has kept away not only potential fellow travelers, but what I understand will be hordes of mosquitoes and black flies in a few weeks.
The archetypal starting picture of the journey must be given; the picture shows me the sign posted at the start, the Lake Itasca rock dam (47.239819, -95.207674), holding the art work of Bradley & Gavin Muller. Marie and I were greeted to the Itasca State Park by Park Ranger Heather Funk. Putting in at the rocks separating the headwaters from the start of the river, I paddled the entire 50 or so feet to the first portage over the log bridge. Thanks to the Levers family. They were visiting the Headwaters and who helped with this first 12-inch portage.
After adjusting to faster moving water than expected, I hit a long stretch of rice fields. Given how early I am starting, nothing has started to bloom and the line of sight for the river was not as difficult as I expect it will be in a few weeks. On the other hand, I was struck in the face and body by many branches, endured unplanned portages because the winter caused many trees to fall across the river. Branches struck my face and were caught in the portage wheels mounted on the deck behind me. And then the rapids! At least three times I went for an “aggressive whitewater swim.” I lost my shoes in the muck. I lost one of the marine radios. I lost my gel seat (sob!). Finally reaching what I thought was the Coffee Pot Landing, I pulled the boat out thankful that I did not have to go through what appeared to be serious rapids ahead. Only then did I discover that I was 3.6 miles short of the landing and the bridge over the river was actually the driveway leading to someone’s home. No one was there. Opting to portage to Coffee Pot (now no longer cursing the portage wheels), I walked about a mile in my bare feet (my boat shoes were lost) when a family in a red pick-up truck pulled over from the lane on the opposite side of the road (there is NO traffic) and asked if I was looking for my wife. They met at Coffee Pot where Marie was worrying about how long it was taking – I should cover 15 miles in less than 3 hours and 6 had passed – and the fact that there was no cell service. The family went back, had Marie follow to pick me up, and even helped put the boat on the car. I wish we had had the presence of mind to get their name – so thanks to the unnamed family! Marie also has a story of what went through her mind when the people said, “we found your husband!”
Before all the swimming, I was lulled into a false sense of safety by the incredible wildlife. Now, because I am an urban-boy, I have little idea about what I saw but I did recognize two geese that seemed to fly a few feet ahead of me – honking all the while – for about a mile. Then two geese-sized white birds (Swans? Pigment-challenged geese? Something else?) were entertaining. Next a BIG animal slipped into the water ahead of me – Badger? Muskrat? NYC rat? Finally, two deer-like animals were frolicking in a meadow and one jumped up so high it would have been easy for him/her to accomplish a dunk in basketball. Then the rapids hit! I have had enough of rapids and will next take on the stretch across the half-frozen Lake Bemidji. By the way, have I mentioned that cell service is non existent in most spots?
Awoke to a refrozen lake with rain anticipated later in the day and snow forecast for the evening. Planned to portage to the eastern shore to restart but discovered boat problems I did not notice the night before. The rudder was pulled out of the boat, hanging on by the loose screws. The fiberglass/gel coal was essentially gone. After bemoaning fate, I posted a call for help/recommendations on the Facebook Mississippi River Paddlers group. Someone directed me to Mark of the Headwaters Canoe & Kayaks (a business he runs out of his home). Mark worked on the repair and found a few other boat flaws that he fixed. And then came the snow.
Bemidji MN to Grand Rapids MN
The next problem was a drop in the temperature and a 2” snowfall. Most of this accumulated on cars GPS watches, and Kayak decks. Fortunately, it was over by late morning so back on the water we go. As most of those reading this know, the “top” of the river is shaped like a squiggly question mark. The northernmost point on the Mississippi was passed through east of Lake Bemidji. The picture on the right shows my gentle ending of the day near Cass Lake.
The river east of Lake Bemidji is completely different from the western portion. Likely because of the high water-level, it remains fast but seems much safer. Below the Otterail dam I was sometimes moving at 6.5 MPH with little paddling. At one point I saw what seemed to be at least 100 Trumpeter swans. (A local on a road overpass about 3 miles past the Otterail dam portage identified the birds; these might be the big white birds I mentioned earlier.) A bit further there were so many that I could not guess how many there were. They took off en masse as I approached and created a bit of wave action.
My next recognition of a skill gap hit. The large lakes, which were only partially thawed, had large islands of ice when we arrived. The wind seemed constantly to move the ice in front of where you needed to be. Taking Mark Walter’s advice to treat the lakes with respect, and given the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources warning on these lakes – “Large Open Water: Wind can produce large waves: portage from Reese Landing (by car) or paddle along the shore,” I took the MDNR’s by car advice – I circumnavigated the big lakes with confidence that Joe Monico will use a less generous but more accurate word.
Putting in east of Lake Winnibigoshish in 31-degree temperature (the high reached 41) with a 10 MPH headwind, the water was noticeably more placid. Speed was down to an average of 4.0 MPH, likely because significant time was spent getting lost in the reeds, thinking about what direction to take, and usually retracing on the route in. I am trying to keep this blog upbeat but will say that it was so cold, and I was so often lost that fear took hold. The trip typically is areas where there is no human dwelling in sight. In fact, in all the days so far, I have seen no human on the river – not even outside of the increasing housing spotted in the more recent days. That may be why, when dropping me at the start, Marie said “if anything happens everyone will say we are crazy for doing this.” I replied, insensitively I admit, only she would have to deal with the comments if anything happened. Five miles later, without seeing more than a few birds – it was too cold for them – I did see an Otter in the water. I think it was just after that when I took the first wrong turn in the marshes (see 47.2240678, -93.8017063 for a look at the marshes. The Google Satellite picture was taken when the water level was low. Many of those seemingly unconnected elbows are connected in the high water and present a confusion for following the river. The MDNR measured path from the Schoolhouse Park access (picture on the right) is 15 miles. My GPS watch measured 20 miles and I finished two miles short of the 15-mile dam access point. I finished because my hands were frozen. I had Cliff bars with me and needed some fuel, but my fingers were too numb to open the package.
I came off the water when I saw an access point and a person, Greg Johnson of St. Michael MN. Greg helped in a few ways. First, he ran the heater in his car so that I could thaw my hands enough to operate a cell phone to call Marie. Then, because we were on an unnamed road, he found and directed Marie to the access point. Getting to a hotel for a long hot shower left me with a depressed view of continuing. My family and a few friends witnessed that breakdown via email. After a warm night, a serious adjustment of the plan was considered. The first step is to find a location further south on the river where the temperature is at least in the 50s over the next week; after another very cold day even in the near southern climes (of Northern Minnesota), that seems to be area a bit north of Little Falls MN.
Despite the fact that I feel like a wimp, a feeling reinforced by my son’s pointing out that I would tell him to “toughen up” if he was in this position, things became worse when I saw the following in a museum.
It is unlikely that these river rats had the luxury of complaining about the cold weather!
Grand Rapids to Baxter MN
Covering the reputedly beautiful stretch of the Mississippi in a Prius, I eventually put in near Baxter MN (46.314383, -94.261609) with a plan to take two days covering the miles to Little Falls. I feel sorry that I was unable to connect with the Dudeck family, river angels a few miles north of Baxter. The heading for the section initially read “Baxter MN to Little Falls MN.” It is only the experience of the miles that caused a change in the heading.
I recognize again the many benefits of joining the Mississippi River Paddlers group; the group demonstrates that there is wisdom in Blanche Dubois’ philosophy about relying on the kindness of strangers. Two examples are the very subtle support of Victoria Dudeck, who posted, “This morning as I was listening to my favorite Minnesota radio station, KAXE, I heard the DJs talk about how the Mississippi River is the highest and fastest they have ever seen it in Grand Rapids.” John Sullivan was more direct, saying “Don’t feel bad, those headwater marshes can be very difficult to pass through as a result of floating bogs. Cold and wet make for very challenging paddling conditions. Happy to know you are well and adjusting to the paddling conditions by altering your plans. Stay dry and safe paddling!”
Baxter MN to St. Paul MN
Though the weather was not good on the first day spent in this range, it was at least in the mid-40s. At first the water was like riding a rocket. Passing Fort Ridley, when I noticed that I was moving at 9.0 MPH, I moved out of the main current stream. Intending to stop at Little Falls, when I arrived early, I went on to the Blanchard Landing (and dam). Little Falls (45.979902, -94.365993) is the location of the Charles A. Lindberg home and museum; that’s the aviator’s father. It was closed when we passed but the Charles A. Weyerhauser historical (local) museum was open.
The usual access ramp was also closed because the bridge was being reconstructed. The takeout was on the east shore at 4th Avenue. A good location to stop for a bite at Johnny C’s Sports Bar. The portage, with the bridge out, required a car. Fortunately, I had a pleasant driver tagging along. The journey continued along in the long, largely lake-like path from Little Falls to the Blanchard Dam.
Frustrated by the lack of the expected warmer day on the journey from the Blanchard Dam, the sun came out briefly in the afternoon, only to be followed by rain. The long day brought a view of some very impressive housing north of the Sartell access.
Portaging past the dam and rapids, I recalled a video posted a week ago about a kayaker surfing in the Sartell or St. Cloud rapids. My kayak is not built for that activity, the motor has accumulated too many years, and I like to think I have always had a healthier regard for life. Still, kudos to the unidentified athlete.
Enough miles were added south of the Sartell/St. Cloud dams to make reaching Coon Rapids a one-day paddling certainty, allowing a visit with friends in St. Paul on Saturday evening. And – hooray! – I saw my first other boats on the water in the lake before Sartell. Okay, one was a recreational boat whose driver had no concern about his wake. Hardly the first time but it does make you wonder what – if anything – the person thinks about!
Guess what? The forecast for tomorrow was 70 degrees. Sure, it has since been changed to 68 but that is more than twice the temperature when I was paddling four days ago.
As I mentioned, today was a long paddling day. As anyone of a certain age knows, sitting in a car for over an hour often leads to a shooting pain in a hamstring. Try sitting in kayak for 6-10 hours. That is why I included a gel cushion in my equipment. The cushion was lost in a spill on day one. I made it almost a week before saying, “no more!” A new gel cushion now softens my appreciation for the firmness of the carbon seat.
I end the day observing that St. Cloud is where we spent the night on the trip up to the “Headwaters” from New Jersey, so today feels like an accomplishment.
St. Paul MN the New Orleans north (Wisconsin)
A beautiful Saturday morning brought a flurry of messages from family and friends about historic Mississippi river flooding ahead. Not sure how the flooding would affect my plan, I studied the https://www.weather.gov/lmrfc/obsfcst_mississippi_riverwatch site and did some soul searching. I also sent a message to the River Angels asking how far ahead to expect problems.
Saturday was a very good day in many ways. The day was sunny. That should not need mentioning but it is the first sunny day of the trip. The river continued to flow fast and high. At one canoe access point where I wanted to get out of the boat and stretch my legs, it was not possible to hold the boat next to the shore, the current was so fast and the water level extremely high (at lower water levels there is likely a shore to anchor the boat). And adrenalin continued to be necessary. An elbow, I think around mile 892, served as a funnel for water. At one point I was going at 10.4 MPH with almost no paddling and with waves buffeting the boat. The eddies were also a thing to experience. But I eventually pulled into the Coon Rapids dam access point exhausted and ready to share a nice visit with the Nyman’s, who are local friends.
The visit with friends also allowed me to catch up on the flooding, described as “historic,” affecting the states ahead. Not having experience to know what that means for a boater, a search yielded the following NRS website summary of the dangers of ‘flood stage’ boating:
- Debris in the water. The rising water pulls streamside debris into the flow. Banks get undercut and trees, fence posts and structures fall into the water.
- Trees and logs get lodged and create severe hazards. Water flows through and around them; you and your boat won’t.
- Bridge abutments. They can catch debris and even block off the channel. Even without debris catch, they kick off big swirling side-curling waves.
- Water out of its banks. The stream can flow out into the surrounding countryside, taking you into trees, brush, fences and other entrapment obstacles.
- Cold water. Especially in the spring, cold water significantly increases the risk of hypothermia.
- Fast current. Normally, the higher the water, the faster it is flowing. Things happen fast, you have much less time to react to conditions.
The newscast view of the river reports flooding from approximately Winona MN through Illinois (see Davenport IA news). But, always the skeptic, I wanted to see how things really are so I entered at Hastings and paddled the 15 miles to Diamond Bluffs WI (my first non-MN state). I have to say it was not bad at all. Yes, it was fast but not as fast as above St. Paul. The 15 miles were covered in just under three hours, not an unusual speed. There were some serious logs caught in buoys and there is a serious looking mountain of logs held back by the left side of the rail bridge in Hastings. I thought the mountain was normal but a local informs me it is not. That suggests a potential problem for someone. But the day was nice, the paddle relatively easy and, for the first time since my first day, I wished I had downloaded a book to listen to while paddling. All other days always required complete attention on the water.
However, the floods seem real and more rain is expected Wednesday and Thursday. Rather than being lulled into an assumption that everything ahead will be as easy as today, coupled with a newfound – let’s call it respect – for the river, I am following the river angel advice to delay. Like those Appalachian Trail hikers who do the distance in segments, I will call Segment 1 of the Mississippi done. To be fair, the fact that I skipped a segment based on weather already makes completion at any point less than a true “through-paddle.”
Thanks again to everyone who has helped or offered encouragement along the way. I will think about fleshing this out to produce a pamphlet and may call on the many who helped along the way. That pamphlet would have more to say about the preparation based on ignorance of the true condition. For example, a truth you haven’t seen here before is that I brought only a spring windbreaker to Northern Minnesota! I saw the historical average data on low and high temperatures but assumed – don’t ask why – that I only needed clothing for the average highs. And then the Flaw of averages hit!
The following sections were composed after a few days on an auto trip. The effect allows me to claim that I started paddling at the source, Lake Itasca, and ended paddling at the Gulf of Mexico. The middle is considerably muddled.
The end of the journey
After paddling to Diamond Bluffs MN, Marie and I continued the downriver trip using a different vehicle, the Prius. Stopping at points on the scenic Great River Road, we saw interesting roadside factoids. The fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House books, was born in Perkins was noted. And later we stopped for a chat with the guide at the interesting Effigy Mounds Park but opted not to hike the grounds during the cold wet day. It turns out that burial mounds – many of them – were created over centuries. Some of the mounds are in the shape of birds or other animals and are in patterns that are discernible from space.
A true surprise was Galena IL (left photo below). The town is more than truly beautiful, with many restaurants, pubs, and viewing opportunities. The town is the birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant and eight other Civil War generals. The area also has many wineries. The town would be a great place to visit and has a feel somewhat like Asheville NC.
A town with a different set of enticements is Le Claire IA. This is a place to visit for some bar hopping! With its many microbreweries, music piped through the streets, and open container laws, I expect it draws a younger crowd than Galena. A very nice town.
Adopting a Midwest approach to the world by describing the long drive as “down the road from Le Claire is Nauvoo IL, a town steeped in Mormon history. Like most things Mormon (in my opinion) the area is idyllically preserved. The Nauvoo Temple (right photo above), a beautiful Greek Revival structure, has a stunning river view.
The next stop on the journey is required for a Mississippi trip by a literature buff, Hannibal MO. The town is very attractive and, in my opinion, if traveling with young children the village would create an incentive to read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (though the period race rhetoric in the novels requires some discussions that are difficult to have with young children). For adults, the Disney-like character of the town is understandable but a bit hard to take – at least for this adult.
Though planning to visit some other towns before St. Louis – Louisiana IA and Grafton IL – the historic flooding had access to those towns restricted – a 50-mile detour was required to get to St. Louis for a 36-hour visit.
A gauge in Ste. Genevieve MO shows the relative heights of historic floods. The flood this year exceeds that of the 1993 flood – though the Ste. Genevieve dikes saved it from submersion this year.
St. Louis’ iconic 630-foot high Gateway Arch is visible from many miles away and is an impressive piece of architecture. Claustrophobia prevented me from enjoying the 4-minute ascent to the viewing area but the museum of local history below the Arch is impressive. The museum’s handling of racism, the presentation of Manifest Destiny issues, and the courage of westward travelers is very well done – seeming much more complex than the one-sided history books in the 1950-1960s. Similarly well done, a short walk through the Arch park to the Old Courthouse, is the museum of the start of the Dred Scott case. The visit inspired me to read a history of Taney and his court (though Taney is deservedly maligned in the museum, the decision was 7-2 against Scott, the rest of the Court deserves criticism as well). The tour demonstrates the links between the Dred Scott case, the importance of the case as a part of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the reason that sequence led to the fear of the slave states of a Lincoln presidency and their subsequent secession. Perhaps it was presented that way when I was in school; if so, I must have missed that day.
The evening was a bit less intense but equally educational. After a visit to the St. Louis Art Museum, a visit to the St. Louis Blues Museum was a great way to learn about the links between the Blues, Jazz, Rock, and Hip Hop. I can’t say that I appreciate all of the approaches, but each has examples that are terrific. The museum offers live performances on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday evenings. Muddy Waters was a national treasure. The visit was nicer than I expected, and this description does not mention the evening stroll near Laclede’s Landing and the good microbreweries visited (not mentioned until then!).
Next town passed through was the earlier-mentioned Ste. Geneviève MO. French settlers founded the town but its citizens nationality changed three times in one day when title passed from Spain, to France, to the U.S. In addition to a nice history the town has restored housing and restaurants. Stopping at Stella & Me coffee, the proprietress asked about the kayak on the car roof. Telling about the attempt and the decision to stop, she told us an interesting story as well. It seems that in the fall of the prior year a 24-year-old young man from a western state started paddling in St. Paul. He capsized near Ste. Geneviève and almost drowned. The boat was recovered and the nice folk at Stella and Me gave him a job for the winter and allowed him to store his boat in their property. A week or two before I arrived in town, the boy left again on his journey. He made it to Cape Giradeau, about a day and a half south, before being ordered off the flooding waters by the Coast Guard. It seems persistence is in his favor and I have always felt that characteristic is more important than almost any other. Call me traditional but, 24? Time to start working or pursuing a higher education degree.
On to Memphis TN. Spending a total of 20 hours in Memphis including a full night of sleep does not qualify me to speak of the town. That said, we made it to Beale Street, strolled up and down the street. Visited two honky-tonks, had great gumbo and other food, drinks, and heard fantastic music at BB King’s. The next morning, we toured the powerful National Civil Rights museum and saw the rooms where Martin Luther King spent his last night before being assassinated and heard a sad but compelling presentation of the effects of Jim Crow. The time in Memphis was worth the stop.
Memphis was followed by a long day trip to Vicksburg MS through, I hate to say it, seemingly glaring poverty. There were certainly impressive estates interspersed in the landscape but that made viewing the wealth disparity more painful, especially after just having left the Civil Rights museum. I am sure Vicksburg has its points but we were not in a frame of mind to appreciate the town. We quickly continued the journey.
Traveling a portion of the fabled Natchez Trace to Natchez MS brought up memories of reading the biography of a complicated person, Andrew Jackson, and his passionate flight down the trace with his future wife, Rachael – a woman who during the flight was not divorced; an activity frowned upon in the frontier, an activity that was the source of a later duel. The Trace is also known for another detrimental Jackson activity. The route was used as part of the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of southeastern Native Americans to western reservations.
Natchez seems to have a good-sized downtown area that is trying to establish itself. Perhaps it is further along than it seemed, but I saw it on a Sunday when almost everything was closed. So, instead of staying in Natchez, we continued to Lafayette LA where I anticipated spending time with a friend Bill Ferguson.
While in Lafayette, I also enjoyed the company of other creatures while there (photo on the right). Posting the photo on Facebook brought some useful reminders from a young Hingham MA scholar who reminded me that “I said there would be alligators!”
Earlier, Bill and I arranged that he, sitting in a powerboat with beers, would guide me through the Hog Bayou portion of the delta from Calumet landing on Wax Lake in the delta to Burns Point Park on the Gulf. Arriving late on Sunday, I planned to look for a good bayou map and to see Bill on Monday evening for a discussion of my paddle through the bayou, the snakes, the alligators, and other creatures my wife is convinced are all deadly. Then I was hit by the anticipation that rules the middle of the night.
Texting Bill to hold for more information, early on Monday morning I put-in and paddled to the planned end of the journey: Burns Point Park LA.
Arriving at Burns Point Park
The immediate aftermath!
The end of the journey
The goal was accomplished. The adventure started at the Source of the Mississippi and ended at the Gulf of Mexico. The middle section remains to be paddled at a future date. I will follow the advice of brothers and friends, however, and plan for my next adventure to involve the Italian lakes; I smile because I recognize there is mystery hidden in that general task description. I end this blog with the promise to enjoy New Orleans.