The Mississippi Wins
Shattered, deflated, tired, emotional, downright buggered really, this how I felt after having to concede defeat. That’s two losses. First it was the Southern Ocean in South Australia in 2007, then the mighty US river. Ah well, better to have tried and lost than never to have tried at all. At least the fight was good and long before conceding this time. Better than being bashed up by a huge wave after about ten minutes and then getting hypothermia.
Memphis started so right. First I replaced my phone. AT&T had one the same, it was unlocked and we just put the SIM card in, paid the $32.50 and I had a working phone again. This was remarkable. Flushed with success it was off to Walmart. They had butane cylinders for a Coleman stove. Fantastic, and after rummaging around I found a stove. It had been opened and the clips on the case were broken off, but a stove and cylinders? I could hardly believe my eyes. Out of all the Walmarts and sports and outdoors shops we went to none had managed to achieve this feat. There were ten cylinders there so I suppose the next customer will find no cylinders and no stoves when they look. Too bad mate, that’s life.
We spent the afternoon looking up the river for a place where I could be picked up and had cell phone coverage. It was 60 miles away, three day’s paddle and all phones worked. Hallelujah.
Ready for an early start next morning, Sunday, I had to cool my heels waiting for the TV people to show up ,but at 9.15 we established they were not coming so it was time to go. About a kilometre upstream some sort of outfall was bubbling below the surface. That explained the sign at the boat ramp warning people not to eat the fish. Shame really seeing as the city is bike friendly and had impressed me until then.
It was uneventful for 25km with the usual tug and barge activity near a city and then just plodding along against 4km/hr current. There was a new sort of barge though with different gravels on them, ranging from what we call crusher dust to 20mm aggregate. The barges have flat tops and the gravel is piled onto them. To unload, a grab on an excavator on a large barge picks it up and places it in trucks that have backed onto the barge beside it. A loader drives onto the gravel barge and pushes the gravel to the grab. It does not matter what height the river is because it is all floating.
At 25km, a boat ramp came into view and being a Sunday there were people there. People are probably the scarcest life on the banks of the Mississippi. Unfortunately no-one wanted to chat. I got little more than grunts. Maybe they were in shock seeing some nutter clawing his way up the river.
About 1.00pm there were a lot of small islands and the current seemed to be evenly distributed at about 3.5km/hr so I moved over to one. A brown head swam off from the bank at 45 degrees to a point 20m in front of the kayak. Whack! A big hit from the tail and it was gone. Beaver maybe I thought so I stopped for a few minutes, just paddling at the same rate as the current. Whack! This time it was about 20m from behind and next to the bank. In the meantime up in the sand, about 2m above the water there was a constant sound a bit like a kitten crying. Some sort of baby I decided and headed off, not wishing to upset its mum any more. About 1km further on a grey furry body dived just beside me. All I saw was its back but it was wide, wider I think than an otter. There is always birdlife around but animals are scarce. Did I just see two beavers? Who knows but it was nothing like I have seen at home so that’s an experience.
About 5.30pm a sandy area appeared in the trees. This will do just fine I thought. Pity a million mozzies thought so as well but after 35km with a warm sunny day I was in fine spirits. Lighting the fire was easy but the mozzies were tougher. In the end I retreated to the tent, killed the 50 or so that had slipped in when I had left the front unzipped for a few minutes, opened a beer and ate some of Klaas’s chicken and cauliflower. It was delicious but I wasn’t all that hungry and kept most of it for the next night.
Next morning rain was threatening and I was on the water at 7.30am, an hour after first light. I had listened to the river during the night and knew there was a significant groin just up ahead so was pleased that I would be fresh to tackle it. After ten minutes there it was. The approach was tight with little room for a run up but it didn’t look too bad. I hit it hard, moving half a boat length into the torrent. Every ounce of strength didn’t help though, I was slipping backwards. Can’t give up I thought, so I moved out into the main flow of the river. Behind me was mayhem with whirlpools and roaring water but I started to win. Inching forwards I crept back towards the bank just 10m above the jet that beat me. Phew, it was over as fast as it had begun. I was safe.
Holey dooley, there was an eddy here and I was being carried into trees at 6km/hr. Steering left and full power half helped. I got past halfway through tree. My hat was torn off and I side slipped into the next treetop. No chance for the hat, it swirled a bit and was sucked under. Better my head wasn’t in it as it went down I thought. Stuck sideways in a tree top is not a lot of fun but with only 6km/hr current it is manageable and I eventually extricated myself.
Well that was an interesting start to the day I thought. No hat wasn’t the end of the world but the mozzies thought it was pretty good. There was no bank to put into and get something out of the bulkhead to fashion a hat with, so I just put up with it until a flash came to me and I reached around for the plastic container just behind me. The pressure bandage for snake bite did the job even if there was a bit on top that I didn’t cover.
There were small groins poking about 5m into the flow and at right angles to the rock bank. These were heaven for a kayaker. The flow around the end is about 4km/hr with no flow between and the groins were about 25m apart so I made really good time through this section.
Finally it started raining heavily enough that the mozzies gave up. Relief. I had figured how to put my handkerchief on my head before I wrapped the compression bandage on so I was pretty much under control.
A house and farm buildings plus a ramp appeared before a high hill. The buildings were well up and there was slack water behind the hill. Round the other side wasn’t much fun though and it involved another two gut busters to get through. Up ahead the sand cliffs looked like they had been sprayed with roundup. It is Kudzu which dies off in the winter and was just starting to sprout some green leaves. From Wikipedia: Kudzu (Pueraria lobata) is a serious invasive plant in the United States. It has been spreading in the southern U.S. at the rate of 150,000 acres (61,000 ha) annually, “easily outpacing the use of herbicide spraying and mowing, as well increasing the costs of these controls by $6 million annually.” Its introduction has produced devastating environmental consequences. This has earned it the nickname, “The vine that ate the South.”
A groin closer to the surface maybe, or further down maybe, had a smooth crest of water over it with a drop of about 150mm. It looked confronting and there was no way of avoiding it as it was right to the shore so I ploughed forward. Surprisingly I burst right over the top into water that I could paddle against. It wasn’t easy but it was not insanely hard either. Perhaps a pleasant surprise would describe the feeling of topping out and knowing it was beatable.
Good thoughts don’t last on the Mississippi and with rain falling and fog moving in I was in a narrow area with large grey rock cliffs. The first outcrop was tough. For a while I slowly went backwards until there was enough of a swirl that I could beat it. Backwards again then another swirl. Hard as you can mate, pull hard, do not slacken off. My legs were quivering as I tried to control the rudder. The spindly little things were trembling right up to where my backside used to be before it disappeared a month or so ago. But I made it. And I made it past the next one. For over a kilometre I fought that water beside those enormous grey cliffs. I did not let it beat me but I was concerned about the toll it was taking.
Really not good for at least half an hour big slog
The cliffs disappeared and were replaced with trees. There was no land though. None turned up until 5.30pm. There was some sand in the trees, just a narrow strip maybe 200m from the real bank. Was it high enough? It seemed so and I was tired. Being so tired is of concern because you need all of your wits about you to stay alive. There was a lull in the rain and I decided this would have to do.
I pulled the kayak up as far as I could which was about a metre above the water and tied it to a tree which is what I did every night. Like last night there was a lot of water in the rear bulkhead. Not sure where it came in but it needed to be checked before the next leg.
With mozzies everywhere and stupid me without any repellent, I settled into the tent with the new stove as rain started tumbling down again. I opened some barbeque crisps but wasn’t keen because they are so sweet. The beer was good and gave me enough energy to start heating the chef’s chicken cauliflower. This I forced down because tasty as it was, I could not get my stomach to want it. That was serious I though. Maybe ten hours with a few life threatening bursts and the rest just slogging on was a bit too much. As I was 77km up from yesterday the next day would be shorter and better I thought.
I was lying on the small self-inflating mattress, about 20mm thick, when water started dripping on my right arm. It was coming in a seam and running along the floor to the corner near my feet. The rain was teeming down and a fine mist was coming in from just above my head. My plan was to lie on the mattress with the sleeping back covering me so as to keep it dry. Good plan in theory but it got wet anyway. The rain poured until 4.00am when a big gust came from the north, shaking the trees and cooling the air. The waves crashed on the sand and I was pretty sure the water was up. Daylight proved me correct with water almost lapping the kayak wheels, having risen over half a metre.
In all it was just a wet night camping but I wondered about my reserves. Most importantly my thought processes did not seem like they should be. I had muesli which I enjoyed, two coffees, a lie down for half an hour and then up and at it. At 8.00am I was on the water but feeling drained. One last look back from the river and I saw my life jacket. There it was hanging on the tree where I had hung it to dry in the cool northerly. That was the moment I decided to get off the river. Having suspected I wasn’t the full bottle, here was the proof.
The day was no better than the previous. Despite thinking I was strong, maybe I was kidding myself. The north wind blew fiercely, just like paddling the great straights of the Murray River only this time there was 4km/hr of current as well. I was wet from the waves, the sky was grey and purple and the bank was about 10m behind the trees keeping me in the current.
A big groin directed flow at 30 degrees into the river. The whirlpools were murderous. Although there was no way around on the bank, there was a way through the treetops even though the path was narrow. The flow was fast but possible. Bursting into the trees the right back wheel snagged a branch. Dancing on the paddles I freed it only to have it catch on the stove across the rear deck. Great, now I had a tree branch between the wheel and the stove. Think. Think! Gradually, just keeping pace with the current using close to full power but not flat out I managed to move the kayak to the left. Phew. Easing off the power I slowly drifted back to safe waters, not an easy thing to do.
Next shot I stayed about 300mm wider. I was surging a head when a vortex swirled down from a large tree ahead. Left rudder. No, right rudder. No, left rudder. Into the tree top on the left now. The bow danced from side to side, the left wheel was snagged. Please not here I thought. What a stupid thing to think. Why was here any better or worse than the other places. Only this time it was after I had decided to call it quits.
Snagged, and if the kayak spun sideways I would be caught between the two tree tops and with this water velocity highly likely to be turned over. I backed off just enough to drift out of the snag. The tree to the right was still there but under full power and dancing rudder pedals I inched forwards. Twenty metres later and it was all behind me. Yet again I had made it.
The river was not finished with me though. Another groin, another fight, trembling legs, burning arms, sick stomach. Please, I don’t want to spew in the middle of this I thought. It might make me break my stroke which would be a very bad thing.
Then it was over. The river was straight with just the tops of trees to paddle beside with 4km/hr current if I could keep really close. Why hadn’t I reached the pick up point where they were expecting me at mid-day, half an hour ago? Passing houses and mowed lawns, the GPS showed that I was 2 miles past the ramp but I was as certain as one can be that I wasn’t. After paddling another kilometre I turned back and went up to a house. The current drifted me at 7.2km/hr.
The house appeared empty with just a Chihuahua and something the size of a St Bernard but after calling and then, giving up and starting to leave the owners finally came out. I asked how far to the boat ramp and was told about four miles. That was an hour and a half away. Demoralised and feeling done in I walked back to the kayak. I wasn’t sure I could do another four miles so I went back to the house and offered $20 to the man to drive me. His name was Michael and he was very pleased to so. At the ramp he would not take any money so I signed a book and gave it to him before driving our unit back to the kayak. As it turned out I had already paddled halfway from the house to the ramp because it was less than two miles.
When we got there his wife came out for a chat and insisted that I write Patsy, her name, in the book. Apparently they get a few people coming to their house on the way down the river. Some of the stories about people doing it in the last few years overlapped but they didn’t mention the guy with no legs that I had heard about a few times. They were a salt of the earth pair, chain smoking, very hospitable, up for a chat which always suits Lynne and Klaas, and because we were further north we could understand them.
Lynne took a snap of me at the kayak. Klaas and I dragged it to the vehicle and we set off back to Memphis after doing just under 100km for the three days. The river had won. On reflection I wasn’t despondent as I expected, just respectful of the river and the fight that had been raging. Maybe I was secretly pleased that it had taken the best I could give and spat me back still alive. On the river, with a trembling lip, I longed to just be a grandfather.
Klaas Memphis Tennessee, staying in Elvis the Pelvis Graceland’s RV Park., Had a quick look around the grounds on arrival, what a money making machine this is. We are jammed in like Sardines but the amenities are good and clean. Elvis’ Pink Limousine does the rounds and picks people up from the RV grounds to next door for the house inspection and his two aeroplanes, which boasts Gold Plated buckles on the safety belts. (Wanker). Madam wants to see it all of course. Good luck to her. I, being a grumpy old fart, shake my head at the extravagance, the self indulgence and morality of a life of gross excesses. But, that’s how it is buddy. I see the difference between rich and poor everyday. Sub standard housing in every five states I have been in so far. Slavery might have been abolished a century or more but tell that to the vast majority of “Afro-Americans”. They still do all the manual jobs for little pay. Not all the beggars are black either, plenty of poverty around . Klaas
We sit outside the RV
Lynne Phillips and me
and along comes a bumblebee
Humming and hovering for all to see
A mate comes along, a he or a she
and soon a dozen or more
are looking at me
They dart and dance and hover
and dive onto the clover
They can hover ,than dance away
Some dance the dance of love
Join up high in elevation
mating and begetting a new generation
They come down and check me out
and settle on me, their humming loud
I feel accepted and mighty proud.
Klaas Good old America efficiency. Steve asked me to have the car serviced while he is paddling. We booked it in at Wal-Mart at 7.30 this morning The book-in clerk said it would be one to one and a half hours as there was only one mechanic on duty.
I went shopping and went to pick up the car at 9am but it had not been serviced yet, To keep it short, three hours later they took it in and ten minutes later brought it back and said they did not have the oil filter for this car. I am ropable, three hours wait for ………… American efficiency? Bullshit. They are way behind in a lot of things and prices for common goods are a lot higher then back home. One pissed off Aussy.
Lynne Here we are settled at the Graceland RV Park on Elvis Presley Bvd.. Graceland is next door. Steve is now kayaking to the next pick up point about one and a half hours from where we are. We found a boat ramp at a convenient spot along the river there. Phone coverage is iffy, but there is a house nearby if all else fails. We will start out early, as we have the car booked in for a service at 7am, so can continue on to pick up point. . His departure point was Mississippi River Greenbelt Park. I had contacted a journalist from Fox TV and she agreed to meet us there with a TV crew, she was to phone around 9am, this was Sunday. No Show once again. Having rung her at 9.15am she apologised for not ringing me. Her film crew were called to Nashville to a Memorial Service there, couldn’t make it, back up crew were not prepared to come in. Sorry about that.!! Steve was hyped up ready to go, it was disappointing for us all, however, hope I got good pics of his departure. We are finding that in certain areas efficiency is not high on the agenda. Klaas will no doubt let you all know about the NON car service….We accidently left a bag of 5 items on the bag carousel at Walmart, somehow lost the receipt, blown out somewhere, I went back to customer service to explain the matter but no receipt, no refund, however, I explained that the bag was probably still at the checkout and could someone check. 6 attendants were called to deal with the matter, she’s got NO RECEIPT was the cry! Sorry Mam, you must have a receipt, well that’s ok but surely a bit of commonsense can be put into play. They eventually let me go and pick up new items but I would have to pay for them OK I said, will do. In the meantime another customer service lady came along, checked the check outs, found the bag immediately and off I went. 1 hour later. At the same checkout I had a 6 pack of Corona, I had to show my ID to say I was not underage, no flexibility there, the check out lady and I had a laugh about that, Rules are rules she said!!!. Graceland visit for me today, thanks to the 2 ladies, Bess and Connie for befriending me, they were great and we had a fun time. We are now fb buddies
The final say from Le Chef
You all remember the song
Johnny Cash’ ” Big John”
We can all sing it along?
Steve has given his all
answered his conscience call
Kayaked where no man has been
through the swells and through the current
Upstream against the tide
no one else could abide
From the gulf to Memphis
battling all the way
none was a deterrent
“Do or die,” he’d say
Than the rains came up ahead
the river rose and became very bad
Still he went out and battled on
against overwhelming odds
the river pulling, trying to suck him under
a tree branch hit him from asunder
He stared the old reaper in the face
and decided to give up this race
his children and grand children
more important ,than what he was doing
It takes a “Big Big Man ” to admit one can’t be fooling
The “Old Man River.