September 2004 is when it began. My river envy. I was less than a week into the first half of my Lewis and Clark Trail bicycle tour, grinding through eastern Washington and wondering how the hell three weeks on a bike could have ever sounded like a good idea. I’d been riding the better part of the day, sandwiched between sheer rock walls on my right and railroad tracks to my left. Just beyond the tracks was the Columbia River, a good quarter mile wide, teasing me with every pedal revolution as the late summer sun baked my brain and seared my skin. Dozens of inebriated weekenders crammed into whatever alcoves they could between the river and the tracks, dragging with them coolers and chow and tents and blankets and music. It was, after all, damn near Labor Day and the time of the river rat was nearing its end.
I wanted so badly to stop, if just for a few minutes because that wouldn’t be so bad, would it?, leave my bike and waltz right into the water over my head. I could almost feel it easing my aching muscles, rinsing the day’s grime from my body, and renewing my vigor. Almost, because I was still pedaling across blazing hot asphalt with my shoulders cramping and sweat stinging my eyes. I could hear the laughter and smell the barbecue, practically taste the burgers and steaks, but desire surrendered to realism, and cycling in wet shorts is no picnic. I pushed on with my head hung low, not so much in fatigue but resentment. I loathed the river as much as I loved it.
Flash forward one year to mid September 2005. It’s part two of my Lewis and Clark bicycle tour and I’m on the Katy Trail in northern Missouri. It’s table top flat for nearly 300 miles, paralleling the Missouri River from St. Charles, Missouri to Booneville. Sometimes I can see the river peek through the woods. Most of the time I can’t. When I do it’s mysterious and intriguing and attracting, like a secret place only I know but have yet to explore. I can imagine coming back and picking my way through the scrub brush to the water’s edge, only to find it’s really not the river itself but some obscure offshoot. Who knows what scaly beasts prowl its murky depths? But, again, I push on, falling into the monotonous rhythm of around and around and around, cycling ever westward home. I thought little more on the matter.
And what of my Lewis and Clark bicycle tour? Success, to the tune of thirty-five days, 2,658 miles, an extremely chafed ass, and more than a few bug bites. The tour was so successful, as a matter of fact, I had plans to extend the route from St. Louis, Missouri to St. Simons Island, Georgia, turning it into a coast to coast tour. Had plans, that is. Because I found something better.
Lake Itasca, Minnesota is the headwaters of the third largest river in the world. Here the average surface speed of the river is about 1.2 miles per hour, roughly one-third as fast as people walk. It’s between twenty and thirty feet wide and less than three feet deep. Throughout it’s over 2,300 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico, this river drains between 1.2 and 1.8 million square miles of North America, including thirty-one states and two Canadian provinces. The value of the agricultural products and the huge agribusiness industry that has developed in its basin produces 92% of the nation’s agricultural exports and 78% of the world’s exports in feed grains and soybeans. Close to 15 million people rely on this river or its tributaries in just the upper half of the basin from Cairo, Illinois to Minneapolis, Minnesota alone.
It’s the Mississippi River and,
in summer 2007 eventually, I’m going to kayak the whole damn thing.
At this point I’ve got enough information to be a danger to myself and others. I’ve got a line on Quimby’s Mississippi River Regional Guide for twenty-five bones. With a book as highly recommended as it is, who needs more research? I’ve also downloaded the diary of a man who canoed the Mississippi in 1992 in 101 days. Using his notes combined with Quimby’s Guide, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and map data from the Army Corps of Engineers, I can’t go wrong.
And what of equipment? I know I need a low density linear polyethylene (read: common plastic) touring kayak 15-18 feet in length with a paddle between 210 and 240 cm. Why are they measured in different units? No clue. I’m learning as I go. Beyond that, I’m reserving space for a lifejacket and plenty of mosquito netting. The rest will sort itself out.
My biggest hurdle, as it always seems to be, will be time. Old boy whose diary I downloaded canoed the Mississippi in 101 days, averaging about twenty-three miles a day. That’s a far cry from the seventy-six mile per day average I achieved on my bike tour, but I don’t have any idea how many miles a guy can kayak on a river. I’m a shoe in for forty-five days of leave next summer, but subtract a week and a half at minimum for travel time all over God’s green earth and that leaves me about five weeks to play with. Five weeks to cover 2,300 miles? On a kayak? That’s sixty-six miles a day! Is that doable? Therein lies the problem. I’ve got some time trials to do before I can out and say I can make it in one shot. With the help of some rental equipment, the southern California water system, and my GPS, I’ll have it figured out in no time.
For most, it’s still Iraq in August. Only I’ve escaped to the Mississippi.ShareThis