A Path with Heart—The Mississippi River, Part 3

A Path with Heart—The Mississippi River, Part 3

By By Tom Bauschke, Travel Writer

The Mississippi River has partially delivered me to Minneapolis. I now have 492 miles of river behind me. Actually, my brother came up to Sartell just north of St. Cloud, Minn. to rescue me from storms. Three days ago, violent lightning and thunder kept me up all night. Camped in pouring, driving rain on one of the very small “Seven Islands” near Royalton, I nervously watched the river rise nearly a foot by midnight. Five tornadoes touched down in the St. Cloud area the night before last. I met Marv and Hillbilly at The V-Bar in Sartell and spent that night partying with them on their friend Jim’s farm. We had a huge bonfire, burned an old staircase and watched a green sky and funnel clouds. I miss big thunderstorms now that I live on the West coast. I wondered briefly if we should maybe take shelter.. .Nah!

For nearly a week I’ve fought terrible headwinds. The last few days I only managed 10-12 miles per day after 10-12 hours of grunting against my paddle into the wind. The way my arms feel, I’ll come home looking like Captain Freaking America. The wind kicked the river up into whitecaps. Many waves were higher than the bow of my canoe! I’ve grown strong and experienced enough with my paddle to deal with wind, but watching waves split along either side of my bow intimidated me. I felt I had been fighting the river for days. I gave myself two months to do this trip, and I would never make it at this pace.

There are dams on the upper Mississippi River. These are mainly small power generating dams for local paper mills. I’ve portaged nine times so far. Generally, I strap on my wheels and casually amble my way to the downstream side of the dam, even stopping for a beer in town. My worst portage, however, was the Blanchard Dam 10 miles downstream from Little Falls, Minn. This dam has seen far better days. All the columns and walls were crumbling. All the gates were leaking, some badly. Dim and restless youth had sprayed anti-Muslim and anti-American graffiti all over. The downstream side of the dam was a steep descent to a jumble of boulders with broken beer bottles strewn about. I probably spent a half hour just portaging the lower half of the dam because I had to unload the canoe and haul the gear separately. And there was no town to visit.

Despite recent rough days, the Mississippi has been beautiful. As the river leaves wetlands and widens into valleys, the riverbanks begin rising higher than 50 feet. The woods are now changing from flood-resistant trees like silver maple, ash, basswood and elm to drier forests of mixed pines, aspen, birch and oak. By Grand Rapids, I began to see a flow in the river. With a current to carry me, I make better time and work less. I am on vacation, after all. Slowly, I’m beginning to feel at home on the water. I don’t even think about paddling anymore; instead, I now look around me and absorb the river’s moods and changes.

The reward at the end of every day is camping on the river. Minnesota provides many river-access-only campsites along the Mississippi. Just south of Brainerd, camped at Baxter Canoe Campsite, I heard a train rumbling nearby. The echo from its whistle came to me from up and down the river. Magical. I stopped everything and just stood there, with a half-chewed mouthful, listening to my own private American moment. A few gunshots echoed from across the river to punctuate the event.

My first island campsite was at the Pine River confluence just north of Brainerd. There were few mosquitoes, so I could actually spend the evening looking out over the river. I silently sat, watched and listened for hours, until the golden river sunset. I remembered an old Chinese saying: “The mark of a successful man is one that has spent an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it.” Roy, a local fisherman I met at Herb Beers’ public boat landing way back up in Itasca County, told me, “If you wanna get to know Old Man River, you gotta watch ‘im, you gotta watch ‘im close.”

I’ve learned how to read the water ahead of me. The river tells me where the current is as it moves and shifts from one bank to the other or anywhere in between. If I’m dealing with a head wind, the ripples tell me where the next gust of wind is coming from so I can avoid getting turned. Once a canoe gets turned around, it’s very hard to get back into a strong wind. Sometimes I have to paddle all the way across the river to find a spot hidden enough from the wind to get my bow pointed back down stream. As the river now becomes up to 1,000 feet across approaching dams, this can take a lot of time and energy. Wind follows along river valleys and can even be intensified by converging amidst surrounding hills and bluffs.

As I’m a house painter by trade, I’m used to being on my feet. And I find my body isn’t taking to sitting in a canoe all day. Typically, I like to relax in the evening, but on the river I find myself standing around for hours at camp, even reading while standing. I stop two or three times a day to snack and stretch my legs.

Now that more towns appear along the river, I’ll walk in for a beer and lunch or at least to send a postcard, and, of course, talk anybody’s ear off. The river is still remote. The woods are dense enough to hide many of the houses and farms. Unless I’m near a town, I often only see a couple fisherman all day. Otherwise, the wildlife and I have the river all to ourselves. One day I chased a herd of cows along the west bank for nearly a quarter mile. They kept stopping and staring at me, bewildered. I was laughing so hard, I could hear my own echo. God, that felt so good.

Even though I am still somewhat demoralized by bad weather, and I feel bad about having skipped these last 77 miles, I look ahead to all that wonderful river awaiting me. Tomorrow I enter the first of 29 locks that get me to St. Louis! As the Minnesota, St. Croix, Black and Wisconsin rivers soon join the Mississippi, I hope to catch currents that carry me to meet friends and family along the Illinois and Wisconsin riverbanks; then onward all the way to New Orleans.

Locals keep telling me that Minnesota’s governor, Jesse “The River Rat” Ventura, is planning to do the Mississippi River by Jet Ski. Can you imagine that entourage? I sent him a Father’s Day card explaining I was likewise doing the river. I said I’d be looking for him, and if he stopped and gave me his autograph, I might even forgive him for playing Captain Freedom in the movie The Running Man starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Next time: Savanna, Ill., another 314 miles downstream. Wish me luck with the weather; I’m really going to need it.

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