A Path With Heart—The Mississippi River, Part 4

June 28, 2002 – 2:30 a.m. 75º

Good morning from Savanna, Ill. River mile 537. I now have 810 miles of the Mississippi River behind me. I’ve met family and friends for the weekend, and we’re camped at Mississippi Palisades State Park near the river.

It’s been an exciting week since Minneapolis. I’ve been using the locks to get around the dams. The Army Corps of Engineers maintains and operates all 29 locks and dams from Minneapolis to St. Louis. These locks are free to all and work on a first-come, first-served basis. Lockmasters will lock three barges through before they must let a group of recreational boats through.

Sometimes I actually beat a barge to the lock, and the lockmaster locked me through, even though I was alone. Other times, if I found I was in line for a lock, I portaged the dam, if there was a way. I portaged Lock #2 at Hastings, Minn. rather than wait. It was a terrible portage through stinging nettles and steep, smelly mud, which eventually brought me to a city park beach covered in large goose droppings. I met a local retiree,

Richard, who offered to watch my gear on the river while I went into town for a sandwich and a couple beers.

By the time I returned, Richard and eight of his friends sat there waiting to shower me with questions. “Have you had any trouble with the barges?” At THAT exact moment, the Richard A. Baker ran aground in front of us, literally 8 feet from shore, right in front of us. I gave them that look like John Belushi in Animal House, where he was up on the ladder peeping into the sorority house windows. “Not yet,” I replied as we howled with laughter.

I came across the Richard A. Baker the next day. He was coming back up river. He must have recognized my red canoe and came out of the pilot house. We both laughed and pointed at each other, then tipped our hats and went our separate ways.

Lake Pepin lies between Red Wing and Wabosha, Minn. and was my next challenge. Twenty miles of open water can be brutal in high winds. My first day across was windstill. At 95º and no current on the calm lake water, the sun was frying me like bacon: crispedy crunched, radiation on one side, soft, gooey salmonella on the other. I made it to Hak-Si-La Campground near Lake City, Minn. (where waterskiing was invented). I was dehydrated and starving.

That night, a massive storm blew in. Hail and high, gusty winds woke me up to flashes of lightning and crashes of thunder. WOW! The campground owner raced to each campsite in her truck, giving us the storm warning. (Well, NO S—!) I could feel my tent stakes giving way in the soggy ground, so in a lull of rain, I scrambled out to sink my 12″ sand stakes into the muddy grass, which held my tent solid.

I went down to the water to check my canoe and just barely saved my paddle from blowing into the water. Looking to the southeast over the town of Pepin, a lightning bolt struck the same spot a dozen times. Inane, I watched the bolt for a long two seconds without moving. Amazing! Then, in the continuing lightning storm, something in the canoe caught my eye: the toilet paper! I had saved the sacred scroll for yet another generation!

The next morning the wind still blew and stirred the lake up into 4-foot-high whitecapped waves. It was a tailwind for me, which normally helps, but with the waves coming from behind, it was difficult to keep an eye on what the waves were going to do.

I had been seeing critters on the river lately. These creatures were brightly colored, were loud and obnoxious, and generally weren’t very smart. I’m trying to recall the name… oh, yeah, power boaters. As if I didn’t have enough problems with the wind and waves, a power boater decided to make a fast U-turn right in front of me. This meant the wake from his boat hit me from three directions and began filling my canoe with water. I looked up to see his 3-year-old son looking at me over the transom of the boat. The boat hopped over its own wake, bouncing the boy off the back and into the water next to me.

The kid screamed, of course, and I managed to get him out of the water and onto my lap as he held on for dear life. Now the boat came back. “What the *?#!* you doing with my boy?” the dad yelled as his wake again put more water in my canoe. I handed the calm child (he liked my little boat) to the frantic mother. As the boat pulled away, waking me again, the child looked at me, smiled and waved. That made my whole entire day!

In all fairness, though, boaters are a very generous bunch. There are thousands of islands on the Upper Mississippi River, and many have beaches. And here is where the boaters come to party.

I pull up on my tiny 15-foot canoe, and naturally, they’re curious. “You’re doing the whole river?” Pssht! goes the can as they hand me a beer. Bonfires after sunsets keep the Mississippi aglow with a warmth and hospitality only river folk can show. There’s catfish on the fire, don’tcha know.

I often wondered why locals put up with the floods and bad temperament of this incredible river. When floodwaters come, they’ll even flood their own basements with fresh water. River water won’t seep in, and when the flood’s over, they pump out the clean water with no mess. They love living here, ladies and gentlemen, passionately. I’m only just beginning to see why. I look at this wide river valley, these beautiful bluffs; unimaginable the deluge that created this magnificent river, truly the very hand of God. There’s so much river ahead, and the relentless current pulls me onward. Next time: Hannibal.

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