A Path With Heart—The Mississippi River, Part 6

A Path With Heart—The Mississippi River, Part 6

By Tom Bauschke, Travel Writer

July 14th, 10 p.m., 92°

Hello from Memphis, Tenn. – River Mile (RM) 735 Left.

My river has grown up. In the beginning I had him all to myself. When I first met the Mississippi River, it was just a baby; I could reach across him. As I paddled down his childhood growth through Minnesota, he got an adolescent education in Minneapolis. In his teens and 20s by LaCrosse, Wis., he tested my patience with wind and water. Then in middle age, through the central Midwest, I was proud of him. He made his fortune with tugboats pushing barges from St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Memphis and 1,000 points between. But now, he’s a crotchety old bastard named Ol’ Man River dogging my ass to the bitter end. And I must share him with 100 million other Americans who depend on him for their drinking water, recreation and commerce.

The river is very low, typical for summer, exposing wing dams. These long piles of rock jut out into the river, focusing the current and keeping the channel clear without needing to dredge. Terrible wakes and dangerous eddies surround them, often trying to flip my canoe. Literally every fisherman I talked to on the river warned that they had lost a friend or relative to these currents.

Just down river from Howard Upper Daymark and Light, RM 764.8 Left, I rounded a wing dam, and suddenly an eddy boiled up out of nowhere. For 20 feet around me, the water churned fiercely, lifting my whole canoe some six inches. As I leaned forward, ready to maneuver away, my inner voice screamed loud as Gabriel, “DON’T put your paddle in that water!” I leaned farther forward and just waited out the eddy as it spun me 360° and then shoved me on my way all pumped up with fear and adrenaline.

My longest day so far brought me 57 miles. With a good 8+ knot current behind me, I made wonderful time. Currents are brutal near the outside bank of a bend in the river, making them dangerous, beautiful and thrilling. I ended July 7th near Hickman, Ky., running Hotchkiss Bend around Winchester Towhead – RM 905 Right. I didn’t hear any engine noise ahead, so I paddled on the outside of the turn to catch the current.

Never paddle on the outside of a Mississippi River bend. Here’s why: The long, wide, wooded bend hid the noise of oncoming barges, and soon I was stuck in a narrow 50-foot gap between three huge churning, rumbling barges and crushed rock riverbank. It was a hard-learned lesson. Six- to 8-foot waves hit me from all directions. As waves came upon me, my canoe reeled between them. Again and again, down into troughs I leaned way back. Immediately, I paddled back up toward the crest of the next wave and leaned so far forward, the brim of my hat touched my knees.

For 45 minutes, I battled the river, finally shaking from exhaustion. I had a grin on my face, though. After paddling six straight weeks, I knew my boat well and was strong and in top form. I shot a glance up toward a tugboat. The crew was on deck glaring at me with outstretched arms. I couldn’t hear them over the thundering engines, but knew exactly what they said: “What the F*&#! are you doing?” Afterwards, when I had calmed down, I pinched myself, wondering if that had just really happened.

Camping on sand bars was the reward for my daily toils. Some were more than 2 miles long. Barge wrecks peered out of the sand. These twisted hulks of metal demonstrated the sheer power of this river. Tons of metal lay crushed and shredded like simple aluminum cans. Nothing can withstand the wrath of the mighty Mississippi. Whole towns fall before its relentless currents.

Walking around the sand bars was sometimes difficult. Sun baked the top layer of sand to a hard crust. But my bare feet would often break through to the soft sand underneath, making each step tedious and eventually tiring. I began to observe the many coyote, fox, rabbit and deer tracks that I saw. None of their small paws sank into the sand. They all walk toe-heel, not heel-toe as we do. Once I walked toe-heel, I had few problems, and hiking for miles along magnificent Mississippi sand bars was a breeze. Native Americans know this way of walking instinctively.

Bugs were getting worse, so I still had to pitch my tent at night. Through barge light. I could see thousands of mosquitoes poised and stalking on the outside of my tent. They stood watch in formations that fashioned words like REDRUM. Late July sand bars absorb a tremendous amount of energy during the day. And all night, heat radiated out of the sand, filling my tent like an oven. Delirious in my nightly sweat lodges, can you imagine the visions I had… Budweiser came floating by in a frosty mug… the Swedish Bikini Team danced around me on virgin snow… and The Staypuff Marshmallow man stopped by and drove me to a nearby Tastee-Freez for a milk shake that was all of 13 stories tall. Amazing!

My first week on the river, I could only get National Public Radio. Paddling into the new experience of magnificent wetlands, I listened to Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Chopin and Beethoven. Perfect! The rest of the river, though, mostly brought me country music. I miss music terribly, and since Memphis is the home of the blues, I’m enjoying my time here. Music rings out everywhere along Beale Street.

I went to The Rendezvous in downtown Memphis; best barbecued ribs I’ve ever had. The traditional entrance to the restaurant is in the back alley. There I stood, next to smelly dumpsters and graffiti with women in pearls and men in their dinner best. I wore shorts and flip-flops. Later, I sat in the Rendezvous’ bar waiting for a table, surrounded by autographed pictures by every music star I’d ever seen.

Suddenly, someone played “Heartbreak Hotel” on the jukebox. I’m such a sucker. Even after all these years, Elvis still gives me goose bumps. Sitting on a barstool in Memphis where Elvis himself may have sat, I thought it was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard in my life. I tried to play off tears. “Damn, I got something in my eye,” I chuckled. Trust me, dear reader, the bartender wasn’t laughing with me, Rita was laughing AT me.

Southern towns, especially river towns, can get rough. In Caruthersville, Mo., I looked for local police to seek permission to camp at the park along the river. I only found the county sheriff, who gave me wrong directions leading me to the town’s Riverboat Casino, The Aztar. I stopped and ate dinner, catfish, of course, then headed back into town. A few times around town, I noticed this car with tinted windows, playing thumping rap music. I was being followed. I was a mark and I knew it. I hightailed it back to the riverfront park where I had left my canoe. It was just getting dark, and I had no idea what to do. A local fisherman was just taking his boat out, and I struck up a conversation. The Celica shadowing me was in the park. I could hear the music thumping. Ray happened to know the security manager at the casino, called over and got me permission to camp along the river on the far side of their property. I paddled five minutes down river and pitched my tent in the dark. I awoke the next morning without incident and was grateful for my travel sense in avoiding disaster.

How much farther can I go on this river? I’m drinking at least three gallons of water daily. I had to wait until summer to do this trip. Now the days become a sweltering, brutal reality. My flight leaves New Orleans on August 1st. Time runs short. The Louisiana Bayou calls me, though. The snakes and gators hiss and the bugs buzz. I can hear their echoes 735 miles up this grandest of American rivers. What discoveries lay ahead, I wonder? Next time: New Orleans!

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