Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Day Two

The sounds of rain stopped in the middle of the night and I slipped back into sleep happy to have a dry day tomorrow.
I thought I had slept in late when I awoke with my tent filled with bright light. I checked my watch and it was only seven. I opened my tent to a field of white. Every tree, every bush and the grass were covered with two inches of snow. It had not snowed here in a month and I was not prepared to paddle through ice. To paddle the entirety of the Mississippi River is crazy but to paddle through ice and snow without a dry suit is dumb.
I walked down to the kayak to see how it weathered the storm. Not only was it covered in snow, but a large, thick ice sheet weighted down the half of the boat where rain had collected. I sulked back to the shelter to find that my clothes I hung were frozen. It was going to be a long, boring wait til I could hit the river again.
I played with my gps and found that although I had paddled thirty miles the day before, I was only eight miles from the hostel I stayed at two nights before. I could hike the eight miles for a warm bed or wait around camp. Either way, I knew I needed to paddle at least twenty miles to the next campsite and I would not be able to get on the water today.
I grabbed all my wet gear and headed in the direction of the road. I walked about five miles before I decided to check to see if my phone that had not gotten a signal in days. I had one bar and called Sarah, the incredibly nice hostel caretaker. I walked another mile until Sarah's husband picked me up and took me to the hostel.
I hated not paddling but there was not many other choices. I walked the two miles to the nearest store and bought a pizza and chocolate chip muffin mix. I ate the pizza and made the muffins as a thank you for Sarah and then sat around waiting for the snow to go away.

Day One

I woke up today to the sounds of rain hitting the windows at the Headwaters Hostel at Lake Itasca, a mile from the start of the Mississippi River. The day before had been beautiful and warm, but last night as I watched the sun set from the middle of the glassy lake, I saw clouds forming on the horizon.
I knew that on a trip down the entire Mississippi I would encounter plenty of bad weather, but the world seemed cruel to give me steady rain and temperatures in the low forties.
I drank my coffee and loaded my gear on my week old sit on top Jackson Cuda kayak. My gear included a tent, a tarp, a hammock, two stoves, a sleeping bag, one kayak paddle, one paddle board paddle, a bag of food and many more small items like a weather radio and a solar charger.
I slid my boat into the water and with no fanfare began paddling to the start of the Mississippi River.
The beginning of the river is a shallow rapid no more than a dozen feet across with a path of rocks you can hop on across and a low log footbridge to cross on for the less adventurous. I was able to get enough speed to scrape over the rocks but the bridge was no more than a foot and a half above the water. I had to hop out and take the bag off the front of my kayak and push the back of the boat down to fit under. The first twenty feet of the river took me ten minutes.
The river is nothing more than a small stream at this point. Until I was out of Lake Itasca Park the river was usually only four to five inches deep and five to six feet wide. Even more frustrating than the shallow and narrow river were all the downed trees that required me to step out of my boat and push through.
At the edge of the park and no more than a mile down the river the river passes under a road in two small culverts. The park recommends that anyone attempting to paddle this section haul their boat up the steep embankment, across a road, and then down another equally steep hill.
I had already dragged my boat through a majority of the first mile and was not in the mood to haul the hundred pounds of boat and gear up this hill. I hopped out of my boat and and pointed the bow at the light at the end of the thirty yard long metal tube and gave it a little push. I ran as fast as I could up the hill, across the road and slid down the other side.
I started worrying on the way down because I had been certain that the kayak would beat me through. Just as I resigned myself to the idea of crawling into the culvert the front of the boat slowly slipped out, finally something was going my way.
At the edge of the park the tree infested creek opens up into a shallow but navigable river that passes through golden reeds and grasses. I suspected that the park made the first two miles difficult to discourage people from trying to paddle the river. I was finally able to spend more than five minutes paddling my boat over a shallow spot.
The river here becomes a series of tight curves that never straightens for more than fifty feet. As I came around another one of these turns and two ducks in a beautiful motion beat the water, then the air to escape my oncoming boat. As I paddled around the next turn the same two ducks were there. I thought it was a good omen and watched them dance off the water again.
One more sharp turn later and my two ducks appeared again with another duck. A few turns later, there were five ducks, and then six. I ended up chasing twelve ducks down the river. When I was in a long straight section they all took off in different directions. I looked up and saw a massive bald eagle that obviously scared them more than I did.
I paddled out of the grassland and into a wooded area with large glacial boulders sticking out every few feet. The boulder began increasing every few feet but I was not worried about anything on this "lazy river". A sign on the left of the river said portage so I slowed down to see the river ahead. A large rapid was ahead of me and my fourteen foot boat would not make it so I decided to portage around them. I had become so accustomed to the shallow water that I swung my leg over the side of my boat and placed it down like there would riverbed five inches down. My leg plunged into the deep, carrying the rest of my body with it. The cold water sent an acute shock through my body and I scrambled up the riverbank. I grabbed my boat and yanked it out of the river grabbing my dry bag with a camp towel and insulated clothing.
Feeling a bit defeated but a bit warmer I went to survey the rapids ahead. The river had instantly changed from a shallow lazy river to a fast filled stream with downed trees everywhere.
The next two hours were more mentally and physically challenging than I expected any part of the Mississippi to be. The rapids would cause only one part of the river to passable but usually there were fallen trees in the way. I had to choose to either duck under a low tree and be scratched or snagged or to scrape my boat over rocks in the river.
I emerged from that section exhausted but excited to slow down. The river now was deeper and I could paddle most of the river without scraping the bottom of my boat. The rain began to get heavier and the temperature was dropping. I could paddle hard and stay warm or float and freeze. I decided to make camp at the next spot where the reeds were not to thick to get out of the river.
Like a mirage, a three wall shelter appeared a few minutes later. I pulled my boat out of the water and moved all my gear into the shelter. My hands were shaking and numb, but I was able to get my tent up in the shelter for extra warmth. Dinner was lasagna and I hung all my wet gear inside the shelter to dry. I know if it is still raining tomorrow I will still paddle out, but it would be nice if it did not.