portfolio > gone on the river

Day 57, July 25
Measurements: turbidity at Lester Light: 30cm. Miles today: 38.

After yesterday's pretty bitter disappointments, today was much, much better.

I successfully woke up at 5am, in the dark. I could barely force myself to eat any of last night's noodles for breakfast, but did drink my tea and my tang, and got down a few bites of food. I was on the water just after 6am, which frankly felt pretty amazing.

Still had a little headwind first thing in the morning, but much lighter. And my goodness, the current returned! And how. It picked up not long after I left the shore, and continued to ramp up as I followed the river's enormous turn to the west, along the south edge of this huge serpentine movement above New Madrid. I couldn't clock it exactly, but at times I'm sure I was going in excess of six miles per hour, or over twice what I was achieving yesterday afternoon, and for much, much less effort.

The wind started picking up - in my face, as always - around where the river turns north. Sam had told me about the north wind I should expect today, on the phone last night, hoping it would be welcome news. But no, I had to go north around eight miles into a little bit of wind, and also a pretty light rain. But the clouds all morning were very welcome, after days roasting in the sun.

This strech of river was challenging because there are wing dams on both sides, meaning that I couldn't really avoid them at all. I chose a line on the right side of the river, and had to deal with substantial eddy lines a few times. As I reached the halfway point, about, I passed a tow going the other way, and then another towards the north end of the bow, where it turns west again.

These two tows created a lot of very large wake, and it was unfortunately right where I wanted to be, and where the river was putting me. The two wakes sort of coalesced into a standing row of some of the biggest waves I've ever paddled, but they were weirdly not that threatening because they were also among the slowest waves I've ever seen. Ten feet tall, but something like fifty feet from trough to peak, so I just sort of rose up the one side, then fell down the other, no big deal.

I pulled into New Madrid before 10am, which amazed me. That was sixteen miles, by 10am, starting a bit after six. After the last few days, that was just incredible time.

I brought my backpack and water bottles and headed into town. First stop: the New Madrid museum. I highly recommend it, if you're ever in the area. Lots of information about the famous earthquakes of 1811-12, which are supposed to have been among the strongest in recorded history. Also some very fun, funky old exhibits about the Mississippian culture, complete with diorama of a village, about the significance of the town and the area around it in the Civil War, and then just a lot of folks' collections of things from when they went to the world wars. The last room was all about the river, and had a collection of old Army Corps maps like the ones I'm using, and a wonderful diagram of how the river's course has changed right near New Madrid. All very fascinating stuff. I found the stuff about the river very interesting, of course, and the naval battle on the river was especially compelling, having just paddled past the site this morning. Today's picture is from the overlook that extends out from the New Madrid levy, near the museum.

I learned another thing, which is that they don't pronounce it the way I would've expected, like the namesake city in Spain. No, they pronounce it with the emphasis on the "Ma-" and they pronounce that syllable as if it rhymes with "apple" or "ham." So "New MAH-drid," rhymes with, I don't know, Hagrid.

The guy at the museum was nice enough to let me fill up my water bottles, and also was eager to let me use the bathroom. I didn't have to at that point, though, and took off up the street. He'd also pointed out that there was a taco truck in town that day, up near the M&M Deli, and I went to check it out. They had a burrito for me, which was delicious, as it turns out. I ate it on the lawn of the courthouse in the middle of town where Harry Truman gave a couple of speeches when he was running for Senate in '34 and '40. The burrito came with roasted onions and jalapenos, just on the side, which was fun. I saved some of them to incorporate into my dinner.

After lunch I headed to the library, which was closed until 1pm to allow the librarian to eat lunch, which is kind of sweet. I wrote updates there for quite awhile - there was a lot to do to get them all posted - and then made my way back to the water, getting back out at maybe 2:30pm. Oh, and along the way I stopped back in at the museum to take the guy up on his bathroom, which really was very nice.

Out on the water, I was immediately in the middle of a complex set of interactions with tows, which basically sucked. The water there is in a turn again, and so moving pretty quickly. It's hard to tell where the tows want me to be, except "away" or maybe "out of the channel." The problem with that, for me, is that the channel is on the outside of the turns, where the current is. I did end up crossing the whole river a few times to hang out on the side away from the channel, in order to avoid the pretty constant flow of tows. Another complication is that they appear to queue to wait for each other to pass, in some situations, especially on turns.

I know that I could buy a marine radio, and that much of the trip would have been easier in some ways with one - communicating with the locks and dams, with the tows, etc. I'm reluctant to get one; I don't want to listen to these guys all day long, and have them tell me to get out of the way. But I may have to.

Another new difficulty: flies, like your normal housefly. They get into the canoe, down in the bottom where my ankles and feet are. Once there, they bite me. And I can't effectively kill them or shoo them away, because I'm busy with other things and because there are lots of places to hide down there. It's infuriating.

I chatted on the phone with Sam, my sister and mom for a bit as the sun started to set, still paddling. I was holding out for a site on the left (Tennessee) bank near Cherokee Light. (One of the nice things about this lower Mississippi map book from the Army Corps is that it shows not just where the shore is, but what kind of shore it is, whether it's sand or their piled-rock revetments.)

I got out at about sunset, around 8:30, and started a fire for dinner. I boiled potatoes and made a sort of gravy with some of the leftovers from this afternoon's burrito garnishes. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out very good. The potatoes weren't quite done, and there was a lot of sand in it. Oh well, I made myself eat as much of it as I could.

After dinner, when I was in bed, a couple of people showed up with lights. I was a bit anxious that they were going to try to tell me to go somewhere else, but they were just scouting for their fishing spot tomorrow. It was a middle aged Black man and white woman. I surprised them a bit, I think, but after that they were very friendly. When I told them what I'm doing, the guy said "you've got bigger balls than me, man. I'd never do that. Never."

Now that I've proved I can actually paddle some significant distance on this part of the river, the goal for tomorrow is to hit thirty miles again, and if possible exceed it.