portfolio > gone on the river

day 65
day 65
August 02, 2022

Day 65, August 2
Measurements: turbidity at Memphis 16cm. Nitrate at Memphis between 2-5ppm, closer to 2. Miles today: 32.

I woke around 8am in the second airbnb that Jesse and I got. It's literally less than a block from the first one, but so, so much better. I left him sleeping and biked up to a place for breakfast that was so-so, then got myself some beer for the journey and came back to the airbnb to pack up. Jesse was on a work Zoom call, which looked weirdly both very familiar and like another life entirely. I took a shower, packed up, we hugged, and I biked off with the rig, minus some things Jesse is taking back on the plane with him: my destroyed tent, my similarly mostly destroyed map book for the Upper Mississippi (which got soaked in that terrible storm and has a lot of pages stuck together now) and a now-unused food container.

I biked into downtown without incident, although it's still very strange biking along in an unfamiliar city looking like such a, well, weirdo. I put into the Memphis harbor at a place Jesse and I had scoped days before, just south (downstream) of the pyramid.

The water was very turbid, but mercifully not horrible. It didn't smell awful, didn't have anywhere near as much trash floating in it. Whew.

Out in the main channel, the current was pretty fast, especially once I went under the remaining Memphis bridges (which are right next to each other) and hit a turn to the west.

Around the next bend, I stayed on the inside of the curve to avoid a couple of tows, both coming upstream towards me. I also took the opportunity to pull over and change into my skirt.

Gotta say, the skirt is the perfect thing for canoeing. Airy, cool, shades the knees and calves if the sun is out, easy to pull back to get more wind if it's not. I wish I'd thought of this sooner. I'm sure I would have without that pesky gender conditioning. And I'm even a male-gendered person who has worn a skirt in public a number of times!

But not every new thing I learned today was so nice. In midafternoon, I found myself in a bend with three tows: one going downriver like me, two coming up towards me. The one going downriver went first, and I followed it down the right side of the channel, trying to give the others wide berth on the left side of the channel. In fact, I left the channel entirely, as I often do, moving pretty far over to the left.

(I think I've described this before, but in case I haven't: the channel is marked with green buoys with a cylindrical top on the right side, and red buoys with a conical top on the left side, looking downstream. Sometimes instead of buoys, if the shore is functionally the edge of the channel, they'll use red or green lights and signs called "daybeacons.")

I'd made a mistake, and it was not looking closely enough at the locations of the wing dams on the map. Too late, I saw a line of turbulence stretched across most of the river, from the right bank way out past the center line of the river. It was a submerged wing dam, and the river was moving fast enough that I did not have time to avoid it, but had to go over.

Why was it submerged? Some of them are just lower than others, were built that way by the Army Corps. In fact, almost all of the wing dams I encountered on the upper river (where the locks and dams are) were submerged, and I floated over many of them without incident.

Another factor: the water is definitely a bit higher today, given all of the rain we've gotten lately, both in Memphis and upstream. It's not high, mind you - it's just outside of what they call "low stage." But it's higher than it has been, higher than I've gotten used to.

Whatever the reasons, I was faced with a pretty serious situation. I was about to go over a wing dam below the surface of the river. It was clearly down much further than I had to worry about actually hitting, but it was kicking up a large amount of chaotic turbulence on the surface of the river. I got pointed straight at it, assumed one of my 'bracing' positions (legs on either side of the food bin in front of me, sort of wedged between it at the sides of the boat), and hit the turbulence.

It was not fun. Big waves, from lots of different places. Complex forces that wanted to spin the boat, and also to flip it. I basically got my center of gravity low, hung onto the gunwales, and tried to ride it out and stay upright - there was nothing much else to do. A big splash of water came over the left gunwale, and then another over the right a moment later. For the third time on the trip so far, I seriously wondered if I was going to end up in the water.

A few moments later, it was over, and I was out into the much less turbulent water beyond the wing dam. I paddled hard to get out into the main channel, in case there was another (they usually come in sets). Eventually, I ended up on the left shore, a rocky revetment, to bail out the bit of water I'd taken on. It was not as much as I'd thought, but definitely not none either.

So here's another lesson I've learned: keep track of the damned wing dams. Give the tows their space, but not at the expense of getting too close to one of those wing dams, because it might be submerged and invisible until it's too late.

Fuck. It's really galling, yet again. The river itself is not that dangerous for a person in a canoe. But the stuff we've done to it? Very dangerous indeed. All of our interventions, our dams both partial and total, our massive barges - those can mess someone like me up.

The rest of my time on the water today was much less eventful. It was hot, and I had the wind in my face much of the day, but I also had good current. Into the evening, the tows gave me a break (this is just luck of the draw, I'm convinced), and the wind also calmed down. Some stretches of river were almost like glass, but with interesting boils of water coming up from below, creating slow circles on the surface. Very beautiful, really.

I haven't seen as many fish, in part because I've been in the current mostly, and they seem to like the stiller water. But when I was moving to the edge to bail out, I did spook three huge fish which all jumped out right next to me, two on the left and one on the right. I've seen fewer birds, but I wonder if it's just the scale of the river here. There are still some herons, but fewer eagles.

The place I pulled over to camp had a flock of swallows or swifts flitting around, making a lot of noise. And there was a fair amount of feces of larger birds near the shore.

One lovely surprise: no mosquitoes, even at dusk. I made a "just boil water" meal of kamut or something, and ate it in the tent with a beer (cooled off in the river) before turning in.

That's worth mentioning: the river is significantly cooler than it has been. It's very noticeable. I wonder if it's about the recent rain? Or maybe something is mixing the colder, lower water with the water on the surface, more than usual in this spot? In addition to being cooler, it's also very turbid and light-colored, almost chalky looking. That's new since Memphis.

Also worth mentioning: the tent is pretty nice, so far. It has not yet collapsed. It has a fair bit less mesh, which makes it less airy in the wind, but that's okay. It's serviceable. Today's picture is of the tent on its maiden voyage, or whatever.

I got to sleep relatively early, at least in comparison with the last few days in Memphis, at around 11pm.

Tomorrow the goal is to hit at least 30 miles. It would be nice to hit Helena, AR but I don't think I will. And it would be nice to have a day without so much damned (or dammed) excitement.