The Mississippi offers a river full of surprises


My last guest column introduced you to this summer’s adventure of two crusty old kayakers from southeast Texas, who struck out to explore beckoning destinations along the upper Mississippi River.  It revealed that I and my paddling pal, Doug, hopscotched along this this 2348-mile-long American legend, from its humble beginning in northern Minnesota, southward to Hannibal, Missouri, where the devilish ghosts of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn still roam freely, and literally everything carries Mark Twain’s brand.

Admittedly, it would be tempting to describe our activities, on a day-to-day basis, as they relate to our loosely-engineered investigation of this iconic natural wonder.  But, in the end, I fear that even my closest blood relatives would rapidly lose interest in such soggy journaling.  So instead, I have opted to expose the things which greatly surprised me as we meandered along the side and down this vibrant waterway via my beat-up old pick-up truck and our trusty human-powered water crafts (aka kayaks).

First and foremost, is the sheer size and power of this snake-like creature.  It begins as a small and gentle stream that connects a series of charming upper Minnesota’s lakes.  But, as if it was on an aggressive regimen of growth hormones, it swiftly bursts forth as one of Mother Nature’s most impressive features.  Amazingly, we found lengthy and notably wide bodies of water formed by the locks and companion dams built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to promote smooth and efficient barge movement up and down the river.  So, as if trying to keep the taxpayers’ attention intently focused on their cost-benefit-driven economic agenda, the USACE cunningly labeled these impressive features “pools” instead of “lakes”.

When it comes to shock and awe, only Saddam Hussein has ever been more shaken than this pair of unsuspecting mariners.  You see, as clueless wanderers, we abruptly came into far-too-close-for-comfort contact with the notorious jumping carp, a non-native species of unrelenting torment to boaters cruising infested Mid-western waters.

Upon slipping behind one of the exotic wooded islands adorning the river along the Illinois border, I evidently irritated a small school of them with the vibrations made by my paddling.  About a baker’s dozen of these 3-plus-pound flying demons were instantly swarming in the air around me like agitated wasps.  It doesn’t take much to appreciate that they can, and do, cause significant bodily injury – perhaps, even cause sudden death, if one of these scaly pests rammed into your noodle.  One of these piscatorial projectiles struck my kayak with such rude fury, I was absolutely certain it surfaced, dead or unconscious, in my wake.  So, rest assured, I thankfully lifted up a prayer that I was not a victim of such a forceful aerial assault.

When engaged in an outdoors excursion, weather can be a fickle and, sometimes, perilous companion.  While camping at Charles Lindberg State Park near Little Falls, MN, we were forced to take refuge in our respective tents before 9 pm by a steady drizzle.  But, as we lay there, the light rain became a heavy downpour and the wind steadily accelerated.  The velocity of the wind became so fierce it produced an eerie melody as it whipped the forest canopy directly above our puny shelters. Concerned that only thin layers of nylon separated us from falling limbs or toppling trees, we slept fitfully, but stayed relatively dry.  In the calm of a new day, we checked the weather reports on our devices and were startled to discover that a tornado had set down nearby and brushed the park with 60-70 mph gusts.  A sunlit drive along a bucolic stretch of the Great River Road displayed a snapshot of the storm’s wrath.  

Oklahoma, yes!  Texas, probably!  But, Minnesota?

Speaking of weather, we saw striking evidence of the widespread flooding along hundreds of miles of riverfront that occurred this past spring.  Our saddest observations were of cabins uprooted and turned upside down and once beautiful parks and campgrounds horribly maimed by unimaginable forces.  Yet, it clearly illuminated that not even the US Army and billions of dollars’ worth of restraining structures can tame Old Man River!

There are more surprising facets of this educational prelude to a, more ambitious (i.e., longer and more  challenging), 2020 expedition which I wish to share.  Therefore, I hope to continue tracing of our fulfilling trek in my next installment.  In the meantime, enjoy our local waters and waterways, and don’t drown! Wear your PFD! 

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