- I can barely make a fist, my hands and wrists are so sore.
- Bruises are more pronounced, especially on my upper quads.
- Elbows hurt to bend and also to straighten.
- Hemorrhoids are gone.
- Deltoids, pectorals, rhomboids, lats all achey. Nothing feels relaxed even when I have relaxed on my matress, laying down. My whole body feels, as climbers say, pumped.
- Ankles and feet sore (from using the rudder pedals)
- Blood blister on my chest has continued to burst every few days and gets bigger each time. Dad (a doctor) says just to keep it from trauma as best I can, and use antibiotic ointment on it if it bursts again. It's a hemangioma.
- Bug bites are more numerous, but I’m getting better at not scratching them until they’re scabs.
- I think I have some poison ivy on my inner thigh, though luckily so far it’s just a rash and doesn’t itch.
- Petechiae in lots of places. Maybe from smacking flies and mosquitos?
- I use sun screen, a hat, sunglasses, long sleeves and fingerless gloves. Despite that, I have a pretty intense raccoon face and a tan line across my knuckles where my gloves end.
- But again, I’m happy and feel super strong mentally. I feel completely on top of my game.
Today was the 2nd day in a row that I skipped my planned campsite and went straight on to the next. Last week, when my deltoids stopped working, another muscle group would work until failure, and so on until paddling felt like I was just stirring soup with a spoon and nothing more. Today, when my deltoids felt tired, I felt a strong lower back kicking in, I felt alternate postures and handle-grips working their magic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still super sore and should probably not push it too hard over the next few days, but I do feel like I’m getting better at this!
Leaving Crazy James’ campsite, I felt like it was my duty to record the spot (on instagram) since I would normally think it was quite beautiful. I did my best, but the mosquitos were thick, and so was the poison ivy. I was trying to get out of there as fast as possible. Along the river today, I continued listening to Harry Potter and the methods of Rationality—it’s a good keep-paddling-method, listening to a story. I saw more than 10 bald eagles, and an otter bouncing on a sand bar, and a bunch more rodents (can’t ever tell if they’re otter, beaver, or muskrats) swimming. The kingfisher are not enormous anymore, but they’re still plentiful. Goldfinch have started making an appearance, and at night I hear bullfrogs (I think not native?) in addition to the greenfrogs (which sound like knocks on wood).
At one point, I paddled by a homestead, marked by hand-hewn fences, and out popped a man, who seemed to have a 6th sense for paddlers coming through (I usually sneak up on wildlife! But he was immediately out to greet me). It was George Hawkins, one of the Mississippi River Paddlers river angels, and he offered me a new handle to make portaging easier (yay!), some peanut butter and dehydrated eggs (to make up for the nuts and eggs that Mama Raccoon stole yesterday), and some of his gorgeous beaded handiwork! He's of native descent (Leech Lake band of Ojibiwe, bear clan, eagle spirit) and works with super tiny beads and his own designs. He lost his daughter in an accident earlier this year, and I think I reminded him of her a little bit, at least in adventuresome spirit. I will think of him and his daughter fondly every time I wear the earrings. He was so encouraging. “You’re doing great. There are people who gave up on this journey before here. You just stay healthy and keep those bug bites and poison ivy under control and you’ll be okay. I think one man stopped not far from here because he said his legs looked like tapioca. You gotta dry the poison ivy out, and keep from scratching the bug bites. You’ll be fine.” The earrings are made in the image of James Earle Fraser's "End of the Trail" sculpture, which depicts a Native American on horseback, returning from battle. It is meant to represent the strength of the Native, their spirituality, their medicine as they transformed, proudly, into the next century. George suggested that he meant it for me as encouragement that I would definitely reach the "end of the trail," and that I had his blessing. In his words, "it stands for 'never give up.' The horse and rider are dead tired and still stand to fight." I asked how long he had lived there on the river, and he said, “6 generations”! It's the ancestral land of one of the seven native sisters who made a bluster and were granted the land by the POTUS at the time.
I interviewed George, and it turns out in 4th grade, he and some classmates were the kids that came up with “Give a hoot, don’t pollute”!! I think that’s so cool! He’s my hero, and I met him! (interview coming soon) I enjoyed chatting with him on the river bank a while longer. He set me up with some pool noodle as paddle grips for my aching hands (a wider grip to relax my arthritic hands), and I was off.
The deer flies were really bad on the water today, so I wore my head net during the 2nd half of the day. I paddled on all the way to Schoolcraft State Park, just past Deer River where I arrived just before 10pm. I had just barely enough light to set up my tent, and then it was dark. The humming mosquitos swarming outside my tent lulled me to sleep.
What is portaging? Any time there's a portion of the river that's impassable for whatever reason, and you have to pull the boat out of the river to go around the obstacle, that's portaging. In the case of my boat, that takes several steps:
I don't use the same #s in the video below, but here's what that looks like (sound track=breathing heavy during the hardest part of the portage). When multiple people are around, the job can be split up. When it's just me, and when it's hilly and gravelly like this example (as opposed to paved), it's a major ordeal! This one took ~45 minutes.
The handle on the front of my boat is really small--too small to get a good grip with two hands, and so it ends up pinching my hand and being super uncomfortable. The boat is heavy, but it takes longer because I have to give my hand a rest. George Hawkins gave me a nice handle to add to the loop on the front of my boat to make portaging easier. I'll upload a picture of it soon. I've been super lucky finding people to help me with the other portages I've had because doing it this way really hurts my elbows. I'm just not strong enough to do it without injuring my ligaments.
Starting with what I had before I launched
And from the bottom up now:
In general, my body feels like it’s been working hard. But I’m doing my best to take care of it, and it seems like its responding well. I have to remember to plan for the worst, not the best case scenarios. Then I’ll be pleasantly surprised when things go extra well! I know each portion of the river will present different challenges, but I think the log jams and beaver dams and shallows of the first week were a particularly intense way to start the process. Paddling is a marathon activity, and I’m hopeful that my strength and endurance is building up, little by little.
Mentally: I feel good. Most importantly, I am happy. The excitement has worn off a bit, but I’m still determined and enjoying this project a great deal. Plus, every day presents new challenges and geographies, so it’s very stimulating. I find myself mentally reminding myself to make smart decisions almost constantly. “Hug the shore of the lake unless the wind is down. If you’re tired, take a breather. Keep going, you can do it. Don’t forget to eat. Clean your wounds really well. Staying rested is a bigger priority than blogging. Put the cockpit cover on before you leave the boat no matter what. Pull up the rudder, don’t let it get banged around. Relax your shoulders. Hold the paddle with proper form. Use sunscreen even though you’re covered. …” I miss my kitties, but am glad they’re being well cared for.
I woke up this morning and had a moment of being scared. All night last night, my hands and my elbows were sore. I kept trying to straighten them against my body to rest as I slept, but it just hurt so much. No better this morning, I thought I might not be able to go on today. However, with a cut foot from yesterday and some very sore joints, I thought I'd rather be closer to civilization, not as far as I was. I took some ibuprofen. As it was, I had some clothes trying to dry out in the sun. So I let that happen. Then it looked like rain, and I let the clouds pass by. So, by 11:37, I decided, to heck with it, I think it'll be okay.
And I was right. As soon as I was on the water, I didn't hurt as much. I think what happened with my elbow was that yesterday, with all that pulling and yanking my boat over rocks and sandbars and logs and dams, I was using my joints instead of my muscles. I think I must have stretched my ligaments a bit. Ouch. Darn EDS. With my hands, I decided to be a lot more conscientious about my form. Thumbs on the shaft of my paddle always. Wrists as stable as possible. Open palmed as I press the paddle forward, gripping the paddle lightly as I pull it back. That helped a LOT.
The day was full of slightly wider channels, redwing blackbirds teasing me, singing to me, cheeping at me, flitting toward me and away from me all day long. I saw a couple bald eagles, several more deer, and only had to get out of my boat once to pull myself across some shallows. I paddled 15 miles today (5 the first day, 10 the second) and was at peak lactic acid ready-to-finish at 4pm, but I didn't reach my campsite until 6:45. Intense! Bear Den Landing was just a landing, no outhouse, so I had to bury my business that night. It was the first time I had any cell coverage--just 3 days, but I was SO GLAD to talk to my sister and Nick and to be able to send a couple texts.
I'm rather embarrassed by all the new gear and equipment I have, but also grateful for the opportunity to be doing this journey at a time when technology, materials science, and engineering play a huge part in the success of such expeditions. Even 10 or 20 years ago some of my gear and equipment didn't exist or was prohibitively expensive. For instance, I used to never travel with music because tapes were just too heavy and bulky. I remember considering bringing mini-discs along in Tanzania in 2001, but decided that part of the traveling experience was leaving comforts like music behind. And look at me now! Traveling with my computer! And ALL my music! And my phone! And an ipod! etc etc etc... Don't worry, I will still be enjoying the sounds of the river quite a lot.
In the past few days, in addition to my kayak, I have aqcuired:
Periodically along this journey, I will check-in on my physical and mental health. I will label them all "Health Check," so if this aspect of my journey is not interesting to you, you'll have been warned and will be able to move past the post. Click "Kayaking with EDS" in the Categories section in the margin to the right to follow all such posts.
Here's what I am currently experiencing physically with any associated pain (0=none, 10=extreme), and what I'm doing to deal with it (starting with what I listed last health check):
Mental health update:
I had a panic attack last week, but it was situational, which always makes them a little less scary because I at least understand why my body is going into overdrive, even if it's disproportionate to the trigger. In general, I have been extremely happy: the kickstarter went better than expected, everything keeps falling into place, and so many people are supportive of this project. I noticed my face relaxing like it hasn't relaxed in I-don't-know-how-long, allowing me to smile a full, un-forced smile. It feels like a long-lost but familiar and marvelous countenance. I am tucking away this relaxed muscle memory, and hoping I can better access it from now on.
I drove out to Rockhall, MD the other day. Rockhall is where my family bought our boat, Feather, when I was a kid, before we went sailing for a year, so it has a special place in my heart. I also like to think that I'm starting my journey in the same place my parents started theirs 25 years ago.
I spent several hours with Jim of Chester River Kayak Adventures, who taught me how to assist someone to get back inside their kayak after they tip it, and also how to get back inside my own kayak after I tip it. He said in 20 years of teaching, I was the most adept at crawling back inside my kayak. I attribute that to my uber-flexibility and therefore, my ability to stay super low on the kayak while I'm maneuvering back inside. It's a good thing I'm good at it though, because he also said that in 20 years of teaching I was the first female to tip her kayak by accident! Hopefully I've learned my lesson about how sensitive kayaks are to weight changes, and I won't ever have to use the skills I learned. But in case I do, I'm ready!
Periodically along this journey, I will check-in on my physical and mental health. I will label them all "Health Check," so if this aspect of my journey is not interesting to you, you'll have been warned and will be able to move past the post.
I was recently reminded that health information is private (with the subtext that it should not be shared). My opinion is that "private" means that it is mine to decide what I do with it. In the same way that sexuality is private; each person may choose to share or not share whatever is comfortable for them. My reasoning for sharing is that, no matter the context, I see stigmas and predjudices decrease only after people make their personal experiences known. By humanizing our experiences through transparency and lack of shame, those around us who may not suffer the same burdens tend to eventually come around to a more compassionate view. I am also sharing because a community of people with similar symptoms and struggles exists. I have benefitted greatly from reading their stories, learning from them how to effectively deal with my own symptoms, and simply knowing that I was not alone. I am not ashamed of my conditions (I was born like this!), and my hope is that by sharing, I will be increasing awareness and compassion. I will try to explain things to provide background, but I aim to be brief and matter-of-fact because dwelling on these issues is not helpful; I like to get on with my life. That said, I am happy to talk about this stuff with anyone.
I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a genetic connective tissue disorder that affects many body systems. I have hypermobility type, which explains my contortion abilities. I wrote a more in-depth blog post about EDS and all my symptoms here. Interestingly, mental health (anxiety in my case) is often affected amongst EDSers. My understanding of why so many of us deal with anxiety is that it is related to dysautonmia. More specifically, collagen (connective tissue) all over our body is malformed, including in our blood vessels. Blood pressure is determined in part by sensors in our blood vessels, and since our blood vessels are always a little lax, those sensors tell the brain to release adrenaline to try to constrict the vessels to correct for low blood pressure. But since the collagen in our vessels is messed up, the adrenaline doesn't necessarily work to get our blood pressure higher, but the adrenaline definitely still affects our mind and other parts of the body. The perpetual high levels of adrenaline explain weird heart rhythms (arryhthmias), high anxiety, and even vivid dreams (the adrenaline causes us to have less regular sleep patterns and light sleeping, allowing us to remember the dreams). Case in point, I woke up at 3:30am with tachycardia (heart racing), and couldn't sleep, so I am writing this blog post in the middle of the night. :)
Here's what I am currently experiencing physically with any associated pain (0=none, 10=extreme), and what I'm doing to deal with it:
Mental health update:
My body tends to (over)react similarly to excitement and stress. I take a small dose of Lexapro daily to normalize my anxiety levels. Organizing Paddle On! is really exciting, but I have to do my best to relax in the face of excellent news so that I don't induce a panic attack (sort of funny). I manage this by focusing my attention elsewhere: exercising regularly, my cats, making food, reading, taking a walk and appreciating nature, talking to people about THEIR lives, deep breaths. I feel like I'm doing a great job this week, especially with all the excitement and pressure to make sure everything is organized thoroughly for this project. I feel on top of things.
I'm so excited to be announcing this project! I will be paddling the Mississippi River this summer while documenting water quality and plastic waste along the way. This blog is where I will be sharing all progress, stories, videos, photos and journal entries. Please RSS the blog to make sure you don't miss an entry. Thanks for joining me!
Alyssum Pohl is paddling the Mississippi River and documenting water quality and plastic waste along the way.