Each morning, I have the bits of my life scattered about me. First, I put them in their respective small sacks, then I carry them to my kayak where there's a definite process to get everything packed just so. Sometimes I have it relatively easy (i.e. at a landing) and sometimes, it's a major chore (mosquitos and flies biting me while I stomp around in the muck). It's the time of day that I put off in the comparable safety and comfort of my tent. However, I always enjoy being on the water so much, that it's just an obstacle to conquer on my way to paddling.
I mowed all the fresh blueberries that Jim brought me this morning. I woke up early, excited to go more than half-way to Palisade, encouraged by all the inspiring stories from Jim last night. Somehow, I still didn’t leave camp until 11am. Here’s what I do in the morning, the reasons I keep getting such late starts despite waking up early.
1. camp clothes, sleeping pad, tent, dobh kit and sometimes food in back hatch
2. electronics bag strapped on top
3. pillow, sleeping bag, quick-grab bag in front hatch
4. food bag in-between my legs in the cockpit, snacks and lunch on deck
Lastly, I don my gloves, pack my water and tevas, put on my sunglasses, hat and PFD, and shove off. It’s sort of a production. I haven’t figured out how to make it less of a production considering that
a) I need my tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, pillow, camp clothes, dobh kit, and some food every single night, and they’re all packed in the farthest reaches of my kayak for weight/balance/fitting everything like a puzzle—reasons.
b) I can’t leave my lunch/snack bag on deck. (Mama Raccoon taught me that) Gotta bring it into camp each night.
c) I use my electronics each night to type my journal, record my milage, and besides, I want that stuff with me at all times.
d) Mosquitos suck.
Anyway, the river was less full of deer flies than the past couple days, but I counted that I killed 24 of them (all were biting my hands through my gloves). This, on a good day!
The day felt pretty easy and lovely. I realized yesterday that my normal “shortcuts” across turns was yielding some very difficult paddling against strange eddies. So today, I worked on finding the “sweet spot” in the current. Often, that means going the “long way around” the curves…but not always. You've got to watch the water, and look for the fastest moving water, and follow that. Tiny whirlpools indicate that the water is eddying and will slow you down significantly.
I spoke with Emily from ASC today, and she and I talked about working to get a story about me up on their site and some more info about them on mine. Another "meeting in the wilderness".
After 13 miles, my mid and lower back muscles felt like they were right on the verge of serious spasms. Not wanting to risk having my back go out (when that happens, I usually have to lay flat for 2-4 days), I stopped paddling, and floated the next 6 miles to the next campground, only paddling to steer. Slow going, but pretty nice. I ended up doing 19 instead of 28 miles today—not quite Jim Lewis-worthy, but still respectable for me.
When I found my camp, I wanted to immediately lie flat, but had to, of course, set up camp first. Feet covered in thick, clay-ey mud, I unpacked and set up my tent as fast as I could. In the few seconds during which I put my things inside my tent, a whopping 40 mosquitos followed me into the tent. I spent a few minutes killing mosquitos, the last of which were full of blood by the time I found them. Splash! Ewwww…it was like a killing field in my tent. Then I spent 10 minutes wet-wiping the mud off my feet, then had to eat some dinner (cold mashed potatoes with dried leeks), change into my camp clothes, blow up my sleeping pad, and THEN lie down. Ahhh, my back immediately thanked me. Hoping resting tonight does the trick and I can continue tomorrow.
It was still raining when I woke up. I lay there, waiting for it to stop. Once I did, I took a quick trip to the latrine (which I shared with a million ant eggs), and packed up to go. It’s the few minutes where I’m packing up my kayak in the morning that I just loathe. I'm stationary, focusing on not letting my gear get wet and muddy, focusing on putting the neoprene hatch cover on properly. The mosquitos descend on me and I can’t do anything about it. I wear my headnet, I wear bug spray, I wear long pants and sleeves, and they still bite me through the fabric. It’s like I can hear them laughing at me when I’m in that vulnerable I’m-packing-so-I-can't-swat-you place. It takes several deep breaths (and each deep breath is more time they can bite me!) to calm myself down and make sure I don’t forget anything or inadvertently fall into the river or something.
When I get on the water, the mosquitos back off, and the deer flies take over. They love landing on my hands, and biting me through my gloves. My first knuckles are covered in tiny bruised bites. When they bite me there, I have to set my paddle down before I can swat at them. It eats precious time, and can be maddening. I started imagining creating a mosquito net cover for my kayak. It would use tent-pole like support, and I’d wear it like a spray skirt, but it would have to be wider than my kayak to allow full range of motion of my arms. The paddle (which breaks down into 2 pieces) could be put through holes fitted with gaskets to keep the bugs out. The more I think about it, the more I desperately want this invention.
A thunderstorm popped up, and I pulled over to the weeds as it passed. Thirty minutes, sitting like a drowned rat as thunder and lightning passed overhead, the raindrops getting bigger and bigger until they seemed like hail. As soon as it passed, I left, only to have another storm with more intense lightning pass overhead not 5 minutes later. This time, I pulled over under some trees, which provided a bit more cover, but also harbored a swarm of mosquitos that were eating me alive. Crazily maddened with the mosquitos and a little bit scared with the lightning, not really knowing if I was in fact safer on the side of the river than just continuing on, I had a moment where I thought, “This is terrible. Why am I doing this?” The moment I got back on the river, my podcast shared the inner thoughts of Hermione, just as she’s realizing she can be a hero (paraphrased): “I wonder how many people become heroes just because they’re embarrassed to turn back? It’s not like we read in the history books, ‘and then they thought “the sensible thing to do would be to stop now,” but then they realized that would be embarrassing, so they continued to save the day.” I laughed out loud.
Folly + determination + embarrassed to quit = heroism?
The river reminded me of Bert's chalk drawings from Mary Poppins. I had this song stuck in my head all day.
I paddled 22 miles today, a long day, but it didn't seem all that long to my muscles, even though they’re definitely sore. My hands ache before anything else now.
When I arrived at Jacobson campground, I was greeted by Jim Lewis, a prolific paddling adventurer (he did 92 miles in a day a few weeks back! No wonder he suggested I could go 40+ in a day!) I had realized a few days ago that I hadn’t brought enough of my daily contact lenses with me, so I had my uncle Brad send a box to Jim, so he could drop them off for me. At Jim’s near insistence (via text—his messages were sounding more and more like, “I’m going to bring you extra stuff no matter what, so you better tell me what you want!”) I also requested some duct tape and a couple bottles of Gatorade so I am outfitted for taking microplastic samples for the next couple hundred miles. (I’ll drink the Gatorade, and use the bottles to collect water). Jim also brought me some carrots, cucumber, green pepper, broccoli and blueberries, mmmm! Fresh fruits and veggies! In the box of contacts, Brad had also included the Primate Rescue Center stickers that April, the owner, had sent me, and a very sweet gift from my friend Christy—some essential oils, a small sketchbook, and a very sweet note. I felt like Christmas! All this, on the side of the river!
While Jim had been waiting for me, he collected some firewood for my campsite and as I changed into dry clothes, he got the fire started. So great to have a campfire! I’m usually so tired and annoyed by mosquitos that I just hop straight into my tent and don’t bother with a fire. But the fire’s smoke kept the bugs at bay (oh yeah, duh), and it was really nice to have a blazing fire. I might do that more often :) Jim told me all sorts of great stories about some of his adventures, about other paddlers he’s helped over the years. He said, “a lot of people aren’t as prepared as you.” I asked what sorts of things people tend to forget, and he told me the worst example—a story of a man who, by the time he was only a few days beyond where I am now had exchanged boats FOUR TIMES. That made me feel like forgetting to bring enough contacts was really not that big of a deal. I really enjoyed Jim’s company, and look forward to more stories! I am super grateful that I am one of the few paddlers he decided to help as I make my way through his vicinity!
Lake Winnibigoshish is the 3rd largest inland lake in Minnesota. The word means “dirty water” in Ojibwe, referring to the effects of wind on the shallow lake.
I woke up reasonably early this morning, but took several hours to get on the water. Firstly, I decided that I needed to apply to a job for which the deadline was tonight…and it was a pain to get the application finished on my phone (minus one hour). Secondly, when I went to pack up my kayak, I found my hat floating in the water, and the deck of my boat an absolute wreck. Seems Mama Raccoon, who waltzed through my camp but didn’t find any vittles last night found a treasure trove afterall. I thought my deck bag was vermin-proof, but clearly it wasn't. She gnawed and clawed her way in, stealing my apple, nuts and raisins (I’m just not meant to have nuts and raisins this trip, that’s the 2nd time I’ve lost my stash!), 4 boiled eggs, and my carrots. The egg shells and yolks were smeared all over the deck and the deck bag was ruined. Cleaning that up and figuring out what to do with everything in the deck bag set me back another hour.
Still, when I got on the water, the lake was fairly calm, and the wind was behind me, so I tried using the umbrella as a sail. It worked, but I had to choose between the sail or paddling—couldn’t do both—and decided paddling was faster.
Just before I left, I put on my ipod, listening to Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HP Fan-fic). The earbud popped off in my right ear so I had a foreign object lodged in my ear and only one channel to listen. This happened across Cass Lake too. How’m I going to fix that!? The podcast kept me going strong across the lake, though, and I made good time—took me about 5.5 hrs to go from West Winnie Campground to the Dam (~13 miles). The water was open and the Lake so wide that I couldn’t see the other side when I started. Somewhat daunting compared to the cozy riverbanks on either side, but I also feel really at home on the open water from my days on Feather, the sailboat I grew up on. Unlike sailing, though, I feel more urgency because wind picking up doesn’t mean more power to sail on, it means more difficulty to make headway safely. Also, being propelled by my own strength means I have to stay diligent and focused the entire time. I can’t take a break until I’m within swimming distance of the shore again. The wind stayed low until the last hour when it picked up and created some white-caps, but, thankfully, the wind was still behind me.
I could have camped at or before the dam, but decided I still had time (and energy) to go 5 more miles to Crazy James’ Point. Blessedly, as I was “dismounting” and getting my kayak geared up for portage, Norm, a fisherman, came by to offer a hand. He pulled the boat up the hill and across the dam and down to the water for me as I carried my two largest, heaviest bags. What would have taken me an hour took 15-20 minutes! Thank you, River Angel! “My momma would have killed me if she saw me standing by while someone needed help,” he said. “Well, thank your momma for me!” I replied.
The last five miles marked a turning point for me, I think. I was sore and tired, but instead of continuing to shut down the way my body did when I was paddling in to Star Island, I found some new reserve and posture that kept me going reasonably well. I think that means I’m getting stronger! :)
The landing to the campsite was obscured by reeds, so I had to fake an entry and do my best to pull Spirit up on the bank. Lots of poison ivy and mosquitos. I set up my tent as fast as possible, and hunkered down for the evening. Didn’t even bother to try to make dinner, too many mosquitos. I ate some dried coconut and chocolate for dinner instead. I fell asleep before dark, and was awakened in the night to the lull of owls and frogs.
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.
I told myself last night that I could sleep as late as I wanted to. So I stayed napping in my tent until after 10am, ate some green beans and an apple, and took a couple hours to wake up and re-pack my boat. I took a water sample when I got back in the water, and when I was done, looked up and was delighted at the hundreds of whirling dragonflies. All day long, damselflies with emerald bodies, dragonflies with white spots on their wings and several other species of these creatures flitted about overhead, dancing on the breeze. I saw several deer, always surprised to see me round the bend. Some stood and watched me approach until the last moment, others disappeared right as I saw them. One doe had a very young fawn wading with her. So cute! I saw a merganser (wood duck?) who always stayed just a few turns in front of me, so that when it saw me, it startled and flew down stream, but then I’d see it again just a few turns around the bend again. The morning started in the muddy marsh, but gave way to shallows in a spruce forest. I saw several beaver dams (got caught on one that looked fresh because some of the nibbled branches had leaves on that were still green and lush). I walked my boat through many of the shallows, and often would get stuck on a rock or on the bottom and would have to get out, pull it ahead a bit, and get back in. Amazing how in just a day and a half I have sort of gotten the hang of entry and exit from the tiny, awkward cockpit.
At one point, there was a 50 yard portage around a log dam, but the portage was very awkward and difficult (straight up a muddy hill, around tight curves and down a steep slope). So I walked up the rapids to see if I thought I could guide my boat through the rapids. Yes. And so, I managed to lead my boat through the rapids! I think I have video of it. It was not easy and I fell a couple times, but was a lot faster than if I had portaged, and potentially safer. At the bottom, I had to swim the boat to the next set of shallows, where I unfortunately stepped on a mussel shell which sliced my foot. I had 4 more miles of shallows and wading, and getting stuck on rocks. I pulled 4 leeches off my feet, and the inside of my kayak was very bloody for a while (they inject an anticoagulant, so you bleed a lot longer than normal after they get pulled off or drop off).
The rest of the paddle was through wheat marsh, and the turnbacks were often so sharp that I’d have to do the kayak equivalent of a 3 point turn to get around the bend. Often the river was so narrow that I was using my paddle to push off the mud sides instead of paddling through the water.
Before heading out this morning, I looked at (what was left of) my map to get a rough estimate of what I should be on the lookout for; 3 bridges and a campsite after a set of powerlines. Under the first bridge, I laughed because someone had painted their handprints, the way Aboriginals in Australia do. I was so happy to see the powerlines, I knew the campsite couldn’t be far, but then I paddled much longer than I thought I should have to. Seems I missed the first campsite, and ended up at the 2nd one, a couple miles further. So I did 12+ miles today. Sore.
When I arrived at camp, I was pleased that I was able to pull my boat mostly ashore, which made setting up camp much easier than last night. First thing I did: clean out my foot, where I had stepped on that mussel, and wash the leech bites too. Two of my toenails fell off, too, as I walked through the shallows today.
I realized almost all my clothes got wet in the back hatch (not surprising—the rapids overtopped the boat a couple times today. So I hung them all to dry—and was SO GLAD that I had put my “For Camp Only—Never Get Wet!” clothes in a dry bag. I changed into them, particularly happy for my thick socks on my beat-up feet. I had wondered if I should bother bringing socks at all. Super glad I did. Not only are they nice on sore feet after a wet day, but they also help keep ticks off, when I stuff my pants into them.
I set up camp, and tried to light my stove, but the lid that screws into the fuel bottle and connects to the stove had a leak, so when I lit the stove, it all went up in a blaze of white gas fire. White gas, luckily, burns quickly, so I was able to douse the fire before anything super dangerous happened, but unfortunately, the blaze was enough to melt the fuel-to-stove lid. So no hot food for a few days. L. I ate a can of green beans, and a box of tofu. The sky looks clear, so I am laying in my tent, enjoying the fact that I’m safe from the buzzing mosquitos outside, without a rainfly. The moon looks nearly full, and I can hear rutting deer, and frogs.
I had a few seconds of cell phone coverage today; enough to send and receive a few texts but there’s no coverage here. I estimate it will still be a couple days before I get to Bemidji. It’s really weird to not have so much as cell phone coverage, but to be laying in my tent, typing on a computer.
I was super lucky I didn’t fool around with painting the name of my boat before, because my friend Lisa Zelig designed the perfect logo—so I can put it on the bow, and people will be able to read it from either the port or starboard side. I love it. I will be adding rhinestones on the next rest day I have.
Some great resources I've used. (will be adding to the list as I remember/find more)
Logistics (Mississippi specific)
Planning an Expedition on a sea kayak
Sea Kayaking by John Dowd
Mississippi River Paddlers FB group
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Water Trail maps. (They're free, water resistant, and small. Totally amazing).
I lucked out in the family department. Last time I saw Brad and Jenny was at my sister's wedding, 9 years ago, but when they heard about this project, they've been nothing but excited and supportive. Brad picked me up from the airport in his electric car, and we've been provisioning ever since! We've gone to pick up my kayak, UPS, Whole Foods, Michael's, Trader Joe's, a normal grocery, another store, made multiple trips to REI, and drove all the way out to Stillwater, Wisconsin to pick up a VHF radio from Craigslist. And yesterday when I woke up from a nap, I found that the Lid Fairy had visited! Brad is an engineer by training and when he heard I was going to sprout seeds but didn't have a good mesh cap for the jar I'll be using, he drilled holes in the lid and popped some fiberglass mesh. Bam.
Brad is not just an engineer, though, he also builds and fixes harpsichords, and is a potter, specializing in fish!
Being here is just wonderful, though. Minnesota in summer is green and lush, the skies are blue, the temps are lovely, and so far I have not been bothered by bugs. Brad and Jenny's lifestyle is one of modest comfort; classical music (and sometimes barbershop quartets) playing all day, leisure time to read the paper or a book, walks in the neighborhood with their adorable and very well-behaved shelty, Miles, snacks outside on the porch, exercise and work interspersed throughout. They're intelligent and very funny. Thanks to them I not only have had the perfect support and location for getting ready for this trip, but have also had the opportunity to see my cousin Wendy and her family, my mom's cousin John and his wife, and a couple very interesting ladies in their neighborhood who backed this project. And we've had yummy food and played games too.
While in REI, trying to stuff my backpack into a dry bag to figure out which one was the right size, Brad said, "I was going to help you, but I realized you've got to be able to do this yourself." When driving in the car, "I was going to put on the air conditioning, but I don't want to spoil you--you've got to get used to the heat." I was in a store and it started to pour. When I came outside, he said, "I was going to run in and bring you an umbrella, but then I figured you've got to get used to squalls."
I love this practical, hands-off methodology for 'helping'. Ha haha.
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:
Alyssum Pohl is paddling the Mississippi River and documenting water quality and plastic waste along the way.