Day 10 – August 18th

IMG_4108Today is a hang day at the “Kanu House”. Of all the whirlpools one encounters on the Mississippi, no river rat paddler will escape this one in the form of Big Muddy Mike. It’s a good thing, too, because Big Muddy Mike of Big Muddy Adventures – – owns this special section of the waterway.
When he heard I was about to hit his stretch of the Mississippi, the 11 mile bit where no commercial travel is allowed, where if I didn’t end up in the barge congested canal I’d end up bouncing around in the rapids of the “Chain of Rocks,” he felt compelled to  save me from near certain disaster or at the very least from serious discomfort. If the water were higher it wouldn’t be an issue, but it’s not, and while I *might* be able to navigate my canoe over it, I don’t know where there are rocks that are three feet below versus the rocks that are three inches below and it is far too bouncy for me to eye ball it. My canoe is designed for surf, not rapids with rocks and drops and an 11 inch rudder. Besides, the only way you learn something like that is doing it over and over and over again,  like Big Muddy Mike has.
I’m a big believer in local knowledge, but I’m also sometimes a skeptic of it because many times folks are scared of a stretch of their waterway so much they don’t get out to actually learn about the spot they’re timid about. This will turn into a matter of fact for them that that particular stretch is too rough, to bad, too unpredictable, to do. So considering the source is very important.

Why I didn’t see this mess of rapids when plotting my points perfectly showcases the one danger of chart plotting using Google Earth. Clearly when I was plotting points either 1) I thought paddling the canal would be a viable alternative or 2) the satellite shot of the area was taken during high water and the rocks we buried under a dozen or so foot of water, and not at “rapids stage.”

I read Mike’s email, after getting a text alert about his email and FB message. I’m not one to fret over folks telling me a passage is difficult or impossible but this guy seemed legit. I also think I had heard of him before. One of my FB friends, whom I hope to meet in person in real life one of these days, Alyssum Pohl, did the Mississippi River last year, had mentioned him at this point in her journey.
You simply can’t escape the grasp of Big Muddy Mike. Out of respect for his knowledge and the offer of his services, if you pass through this way, you need at least one day to hole up and regroup, dry out your gear, cool your heals, and enjoy the area. His “Kanu house” is the perfect respite. He knows this waterway and he knows his shit. He’s not warning you about a few hazards cause he’s scared of the water, rather, this is his playground and he knows it intimately. He’s also done about 20,000 miles of expeditions himself. He’s the bad ass of the Mississippi. And he’s quite the character, so definitely, for entertainment value alone, he rates.
Also, and not lastly-and a point not lost on me, about a month ago or so a kayaker died at the Port of St. Louis -the details of which are still unknown except he was on the water at 4am, had no PFD, and was in the very busy, barge infested port. This put everyone-all water authority types from state police to the USCG on high alert. The last thing I want to do on any of my paddles is to do something stupid which results in a curtailing of our already limited “freedom to roam” our dammed & locked waterways. I most certainly don’t want to mess with the good relations Big Muddy has with the commercial guys and authorities, so I figured it would be wise to cool my blade and soak up some knowledge from the guy who makes this place his playground. It would simply suck to make things more difficult for him; these waters are challenging enough without havoc caused by the stupidity of a stranger.
I’m incredibly grateful that Big Muddy reached out to me. The canal is only a bit less narrow than the C&D canal at home but with way, way, way more traffic. We could see this on the nickel tour Big Muddy Mike gave us on the way back to his canoe compound. Barges under tow choked the canal, it was even harrier than the unSanitary Canal and more jam packed with commercial traffic than even the St. Clair River or any other heavily I industrialized area I’ve paddled on. Unlike the unSanitary canal, which is also a mess with barges, the tow boats here were pushing the maximum number of barges–15. Even if I HAD managed to get through without becoming a bow ornament on a barge, the wait at the lock there would have been crazy. I could very well still be sitting there even now, as commercial traffic has priority.
Once you are in Big Muddy’s grasp, you can’t break free. A 7 knot current under the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron is easier to bust out of than escaping the gravitational pull of this super cool hang out, and Big Muddy’s wealth of knowledge, history of all the paddlers that came here before me, and his general bad assery. He’s also someone who cares deeply about the river and our water, and is now devoting more of his energies to getting folks on the water with his tours, which Chelsea and I were lucky to partake in last night.
I don’t care that I get up at 5/5:30a to start my day with a blog, I am NOT gonna miss a guided moonlit tour and dinner on the muddy banks of the Mississippi. And actually, the banks on which we landed were perfect sand beaches.
To get there we all piled into the canoe on the trailer while some folks say in the truck. Then we drove the very short distance to the “put in” which was pretty stinking steep for a 30 foot wide voyaging canoe. But we managed-first carrying all our gear down to the water then carrying the canoe. Many hands make light work, and the group of folks going out and Big Muddy’s right hand man, Jeremy, got the job done. One of the beautiful things about a voyaging canoe is that they are very stable and you can cram them with gear.
Once on the island we set about gathering wood for the fire. In my mind this is five star dining. Sitting by a campfire, eating the dinner cooked on it, and enjoying conversation while being surrounded by nature and water.
It simply doesn’t get any better than this. So Chelsea and I are gonna review the route and fine tune the plans for the upcoming weeks, make a few needed purchases (reusable 6 gallon water jugs, at least 2, need to be in our gear assortment), do some needed outreach, and go visit the Museum in St. Louis. This will be the first time on this journey that I sort of explore the city I’m passing through.
Yesterday Chelsea and I were also lucky to catch a meeting with Collin, on behalf of the mayor’s office.  He met us down at the cemented beach waterfront under the St. Louis Archway. Apparently the city plans to highlight its amazing waterway, like so many cities are doing these days. Well, why not, it works and it’s a pretty obvious selling point for any town. Magnify your assets and make them accessible to everyone and you’d be surprised how they can improve a place. In the spirit of this rebirth, and to keep their newly revisited resource stays clean as well as protecting their drinking water, a group of mayors from various towns along the Mississippi are gathering in September to discuss addressing run-off. Needless to say, that made me pretty happy to hear.

Tomorrow’s race will be a ten mile race of voyaging canoes. I’m contemplating doing that. Why not, when will I get that chance again? After the race I’ll continue on my way, but cut off the “Chain of rocks” which might be possible in my canoe but frankly I’m not willing to risk it. Maybe Mike will let me take out one of his canoes or a kayak. Am tempted to see if Pueo can handle it, would love to try, I think she could, but..
As Big Muddy likes to say, “you’re on river time.”

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