LOWER MISSISSIPPI RIVER
The difference in river currents post Cairo, Illinois, has been, to put it mildly, dramatic. Am now facing rising waters that two nights ago, could have taken me under – while in my sleep.
Had camped on a patch of sand known as “Moore Island” approximately 30 miles south of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and come midnight, was forced to pull up stakes as the waters were lapping at my tent. Moved the tent to higher ground – back into the sands below the elevated trees, as high as it actually went on that island – but by 6am, the waters had climbed to the point where it was time to vacate. The water had actually risen five feet in total Sunday night, but it certainly felt like more. Still in the dark, my lantern, blowing in the wind like a hurricane lamp, guided my movements of bringing goods from tent to canoe as I was in essence evicted off the island.
Now in the river, I was greeted by raging waters, dangerous waves, monster barges, wind, and dark.
Made it to the first boat ramp I could find to get off the river where I met and befriended the pilot of the ferry service tug that operates between Missouri and Hickman, Kentucky. Edward Fuller has been on the river for some time, and had some ominous words regarding my mode of transport – pointing to a spot just across the river where a giant eddy has been known to spin full sized boats, as he put it, something silly.
After listening to my story, Edward told me, “I’m not sure if I should call you crazy – or praise you”. Edward gave me one of his bright orange rain slickers for good luck (so the barges could actually see me) along with some snacks and extra water. We talked shop while we waited for the next car to arrive as well as for the waves to calm down. During that time, I learned a number of good strategies to deal with the remainder of my trip: Hug the right side of the coast (at least for this portion of the river); get completely off of the river when a monster barge approaches; but do not step foot onto Island No. 8 (a large island approx 5 miles down from Hickman, KY), as “it is a hunting island where they will shoot you on sight.”
As luck would have it, I had to make two emergency stops onto Island No. 8, as two monster barges, one after the next, hugged the same stretch of coastline, immediately to my left. As Edward had explained, “hunters down here don’t care about Christmas. For them, it’s all about the start of hunting season. They stock that island with deer and if you land on their island without an invite, they will think you’re a poacher, and they will shoot you. They shoot on sight.”
Just before landing, the first time, I did see one deer who jumped out of my line of sight the moment I laid eyes on her. Laying low on dreaded Island No. 8, I was happy and quite fortunate that these were the only set of eyes to have seen me.
Am now talking with tug pilots whenever I get the chance to check out the rapidly changing conditions on this river. The waters continue to rise and it is now rare to find an island with a sandbar at all. Most islands are simply comprised of the top half of trees. I’d take pictures to show you but while I’m out on the river these days, I’m too busy concentrating. The river current has picked up to at times clock in at ten to twelve miles per hour. That’s up from two to five miles per hour prior to joining the Ohio River at Cairo. At such speeds the dangerous part of the river is not what is on top but indeed what is just below the surface. Logs, driftwood, and buoys. And at times, a medley of the three.
While that first morning out, post Moore Island, spooked me, the waves have not reached the levels that they did that day. I take solace in my suffering. There is still the nature. There is still the adventure. At this stage of the game, I am quite literally fighting to tell these stories – to make it to these towns. Upon landing at Cairo, at going on 10pm last Wednesday night, the good Reverend Kelly Cox asked, “Is this really worth the story?” To which question I answered honestly – without even thinking, “Yes, absolutely!”
Even with the rains, there are still the birds. Small birds with bright blue inner feathers, skirting about the canoe, as if to check it out, dipping and diving, always coming back for a second look. Today, the rain was sort of cool, scattered at first, like unto heavy sprinkles. But then it droned on and on, picking up steam, until it turned into a downpour. Cold rain that drives at you, in the case of today – all day long. Was so cold when I pulled out at Caruthersville, Missouri, late today that I checked myself directly into a hotel – with the kind (and essential) assistance of two new friends who live here locally. A wise investment for the hot shower alone. And now – at long last – for the bed. A bed that come morning, knock on wood, will not have floated away.