Source to Sea

A Water Man
by Mark Downey -- July 12th, 2012

St. Louis.

I know the River, he says, better than anyone up here, probably, and his arms and eyes agree, but it’s always changing, he adds. So I don’t know this River. Still, for him, the Mississippi is always a capital ‘R’ River, though he agrees it’s the same with all others.

He picked us up from under a bridge outside St. Louis and loaded our boats onto his van. Yeah we’ll put you in the canoe house, there’s a hose out back for showers, river rat style, how do you guys usually do food, what do you think about God? It’s his guide service base, and a pre-hostel devoted to the water. A fixer-upper, no furniture just life jackets and dry bags and homemade prayer flags, we’ll all camp on bare floors with the paint chips and ants.

You’ve got twelve-hundred miles under your belt, another to go. In buggy porchlight, he talks hushed with hands on his hips like a coach at half time, you’re winning so far, jaw cocked for suspense, but it’s about to get tough. I can tell you what I know, though I haven’t seen everything. He uses parables, mostly, tales of the adventures and expeditions both wise and foolish, about his students, about the Chain of Rocks and how he’s learned to respect the River. I’ve got more miles, he understates in a gruff whisper, but we should still learn from each other. So we share our stories too, as true as we can remember. Taking in everything, sometimes he boiled in passion, others he’d go quiet, point and agree with a nod.

It’s the Fourth of July. The coach takes us out to his favorite spot, a quiet island where barges can’t reach, to view fireworks over the Gateway Arch. It’s Gilligan’s Island, because of the shipwreck he says, but you won’t find that label on a map. For him, every curve and sand bar is named with memories, those eagles are my friends, the deep holes are sacred. Guys, feather those paddles, you’re stroking like pro’s, is this your normal pace? We land and gather driftwood for a fire, eat fish tacos and watch the full moon rise. It has an incredible influence on tides, the moon, and people are eighty-percent water, so obviously – you know – that’s where lunatics come from. Then we galloped across sand bars and left our clothes and dove into blue pools bracing just under the surface.

I’ve run it more than anyone I’ve ever heard of, he says about the Chain of Rocks. This is our third day together. We all stand on a pier outside St. Louis and stare, the Chain is a single line of jagged teeth, foaming, spreading across the entire width of the Mississippi River, and only a few clear tongues sliding through it. I don’t even know what’s under that drop, refrigerators, mufflers, re-bar, don’t think I want to. This is it, the free-flowing River and its manic grin, just past the last lock and dam at the confluence with the Missouri River. From here we’ll ride the open current all the way to the Gulf. This is a sacred place to all peoples, mentions the coach some minutes later as we’re riding the River’s unleashed surge towards the falls.

We drop over, water rolls in, get soaked, stroke stroke! I need you to bail, bail now, stay centered, furiously dumping, do not tip us, you cannot lean like that, the River spins us and drags us, we’re only ever half controlling, now pushing back, it’s something like a baptism and as ineffable as we’re swept half sunk through the Chain. We paddle away, catch breath on the beach, and a drink – the coach floats with a cooler. Later, still dripping, I stand and watch the sun set over the churning outflow. I think this River could take us if it wants.

He sent us off one morning after the tips and fireworks and sunset rapids, I know you guys will make it, you kidding me you’re grace on water, into the Mississippi’s boils and eddies and twilight calms and whatever comes next. Appropriate, he says, our meeting and your starting this stage amidst a celebration of freedom.


  1. Ginger
    Jul 12, 2012

    What a privelege to have shared a few minutes with this full-of-life and stories “water man” during our St. Louis rendez vous with you! How your own lives are being enriched…and so are others through all of you!

  2. Marc
    Jul 13, 2012

    Unreal. Mark: please start writing novels. You’re like Tom Robbins, but with context and profundity.

  3. Christa T.
    Jul 18, 2012


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