Source to Sea

And What if it Rains?
by Mark Downey -- June 22nd, 2012

We woke at 3 a.m. to stay in front of the storm, but it caught us anyway. The plan was to slip out at first light, at 4:30, as soon as I could read our watery trail. In the thick and inky dark we rolled our tents and packed the canoes. Boats loaded we passed around a spoon and a pot of cold oatmeal Jeff had made the night before. Four-thirty came, nothing; I could hear the River, a white-noise rush, but could only barely make out its debris and frothing bubbles coursing past the landing. Our little breakfast gone, there was nothing to do but sit in the canoes. We waited.

It was about ten miles past Brianerd, MN, on the flooded banks of the Mississippi River. We’d left the headwaters in Lake Itasca twelve days prior, aiming for the Gulf of Mexico. Over the weeks before, heavy rains had stirred the River into a roiling stew of mud and wood. We’d watched entire trees, young and old, topple into the flow. Gashes in hillsides appeared around bends where water had slammed and torn the slopes. In the channel itself, the influx of water had sped the current and widened its eddies. We weren’t about to navigate this River in the dark.

Five, the surface was still black, the sky now smoldering red in the east. “Red sky in morning…” My vision for the Holy Man Adventures team was to pull hard and blast out from the edge of this madness like the Millennium Falcon escaping a Death Star. That’s right. But as blood pooled in the bruised sky, we started to realize the lingering darkness came from piling clouds. Then worse: we weren’t outrunning the storm – we were headed straight for it.

We were under way at five-fifteen. The rain started immediately. Then the lightning. We pulled off and found some cover in the riverside swamp, crouching in the raindrops and mosquitoes. We speculated about the weather maps we had seen the day before and tried to predict the cloud movements. After an hour or two, the lightning passed and the downpour eased. We bailed our canoes and got back in the flow. Over the rest of the day we met more rain, lightning, and some black fronts oozing cauldron green. We’d been dodging storms for two weeks, the same ones that flooded and stirred the River. Maybe we got greedy.

For all its beauty, for all its development too, the Mississippi is not a tame river. Even at its quiet headwaters, the River has many hidden dangers. In the reaches from Itasca to Lake Winnibigoshish, shallow bottoms, blind corners, and wrecked beaver dams hide snags that can puncture a hull. And then there’s the sun – our 3 a.m. wake-up on the day of the storm was not so unusual for Holy Man Adventures. For the first couple days of our Mississippi River Paddle, we’d made the mistake of starting late. The upper Mississippi creeps through simmering marshlands, seeping through tan reeds and black mud. For miles and miles there’s no escaping the midday heat; we got cooked. And after the River widened past Winnibigoshish, we met the afternoon headwinds and waves – almost current-negating in force – that have since become daily challenges. So we started rising in the dark and pulling thirty miles before lunch. Those early morning paddles are calm and still and most beautiful we think, when the mist hovers golden over the surface of the water.

This is the River we are coming to know. An impossible mess of wonder and danger and birth and destruction and change, and we drift down the middle of it all. We love the current and hate the bugs, eat the fish and drink the water, and hug the carved-out scarred shores to escape the wind. In this flood, otters and minks poke through reeds to watch; bald eagles tilt away to other business; herons are cautious; deer flee on sight.

We had deadlines in mind the morning the storm hit, schedules to keep. Waking and breaking camp in the dark, I felt the rush of competition; it was us against the Storm, and we were going to beat it. But, later in the swampy mud as mosquitoes sang in my hair, that downpour washed the lies away. By the lightning strobes, as dawn was breaking, we saw ourselves caught up in the surge with the logs and mud and otters and eagles. Our plans, the weather – just debris floating down the River.

As we passed through Anoka, MN, a man yelled “beer” from the shore and we scampered to meet him. We sat at the shore with Pastor Eric, brew-donor, and chatted about the people that paddle the River. Pastor Eric noted that most of the paddlers he meets are post-school/pre-career and looking for one big experience before moving forward. To these, the River is something like a quest, something to conquer. To our four little men here with Holy Man Adventures, we’re hoping for something opposite. With words and pictures, we’re attempting to share some of the mystical essence of the Mississippi, the experience of the River as a singularity. We’re learning that under the flood of work and play, rapids and rope swings, runs One River.


  1. Richard Downey
    Jun 23, 2012

    beautiful writing Mark. You convey the essence of your experiences in an evocative way. A tremendous adventure.

  2. Lauren Gloekler
    Jun 24, 2012

    Wow. Love the imagery and poetry of this entry! I feel like I am there with you, paddling down the river. 🙂

  3. Sue
    Jun 27, 2012

    It must be really grueling! I hope you’re eating enough to stay in shape–that’s a lot of exercise out in the elements, too. And I keep thinking about all those mosquitoes–that’s tough! But you really make me appreciate the beauty of what you’re doing–getting to really know that big old massive river. thinking about you guys!

  4. Linda Smith
    Jul 4, 2012

    Wow. What beautiful writing. I know your parents are glad they sent you to Duke. You surely got writing expertise out of your experience. mark, do you actually mean that you drink the water ( without treatment? I intuited that you are boiling the water)?take care of yourself, have a ball, and come back and tell us all the stories, Linda Schoonover Smith

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