Current and Paddle
by Mark Downey -- July 23rd, 2012
After its confluence with the Missouri River, the Mississippi flies like a magic carpet. On it we escaped the stone and steel banks of St. Louis, past the jostling barges and their pounding wakes, the blaring tugboats, and sped out into a whole new world. The River grows miles wide and sometimes reaches ten in one direction, sometimes making loops the same length – almost reconnecting – where sandbars stretch forever on the inside corners. There’s nothing like sleeping on sand, and we used to have to hunt for it; now, these luxurious expanses, we stop at night whenever we like, there, or maybe there.
And we used to race the River and ourselves, and the barges, back when the River was pooled behind dams and we had just seventeen days to get to St. Louis in time for the fireworks. We’d get up early and go to bed late, always in the dark, then napping while hiding from the midday sun, fourteen hours fifty miles or more, eating ice cream and donuts for fuel. For what, for what, the fireworks I guess, but I think about the picnic calls we passed up on shores, the times we declined the beers or said I’ve only got time for one, still ten more to go tonight, and it strikes me those fireworks were just okay.
These days the undammed, unleashed River enables that ambition, flowing seven or eight miles an hour, but we’re less inclined to battle. It was good that we pushed early on, got broken, got thinner so now there stands less between us and the River. No longer can I teach you to paddle down it like I could at the beginning, where pulling like this equals that, A tactic for B water, use J-strokes, C-stroke it. No, a couple thousand miles and my paddle seems part of my arms and back, and hips-down I’m all gunwales and hull. It’s nature. I’ll tell you instead, real mellow and esoteric, to just feel the River (dude), just listen to it. That paddle’s your proboscis and your paintbrush, go express what you sense.
Dance with the River, (dude), like Justus and Becca who float around for months at a time on a hand-crafted raft inviting paddlers like us for little tours turned multi-day stays. Their raft has spare bunks for hitchers, and an outboard engine in case, though they prefer to simply ride with the current and steer with an oar from the roof. They embrace the River as it moves and gives, motoring if they need. Our boats lashed easily to theirs. Take the oar, they say, like this and stay between the shores! So I scramble on top and stand rudder-ing for hours; this feels better than any restaurant or shower I’ve found yet on our trip. Just floating, and steering, the slower skies, a deck gently rocking with the flow.
Finally we’ve stopped checking maps and counting every mile. Now we’re floating more, letting the River loop and ignoring how crows can fly over its inlets and sandbars and willow banks., trusting we’re going downstream and we always were even when the shore is too far away to tell. This gives us time to note how the clouds wax and wane, and how we and the River might share the work the way water travel goes best, current and paddle together.