Source to Sea

Not the End
by Mark Downey -- August 15th, 2012

New Orleans, LA

The Mississippi is like a mother, said a friend, a water man who knows the River as much as one can. It teaches you as you go, but only what you can handle. At the beginning, when we were younger, the Mississippi was a little stream only inches deep and easy on paddlers, no boats, no wind, cool water and a gentle current. The River taught us to work as a team and to know our boats on the water. When we were ready, it led us to the little dams and their backed-up pools, the bigger waters, where the winds pick up and waves come whitecapped. From the boats on those lakes – fishing boats and houseboats and pontoons – we learned to share the water.

And so on, down through the locks and lockmasters, wait up right here, hold on to this rope, and the barges they‘re there for, singles then doubles then three-by-fives. Even bigger in the free-flowing River past Saint Louis; Jon and I swear we saw five-by-eight but the others don’t believe us. So it taught us, the River did, and gave us what we needed, always a place to sleep, always shade on the banks for lunch. Our journey got more difficult as we went further, the big boats and their wakes, the concrete levees deep down in the South where trees had once been, but we got stronger as well.

So strong and confident, and we’d heard that the three day journey from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, Cancer Alley, would test us and break us down, I didn’t believe it though I should have. The industrial gauntlet. No more sand just the built shores and tugs hustling back and forth and ocean-going freighters three-hundred meters long cruising fast up and down the River. Pipes retch into the Mississippi and the water temperature rises past one hundred degrees. The horizon is smokestacks. A dirty sun rises beyond them, casting a flat heat across the sluggish water on which everything moves but the breeze. We seek shade beneath the anchored freighters, but patrol ships shoo us away you don’t belong here.

Tugs honk as their engines churn, the sounds of city traffic too, and we paddle through gas slicks on the River’s surface. The team doesn’t talk as much anymore. We pull off in New Orleans, landing on the fetid mud beneath a retaining wall, to fill our water. In the ten minutes it takes, I collide with some scared urban horses, the ones with eye patches, then witness a fight and the police arriving. After all the beauty and big skies and bald eagles, no, get me out of here, the Mississippi has led us to places I don’t want to go.

The River wears people down by the end, and many can’t wait to leave it for the default world of “real life” and hot showers. Surely this commercial hell fuels that anxiety, this hectic pace and traffic noise, the frantic energy in all directions – but it’s that same default world that beckons the barges and freighters and hedges riverbanks in cement and chains. A diabolical loop. I don’t want that, the showers and all, but this won’t work, I can’t sleep at night on these hot city banks with their noise and neon false dawns, I just keep waking up, losing rest, remember those sandbars the stretching beaches and cicada hush, is this the end, mother, does the city go dump into the sea?

And then it stops. Our final day. There’s a point in the delta wetlands past which humans have quit developing. The levees and roads no longer hold, the buildings won’t stand. The boats thin out, mostly rare freighters now, but no more horns. The last town on the River is Venice, an outpost for oilrig workers. And beyond is the floating grassland, marshland serenity, stretching on and on until everything is quiet again except for reeds in the wind. The River braids smaller and more intimate as it diffuses through the soft landscape; once again we’re back in the tranquility of those first days in Minnesota. The sky is dark and cool, gathering clouds, and finally it begins to rain, a deluge washing up the River from the direction of the Gulf. Harder and harder it comes until the world turns grey from a million little raindrops, water from this and other Rivers – who can say, what raindrop has a beginning or end? – cold and clean rinsing the sweat and sand from our backs, the oily noise and doubt from our souls. In that total anointment it seems that these friends and canoes and the floating grass on the River might be all that exist. I can’t see anything else.

We’re close now, I can smell it, still not chatting but smiling and soaked through. The rain eventually leaves on its way. There’s an old wood tower I climb to look around in the residual lightning. Up in the electrified air I stand on crumbling timbers and gaze and – guys guys, we’re already there! – the thin end of the fuzzy marsh the edge of the endless lustrous sea and sky filled with every species of cloud. Descend back to the canoe, and we let the Mississippi carry us out into the salty rolling waves, the Gulf of Mexico kissing our hulls, welcoming us to eternity. It’s cold and blue out there, tastes like Seas should.

Sixty days and 2,350 miles or so, the Mississippi has delivered us to the place where all Rivers become one. There are other Rivers to paddle with more teachings to share, but I think they’ll all lead to this same conclusion, that all waters are connected. For now, there’s no more Mississippi to paddle and everywhere to go from here. So we camp on the beach and dive in the waves, eat the rest of our food, and burn a pile of soiled clothes. A full moon rises, a blue moon no less, and we fall asleep with the waves crashing on the southern coast of America.


  1. ginger
    Aug 16, 2012

    Yes…. I think there will be many more waters paddled in the years to come- maybe with friends…or strangers…or family…and always with the guidance of the One who created the waters and the mist, the eagles and the oil, the fish and the blues…and you… for eternity .

  2. meburke
    Aug 17, 2012

    Water wraps us all in it’s embrace, from before we are born till the day we die. Truly a portion of that wonder you have shared…… for me, these writings have been a great pleasure…

    To you and your companions an up-most and sincere thanks…

  3. Peter
    Aug 18, 2012

    “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” – Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It.

  4. Karen Nemecek
    Aug 28, 2012

    Mark, this is incredibly beautiful. Thank you for sharing this experience, and please keep writing.

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