Source to Sea

Townies! Part 1.
by Mark Downey -- June 19th, 2012

Minneapolis, MN.



We’ve run the upper Mississippi. There were storms, and rapids, and townies. We tipped a few more times. We lost a man. Nothing bad – Dave jumped off in Minneapolis to return to his wife.

After the big lakes, the River really widens. The clear water from earlier on, the stuff from which we drank and fished, gets clouded with silt and runoff; we saw a herd of cows wade in and use it like a bidet. Our evening swims have ended.

The current increased as well, powering us through forty- and fifty-mile days. In a good flow with no wind we can pull about eight miles an hour. But, the wind – these open reaches welcome afternoon gusts that keep us fighting for every foot. Though the tortuous river snakes around tight corners and nigh-oxbows, the wind always blows – bafflingly – upstream.



I curse the wind and bless the trees and banks that shield us from it. To beat the gales and the sun, we started waking up at 4 a.m. and paddling at first light. We usually strike camp in the dark then stand around swatting mosquitoes and eating cold oatmeal Jeff made the night before while we wait for light on the River. Lately the mosquitoes have been so bad we’ve skipped the eating and waiting. Either way, with this system, we can usually get thirty miles in before lunch. Then, when the sun heats up and the wind begins, we take a snooze in the Mediterranean fashion and wait for late afternoon. Jeff takes this opportunity to cook dinner so we don’t have to battle the bugs in camp later.


Golden Mist


Mosquitoes, mosquitoes at every landing, every campsite. I’ve forgotten the sensation of standing on land in peace. We’ve adopted a barge system for relaxing and eating. In the mornings, we blast out of camp in a sleepy haze and paddle hard for five minutes until we’ve lost all bogies on our tail. Then we pull Rachel and Leah together, grab the gunwales and kick up our feet. We float there in the golden mist, watching the sunrise, and munching our oatmeal and NUTS. This works well for dinner, too; we’re now barging the last few miles to camp every day – I’d rather lay on the River in tranquility than confront the wee Nazgul haunting the shores.


Barging on Rachel


So we paddle hard, then barge, paddle, barge, and so on until we reach camp. It’s a great way to deepen friendships. Adrift for two weeks, the four of us have talked out our families, our romantic proclivities, and our career goals. After that, we moved on to games of “20 Questions” (Jon was thinking of the city Busan, Korea) and “Would You Rather”(something about a condition called “hotdog fingers”). I’m eager for the next evolution.

Challenges like mosquitoes and Jon’s human geography quizzes come and pass, and we let them break upon us. Huddled under a tarp one time, sitting in a swamp, waiting for lightning to stop – I remembered this is not a competition, us against the River. No, the bubbling mess of boons and hurdles that flood this trip are all facets of One River. The same Mississippi that tears out hillsides and topples trees, that soaks the banks and invites the wind, is the same one that creates habitat for the beavers and otters and eagles we meet. And also a collection of humans.

American townies are the real gems of the Mississippi. Everywhere we reach on the River, we discover evidence that humans are thriving with the rest of the wildlife. They’re a reclusive crowd, these locals. Usually we’ll see just a creaky home-job dock sneaking onto the water, or an upturned camo-painted duck boat under a tree. Below every bridge we pass, the townie kids have tagged their names, some pot leaves and their quasi-deep thoughts. I’m being serious: this is some beautiful humanity. A few highlights:

The redneck rafters. About five or six guys floating and fishing past our campsite, none of who were using a commercially produced watercraft. Most notably, the man leading the drift was sitting cross-legged on a trashbag-covered plywood square nailed to a pair of logs, paddling with a stick. He would call out the fish holes as he floated over them. His buddies trailed fifty feet behind, holding a line attached to his raft and murmuring insults beyond his earshot.

The sunburned inner-tubers, out in the middle of nowhere. Where did they come from, where did they go? I don’t know, but we coveted their effortless transports and adult beverages.

Darrel the Can Man. He parallel parked his all-terrain golf cart next to our beached canoes and offered to help us with a lengthy portage, chuckling all the way. What a blessing. His nickname comes from his appreciation for aluminum recycling.

Anonymous. I wish we could have met the engineers behind the home-job houseboat we found listing in the reeds: a tin shack on pontoons rigged from – probably – an old space shuttle, all wired with a desktop sound system.


Home-job Houseboat


Pastor Eric, the shore-yeller and brew-donor. From his porch on a hill we heard him holler “beer” and turned our canoes around. He told us about the other Mississippi paddlers he’s met; according to Eric, most are male, under 30, post-school/pre-career, have little or no paddling experience, and are looking for one big adventure before moving forward.

Beyond all these characters, though, it’s the high-schoolers that thrill me most. We’ve found them jumping from bridges or paddling past us to island bonfires. And even when we can’t see them, we note their rope swings every few miles or so.  They’ve shown us where to camp and where to swim. While we’re pulling hard to get from Point A to B, these kids and all their townie friends are reminders that the River is and has always been a wild and messy flood. To them the Mississippi is not a conquest like it is to Pastor Eric’s paddlers; it’s the setting for their life. I want to explain to them how they inspire me. Maybe next time I’ll try. Because there’s no way they’re reading it on this blog; they’re too busy having fun.


Jeff, Jon, Mark, and Dave


  1. Ginger
    Jun 19, 2012

    How the water color has changed! Great descriptions of how the life along the river also changes , but remains the same.

  2. Nicole
    Jun 19, 2012

    Markles! I’m having so much fun reading about your adventures. You really inspire me 🙂

  3. Dan
    Jun 19, 2012

    Mark, Keep the words flowing. You write well!! Dan

  4. Justin Staker
    Jun 19, 2012

    Hey Guys,

    let me know when you think you might get to Lake Pepin. I have dry land for you to camp on and a shower if you would like. Our place is on the river in Frontenac. I’d did this trip two years ago and would be happy to help you out however I can.


  5. Sara
    Jun 20, 2012

    Great posts, Mark! Though this one leaves me wishing that I was too busy having fun to read them too ;).

  6. Rod
    Jun 20, 2012

    Growing up a mere 90 minutes from “Old Man River” or “The Muddy Miss”, the river has become a large part of my life and childhood memories with fishing and boating the majestic river. I have such an admiration for the river and have learned that one must respect the river. I respect this endeavor that you are all on and I have always had aspirations of doing the same thing, float the Mighty Mississippi from Lake Itasca to the Gulf. So, to you all, be safe and enjoy this chance of a lifetime. — Iowa

  7. Madonna Shroeder
    Jun 22, 2012

    I drop a leave a response each time I appreciate a post on a website or I have something to valuable to contribute to the conversation. It’s caused by the sincerness displayed in the post I read. And on this article Townies! Part 1. | Blogging Down the Mississippi River. I was actually excited enough to post a thought 🙂 I do have 2 questions for you if you usually do not mind. Could it be just me or do some of these responses look as if they are written by brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you are posting on other social sites, I would like to follow everything new you have to post. Would you make a list the complete urls of all your communal sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

  8. Mack Rubinstein
    Jun 23, 2012

    I almost never create responses, however i did some searching and wound up here Townies! Part 1. | Blogging Down the Mississippi River. And I do have 2 questions for you if you don’t mind. Could it be only me or does it look like some of these comments look like coming from brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you are writing at additional sites, I’d like to keep up with anything fresh you have to post. Could you list of the complete urls of all your public pages like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

  9. Sue
    Jun 27, 2012

    Wow–you’re really bringing it all to life for me: you do a great job of describing all these people and the conditions you’re enduring. I’ll bet you guys are sore at the end of a day and can really crash from all your work.

  10. Scott Tucker
    Jul 10, 2012

    I every time emailed this weblog post page to all my friends, as if like to read it after that my links will too.

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