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