Monday, May 7, 2012

Mississippi Fog

Everything is clear as launch my kayak into the big river on a beautiful summer evening: sky, water, and intention.  From the Burlington ramp, I will paddle upstream under the Iowa-Illinois bridge against the slow current of backwater chutes on the west side of the Mississippi, swing onto the main channel at the upstream end of Rush Island, and ride its swift current back to town.  A final check of the weather report informs me that thunderstorms are expected to arrive after midnight; although that is long after I will have finished my loop, I set my weather radio on ALERT and strap it to my deck where I will clearly hear its warning of any rogue storms.

I feel a familiar satisfaction as my kayak engages the flowing river when I exit the launch pool and point my bow upstream.  After passing under the bridge, a few minutes of sustained paddling against the current gets me past the urban fringe of Burlington and into the quiet backwater of Rush Chute.  Ahead of me, I spot a patch of low fog in the quiet, humid air between wooded islands.  Entering the patch, I find myself paddling through a strange world of fog-altered perspective.  A bright sun lowering through the evening sky backlights trees on the left bank with misty silhouettes while vividly highlighting verdant forest on the right bank, all above a ghostly white layer of low fog that engulfs my kayak but leaves my head with an unimpeded view.  Wisps of vapor float gracefully above the water and stream silently past my shoulders as I progress up the bayou.

The middle of of Rush Chute widens into a watery plain where the fog is confined to its far edges and I blink in bright sunlight once again. Continuing along the shoreline, I glide though glassy water past forest broken only by fog-shrouded inlets where great blue herons stand stoically; they look especially primeval in the mist this evening, resembling pterodactyls flying across a Mesozoic swamp when they finally flush.  The sun is settling onto the rim of the floodplain forest when I reach the far end of Rush Island and turn into the short chute that conducts me downstream to the main channel.

Early (above) and late (below) photos of Mississippi River islands

A transformed landscape awaits me when I emerge onto the open river. During my journey up the bayou, the main channel has become completely enshrouded with fog.  Lengthening shadows cast by a sinking sun have engulfed the floodplain, cooling moisture-laden air and allowing it to condense into an all-encompassing brume.  The two-foot-deep mist I encountered on my upstream journey as a below-eye-level sheet is now a ten-foot-deep quilt of gray cloud through which I cannot see. Looking up, I see blue sky and treetops clearly, but my water-level world is opaque.  It is both beautiful and disconcerting.  Part of me enjoys the mystique of the altered vision of the floodplain, but another bristles at lurking danger. Confident in my kayak and way-finding skills, I am not afraid of the river, but I feel a chest-tightening fear of the motorboats I hear roaring beyond the pale of the fog.  Some of them evidently believe that the best way to defeat the fog is to run to the marina as fast as possible.  Low-profile paddlecraft are nearly invisible to speeding motorboats even in broad daylight, requiring kayakers to watch out for them unilaterally, but now they are invisible to me in the fog - a dangerous double-blind.

Early and late photos of the distant Iowa-Illinois bridge

Resolving to paddle very conservatively, I guide my kayak tightly along the shoreline, hoping that motorboats approaching me will perceive the looming, wooded outline of Rush Island and turn away from it.  I land briefly to affix a small lantern to my stern and to strap on a headlamp even though I doubt that speeding boats would even perceive their pinpricks of white light through the gray fog.   All works well until I come to a gap between islands.  I must cross this channel, but will be fully exposed to oncoming boat traffic.  I hover in an eddy at the downstream end of the island and listen intently to sound emanating from the fog.  I hear an engine roaring but cannot identify its position or direction.  The urge to dart across the gap is strong, but I rein in the impulse.  Wait, wait until you are sure!  The engine noise gets ever closer and finally I can divine its location: upstream from me and moving swiftly downstream.  Wait, wait until it passes!  Still unseen, its sound begins to recede with distance.  I linger still longer, waiting to see if a second boat is coming.  Wait, wait to be sure!  Hearing nothing, I strike across the channel, paddling hard and fast toward a treetop protruding above the fogbank.  I feel very vulnerable but make it safely to the far side.

Early (launch) and late (return) photos at the Port of Burlington

I cross a second channel and the entrance to a marina without trouble. Although I am safely out of their route, motorboats laboring slowly upstream toward the marina pop out of the fog with unsettling suddenness.  I am glad I did not meet one speeding downstream during my channel crossings.  Looking downstream, I see the giant "H" of the Iowa-Illinois bridge columns rear up above the fog.  The Burlington boat ramp slides into view just as the sun slips below the Iowa horizon.  I pull my kayak out of the water, pack up, and return to the shoreline for a last view of the river.  It is now dark as well as foggy.  I am grateful tonight for the beauty of the river and for my safe return from exploring it.

Night lights on the Iowa-Illinois bridge