Sunday, May 18, 2014

Paddling Pool 10 of the Mississippi

A guest posting by kayaker Steve Parrish of Des Moines



Some say paddling off-season is dumb.  “Why would you paddle when no one else is?”  And there is your answer: “because no one else is!”  No paddlers, no bugs, no competition for campsites.  

On April 26-27, six of us paddled the length of Pool 10 of the Mississippi, from Harpers Ferry, Iowa to Guttenberg, Iowa.  This scenic section is in the middle of a National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.  Using Pikes Peak State Park in McGregor, Iowa as our initial camping and staging area, our group consisted of John Pearson, Galyn Vande Zande, Kevin Beatty, Andy Stapleton, Rick Dietz and Steve Parrish.  Additionally, Forest Hoff was with us the first day and Diane Lowry joined us the next day. 

In preparation for this trip, I had reread sections of one of my favorite Mark Twain books: Life on the Mississippi.  Twain had taken a paddleboat north, and as he came to this section of the Upper Mississippi he recorded these still true words: 

“Such a people and such achievements as theirs, compel homage. This is an independent race who think for themselves and who are competent to do it because they are educated and enlightened; they read, they keep abreast of the best and newest thought, they fortify every weak place in their land with a school, a college, a library, and a newspaper.” 

This largely unblemished piece of the Mississippi may be carved up with locks and dams, yet I imagine it doesn’t look all that different from when Twain saw it. The river meanders through a maze of heavily treed islands while the shore juts up into alternating bluffs and rolling hills. Spring is a beautiful time for viewing because the leafless trees offer an open view while displaying buds suggesting warm days to come. 


View of  Pool 10 of the Mississippi River from Crow's Nest
in Pike's Peak State Park, McGregor, Iowa

The campsite in Pikes Peak is flat ground within walking distance of the peak and its trails.  The lookout from the park is spectacular.  Indeed, the broad vista of the Mississippi river valley almost led to the area becoming a national park.  A beautiful Friday night to begin our trip. Camping in this is the kind of weather and scenery beats any stay at a fine hotel. 



By the time the shuttles had been accomplished Saturday morning, we were able to put in at Harpers Ferry at 11 am.  Within eyesight of Lock and Dam 9, our plan was to paddle down the length of the pool to the next lock and dam - thirty-some miles depending on our route. The water was just below flood stage, and much of the tree covered shore was overridden with slack water. The current ran fast and smooth, and we experienced very little barge traffic - and even fewer recreational craft. For all intents and purposes, the Upper Mississippi was ours to enjoy. Flowing a blue/green shade against a cloudy sky, our vantage from the river revealed bluffs, railroad tracks carved into hills, and the occasional scenic small town. 


Around noon we worked our way out of the main channel, paddling into Ambrough Slough to be one with nature.  Immediately we saw a pair of juvenile eagles curious to check out our multicolored boats and gear. After performing an aerial acrobatics show for us, they flew away, allowing the herons and gulls to take over with their antics.   While the slough channel was sufficiently defined for paddling, the flooding caused the surrounding area to look like a Louisiana bayou.  It just had maples, ashes and willows instead of cypress and sawgrass.  And no sounds of banjos or smells of crab boil.



Once it became time for a break we went searching for a marked boat ramp.  Where a road and boat ramp were supposed to be, there was only a flooded park kiosk, with water covering up the brochures ensconced in plastic trays.  On either side of the submerged boat ramp were houses and cottages on stilts.  The water was half way up the walls of open car ports and garages, and there was little sign of life inside the buildings.  For now, these dwellings were only accessible by boat.  So we pushed on to the next boat ramp, hoping for higher ground.  No such luck.  No boat ramp; no visible roads; more partially submerged cottages.  We were about to take our chances looking for a high spot in one of the islands  when John noticed a hill in the road that allowed just enough above-water room for us to land and take a lunch break.  



Refreshed and recharged, we paddled back into the slough, looking for a shortcut to the main channel.  Much of the beauty of this part of the Mississippi is due to the hundreds of small tree-covered islands that dot the river, from the Iowa to Wisconsin shores.  These islands remind me of the mangrove keys of south Florida, where you can paddle through mangrove channels only to find yourself at a dead end with no access to the sea. Because of the flooding, however, it was possible to paddle over some of these islands, making a beeline straight to the main channel. 



Once in the channel, our speed again kicked up.  It was easy to maintain a 5 to 6 mph paddling pace because of the flow of the river.  Soon the Effigy Mounds towered over us on the western shore, demanding both our respect and admiration.  I had hiked up to one of the outcroppings the day before, marveling at the sight of the Mississippi below me.  The favor was returned when I craned my neck up to see how tall and sheer the overlook was from my river view.  The southern border of Effigy Mounds National Monument northern section is at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Yellow River. We paddled far enough up to say the Yellow to say we’d been there, and then headed back to the big river to work our way towards Manchester and McGregor.  We needed to drop off Forest in McGregor… his loss.  



The sky was getting cloudy and the east wind was picking up.  With almost twenty miles of paddling in, there was the temptation to just park the boats in McGregor and enjoy the brewpubs and hotels of the town.  We knew we were facing likely showers and wind for our evening camping.  We also knew we had a plan, and we were sticking with it.  So we did not stay long at the McGregor boat ramp, just long enough to bid Forest farewell.  



Venturing out into the main channel we encountered some barge traffic, but these behemoths were easy to spot, and we rarely needed to adjust our course. Plus, their wakes offered a brief respite from paddling the channeled waters.  On our five mile paddle from McGregor to the campsite, the sky was painted with a low canopy of clouds, and the ride become windy.  The current pushed us south, but the east wind caused the water to pillow.  We were again away from civilization and we began our search for the camping island.  We had been assured that the island would be above ground, even in flood stage, because sand had been dredged from the main channel and stacked on this island.  It was not hard to spot the one island with a sand beach on a hill.  The visible garbage accumulated near a fire pit broadcast that this was where humans camp.  

After getting out and being buffeted with winds on an ugly beach, we hoped against hope there might be some other, better positioned campsite.  We sent Andy out as a scout to check downstream for a possible site.  But, there were no other high ground clearings, and the wind was really picking up.  Andy struggled just to paddle back upstream to our location.  We were stuck on this dismal campsite for the night.  Surrounded by a field of poison ivy, we were sentenced to camp on a sand hill facing east into the wind. 



Pitching our tents was both an arduous and frustrating exercise. Even though we were wet and hungry, we knew the already clouded-over sun would set soon, and rain was likely to follow.  Time to set up shelter.   The gossamer material of our summer-weight tents turned into sails as we tried to wrestle them into poles and grommets.  Once we had them tenuously pinned to the sand, we used a combination of camp detritus, paddles and the actual boats to anchor the tents.  Anything with weight or that could be driven into sand became a way to secure our tents from flying away.  Dinner was a hurried process of boiling water, rehydrating dried mystery dinners, and a half-hearted cleanup process. Most of us were in our warm clothes, wedged into our tents by 9 pm.  For our evening entertainment we listened to the flapping and groaning of tents fighting with the wind.  

Others tell me they slept adequately.  I found the wind and subsequent rain too much for me of sleep.  The constant racket of trains from the Wisconsin shore heightened the cacophony.  Also, even though I’m not easily discomforted, the mouthful of sand I had consumed with dinner was irritating and grinding.  I must admit to feeling some stress that the tents might be unable to withstand the increasingly gusty winds.  By 3 in the morning, I gave up and went outside to make an inspection.  It was windy and rainy, and quite cold, but somehow it was comforting to see that the world still existed outside my tent walls.  I went back into my tent, posted to Facebook, and fell asleep. 

Come morning we could hear each other stir, but we mostly avoided getting out of our tents to face the rain. Eventually we recognized we had to engage with the outer world, and we began slogging around with our wet equipment, packing  gear in wet hatches, and attempting to make breakfast.  We were all waiting until the last moment to break down our tents, hoping to avoid stowing them in soggy piles in our boats.  This was futile, so we finally just broke down our tents in the rain- drenched sand, jammed them in the hatches, and prepared to launch.  We were to meet Diane three miles downstream and were already running late.  John Pearson was the master of understatement when he made two comments about our circumstances.  In his best scientific voice he said “there’s no word to describe these conditions but ‘raw’.”  Then, as we prepared to push off he commented “I would not place this campsite among my top ten favorites.” Indeed.  
  
There is an odd feeling I get when I’m in challenging conditions like these.  If I can get in my boat, I suddenly feel alive, in control, motivated.  The others reported a similar sense of relief.  We knew the forecast called for continued thundershowers, a number of storm cells having already passed through our campsite, but we were on the water, moving towards our destination. Notwithstanding a blowing east wind, the current slingshotted us towards a boatramp where Diane was nervously awaiting our arrival.  When we spotted Diane at the ramp, we saw she had wisely avoided putting her boat in the water, pending a discussion of whether to tough it out or call it a day.  The decision was to make a go for it, even though the radar indicated a bright red storm cell coming our way.  Andy estimated it was only a half hour away.
   
After inhaling fortifying cookies from Diane, we put in at the ramp and agreed to paddle directly to our takeout, about 8 miles downstream.  As predicted, a half hour later the storm cell blew in… hard.  The wind whipped up, and the rain became increasingly stiff.  It was pelting us so violently that I thought it had become hail.  Only by looking up and seeing no white pellets was I convinced this was merely a very hard rain.  Our hoods were on, conversation had ceased, and our shoulders were slumped, digging into the waves.  The rain hit so hard, the water popped up like millions of tiny little geysers.  


Caught in the rain on the Mississippi, photo by Andy Stapleton

And yet, I was having a great time.  This was a fun test of my ability to paddle through tough conditions.  Even though the shore was often steeply banked, I didn’t feel the same sense of being away from land that comes with paddling in the ocean or the Great Lakes.  I felt like there was always an exit plan... a nearby shore to exit to.  My only concern was that this fun storm might quickly lose its fun if it turned into a lightning storm.  And even though a gray veiled cloud curtain had dropped down from the sky, lightning did not accompany it. Thunder was heard, but lightning wasn’t seen.  

Just as I was starting to tire of the pelting rain, it stopped.  The deep cloud veil rose up, and the next act began.  Thickly overcast, there was a calm merger of sky and water.  I had a feeling of paddling above the water, witness to the Mississippi, but not in it. Sometimes we paddled past beautiful houses on shore, and sometimes we meandered among islands.  The fight with nature was over, and the friendship returned.  We were able to talk, tell tales and admire.  And so went the last few miles.  It wasn’t long before we saw the lock and dam that signaled the completion of Pool 10.  A few strokes to the boat ramp, and we could check the Mississippi off our bucket lists.  

I’m told the Upper Mississippi has some other pools, locks, dams, and challenges. I’m sure we covered the important stuff, but if not, perhaps another trip?