The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Day 11, July 16, New Madrid Bar, Mile 888
Gusting headwinds and impending storms, we decided to take refuge early in the day, before noon, directly across and a little downstream of our meet place and re-supply at the New Madrid Boat Launch, the wind worsening, we had paddled upstream a little and then made a ferry crossing to gain the lee of the opposite shore, and then we dropped below several wing dams, and then followed a long parallel jetties until a break presented itself behind which lay a pristine white sand beach. As the waves worsened and I became alarmed at the thought of being caught in some unprotected place with this the obvious approach of a major storm system, Mike decided to conduct a canoe floating canoe rescue class with the Mighty Quapaws! Hee-hee, that’s the spirit! When the river is wild respond in kind! They quickly wrapped up there rough water rescue class and we scooted into this protected harbor at the base of a river-tossed willow “hump” island, a beautiful location for a summer camp: good shade, great camp sites situated amongst small clumps of willows, good swimming, good access to deep water for the raft, and lastly firewood found generously spread around the bar – it really seemed like paradise and the Germans excitedly agreed as they scattered to set up their tents and buckle down for the oncoming storm. I pointed out what direction I anticipated the storm’s arrival, and Mike helped with instructions on how to place the tent in a protected location. It seemed like we were prepared for the worst, but little did any of us realize just how powerful a storm was brewing out of our vision. This whole section of river that afternoon became the focal point for an oncoming concentration of severe thunderstorms. It hit at the time we were most spread out and unprepared for it. I had taken the crew out for a nature walk. Due to a series of bad decisions we found ourselves on a very exposed ridge of sand & low scrubby willows & cottonwoods when the storm hit, behind main camp over a long narrow back channel lagoon. The strongest winds hit our campsite first, after having achieved maximum sustained winds as they flew unimpeded over the main channel of the river, probably 3/4 of a mile wide at this point between Missouri & Kentucky. Our very last camp in the Bluegrass State, and – whew! – it was a memorable one! I was pulling sand out of my ears from this onslaught for days so vertical was the rain & sand storms & dust storms that hit us that afternoon.
Its funny how bad decisions can accumulate against your favor in a situation like this. Innocent observances & suggestions might lead to the actions of a few with serious consequences for the group. It was like this. Patricia did not want to merely retrace our steps back to camp, she wanted to make a circle, so that we would see new territory. I am of the same kind, by nature, I don’t like to back track. As leader, with a worsening sky, I could have easily returned us to camp and no one would have known the difference. We were only 200 yards or so away from base camp at this point, an easy 5 minute walk would have brought us back. Not that it would have saved anyone’s tent necessarily, but it might have made the rest of the storm a lot safer for the whole. So we walked the long way back, around the lagoon. Even this was not a long distance, maybe 300 yards further, making the total walk back to camp a little over a quarter mile. But still it might have been the difference between life and death had anything gone wrong with any one of us, 17 of us total on the island when the explosive mayhem hit, almost all suddenly become strangers in a survival situation as we try to act as a cohesive group but the severity of nature’s wrath blows us apart and it becomes “every man for himself.”
The outer fringes of the storm were imminently approaching. The sky was all bruised black & blue and I could see the outer head wall that demarkated the breaking front line winds issuing madly forth underneath the main umbrella of the storm system. It was coming from the Northweast, as I had suspected. Strangely, though, when the winds hit, they hit from the Southwest. But still, even at this point, I was unaware of how powerful this storm was growing into. I kept herding everyone along and around the back channel depression which was still full of water. As we skirted around the lagoon, Patricia decided she was ready for a swim. Never one to deny anyone a swim and ready for one myself, I said nothing. But by now the wind was really blowing hard, and I assumed she would realize that it might not be the best time. I kept going, and everyone except for Patricia & Volker followed. This was my single worst decision during the storm – one that could have had the worst results had anything happened to the two we left behind. Lightning strike or falling tree limbs were the main dangers. Not that I could have saved them from anything occurring, If a rescue had been necessary, or any first aid, time would have been critical.
I led the film crew (Lutz, Sabine, Marc & Marcus) quickly through the madly thrashing weeds & scrubby trees as the sand & dust blew all around us and the rain lashed at us stinging us as it hit parallel to the ground, and onward through blowing leaves & grass & limbs breaking off the trees, small branches snapping all around us, small trees breaking & cracking over – we then crouched and hunkered down into a small hollow below a big cottonwood log that provided shelter from anything big that might fall and also broke the wind somewhat.
I looked around in this partial sheltered area. It was then I realized that the two stars of the show, Mr. & Mrs.’Sippi were missing, Ohmigod! Our two German celebrities! I could see the headlines now in tomorrow’s Der Speigal: “Missing Poet & TV Personality. Storm hits during a film production on the Mississippi River. Expert guide goes nuts trying to locate them!” What a story that would make for the German morning press! I left the shelter of the log and the camaraderie of the huddle of German refugees and ran out into the howling wind & blowing sand to find them, the trees bent over like weeds, I ran as fast as I could with much difficulty back to edge of the bluff and looked over to where Patricia had gone in for her swim – Oh no! She & Volker were nowhere to be seen!
Day 12, Friday, July 17, Bells Point, Mile 845
A moody, threatening morning light, a shell shocked camp and storms still rolling in, low grey, moisture-suffused layers of cloud cover, feathering features, the sun arose behind a veil of moisture, a gauzy naples yellow, and then was tucked back into bed, my sleeping bag stinks like cat pee & me. I reluctantly arose and scraped myself out of my sandy wet tent, hung over and sore and apprehensive about the intensifying darkness, and then slogged through the wet mud into camp to find Mike sprawled out with my tarp & mosquito netting, the netting fallen from two crates he had arranged for protection, obviously failed, a doubtless miserable night for him as well, his new REI tent having been uprooted and blown into the fire yesterday during the onslaught of the storm, which had been built up high for the express purpose of keeping fire through the rain, when the winds hit it was blown into a frenzy and that was when Mike’s tent took wings and sailed into the inferno, fire & rain. But still the fire is smoldering and easily rekindled, hot water quickly rendered on the stove and fresh coffee brewed and then potatoes are fried in our cast aluminum Dutch Oven with 2″ of canola oil, onions, garlic, and then 4 dozen eggs and cheese, 48 eggs stirred into a river-rat’s breakfast, several dozen tortillas are heated on the glowing coals and prayers are offered for being able to survive another day in the wilderness, and supplications made for God’s grace with today’s passage.
The brooding sky continues to knot its gnarly purple-black brow and streaming showers seem imminent as the lightning snake flickers its trickster tongue and bowling balls are heard rolling ominously closer and closer above us, and towards us, we feel more & more like we are overweight bowling pins set up on this sandbar for the final knockdown after yesterday’s initial blowdown!
I went ahead and made the wake up call early (6:30am) instead of going with the idea that we’d “sleep in” until 7am, Mike and I run around and give the morning two-hoot call, “wake it & shake it!” There is no rest for the river rat. Man has his will but God has his way.
845 from 888 = 43 miles, 110 miles to Memphis’ Mud Island, the Quapaws are singing the Sloop John B, “I want to go home, please let me go home!”
Day 13, Saturday, July 18, Wright’s Point Tamm Island, Mile 816
The sun rises on us full & strong, uncluttered by neither clouds nor cloaks of moisture, finally a chance to air & dry out, flocks of waders move upstream from some hidden sanctuary below us and the wind pushes full & steady out of the Northwest, God’s grace reaches us in this wind, let it flow! The wind whipping the south-flowing channel into choppy waves, the Germans disappear for a filming scene, the “drying out after the storm” scene, clothesline in the willows, drying the tents, the tarps, the wet clothes & pads & dry goods & the sleeping bags, an expedition spreading its wings in the morning sun like a storm-ravaged Cormorant perched at the head of a small wing dam towhead – the terns are crying for their loved ones, and the violent storms are pushed further and further away from us. Lil Mike and I did some river-rat recycling, located a stout pine pole for a main mast and erected a sail, added two cross pieces, a sycamore and an oak, and planted the flags on top, the stars & stripes with the yellow, red & black above, I know this is backwards, but our home flag is actually mothership earth, purple black below, red, yellow, green, and an endless sea of blue above, whirlpooling whites. Wanbli Mike left us in Caruthersville for obligations to the North, and us Quapaws continued on as we always have and always will, doing the work that no one else wants to do, that no one else can do, that no one has the stamina to maintain nor the pluck to venture.
The old moon approaching Venus in a smooth downward slide toward the horizon, Venus herself falling through Taurus to enter Orion, the Bull & the Hunter emerging in the pre-dawn sky after their long journey away, marking mid-summer and heralding autumn, the circles of life spinning endlessly around us, expressions of color & light, wind patterns & waves, song birds, bowel movements, the magical movements of animals & mad ambitions of men, the biologic clock, the endless rolling of moisture & chemical processes, the spiralling and upwelling and the course of the meandering river, sometimes enlightening, sometimes confounding, always endlessly challenging & sometimes rewarding in the longest movie ever made.