The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
The river is low, a large shallow sandbar has emerged below the I-270 Bridge at which base we pull up and take a break, the Banana Boat and “put-put-put” Dory Doug catch up, a piling of sand around one of the ponderous pylons, driftwood above and a diminishing sandy tail below with a great view into the top of the Chain. This perspective confirms what I saw yesterday from the bridge walkway, and immediately my intended route for Wanbli River Dancer is confirmed, and I back off to let the others inspect the swirling waters for themselves and draw their own conclusions. Suddenly Mike hollers out, “Wanbli John! Look up! Isn’t that…” Oh-my-gosh! Sure enough! Its Lynn Rubright, the children’s book author who lives in St. Louis, looking over the railing down at us, smiling and throwing us kisses. How did she find us here? How did she know? Or is this another river coincidence? I don’t know, and I don’t care, but now I do know everything is going to be alright. For the moment anyway.
That old salt, Dory Doug is the first to get impatient as he stomps around the sandbar, and snorts out, “you guys are just stalling for time.” Poor Doug, the waiting is not over. We are on river time. We must eat something first. You can’t paddle on an empty stomach. The purple drybag is turned over and everyone snacks on old apples from Ft. Osage, peanut butter and cookies. The captains of each vessel, Mike, Church, Ron, Doug, myself (and of course Scott) confer and make a plan to pass through the first giant swirling and return to land below the wing dam to reconnoiter the passage below. But no one wants to follow plans today, and no one wants to follow any leader. Just another day for rough & ragged 1st Squad.
You shouldn’t rush the river in a place like this. I am wondering who wants to go first, “you want Wanbli to lead the way?,” thinking naturally Wanbli would be the leader as she has always been this entire downstream journey. But no, to my surprise, everyone is excited, and rip-roaring ready and tugging on the lead line to be the first to try their paddling hand against the powerful waters of the big river. Dory Doug jumps to the lead, and brother Tom is horrified, “Doug, are you out of your mind?” Video Len stays with Doug and together they push off and into the unknown, Tom is nervously fretting on the shore, he has already caused Doug a false start, and Doug angrily pushes off again with much cussing, motors into the monstrous tongue leading toward the right bank drop off, and then shuts down the engine and begins to float. We are all stricken at once as if by lightning, has Doug really lost his mind? Is he going to float over the edge? Coast Guard cutters can still be seen in the distance, below the falls, rescuing a bereft motorboat. I felt my stomach drop, like a scary scene in a movie where you know something bad is going to happen, but you don’t know when. But Douggie-boy is playing with us. He is an experienced big river man himself, an animal with plenty of good times in the big roiling waters of the Snake River Canyon, Hell’s Canyon, the Salmon River, and other giants of the West, and he is enjoying his moment of freedom away from the annoying dugouts – finally the leader! His chance to show his balls in face of our greatest danger to date, he remains standing for the longest time as the Dory slides closer and closer to the edge, Tommy on shore is jumping up and down now and yelling for Doug to paddle, and I’m yelling at Tom to shut up and not confuse him, but Doug can’t hear anything, or maybe he can and he is stretching this moment of glory as far as he can, whatever the case, he floats further and further out, deep in the main thrust of water pushing heavily towards the brink, he is standing and seems to be carefully inspecting the topography of the rapids, and then at the last moment when it seems as if surely he is going over, he calmly cranks the engine and “put-put-put” motors his way slowly around the enormous swirl, and is riding the big eddy back toward the St. Louis Waterworks bank right. Len has remained sitting throughout the ride. He is no fool.
But wait a minute! The fun is not over, Ol’ Douggie-boy, the old salt, actually does it – he shuts the engine down again and this time pulls it up entirely out of the water, looks both ways, as if he’s crossing the street, cracks his fingers like a piano player warming up, and places himself proudly behind the long yellow sweep oars – brother Tom is beside himself “ohmigod! Ohmygod! OHMYGOD! He’s gonna do it!” And then Douggie eases over the lip. All eyes are riveted on his passage, and Doug shows out.
The Dory is made for places like this. It comes to life in the waves and bounces through some places that would flip & swamp a dugout canoe, Douggie rides along serene and capable, pulling the sweep oars this way and that, finding the good water, bottoming-out once, he fishtails around some massive obstructions, and then smartly grounds himself on a gravel bar immediately below the falls. The ride is over. Len stands up thoroughly shaken, but composed, and prepares his video camera. Doug doesn’t even look our way, but you can feel his presence hollering out at us, “Who’s Next?”
As on cue, the Banana Boat leaps to action, following the river channel around the wing dam, Jay and the Captains madly stroking the water, they cut the corner near the wing dam and dive directly into the explosive eddying below, teetering and tottering for a moment, they regain balance, realign themselves and angle towards shore, as planned.
Next Capt. Ron is ready to run the gamut with Gunny power-stroker prow and Bison-Bison riding princess, his big black Newfie head hanging over the gunnels and his tongue lolling about out unconcerned, drooling into the river. They follow the path of the Banana Boat, only a little further out. When they break across the eddyline they are near the center of the maelstrom and it spins them mercilessly around a few times, with angry bubbling, I am worried they are going to flip (but Bison isn’t: his fat body is an effective ballast) they paddle quickly in opposite directions to bring themselves around and then continue onward towards shore bank right.
Wanbli and Mato bump the sandbar restlessly, now it’s their turn to prove themselves, Mike and I have already discussed this moment. This place has history with us, in 2002 Mike took the lead in the Red River Bender and I followed in the Cottonwood dugout, the Water Ram, and so today he has graciously allowed me the lead. I will go ahead and he will take sweep. Adrenaline-charged paddlers Idaho Jimmy, Clayton, and our guest Cathy Lagergren are warmed up, we four guide Wanbli into the tongue, flowing Doug’s line, staying well clear of the eddy-line until it seems like we might fall over the edge and then swirl around with the surging waters of the outside of the eddy, it is a dizzying ride, from the distance the current might seem calm and even, but as you are paddling through the middle of it the water accelerates rapidly and then spins clockwise, you can feel the G-force, , if you hadn’t placed yourselves well in the initial tongue, it would push you right over the edge and swallow you up, even in a 23-foot Western Red Cedar or a 27-foot Ponderosa Pine, you are at the mercy of the river. In water like this you get closer to the soul of the river than you ever have been, you become one with the current because no matter how hard you paddle the river has become the master and you the puppet. We swirl around the eddy, our speedy line shoots us past Ron, Bison & Gunny who are still struggling against the eddy flow (but making good headway) we meet again towards the east bank below St. Louis Waterworks where the Banana Boat is riding along, our plan had been to make a landing and scout the next section, but the rebellious Banana Boat is ready to rock, Jay and the Captains Suddenly dig in as we approach and enter the roller-coaster ride bank right! They’ve decided to go ahead. Damn the scouting! The Captains are having their fun today! It’s a narrow & defined channel, with a few drops and some 3 foot waves, you have to hit the first wave close to shore, further out it curls mercilessly over a sucking hole, they paddle along boisterously and we watch.
Back to Mike & Mato Chante: Looking upstream we see Mato enter the tongue of water as we had, staying with the main thrust away from the edge of the wing dam, but even further out towards the point of no-return, and again I am struck in the pit of my stomach with awful visions of the hard-headed bear disregarding all dangers for a jump in the big water to play in the rapids, (his last chance maybe) we don’t call him “rock eater” for no reason, and yes, he hard-headedly pushes the men to the extreme of their abilities and follows the widest trajectory possible outward around the circumference of the eddy, toward the black hole of the Chain of Rocks, from where canoes and men don’t return, and the men are in high gear, one-stroke Eier screaming and putting every ounce of his 40 horse-power into throwing water down one side of the canoe, Willow throwing water down the other, Mike power-stroking low and grim, the end of his black Stetson pulled almost to his chin, making fast deep strokes with Mick Jagger, one side and then the other, positioning the canoe, and then repositioning, and then ruddering quickly & strongly to manually push the bear’s nose away from the falls toward the center of the eddy, if he slips at this moment then the bear will have its way and all will go tumbling over the muddy falls, but the Mato Chante allows himself to be nudged into the relative safety inside the eddy, and they come swirling alongside us, whooping and hollering.
Meanwhile, the Banana Boat is bravely bouncing into the first big wave bank right, but then our cheering turns to shouts of fear, I hand the Eagle to Clayton to hold her steady and jump out with the Rescue Bag and start running. Tommy is madly side-paddling for shore, but they are still too deep to jump out, Mike is yelling for him to paddle forward so they can regain footing. The Banana Boat has gone over in the first wave, the men are thrown out and we watch in horror as they struggle to regain footing. The riverbed is shallow here, rocky but shallow, the water volume greatly reduced, and it seems like they might be able to right themselves, but then they go over the second wave and are tumbled over several times, it looks like they might be getting crushed by the canoe over the rocks, Mike jumps out with his Rescue Rope and follows me stumbling down the jumbled rip-rap of the right bank, we stumble-jump-sprint halfway down, maybe a hundred yards, while the Banana Boat rolls to end of the rapids, and then into an eddy below, and we can see the men regain their footing and stand up and holler triumphantly. Scott makes a “thumbs-up.” Whew! A few bruised shoulders and legs, we learn later, but no other injury.
I’ve seen enough. We have a precious paddler with us today, Cathy Lagergren, and I refuse to put her life in any danger. We line Wanbli River Dancer down the passage, an easy task, I take stern rope, Jimmy takes lead, Clayton and Cathy walk alongside to keep Wanbli from scraping rocks. Cathy has some difficulty wading through a silty creek which pours from some overflow pipe bank right which we are forced to march through, hopefully nothing toxic within, but otherwise we quickly line through and pull into the eddy below. The Banana Boat exits to go retrieve gear. We look above and see the Grumman sailing along into the waves – Captain Ron & Gunny have opted to run the fun! They have put their precious “princess-paddler,” Bison-Bison ashore. They bounce over the first set of waves, and then Ron angles out away from the bank. What he can’t see from above is the steep drop at the base of the last set of waves, and it gets higher & deeper & more turbulent the further out you go. It’s one of those hungry holes that stops vessels in their passage. If you hit it hard enough maybe your momentum will carry you through and over the foam. But if you go too slow you will be sucked in and thrashed. Ron is ruddering so all canoe speed depends on Gunny Bill’s power stroking. As they approach the last big wave I notice Gunny suddenly stop paddling and drop to his knees – apparently he has seen the big wave and drop-off below for the first time and prepares for the worst. Gunny doesn’t resume paddling but grabs both gunnels with his hands. The poor Grumman rises over the top of the last wave, it’s only three feet tall, but there’s a three foot drop off underneath it (and the hydraulic pool below might be ten feet deep), so the canoe rises high prow first, bounced by the abrupt wave, Gunny Bill still clinging on for dear life, shoots over the wave, headed for the cloudy sky, and then plummets head-first into the pool below. The canoe goes down head-over-tail and then is flushed out of the hole, Ron & Gunny are holding onto the side of the canoe and whooping & laughing, so we know they’re okay, but then they stop laughing as their canoe gets pulled into the main current below, I have the rescue bag ready in hand, which I throw with all my might high over the canoe, its zings out completely to the end of the 75 feet of 3/8 inch cord and Gunny Bill gets a hand hold and I yell for my canoe-mates to get ready and then we pull them in and flip the canoe to empty it of water. Once righted, Ron & Gunny paddle off to retrieve paddles and gear, all paddles are rescued (Idaho Jimmy’s main concern, he hand-crafted them), and I think most gear, and yes, sigh, Wilson.
Now Mike and crew come slowly down the bank, following our lead, they line Mato Chante through the rapids, hungry Mato the bear wants to eat the waves and tear up some rocks, but they are keeping him on a short leash and carefully maneuver him through the waves, and back to land at the eddy below, and he begrudgingly complies.
We are through the Chain of Rocks! Wow! Whew! What a relief! Waves of relief and tearful emotion well up through me, I am thinking of Sarah and the Mighty Quapaws who must be nearing our landing, not far below. What a thrilling climax – 810 miles of paddling down the free flowing Lower Missouri River with a crazy rapids at the end! Hee-hee! My cell phone rang amidst the bank side celebration, it’s Dale, faithful Dale had walked out to t middle of the 66 Bridge and had seen us flip and wanted to know if we were okay, or should he call the Coast Guard.
The Mighty Quapaws are awaiting us at the landing, Cliff, Woody, Boo, Ba-ba and Dinky wandering the sandy shoreline, we give them a cheer, “The Mighty Quapaws!” and stop for hullos and hugs and then continue down to where the Mighty Possum and elder bluesman Mississippi Junebug is awaiting our arrival. Later, the Quapaws biggest memory of the day was of Bison, in Dinky’s words: “on one of the boats there was this huge dog – I was scared but the dog was trained so I didn’t have anything to be scared of!” Mom & Daddy (who had also driven 400 miles from Clarksdale) are safely tucked in at a downtown hotel, in the distance we can see Bill & Karina slipping along down opposite shore in their unmistakable red Mohawk canoe, they had portaged bank left in about the same time it took us to peruse, paddle, and perform 2 rescues, and lo-and-behold! we also spy “LG2” AKA Lee Squared floating downstream nearby, going strong after disassembling and then reassembling their 7×28 foot raft, a 3-hour portage for them. And Look! There’s Norm Miller, smartly paddling his baby blue In the Wake of Discovery canoe-yak across the channel to meet us, the flotilla is coming together after the exciting day, the momentum gathering for tomorrow’s Canoe Rendezvous and Homecoming. Scott runs out with Doug to retrieve Lee Squared who have somehow scooted beyond our landing.
The river gods smiled on us! We are safely through our most dangerous single obstacle. Tornadoes struck Crystal City and points south, blew apart a mobile home park with grapefruit-sized hail, we could see the storms brewing all day long, but they stayed south, the eddyline of the heavens a diagonal over the Arch and downtown St. Louis, supercells gathering storming and then passing on northeasterly along the eddyline while we played on the fluid eddylines of the river, always we could see the opening beyond, a patch of blue or yellow, so we knew we were close to the edge, but we didn’t know how close. Super cells and severe thunderstorms passing over the river downstream of us, bluish-purple manna falling from the heavens, becoming tinged rosy reds & oranges with the setting sun – and then we all had our spirits uplifted with a series of rainbows which danced through the dangerous clouds much as Wanbli River Dancer and even old grumpy Mato Chante had danced through the dangerous waters, if you look close enough you will find great beauty in the most surprising of places.
After getting Sarah, Mara and the Quapaws settled at camp Ft. Dubois (the Quapaws most impressed by the Tee Pees and Bison Bicentennial, Woody said “I went outside and there was a black shadow on the ground; I thought it was a bear, but it turned out to be Bison, asleep on the ground!”), I returned to Riverfront Landing in my wife’s metallic blue Toyota Echo at dark, drug dealers and gang-bangers spread throughout the parking lot above, I slipped down the trash-littered ramp and around a pile of bed frames & some big muddy logs, and then down a one-lane path through the tall weeds below and found Norm & Mike with a fire going. “Ahoy,” I yelled, “I come bearing gifts – red wine and eggs & bacon!” It was all I could quickly locate, but it hit the spot, we cracked the ½ gallon bottle of merlot Keith Locke gifted me, and started frying a pound of bacon in one of Mike’s pots. Ooh-whee! To be on the river with a fire and food coming, the water happily slapping the docked canoes, the raft rubbing bank nearby, Norm’s canoe-yak pulled up above, all of us river-worn and happy to be alive, to be together on this last evening, to be camped one last night on the edge of the river, the best place to be (if you asked any one of us) in all of St. Louis, even for Wanbli Mike, who lives there, and for me, whose wife is camped nearby, this was our night for sharing and celebration, we had done our work and the river had blessed us with a beautiful evening, storms receding in the distance, downtown St. Louis glowing behind Mosenthein Island, the bacon sizzling & popping, a fire warming our cold fingers and muddy feet, endless glasses of wine taken in the only vessels we could find, the recycled plastic water bottles I had cut open and employed as paint-pots for my water colors, which had cupped painting water from St. Helen’s Oregon to Livingston Montana to the confluence, and so it was a fitting vessel for a celebratory drink, in one swallow we tasted the Columbia, the Yellowstone, and the Missouri from our one-night hovel on the Middle Mississippi, we toasted once, and then again, and again, Norm kept saying, “I can’t believe I’m here on the edge of the biggest city in the Missouri Valley” and then “I can’t believe I’m here with you guys, I’m so glad I met you guys. Can you believe how this all happened?” More wine. More driftwood for the fire. The bacon crispy, I cracked two dozen eggs two at a time popping into the pot without removing any grease, swirled the concoction until it firmed, and then pulled it out of the coals to cool. 8 eggs each. 8 slices of bacon. We ate it with the last of the Ukrainian Rye Bread John Moore had brought us at Taylor Access, and washed it down with red wine & water. Norm later commented, “Yeah that bacon and egg supper spiked my blood cholesterol from 98 to 560 but it was worth it!” (John Ruskey)