The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail


Rivergator Appendix XIV:

Paddling through Weather Extremes:

Wind and Severe Thunderstorms

By “Driftwood Johnnie” John Ruskey


Paddlers by nature are accustomed to challenging conditions on an ever-changing medium.  So while global warming might ruffle feathers and stir up the dust on land, on the water it looks like it will be more of the same… just more of it.  According to a recent all-encompassing scientific study we will be experiencing more violent river level changes, stronger winds, more dangerous severe storms, rising seas, inundated coastlines, warmer winters, hotter summers, more mosquitoes, snakes, alligators, poison ivy and noxious air conditions, and many other hazards.


The recently completed National Climate Assessment (May 6, 2014 by NOAA) has confirmed some of our experiences as paddlers with extreme water and atmospheric conditions, especially on big open waters like Puget Sound, the Inside Passage, San Francisco Bay, Lake Superior, Glacier Bay, Acadia, the Hudson River, the Florida Keys and the Lower Mississippi River.


Wind and severe thunderstorms have been especially troublesome to Lower Mississippi River paddlers.  In recent years high winds have led directly to at least one canoe being lost “at sea,” and was one of the determining factors in the death of at least one big river canoeist.  Seasoned Memphis kayaker and race director Joe Royer decided to move the The Outdoors Inc. Canoe and Kayak Race from its traditional May date back to Father’s Day Weekend in June because of the highly erratic and oftentimes violent spring weather patterns.  As always, its best to be prepared for all eventualities on the big river.  Like climbing the big mountain, you are very exposed on the big river (big lakes, open ocean).  When you fall, you fall a long, long ways.


The National Climate Assessment is completed every four years by more than 300 U.S. scientists to assess how the climate is changing in the U.S. The report was supervised and approved by a 60-member committee representing a cross section of American society, including representatives of two oil companies.


I picked up the very readable report online and was immediately reminded of the dozens of dramas and comedies we have suffered through in the past decade, and wondered how these mishaps might have been result of some aspect resulting from climate change.    As always lot can be learned in the stories of other canoeists and kayakers, in this case from paddlers encountering high winds and severe thunderstorms on the Lower Mississippi:

Losing tents in front line winds:

I’ve been with groups where we had all of our tents blown down and sent tumbling hundreds of yards across the sandbar.  Once during a severe thunderstorm near New Madrid, Missouri.  This storm was amongst the most powerful I’ve ever experienced.  The rain fell sideways for half an hour.  We lost twelve tents to the wind.  We recovered most of them, but my tent poles are still bent, and the raging campfire was lifted up and deposited on one tent and burned it up.  We had to recover in the darkness.  Many in the group slept outdoors and got eaten up by mosquitoes.  Another time there was no storm in the forecast.  We were on Prairie Point Towhead above Helena.  A strange squall line appeared from the north.  It crossed the river and dismantled our unprotected campsite in the first blow.  I remember my initial anger when it blew over an enamel cup of wine I was getting ready to enjoy after the long day of paddling.  We chased tents almost a mile before they came to rest against the treeline at the edge of the big sandbar.  The wind continued unabated all night long as we huddled near the fire.  No one attempted to resurrect their shelters, even though it dipped down into the mid 30s.  


Losing a canoe in the wind:

Long distance canoeist Max Karpov was camped near mile 701 in an open spot along a sandbar island that accumulates around the Porter Lake Dikes.  He was almost directly opposite the Tunica Riverpark Museum, and the Fitzgerald Casino, but he could have been on a separate continent so far removed are these islands from civilization.  Sometime in the middle of the night high winds kicked up out of the North and caught Max unawares.  He awoke the next morning to discover his canoe nowhere to be found.  He hadn’t thought it necessary to tie up the night previous.  Max was another lucky victim of high winds.  He was plucked off the sandbar wilderness by a Fish and Game patrolman.  And his canoe was rescued by the next long distance paddlers in the vicinity, Lucas and Nathalie (and their intrepid puppy-dog Tischer from the Paddle in Hand Expedition).  Lucas and Nathalie found it washed up eleven miles downstream at the top end of Mhoon Bend.  I assisted in the canoe rescue.  It was obviously dragged some distance by the wind across rock, rip-rap or revetment, and a seat was ripped out.  But otherwise it was intact.


Kayaking in the wind:

Another time I was kayaking solo along the edge of a powerful storm when it suddenly jumped over the river and blew me over.  I ejected and took refuge amongst some stubby mature willows where 2-3 foot crashing waves lashed the shoreline.  Several of the trees blew over in the front line winds, fortunately none on top of me.  A small tornado passed nearby with this one.  Most recently (April 2014) we were approaching our intended camp behind an island not far above Natchez.  A molted blue/black/white layered storm front coalesced over the entire length of the Western horizon and then crossed the river at a strange perpendicular, making small water spouts jump up in its path, sucking river water in small splashes of swirling spray.  The kayaker in our group was forced to turn into shore and then eject in the growing trains of crashing waves against the shoreline.  I couldn’t turn the 30-foot long voyageur canoe I was piloting until everyone portside held water and everyone starboard paddled double time forward. On the shoreline near us a dozen trees were pushed over like blades of grass before a weed-whacker.  Again, the kayaker got lucky and missed being hit by falling trees, or other complications.  Forty eight hours passed before that cold front blew itself out and the calm returned.  Long distance kayaker Rod Wellington was paddling down the Missouri River late in December of 2012 when a storm front packing blizzard slammed him broadsides in an open riverside camp on a sandy bluff.  In Rod’s own words: “I awoke to find my 17’ sea kayak partially covered in a mix of drifted snow and sand on the barren banks of the Missouri River near Jefferson City, Missouri. I spent 40 hours holed-up in a small, two-person tent... braving my way through a vicious winter storm that blasted the area with sideways snow, 50mph winds and temperatures in the single digits. With my video camera inoperable due to the frigid temps, and fingers too numb to hold a pen, I gave up the idea of documenting my besieged state and instead, with the help of earplugs, was able to catch up on some much-needed sleep.”