Losing a life in the wind:But not everyone is so lucky. High winds and oncoming severe thunderstorms are no laughing matter. Some wind-related accidents have resulted in tragedy. Some have resulted in paddler’s deaths. Fifteen years ago (late 1990s) two long distance canoeists were paddling downstream in the final days of their 3-month Mississippi River top-to-bottom expedition. They were between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in the very busy and very industrial Chemical Corridor, also known as the “War Zone” or “Cancer Alley.” No one knows exactly what happened, because they were no survivors. High winds forced them to paddle over the top of a long line of fleeted barges, which are common to the area. Their canoe flipped under the rake end of the topmost barge and the paddlers were never seen again. A sobering story for any paddler to imagine. More recently, in March 2010, two paddlers left downtown Memphis in a canoe, crossed the main channel to the Hopefield Dikes and flipped over near the Arkansas shore. It was a blustery day with wind gusts up to 30 mph out of the south. Hopefield is the series of dikes below Loosahatchie Bar which extends under the M Bridge. The channel narrows in this area between the bridges and become a wind tunnel in strong south wind. As the canoeists crossed the river the wind picked up and the main channel quickly filled with choppy 2-3 foot crashing haystacking waves and possibly higher in turbulent places or after the passing of any upstream tows. The river was typically cold for early spring, probably in the 40s. Neither men were wearing wetsuits, although one had his life jacket on. One man was able to swim to shore, the other never made it.
New millennium paddlers can expect a century full of surprises, along with everyone else on this ever-evolving earth of ours. But if anyone can handle it, we can. Nothing makes us happier than having more water. We’re like the fish. When the river rises it just means we have more places to play in. And it sounds like we’re going to get it, although not always when we want it or expect it. A little preparation and planning go a long ways to safely returning home.
- Driftwood Johnnie (John Ruskey)
PS: Warning note: inaccuracies in wind predictions. Assume the worst when listening to the weather report. Add on 5-10mph to any predictions. The wind often seems to be stronger on the river. Also, meteorologists are very slowly catching up to the new weather conditions and patterns being created as result of global warming. The old computer models are sometimes inaccurate. Old weather patterns across the Deep South (and elsewhere) might be going obsolete.
PPS: Paddlers can learn more about safe paddling through extremes of weather at the Rivergator: Paddler’s Guide to the Middle/Lower Mississippi River (St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico). Visit www.rivergator.org. And may the river be with you!