Mississippi River north of Saint Cloud, MN – September 21, 2012
In the first few days the challenge was not flipping and dying on Lake of the Woods. After that, it was paddling upstream on the Rainy River and crossing huge lakes in Voyageurs National Park. Then came the Boundary Waters and portage after portage until I hauled the boat eight-and-a-half miles down the grandest of them all to the shores of Lake Superior. There I found waves meant for oceans, long crossings, and water that felt like ice in mid-summer. When the lake ended, the St. Louis and the swamps of the Savanna Portage began, a route someone told me hadn’t been crossed in two years.
Then I settled into the Mississippi, paddled a week, and felt like I was losing my mind.
“Why isn’t this easy?” I thought.
Another few days passed and I felt the same uneasiness. Then a I thought about the next two months on this river.
The Savanna Portage took four days. It was sharp, harsh, and clear. Get from one side to the other any way you can even if people say it’s impossible.
Crossing to Isle Royale took a single day of hard paddling. For nine hours you notice every shift of water, every hint of wind, then you’re done and people look at you like you’re crazy.
Every portage in the Boundary Waters felt different. Some were flat, some crossed bogs on planks of wood, some climbed over boulders and down rapids. Only the Grand Portage lasted more than half a day.
The Mississippi is different. It’s subtle. It smiles at you while holding a knife behind its back. It’s a long, slow, unwinding effort so far beyond the reach of a few hard days that the end feels more fantasy than real.
There are 2,000 miles between me and the Gulf of Mexico. 2,000 miles of turns and twists and muddy banks. 2,000 miles of barges, small towns, and giant cities.
This is a different kind of monster. I can’t sprint. I can’t rush to the end. I can only paddle day after day while we smile at each other and pretend we aren’t waiting for the other to give in.