It has been about 5 months since we finished our trip down the 2,100+ mile Mississippi River (MSR). At this point, enough time has passed where we can make some comments on the trip from a bird’s-eye perspective. We know that readers of the blog are largely hikers, and y’all will probably be able to relate with some of our comments below. There are probably more negative comments in this post than any other debrief post that we have written. For that, I sorta apologize, but not entirely. I want to be honest about the trip. It isn’t all a downer, so hang in through the end.
To date, there has not been another trip where we were as happy to hit the terminus. What is odd is that on previous trips, we not have talked about quitting early – due to unhappiness/frustration/general not-digging-it-ness. Somewhere on this trip not sure where, probably in Iowa, we talked about the idea of just stopping, after the topic came up over the course of several frustrating afternoons. Ultimately, we just said; “well, we don’t quit trips.” …and that was that – not sure if this is an ego thing or if we just don’t want to miss out on some potentially awesome thing coming up down the way. Persevering is typically worthwhile as one never knows what interesting/inspiring/challenging things lie ahead. But when we hit the Gulf of Mexico and it was just water as far as the eye could see to the South, knowing the trip had come to an end, we were damn happy.
The physical toll of paddling for too many hours per day
Pain – For both of us, this was the most continual pain that we have experienced on a trip. Our backs, shoulders, wrists, elbows, neck, fingers, asses….even legs (cramping). All were regularly in a state of deep-soreness or (and often) outright pain. We wholly agree with chiropractors and folks that do body work – people are not made to sit in a chair all day. Canoeing all day confirmed this to a degree that we will not forget anytime soon – after sitting in the canoe for even half of the paddling day, we often felt very stiff and achy. Some pain did go away…but a lot was present for the entirety of the trip.
Out of shape – When we come off a long trail, we usually are in solid physical shape. Some healthy weight loss, strong legs, fit enough to climb mountains every day, etc.. At the end of this 2100+ mile journey in the boat, we were in worse shape than when we began. We probably lost a little arm flab, and had some muscle gain in our arms, shoulders and upper back…but as far as cardio fitness goes, we actually had to get back into shape after the trip.
Wilderness, where are you?
Residential and industrial areas were a daily sight for much of our trip down the river.In general, the MS River is a little too close to civilization for our tastes. Working (barges) & pleasure boat (20-30 foot small luxury crafts) traffic could be hard to deal with and a bit dangerous at times. One afternoon in Iowa (near Dubuque), we came very close to getting hit by a boat. The driver wasn’t paying attention and/or was drunk. (Beardoh had to stand up in the canoe, wave his paddle, and scream at the top of his lungs to get the boat driver’s attention). That day in particular had a couple close calls. The barges, which we had heard the most chatter about before starting the trip, actually move slow enough and are reasonably attentive so that they themselves are not a danger, but they are not completely innocuous as the waves that they create could be really big.
The MSR is fairly clean in the north, but as one moves south, especially south of St. Louis, the river earns its moniker, The Big Muddy, in spades. It is brown and often has all types of refuse floating in it. It is pretty disgusting, and a couple times we were camped next to piles of trash and debris that were washed up on shore from flooding in previous years.
For us, we like being in the wilderness as much as possible on our adventures. Short of some sections in the northern part of the river, this trip didn’t have that.
River Angels were a real joy and pick-me-up on this trip. Meeting River Angels was also quite unexpected. There were several people that we met on the trip that really went all out….helping with resupply/water, transport, meals, lodging, and great company. For long distance hikers, this happens a good amount.
One trail story that we like to tell is about meeting a couple of ladies on the AT (2011) that were out on a day hike. Within 15min they had given us their car keys to drive into town and get our resupply. That act of kindness made quite an impression and is a favorite story that we like to tell about trail magic. Well, the same exact thing happened on the Mississippi River (except it included a house, a car and great alligator stories). Crazy-good-ness.
A trip of this magnitude brings out something, a kindness/generosity in people towards vagabonding strangers. There were several times when we pushed off into the water, and paddled away, reflecting and chatting about the outright awesome-ness of these strangers-become-friends.
Bonnie (Beardoh’s Mom), Bryan in Alma, Bob in Aitkin, Danny in Melville, Michael, Virginia and Charles in Memphis, Tom and Kris just north of Coon Rapids. Jerry & Chuck in New Madrid, John and Beth in LaCrosse, Michelle, Gary and Chelsea in Albany, Illinois, Mike in St. Louis, Stan just north of St Louis, the guy who brought us drinks and soup in Natchez, Mace and Sherry in Taylor Ridge, Illinois. These folks make up some of the best memories on the trip and were true helpful-hands to our group.
What would we do differently?
1. Pretty much sit out the wind. If headwinds start blowing over 10 miles/hour -> Hang up the hammocks and read, listen to an audiobook, think, meditate… This may mean cutting the day short at noon…or even earlier, but so be it. It may also mean needing to start a bit earlier in the summer when it is warmer…and that is fine too. Carrying more food because of the lazy pace…that’s cool. Fighting the wind is just a beat down and was truly one of the big frustrations for us on the trip.
2. Use a different boat. Our Grumman 17’ boat was a beast. Heavy. Strong. Stable in the wind. BUT, really slow with any head wind at all. This boat simply has a lot of aluminum out of the water to get blown around. We had read about some folks who used a canoe for the first few hundred miles and then switched to kayaks, as they are better in strong winds, for the remainder of the trip. Not a bad idea. From one of our trail angels, we learned about a really interesting kayak that Hobie makes, called the Mirage (there may be other models). This vessel has pedals that drive a below-the-boat fin system that can be engaged along with using your regular paddles for propulsion and can apparently cruise along at 7 miles/hour pretty easily without current. It looks like recumbent biking in the water.
3. The idea of doing an extended water trip is still kind of cool to us, but I’d encourage folks who like a more wilderness experience to take a look at some other options. Possibly something up in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota/Canada would produce the serene experience that most envision of a canoe/kayak trip.
Where does this leave us?
Surely, our previous ventures impact our perception of any other trip – and we realize that comparing a hiking trip to a canoe trip is a little like comparing apples to….well, another variety of apple.
Not sure if we believe the old saying of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, but if it is true, I suppose we came through the experience stronger. We certainly don’t have any plans for another long distance canoe trip in the works, but we met some great people and saw a part of the country we had never seen before – that is enough.
That being said…
We know that we are hikers, that is our true outdoor passion.
We know that we love the wilderness.
Now back to the mountains and woods we go.