Brothers of the Boundary Waters: Canoeing Minnesota

DSC_0633(State #34/50) Shane and I laid in the tent at 7 a.m., trying to sleep through the passing roar of eighteen-wheelers — turns out the country road we had pitched by wasn’t as lonely as I had hoped. We heard the sound of a vehicle pulling off the highway and crunch of gravel as the wheels drew near. “Ah-ohh,” said Shane. The engine cut, a car door opened and a voice called out in that distinct Minnesotan accent, “Sheriff’s Deputy here, step out of the tent please.” Perfect, I thought.

Unzipping the tent, we emerged to a cloudy morning and a man in uniform. After we learned we couldn’t camp there, the officer asked what my Texas plates were doing all the way up in Minnesota. I explained. “All fifty? Well, oh boy, gee, what-a deal.” said the officer, if only in my imagination. But, Captain Hoppe was interested in my trip and shared his pictures of wolf tracks, walleyes and ice fishing. Then, as Shane and I packed up the tent he said, “here’s a donation to the cause.” We turned around and the deputy was holding out a big bottle of OFF! — a kind gesture that we’d appreciate even more, come evening.

On the road, Shane and I sat in silence until someone said, “Damn Sheriff… run me out of town.” We laughed and agreed it was the nicest way to get asked to move along. Happy for the friendly encounter and early start, we headed north towards The Boundary Waters, America’s Canoe Mecca.DSC_0663

July continued its impression of April as we packed up Rider at the Homer Lake launch. We donned long sleeves, shemags and raincoats, bundling up as much for the mosquitos as the light rain and cold. We coated any remaining skin in the bug spray provided by the Chisago Country Patrol Division. The next hour and a half was far from the leisurely; it involved us canoeing out on the lake, making camp on one island, discovering a better island a half-mile away and, in a move of admitted stubbornness, deciding to move camp at 6:45 p.m.

DSC_0765 (2)“We’re really going to go back, take it all down and put it up again?” Shane asked, pointing out we’d waste a lot of the evening. “Yep!” I said, promising we’d be swift. Well, being swift turned into a near-panicked frenzy when we spotted a red canoe a half-mile away, bearing down. Worried they were headed for our new island and wishing to avoid DSC_0714an awkward encounter, we scrambled to break camp and re-load. When we hit the lake the red canoe was upon us, paralleling our position a few hundred to the left. Without acknowledging each other, we paddled in hard, silent, sweaty competition towards the island. After an exhausting half-mile sprint, we edged them out. I know we should have wagged our genitals at our conquered adversaries, as Minnesotan custom dictates (or maybe I’m thinking of Scotland). But, instead we remained stoic as the canoe turned into the second site on the mainland, likely where they had been heading the entire time. No matter. We were triumphant and our reward was setting up camp, again.

The rain ceased as swaths of light blue broke up the ceiling of uniform gray. But, daylight was fading, so Shane and I rushed back to the water with the first aid kit, flashlights and beer. At almost eight, we headed into the canoe wilderness. The Boundary Waters, if you’re unfamiliar, is an undulating sprawl of boreal forest, pocked with slivers and chains of glacial lakes and streams. You have to portage, or carry your canoe, between these lakes. Maps detail the length of each portage using the measurement of “rods” — length of a 16.5-foot canoe. Some require trekking overland for miles. In short, it’s not a preferable place to be lost in the dark.

DSC_0671We consulted the map, found a doable route and headed for our first, short portage, where we simply slid the canoe down a little stream into the next lake. We arrived at a longer one around eight forty. “We’ll be back here at nine.” I told Shane. “Seems like a lot of work for twenty minutes.” He wasn’t wrong. So, we decided to go a little longer, pushing the envelope of daylight. This time the North Woods rewarded our gamble.DSC_0786 (1)

After carrying the canoe over a path the length of a football field, we paddled out into East Pipe Lake. The sun emerged and turned the pine ridge to the east red as we floated on the still waters. Then, Shane told me to hush and listen; he heard something in the

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That’s a bear there, I swear

brush to our left. As quiet as possible, we canoed towards the shore where we saw bushes moving. I caught a glimpse of black and whispered “that’s a bear!” She caught our scent and stood up on her hind legs, rising above the bushes to check us out. Unimpressed, she dropped to all fours and the black bear lumbered up the hill and back into the woods. Apparently I hadn’t used up all my bear luck in Wisconsin.DSC_0814

Heading back to camp, we floated below and above a pink sky and towards the band of black, which separated the two sunsets. We portaged at twilight and canoed on our home lake as the placid waters reflected the final light of the western sky. We arrived back at ten, having exhausted every last bit of day. We had more beer, a roaring fire and made ghost pepper brats at eleven-thirty.DSC_0838DSC_0840 (1)DSC_0857

We awoke to the sounds of a loon and a sunny sky fit for a relaxing morning. At noon, with most of our stuff stored on the bank, we got in the canoe to explore further into the Boundary Waters. “Are we going to bring any beer?” Shane asked. “Nah,” I said. Then I thought further… It was a lovely day and, well, why the hell not? A beer turned into bringing five and the bottle of crappy, crappy grain-neutral Canadian “Whiskey.”

DSC_0881 (1)The sun was warm, bordering on hot and there was nary a cloud to be seen, a wonderful departure from the gloom and dreary drizzle of the previous day. We portaged to Whack Lake, a name that, as you may imagine, we had fun with. Then we found the route to the longer Vern Lake. We brought our gear first and then carried the boat over a hill to the lake. Scanning for wildlife, we discovered a distant, but clearly naked middle-aged woman, bolting for the woods. It was, after all, quite a day for skinny dipping.

We turned up the lake, canoed a half mile to a group throwing the football around in the water near their camp. We passed it back in forth with them and chatted about our trips and the glorious day before continuing on towards the lake’s end. The sun beamed from high on a blue lake, surrounded by Boreal forest — Christmas trees and quaking aspen. Ridges of granite rose from either side of the narrow chain of lakes and the easily frightened aspen shook at the sight of our muscular physiques. We were all alone out there and not a spec of human trash, noise or other pollution. The Boundary Waters, unlike, say, The Alamo or Mount Rushmore were all they were built up to be — expansive, endless wilderness. With enough time and supplies, you could canoe and portage a string of water until you were half way to the Arctic.DSC_0895

Not wasting the warm afternoon, we put on life jackets and swam out into the cold tannic water. Shane and I floated out of a little cove in Whack Lake, wondering how deep it was as we looked down at our dangling, orange-tinted legs. We bobbed under the afternoon sun for thirty minutes, goofing about and wondering how large a sturgeon would need to be to pull us down (surely that would get us on an episode of River Monsters). Slowly, we made our way back to the Homer lake landing and loaded up the car around seven. Then we headed towards the Canadian border, Quetico Provincial Park and then Voyagers National Park for more canoeing — all wild, gorgeous and teeming with mosquitoes.IMG_1285

DSC_0929 (3)A few days after I dropped Shane off at the airport, he had texted me that he hung The Boundary Waters map on the wall at his work. It had gotten wet in the rain, so we dried it over the fire that night on the island. Somehow the smoke clung to the eliminated paper and then abandoned it to fill his workspace in Las Colinas, TX. “Now my entire office smells like campfire,” Shane said. Perfect, I thought.

Lake Stats and Fun Facts:

  • The Boundary Waters, Minnesota (Homer, East Pipe, Whack and Vern Lake)
  • Miles canoed: 12 on the Boundary Waters + 6 in Voyageurs 18 total for the state
  • Dates Canoed: 7-13/14-2017
  • Weather: Drizzly in the 50s to sunny, cloudless in the mid 70s!
  • Elevation: 1814 Feet Above Sea Level
  • Launch Point/Takeout Point: Home Lake access ( 47.904494, -090.659974)
  • Campsite: Island in Homer Lake on the Boundary of the Boundary Waters (47.900242, -090.687895)
  • Furthers Point Reached on Vern Lake ( 47.914821, -090.744474)
  • Songs Sung on Lakes: IF you Ain’t Got Love by Mason Jennings, So Young by Portugal. The Man, Stolen Dance by Milky Chance and First by The Cold War Kids (but, quite notably, we sang our friends Bobby’s version that goes “first you get a cat and then it goes raaaaaaaer”)
  • Thanks to Superior National Forest Rangers at Visitor centers. Big Thanks to Captain Hoppe for the OFF! and not throwing Shane and I in camper’s prison. Thanks to Dave Boucher for getting pictures of Shane and I canoeing and emailing them my way!IMG_1283
  • Great Local Radio Station: Fiddling with the radio, we found a wonderful Duluth-based station playing mo-town, indie and Americana. Shane found the 103.3, KUMD number and I called to put in a request. Ten minutes later we heard the DJ say, “We’ve got another request with kinda of fun story along with it…” She went on to give an accurate account of my trip and then played If you Ain’t Got Love by Mason Jennings. One line begins… “In a little wooden cabin, in Northern Minnesota…”
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: 2 Bald Eagles, Common Loon, Vulture, hawk, raven, many songbirdsDSC_0701
  • Mammals: Black Bear (which we believe was a Mother with cubs, by the odd noises we heard her or the unseen cubs make… almost seal-like), mink (1st of trip!), chipmunk, red squirrel
  • Reptiles/Amphibians: Small water snake, Painted Turtle (crossing the parking lot on return), Leopard Frog, tadpoles
  • Noted Species: Wolf, Moose and Black Bear
  • Dominant Vegetation: American Beech, Northern Red Oaks, Sugar Maple, White Pine, Yellow Birch, White Birch, Hemlock and other conifer species
  • Ecoregion: Northern Lakes and Forests, (50n) Boundary Lakes and Hills
  • Current Threats: Copper and Nickel Mining — A Threat American Rivers raised awareness about and helped halt!
    https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/victory-boundary-waters/
  • Trash collected: few scraps of trash from camp, but hardly a spec to be seen!
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2666 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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Wisconsin Wilderness: Canoeing The Flambeau River with my Pa

DSC_0371(State #33/50) My Mother stood, looking impatient and swatting mosquitoes, as I lugged free-ranging laundry from my car and into her rental. In my backseat, I piled junk onto the adjacent seat and crammed some trash under that pile. Then I wiped sand and leaves from the fabric, which I hadn’t seen in three months. Stepping back, I presented the spot to Mom, who seemed satisfied that there was at least a place for her iced tea. I loaded up Dad in the passenger seat with some dry bags and gear, jumped behind the wheel and drove to the launch on the Flambeau River. We spent the 45-minute drive swatting, clapping and rolling down the windows trying to kill, mane or eject as many of our mosquito passengers as possible. Wisconsin, Hurrah!

Minnows schooled in the shallows tea-colored water as Dad and I loaded the canoe at the bank of the river. The afternoon was sunny and warm, but mosquitoes and biting gnats put a rush on our launch. Mom snapped a picture and then drove off to leave my car back at the pull out point, thus completing her shuttling duties.

DSC_0391 (1)We began downstream in the late afternoon, moving with the swift wide current. Rider, loaded with the excess weight of my Dad and actual ice in the cooler, bobbed down the dark clean river, past large granite boulders left from glaciers. Chattering kingfishers and green dragonflies filled the air above the water, replacing the biting insects of the surrounding woods. The sun glinted off the water, rippled by gusts of wind.

Dad and I headed into Barnaby Rapids, where small whitewater curled around protruding boulders. Yet, with the rocks the same color as the water, we didn’t see one until the last minute. It was a close one — nearly colliding with the rock head-on — but we bumped our way through with zero fatalities. Scraping the side of a huge boulder got us to talking about the Titanic disaster… then we stopped talking about the film and discussed when the ship sank. (No, that’s a joke. Titanic was a great movie. I mean Nicole in 6th grade English saw it 6 times… in theaters. You read right… 6.). The upshot of this chain of events was that I started singing My Heart Will Go On, a song that is as beautiful as Canadians are interesting.

After several miles, the Flambeau strayed from the highway; the sound of cars vanished and the feeling of true wilderness prevailed. Aspen and white pines grew above lush banks, thick with grasses, ferns and horsetails. With all land vegetated, there was little to erode and, therefore,no sandbanks. We only spotted the occasional reed coated island or low bank.DSC_0416

The name Flambeau, meaning torch, is a remnant of the days when the white people of Wisconsin were burly fur-clad trappers speaking French, verses beer-bellied guys with Packers Jerseys, stained in sausage juices and cheese curds. The best guess on the name’s origin is that these French trappers saw the Chippewa Indians fishing the waters at night below the light of torches. With as remote and wild as the river still is, that wasn’t a hard image to conjure up… and it’s one I like to envision.

DSC_0443Passing muskie fishermen in row boats and kayaks, we made fantastic time around the oxbow bend in the river, crossing the halfway point under the highway by a little after seven. Knowing most campsites would likely be occupied, possibly by humans and definitely by mosquitoes, we were happy staying on the water into the evening. “We’ll start looking for a site after we get down from the bridge.” I told my dad.

This time, unlike Kentucky, the choice to keep floating paid off. A mile from the highway bridge I spotted something large and living in the river — two lumps of fur, presumably connected by more wet fur below the water’s surface, moving in the water 300 yards away. “There’s something big in the water, straight in front of us!” I called out to Dad. He saw it too. We both had an idea what it was, but didn’t say as not to jinx it. The creature was large, mammalian and dark. Maybe a moose, expect moose weren’t common to the area. We paddled hard and I grabbed my camera. The animal swam towards the bank and I took photos, standing in the stern as Dad power stroked. Soon we were close enough to confirm what we were looking at… A black bear!DSC_0398DSC_0402 (2)

At sixty-feet out, the bear touched bottom. It turned and saw a two-headed green monster barreling down on its position. So, the bear began lunging through the water, kicking up a white water wake. In an ungraceful sprint, which included a big stumble and recovery, the bear made it to solid land. Without a look back, it disappeared into the Wisconsin wilderness in one last flash of black.DSC_0405 (1)DSC_0408

DSC_0464Thrilled with the bear sighting and less worried about camp, we floated on in the evening light. Then, as the miles wore on and the sun sank further towards the northwest, the residual bear glow wore off. Without a map, we could only hope another campsite was coming soon. More miles passed by and only the tops of the trees bore sunshine. Low hills and ridges rose from the river and pines replaced maples as the dominant trees. Then, right as we were about to camp anywhere that would hold a tent, we spotted a yellow sign for a campsite. It was eight-thirty.

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Dad’s misadventure in rinsing his feet

We took a bug spray bath before we unloaded our gear, but the mosquitoes at camp weren’t as bad as Upper Michigan or even where we were earlier with Mom. We set up a tent on one of the two freshly mowed, unoccupied sites. Dad and I gathered wood in the dark forest and built the campfire. We played with the fire, drank Leinenkugel’s and Spotted Cow beer as twilight lingered. Down by the water’s edge, we stared at the still-lit horizon as the big dipper coursed the sky and the odd lightening bug (or zap doodles as they’re known in Wisconsin) signaled from across the Flambeau — little torches preceding the night. With nothing more than curiosity, we checked the clock; it was ten thirty-five.DSC_0457

DSC_0469Back by our fire, we discussed music and old Simpson episodes (which, I promise, hold up with time). With enough coals now, we grilled our beer bratwursts over the fire, talked some more and listened to the night. Then, realizing that it was midnight, we crawled into the tent.

In the morning, clouds dropped sprinkles, which turned to rain. We re-heated some brats, had oatmeal and took to the water by ten-thirty. “It’s just light rain, nothing like it was that time in New York.” I said, even knocking on my wooden paddle. Within five minutes the rain picked up and my butt soon felt the trickle of rainwater. It was entirely my fault.

DSC_0474We canoed 5 miles, through the rain and passed a soaked bald eagle, perched above the river. Right as the novelty of being wet turned to annoyance, we found the pullout at the W Bridge. Dad and I loaded up the car and were on the road by noon, headed to meet Mom in the charming town of Ladysmith, with a car re-filled with mosquitos.

Days before our float, Dad and I drove up from a 4th of July bonanza with our relatives in Green Lake, WI. The subject of bears came up. “I remember seeing one strung up on the corner store in town,” Dad recalled. “We never heard anymore about them after that…” This memory was from his hometown of Antigo, back in the early 1950’s. So, that swimming, stumbling creature we saw on the Flambeau was my Dad’s first wild, live bear to see in his home state; it only took him 69 years.

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4th of July at Green Lake

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Flambeau River, Wisconsin
  • Miles Canoed: 22
  • Date Canoed: 7-8/9-2017
  • Weather: Hot, Sunny with happy white clouds on the afternoon to cool, humid and rainy in the morning
  • Elevations: 1399 to 1356 feet above sea level
  • Launch Point: Public launch near 9 Mile Tavern (45.852602, -090.600284)
  • Campsite: Mason Creek Campsite (45.811244, -090.72292)
  • Takeout Point: W Bridge public access (45.767724, -090.761163)
  • Songs Sung on River: Take on Me by A-ha (a rare 80’s song for me), My Heart Will Go by Celine Dion (Titanic Theme), New Life in Old Mexico by Robert Earl Keen
  • Big thanks to Luke and The Ladysmith News for their article on my journey. Thanks to Nancy and Mike for hosting my folks and I for a fantastic 4th of July on Green Lake. Thanks to Cousin Tim for not spraying me with the garden hose to wake me up (as he threatened).DSC_0029
  • Great Local B&B: Carnegie Hall Bed & Breakfast in Ladysmith. A former CarnegieDSC_0496 Library, restored (even after a tornado toppled a water tower on it) to a comfy little B&B with themed rooms. The owner put me in the Titanic Room (which I found hilarious) and my folks were in a Civil War themed room. Tasty huge breakfast. And yes, my parents floated the cost, so thanks Ma and Pa!
  • Delicious Local Restaurants: Wendy and Joe’s Steakhouse, The Cedar Lodge (both had some of the best burgers I’ve eaten throughout the country) and anything shot, caught, tapped, smoked and cooked by Jim and Joy Sisko.
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: 2 Bald Eagles, belted kingfisher, cedar waxwing, robin, redwing blackbirds, swallows, Canada Geese, crow and variety of other songbirds
  • Mammals: 1 Black Bear! 3 White Tail Deer, Eastern Cottontail, bats
  • Amphibians: 1 swimming toad, multiple leopard frogs
  • Other: Crawfish, minnows, bait fish and one jumping small mouth bass
  • Noted Species: Wolves, Black Bears, Elk (Reintroduced 20 years back), Fisher and Ruffed Grouse
  • Dominant Vegetation: “Both forks are surrounded by a mixed northern hardwood forest with: sugar and red maple, red oak, yellow birch, white ash, and beautiful stands of quaking aspen. Frequent stands of conifers along the riverway include: red, jack and white pines, tall hemlocks, and occasional cedars overhanging rocky riverbanks.” — Wisconsin Trail Guide
  • Ecoregion: Northern Lakes and Forests, (50g) Chippewa Lobe Rocky Ground Moraines
  • Current Threats: Copper and Zinc toxicity from The Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith. Often touted as a “model mine,” the Wisconsin DNR and EPA found evidence to the contrary. In 2012 a Wisconsin Court found The Flambeau Mine to be in violation of the Clean Water Act on eleven counts.
  • Trash collected: Bits of plastic, torn duct tape, bit of nylon rope, but very little trash on river!
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2666 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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On the Shores of Gitche Gumee: Canoeing Lake Superior, Upper Michigan

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Mom & Rider

(State #32/50) I wanted to canoe Lake Superior… easier declared than done as the body of water acts more like an ocean than a lake; its storms whip deadly cold waters into swells, which have destroyed vessels much larger than my 16-foot canoe. So, I required two factors to carry out my plans — 1. A location that would limit exposure to the open waters and 2. Good weather.

After consulting maps and the always trustworthy internet, I concluded Grand Island, off the coast of the Upper Peninsula, was the surest bet. Knowing anything short of mild conditions would scrub the launch, I was thrilled when my parents and I arrived at the landing. We stepped out into a hot, sunny afternoon shinning down on a blue, tranquil stretch of water. Conditions were ripe for my Father and me to canoe the largest lake in the world.*

DSC_0088We’re taking all this?” Dad said, looking at the loaded down boat. “Yep!” I replied. “It looks pretty low in the water, Eric,” Mom said, sure we were going to sink. But it was all necessary… the snorkel gear, bungie cords, the extra pans, the beer, the backup tuna cans, the backup, backup peanut butter. They’ll understand once Dad and I get swept across the lake and have to live for weeks in the Canadian wilderness, I told myself.

We launched Rider into the clear, cold water next to the ferry crossing. “We can always put on the canoe and ride the ferry back if the water’s too rough,” I told Dad. Mom took photos and, dutifully, watched as we paddled out into the channel. A few boats kicked up wakes, which we turned to the boat to meet head on, bobbing down over the crests. Besides that, we canoed across the half-mile stretch to Grand Island without drama.

DSC_0096 (1)There were some boats at anchor off the shore and a smattering of houses and docks down at the shoreline. But, beyond that area, the island was a sweeping span of tree-filled wilderness with ridge lines running through the center of the islands two main sections. Dad and I steered out into calm Murray Bay with no firm destination. It was more of a “let’s canoe that-a-way” and “ooo what’s that over there?”

Sunlight lit the sandy bottom fifteen feet below in the shallow areas while dark blue water filled the deep portions. We passed over huge submerged logs and boulders. “I’m definitely going to snorkel,” I told Dad. Heading towards the far side of the bay, we paddled past a narrow cape called Muskrat Point. Across the shallow cove, we claimed an unoccupied campsite by leaving the tent bag. Hours from dark, the mosquitoes were already heavy in the thick conifer forest surrounding the site. So, we jumped back in the boat and canoed to the tip of Muskrat Point.

DSC_0119We beached the boat on the sandy/rocky point, hopped out and opened warm beers. A few low growing shrubs and pines occupied this little sliver of land, but the scene was largely made up of clear water and shallow, sand-rippled lake floor. I dug around my gear bag and got out my snorkel and mask.

I walked into the lake up to my knees. “Count me down from 10!” I called back to Dad on the beach. At zero I fell back into Superior — near freezing, but refreshing. I snorkeled off the point on the main bay side, where the sand sloped down a steep bank into the dark oblivion. I noticed something resting on the sand near the ledge. I dove down about eight feet and surfaced, triumphantly, with a GoPro on a stick (broken, but I still need to investigate the memory chip). Meanwhile, Dad had been edging his way into the water in the form of hesitant, sissy, tiptoe steps. It was all I could do not to tackle him. But, after the twenty-minute spectacle, Dad finally submerged and swam around. Though he grew up in Wisconsin, it was his first swim in  the Great Lakes.

DSC_0193We dried off and paddled to the other side of the bay, passing an anchored sail boat and a few white buoys. When we returned to our campsite, the mosquitoes were waiting for us. We bathed in bug spray, gathered wood and used the last of my lighter fluid to get the fire going. Even with spray, heat and smoke, the mosquitoes remained. But, this was Upper Michigan, and we knew to expect this, so we didn’t let it get to our spirits.DSC_0186

With the high clouds and storms, the sunset lasted for hours and went through multiple phases and color schemes. High light yellow clouds with sun rays shooting through turned to orange, then pink and then purple, all reflected in our own personal section of bay. A shower passed overhead and dotted the glowing orange lake surface. Later on, a thunderhead to the north joined the show and sent bolts through the clouds, towards the lake and rumbled the twilight.DSC_0254

DSC_0278We began dinner prep in the fading evening light. Without time to shop at a store, my Dad was set to try a four-course supper of car trunk food. We started with a stale English muffin, split in two, warmed in a pot and topped with Amish blackberry jam. We then left Pennsylvania Dutch country for Austria and enjoyed fried Vienna Sausages — a delightful “meat” based finger sized tub, with a little crunch of sand from the dirty pan. And for the main course… a taste of Italy prepared and canned by the master Chef Boyardee; and, yes, the Beefaroni was resplendent. We finished with fruit-filled, processed breakfast bars. In all of my Father’s travels, he said he’s never enjoyed as lavish of a meal… Or I thought I heard him say that through the thunder.

The next morning was overcast and cold. While I slept, Dad got up and could barely make out the anchored sailboat through the thick fog. After a few hours, the weather cleared, but the wind was up and the water, even on the calmer bay, was rolling with little white caps. I shuddered to think of what the channel across the mainland looked like. Texts from Mom to Dad said that there was “two-foot chop.” “There’s always the ferry,” we said.DSC_0303 (1)

DSC_0317The sun came out as we began the voyage back, paddling hard and hitting the waves dead on, straight across Murray Bay. After admiring the construction of a 1840’s cabin, we decided to try for the mainland. I hugged the island’s shoreline as we paddled back to where the ferry crossed. Passed a jutting gravel point, we left the protected waters and now faced the temperament of greater Lake Superior.

Big waves hit the canoe and I turned the bow to cut them, tacking against the wind and waves, heading away from our destination. It would take more time, but the alternative was canoeing strait across and getting broadsided and rolled. After enough distance, I turned the canoe and headed with the waves hitting our back. The directions of the waves wasn’t perfect to the ferry crossing, so I tried to cheat the angle and cut the distance. This was a mistake — a big swell hit us sideways and the water was an inch away from pouring over the gunwales. “Paddle Right! Paddle right!” I called to my Dad before we tested another wave. From then on, I kept the boat with the waves and Rider surged and dropped as each rolled by us. We made it back, though, white knuckles and all.

DSC_0358As we unloaded, we talked to a ranger. She mentioned something about the ship wrecks in Murray Bay. “What??” we said. “Oh yeah, there’s three out there, real close to the surface, that’s why the glass-bottomed boat tours go there…”  We had seen tour boats stop at the white buoys all the previous evening and had even canoed by them, without thinking what they were marking. “We could have seen sunken ships!?”  For the next few days, my Dad and I couldn’t tell the story without bringing up that we missed the shipwrecks, shaking our heads, every time, in deep regret. I mean we could have taken pictures, snorkeled above them, found the treasure… We’re still kicking ourselves. Though after experiencing only a tiny fraction of the lake’s furry, I suppose we should just be happy we didn’t join those boats at the very bottom of Lake Superior.

*Superior is usually considered the largest lake in the world by surface area and the 3rd largest by volume. Some try to lump Michigan and Huron together, but we all know those people are idiots.

Lake Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Lake Superior, Michigan
  • Miles Canoed: 7
  • Dates Canoed: 7-6/7-2017
  • Weather: Sunny and warm, isolated thunderstorms in the evening, foggy clearing to sun the following morning. 100% chance of mosquitoes.
  • Elevation: 602 feet above sea level
  • Launch Point/Takeout Point: Public launch at Grand Island Ferry (46.445103, -086.664727)
  • Campsite: Muskrat Point (46.463555, -086.641746)
  • Applicable Poem: The Song of Hiawatha (IX Hiawatha and the Pearl Feather) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Dad found this: Opening lines raw
    “On the shores of Gitche Gumee (Lake Superior),
    Of the shining Big-Sea-Water,
    Stood Nokomis, the old woman,
    Pointing with her finger westward,
    O’er the water pointing westward,
    To the purple clouds of sunset.”
  • Thanks to Deanna, the Forest Service Ranger for providing information post canoe
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Loon, ducks, seagull and songbirds
  • Noted Species: Black bear on Grand Island
  • Dominant Vegetation: American Beech, Northern Red Oaks, Sugar Maple, White Pine, Yellow Birch, White Birch, Hemlock and other conifer species
  • Ecoregion: Northern Lakes and Forests, (50x) Grand Marais Lakeshore
  • Current Threats: Sea Lamprey in Lake Superior, Garlic Mustard (both invasive species)
  • Trash collected: lots of micro trash (tiny bits of plastic), GoPro, part of a firework
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2666 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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Corn Diplomacy & Russian Ties: Canoeing the Middle Raccoon River, Iowa

DSC_1055(State #31/50) Somehow, Iowa intrigued me. I’m not sure why, either. Other than the people in Southern Louisiana accusing the state of sending them their pollution (See Louisiana Post), I knew very little about Iowa. My collective knowledge of this Middle America farm state comes from the classic corn and pigs stereotypes, Bill Bryson and the knowledge that it’s where, back in the 1990’s, James Earl Jones vanished into a cornfield with Ray Liotta and a bunch of dead New York Yankees. Other than that, Iowa was a clean slate.

DSC_0831 (1)I arrived into a small town named, to my slight concern, Coon Rapids. But, since it was located on a branch of the Raccoon River, the title checked out. Coon Rapids, without trying, immediately charmed me. To my sincere delight, near the towns main crossroads, I found three massive statues of corn DNA… “If you build it, they will come.” Well, I guess I was “they.” I stared up at the massive double helixes, endeared by manifestation of a physical ode to corn. Indeed, the town had no issue leaning into an Iowa stereotype. While a physical manifestation of corn was something you might expect to find in rural Iowa, connections with the former Soviet Union was not… But, again, America continues to surprise me.

DSC_0877The story starts with the Garst family: Roswell Garst and the family are legends of Iowa and American agriculture on a whole. The Garst corn empire started on a homestead near the banks of the Middle Raccoon River. Along with being an agricultural innovator (pioneering a new corn hybrid, hence the statues), he was also forward thinking in conserving the native flora and fauna of their sprawling manner. Best of all, Garst developed an unlikely friendship — based, naturally, on corn — with Kikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union during the advent of the Cold War.

When Khrushchev toured America in 1959, Garst was the only person, save for President Eisenhower, whom he wanted to meet. So, as the oddities of history go, Khrushchev — the leader of the USSR, our Mutually Assured Destruction adversary — stopped in to Coon Rapids, Iowa to meet the Garst family and stay at the farmhouse.DSC_0813

Arriving at the meeting site, I found most of the original Garst farm structures intact. Swallows flew from the eves of white-painted barns, while bison grazed in a sunny pasture. Lofty shade trees, filled with singing birds, surrounded the homestead, which was open as a guesthouse and museum. Seeing no one, I let myself in and wandered around the home.

DSC_0799

Roswell Garst, bottom left

Inside, I inspected old photos of the Garsts’ and Khrushchevs’ smiling, talking, and embracing. In the dinning room, I studied a shelf of hammer and sickle medals, pins, dolls and a little figurine of Sputnik. Back in the living room, I spotted a bookshelf containing a wide assortment of literature. You can tell a lot about someone by their personal library — if it’s not a great indicator of their true interests, its at least a reflection of what they’d like people to think they’re interested in. There were dozens of books from the mid-20th century about and from Russia. A few were written in cyrillic and had signed inside covers with little notes in a language I can’t read. Atop the books titled Russia in 2010 and Corn of Iowa was A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, father of modern day conservation biology. After spending nearly an hour unsupervised in the house, riffling through books and Russian trinkets, I decided I liked the Corn King of Iowa for his obsession with corn, conservation and the commies. I headed for the river wondering if the friendship between Garst and Khrushchev and their, lets call it, Corn Diplomacy, factored into our two nations not obliterating the world.DSC_0803 (1)

DSC_0868I began down the Middle Raccoon River on a breezy, warm evening. The narrow stream was fast moving, winding and muddy, but lined with swaying tall grasses and arching silver maples and towering, chattering cottonwoods. After several miles it swept against the orange sandstone cliffs of the Whiterock Conservancy (not sure how they confused those two colors). The entire 5500 acre area was donated by the Garst family (including the old homestead museum I explored). They continue to practice controlled burns and sustainable farming practices, hoping the water of the Middle Raccoon flows out cleaner than it flows into the non-profit trust land. And other than finding a fresh trail of empty Bud Light cans leading to a large group at the end, it was a fetching stretch of farmland and wilderness.

I passed by banks of cornfields, tall grass prairies, wildflowers and rolling bur oak savannah, all enriched in color by the early July evening sun. These groves of large oaks were the biggest chunk of oak savannah left in Iowa — the most agriculturally developed state in the Union. The location was also geologically significant in that it was the furthest extent of the Des Moines Lobe, part of the glaciation of the last ice age 12,000 years ago. The river was the boundary between lands to the northeast, flattened and smoothed by glaciers, and the unscathed, rolling topography to the southwest.DSC_0950 (1)

I found a few more floaters along the way, enjoying the summer day and wondering why I chose this river to float — I had to keep defending the beauty of this spot to the Iowa’s natives. I spoke to a group of 3 kayakers half way down the river. “Where are you from?” the two woman asked.  “Dallas, TX,” I responded.  “What are you doing here?” they DSC_0905inquired. “Canoeing all 50 states.” I said. They did not believe me. “John! Is he lying to us?” one asked. “I don’t know and I don’t care.” John called back. I pointed at my state stickers and gave them one of my cards, but they remained untrusting until one looked up my site. “We’re sorry we didn’t believe you!” They called as they floated downstream. I laughed. “You know, you guys are the first people to think I was making it up!” I told them with genuine joy.

DSC_0948I looked for a spot to camp, near the 805 Cabin, where a conservancy worker had suggested. It was a great spot up in the field, but no good place to pull up the boat. So, I made myself a drink and kept floating, seeing no suitable camping sites, until I reached the bridge at the pullout spot. I found the kayakers, Melissa, Tiffany and John, hanging out at a developed site and asked if I could pitch next to them. Less suspicious of me now, they agreed.

DSC_0964In a celebratory mood (I mean, I was in Iowa, after all) and with actual humans to drink with, I consumed beverages at a good clip. We built a campfire and shared drinks and stories. John was a birder and we got a kick out of a stick on the riverbank, which we all, independently, thought was a great blue heron. I even drank one… maybe two of Melissa and Tiffany’s apple ciders. John offered me a steak and I accepted with little coaxing. Being a polite guest, I devoured it with fire and furry like the world has never seen… or something inane like that. After the girls headed home, John and I drank more whiskey until I felt my fine motor skills diminish into a stumbling slur. I concluded it was time for bed and retired to my tent.

I awoke the next morning to drizzle. I sat up, head pounding and chugged water. Bleary eyed and wobbly, I emerged from the tent to find John sitting at the picnic table. He offered coffee and I inhaled it. Originally, I had planned to walk the 4-mile nature hike back to my car. But now, hungover and with thunder grumbling to the west, I took John up on a ride. I waved goodbye, headed back to fetch the canoe and showered under a hose in the thunderstorm, attempting to wash away the night’s whiskey.

DSC_0809I left town, then the state, when it struck me — I never asked anyone in Iowa why they were sending all their pollution down to Southern Louisiana. And here I had promised the Cajun folks an investigation. But, the Iowans distracted me, lulling me into contentment with their farm houses and corn statues and steak and friendliness and… My God…  ties to Russia… That’s it! I’m calling for a Special Council.

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Middle Raccoon River, Iowa
  • Miles Canoed: 4.5
  • Dates Canoed: 7-1/2-17
  • Weather: Sunny and hot to overcast and thunderstorms
  • Elevation: 1114 to 1102 feet above sea level
  • Launch Point: Public launch off highway 141 (41.859494, -094.665601)
  • Takeout Point/Campsite: Past Fig Bridge on left at River Campground (41.816125, -094.64667)
  • Songs Sung on River: Almost Independence Day by Van Morrison
  • Book to Read: Adventures of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson (about his childhood in 1950’s Des Moines… If that sounds boring, you haven’t read Bill Bryson)
  • Thanks to Dan and Kathy of the Whiterock Conservancy for being friendly and generous with their knowledge and information about canoeing the Middle Raccoon. If you ever find yourself in Central Iowa, I highly suggest visiting the place for the nature trails, scenery and hard to believe history. It’s one of the last wild places of its kind in Iowa and I hope it remains that way.
  • Great Local DJ: Bob Dorr with Iowa Public Radio. While driving from Des Moines to Coon Rapids, I caught an afternoon set starting with Beach Boys (Darlin), then both the Byrds and Dylan’s version of It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, the Van Morrison Song I mentioned above and a lot more old and new. Listening to the music an commentary got me in a great mood for the river.
  • Huge Thanks to John for the delicious steak dinner and the ride back to my car the following morning. And thanks to Melissa and Tiffany for, eventually, believing my story and sharing their ciders with me. What good people to have found on the river.
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: scarlet tanager, shrike, mourning doves, kingfishers, swallows, vultures andDSC_0891 crow
  • Mammals: Whitetail deer
  • Reptiles/Amphibians: turtles
  • Noted Species: Heard of bison, 165 species of birds, including bald eagles
  • Dominant Vegetation: Bur oaks, cottonwood, silver maples, tall grass prairie species and corn
  • Ecoregion: Western Corn Belt Plains, boundary between (47b) Des Moines Lobe and (47e) Steeply Rolling Loess Prairies
  • Current Threats: Agricultural runoff, estrogen (detected in Middle Raccoon Watershed), fertilizers and pesticides
  • Trash collected: Beer cans and plastic bottles
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2541 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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A Graveyard, a Muddy River and a Funeral: Canoeing the Neosho, Kansas

DSC_0760 (1)(State #30/50) There’s no sugarcoating it — the Neosho River isn’t attractive; the fine folk of Kansas were quick to tell me as much. “You’re going to canoe there?” A man at a gas pump asked as he stroked his chin, thinking of better options. “Of course there’s the Spring River down near the Oklahoma border, that’s prettier… The Neosho is just muddy. Good for noodling though!” I nodded my head as if considering, but I had already made my choice. Though I felt the voices of 100 canoe/kayak enthusiast from Kansas telling me to go elsewhere, I crossed the plains and headed for the muddy river.

DSC_0730Coming out of the Ozarks, the nature of the roads transitioned with the scenery. Winding and snaking turned into east running west and north running south with very little in between. There was little need to deviate from the cardinal directions now that I was in the great empty, the flat vastness, the Great Plains of Bloody Kansas.

Near the town of Saint Paul, I turned off the highway into a cemetery. Green mowed grass surrounded 100-year old grave stones, 200-year-old oaks and tall cedars under an open sky. Investigating Flat Rock Creek, I determined I needed to keep going to the main river to put in the canoe. The clock showed seven-forty and the shadows of the tombstones and trees lengthened along the manicured grounds; it was time to go.DSC_0653

DSC_0659Missing the turn… twice… I finally motored down the gravel road towards the river as gray dust filled my rearview mirror. Near the concrete bridge, I found a steep, rutted path, which led down to a wide rusty-red gravel bar. I carried Rider down atop my shoulders and sat her down on a collection of perfect skipping stones by the river. There was no time to change as the evening waned, so I gathered only the necessities and hit the muddy river. The current was steady and moving at a 4-mile-per hour pace. I didn’t want to be struggling back upstream in the dark, so I turned my bow against it and paddled up.

The orange sun fell behind a stand of willows on a raised embankment as I canoed against the churning, upwelling current. My efforts were rewarded with a glimpse of the sun falling between clouds and over a cow pasture before sneaking below the western horizon.DSC_0678

DSC_0685 (1)Continuing upstream, I got a damn good look at the soil profile of Kansas, as the cutbank displayed naked eroded land below tall green grass and blooming Black Eyed Susans (who the hell came up with that name? A botanist/wife beater?). Logs from the last flood lay upside down with their root ends in the pasture and their branches dipping into the rushing, boiling Neosho.

The smell of cow manure hung in the warm evening air. A tractor roared and clanked on the land above, kicking up dust. The farmer, toiling until last light, remained hidden from view. I rounded a final bend and stopped along a depositional bank. Grabbing my camera, I walked up to a field. Cows grazed hundreds of yards beyond an electric fence. Tall yellow grass grew up between large oaks, elms, sycamore and willow thickets. The sunset was past its prime and the cool colors of dusk crept in on the dim yellow glow of the west.DSC_0689

I returned to my boat and a darkening river. Paddling with the flow, I opened a warm beer and kept to the center. The light softened, airbrushing the landscape. The harshness of the eroding banks, the muddy river and rock and debris strewn banks lessened. Still not attractive, no, but less ugly. Fireflies flicked to life in great numbers along the riverside as the willows all merged into one green Mario-tree backdrop. A cool summer evening breeze replaced the hot afternoon air, while a train sounded on a track to the distant south. Birds and crickets added volume to the soundscapes of flowing water and swaying trees. No, not pretty, but peaceful.DSC_0688 (1)

DSC_0695I awoke to the early morning traffic of trucks driving over the bridge, wondering if they were looking down at my tent and wondering what the hell I was doing. I got waves and looks, but no one was curious enough to approach.

Canoeing downstream, I passed another large cut out bank where farmers had dumped rocks and concrete blocks in efforts to stop their fields from washing away; it worked to a point, but did not add any ascetics to the river. I scared a reddish-tan doe, browsing where the woods grew up to the low dirt cliff. Floating middle river, I gazed up at the frame of an old car bridge. The floor planks were gone, vines wrapped the steel and one of the stone wall supports crumbed towards the waters — nature was winning this little battle. After nearly two miles the sun turned hot and I turned around, laboring upstream three times slower and six times harder than the downstream float.DSC_0725

DSC_0741After lugging Rider up to the car, I drove back to Saint Mary. There, I discovered a little museum with an open sign hung on the wall and a single car in the parking lot. I parked, walked in and found an old couple sitting at a folding table, reading and playing solitaire. They seemed surprised by my presence. The man, however, said he’d show me around and seemed pleased to do so. His name was Arnie and I followed him to one building filled with dozens of slain and stuffed African animals. Another hall was filled with trophies from the high school across the street. DSC_0744 (1)Black and white photocopies of newspaper clippings hung above tarnished trophies — a 1953 basketball statue and a 1962 baseball player holding 1/8th of a bat. I’m not sure what type of coming-to-life, Night at the Museum shenanigans a bunch of dead African savannah animals get into with gold figurines of white kids from the 50’s, but I’d pay to see it.

In another building, Arnie showed me a large room filled with old army uniforms, arrow heads, antique beds, dolls, a 1930’s car and a Mac 1, set amongst old typewriters. It truly was a hodgepodge of the last 200 years, with everything segmented in loose sections. I could have looked around for an hour, but the museum closed at one. Turning off the lights and locking the door behind me, Arnie told me more about the Catholics, whom founded the town. Growing up a Protestant, he was the closest thing Saint Paul had to a minority. Before I headed out, they insisted I check out the church across the street — the first catholic church built west of the Mississippi, which had recently been restored after a tornado lopped off the steeple. We shook hands and I left.

DSC_0754Removing my Rangers cap, I opened the side door to the church and found the men’s room to use the facilities and wash my grimy hands. Leaving the restroom, I rounded the corner to the main cathedral and halted in my tracks at the sight of an open casket at the altar. A piano played while a lone old woman in black turned and looked back at me. I froze for a second — dirty, unshaven and grasping a ball cap and a camera. I was dressed for a day at Disney World, not a wake. After a few slow steps of retreat, I fled to the parking lot and left town wondering how and why my Kansas canoe began in a graveyard and ended at a funeral.

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Noesho River, Kansas
  • Miles Canoed: 5
  • Dates Canoed: 6-28/29-17
  • Weather: Sunny and party cloudy to mostly cloudy in the morning
  • Elevation: 839 Feet Above Sea Level
  • Launch/Takeout Point & Campsite: Gravel bar below bridge on (37.49408, -095.16304)
  • Furtherest Point Reached upstream: (37.49769, -095.176105)
  • Furtherest Point Reached Downstream: (37.4855, -095.146923)
  • Songs Sung on River: Dust in the Wind by Kansas and Corpus Christy Bay by Robert Earl Keen
  • Delicious Nearby Restaurant: Nu Grill in Fort Scott (great simple burger and an overflow of onion rings)
  • Thanks to the Casey from Saint Paul for advice on Canoeing and Arnie at the Osage Mission Museum for giving me a proper tour filled with local history and personal history.DSC_0719
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: great blue heron, kingfisher, crow, mourning dove, barn swallows
  • Mammals: 2 Whitetail deer
  • Reptiles/Amphibians: turtles
  • Fish: Gar, catfish
  • Noted Species: Various Migratory bird species stop over at nearby Neosho WMA
  • Dominant Vegetation: Willows, Oaks, American Elm, Sycamore, Silver Maple and Eastern Red Cedar and Tall grass praise grass species
  • Ecoregion: Central Irregular Plains, (40b) Osage Cuestas
  • Current Threats: Difficult to find specific threats, but I’d venture to guess sedimentation from erosion and agricultural and farming runoff
  • Trash collected: Piece of a toilet, beer cans and plastic bottles
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Halfway Home! Currently at $2541 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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The Maniac in Missouri: Canoeing the Current River (Part II )

JoshMeMila

Josh, Me & Mila

(State #29/50) “I’m writing a book on the whole thing.” Josh told us with his perpetual smile. “He doesn’t know it, but he’s one of the main characters.” From hence forth, I will refer to this man — the subject of the book and alleged murderer — as “The Maniac.” Taylor and I had seen him at Round Springs and passed his kayak again floating down. He was middle aged, scraggly beard, thinning long hair with the gravelly voice that only perpetual drinkers/smokers and old country musicians possess. “The Maniac” comes from a one-off character from an Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode: he lived out of his car, acted deranged and had a variety of unspoken priors. I dubbed the man this before we ever heard his backstory from Josh and Katessa.

Josh explained that The Maniac was one of the leaders of this loose “country mafia,” which involved guns, sex rings, local law collusion and getting flowers if your number was up. Josh said sometimes he’d be out hunting and would catch The Maniac watching him from afar… Creepy stuff along those lines. I was incredulous.

DSC_0573DSC_0554“Why in the hell are y’all canoeing with him then?” I asked. “Well, he’s sort of family… and you know what they say about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer? That kinda thing,” Katessa answered. I stared at them, mouth still open. “Besides, I’ve got him outgunned on this river,” Josh said, indicating his custom made (he is a gunsmith) AR-15 he had broken down in his canoe. “You know what I mean?” Josh said to me. I had to confess that I didn’t.

Country stories, of course, grow as you get further down river. They lengthen and gain more color as the empties pile up on the bank. Still, they seemed genuine in these tales and, as crazy as it all seemed, I believed the broad strokes of their story.*

Well over two hours passed and the Maniac never showed. With evening fading, we all gathered wood for a campfire. Taylor and I were happy to have them camp at the site with us as long as The Maniac didn’t show up. “We’ll move on and camp on down if he shows up.” Josh assured.

By dusk we had a roaring beach campfire. Then we heard a whistle upstream… The Maniac had arrived. Taylor went ashen, but Josh was true to his word. “We’re going to camp on down, we’ll catch up,” he called to the boats in the darkness. I felt bad that they left so close to dark, but even if a fourth of the stories were true, there’s no way we’d get any sleep with The Maniac in camp. Josh and Katessa got back on the river. We yelled goodnight and watched the light of their lantern drift downstream and out of sight.DSC_0599

The next morning, after the soaking rain debacle, we took it easy as canoes passed and looked, with an envy I understand, at our fantastic spot — it truly is my favorite place to camp. With the sun out in force, I snorkeled where the clear, warm rainwater of Big Creek flows across a shimmery gravel bar and drops off into the foggy blue, cold, Current. Taylor watched as I made brief dives to where large boulders and submerged logs reside at the edge of visibility. But mostly, I snorkeled at the shallow juncture of the cool and cold waters, where the fish feed, swim in place and flash silver in the rippled sunlight. I can’t imagine better snorkeling in middle America.DSC_0581

We set out at one o’clock. The rains cleared out any summer haze, leaving the sky clean and blue and magnificent. Floating below the midday sun, I felt fresh after my river bath. We canoed down passed fifty foot dolomite cliffs of streaked gray stone, dripping water, ferns, moss and sycamore saplings growing from tiny caches of dirt twenty feet feet up. Cedars, covered in green Spanish Moss, crested the top near the places we used to jump in our younger days.

DSC_0583 (1)Our friends were still camped on the gravel bar. Across the river, Josh and The Maniac clung to the bottom of the cliff, half in the pull of the blue Current. “I’m too old for this,” The Maniac said with a tooth-light smile, his long stringy hair matted to his head and shoulders. I told Josh, sunburned pink, to be careful climbing up. “We’re all gonna die someday!” he called out with cheer as the river swept us around another bend.

IMG_3508By two o’clock dramatic and gray-bottomed clouds had replaced the clear blue sky. They began to opened up as I spotted something swimming downstream. Taylor saw it too. “It’s definitely not a duck.” I told her, canoeing fast towards it. A small tail slapped the surface as we watched it fly through the water, a foot submerged in the clear river. “I think that was an otter!” I told Taylor. Her eyes lit up. “There it is!” Taylor said. She spotted it’s head pop out of the water to investigate us. I saw just enough whiskers and gray face to confirm. The otter climbed up on the bank and fled into the woods. “I saw an otter.” Taylor turned around to tell me, smiling like a kid.DSC_0622

Within ten minutes, the intensifying storm washed away the thrill of the otter sighting. “What are we gonna do?” Taylor asked as the light rain transitioned to a solid pour. “We’re going to keep canoeing.” I replied. Then a bolt cut the air and the boom and crackle followed immediately. “Okay, nope, we’re getting off the river.” I said.

DSC_0597We passed a flat boat, taking shelter beneath a low overhang of a limestone cliff — a terrible spot to be in a lightning storm. Though to be honest, I’m not sure where a good place to be is if there is no house or grounded car. Certainly not floating on the water. We pulled up the canoe, grabbed the cooler with the cheap whiskey and Coke. We hustled across the gravel bank towards the woods. I settled on a little space below the low flood ravaged sycamore bushes. It wasn’t a dry spot, but it was out of the driving rain. We made mixed drinks with terrible whiskey and waited for the lightning to pass.

After the worst of it subsided, we arrived at the Two River takeout at four o’clock, completing the forty-five mile paddle in the rain. Back in Eminence, Taylor and I procured a cheap room at the Shady Lane motel. It was my first motel of the trip, but it was my birthday eve and Taylor deserved an actual bed after several nights on the river. The rain quit and we walked across the bridge to the Dairy Shack (the best cheap, greasy food in the land). We spotted Josh, Katessa, her step brother and the Maniac loading up in a flatbed truck. We wished them well, waved and hoped for their safety as they hit the road for Indiana.

IMG_3432

The Dairy Shack

Across the street at the Double O Bar, they served us strong mixed drinks. There, we met a local who’s house was destroyed by the flood. “I worked 68 years of my life to have it all taken away… And I don’t want to hear that shit that at least I’ve ‘got out with my life and that’s what matters.’ You try losing all you built and retired into,” the man said. I couldn’t argue. He was living with his son-in-law, who chimed in. “At his age… it just isn’t right.”

Taylor and I played pool and were both terrible, but it was fun and free. We walked upstairs to a balcony were three girls stood, drinking beer. The sky was half lit, reflecting a sunset on puddles in the street. The bartender walked out to her car and tossed up packs of those little paper/rock poppers you throw. We chucked them down at the ground and passing semi-trucks, laughing like idiot children. It was great.

IMG_3453Back inside, we drank more beer, played more bad pool, listened to country and rock on the juke box and had a birthday shot, courtesy of the bar tender. It was a fine birthday celebration and ending to one great float teeming with more adventures to enter that grand flowing stream of Current River nostalgia. Though I may never get her in a cave again, Taylor thrived out there… She witnessed a wide swath of both nature and people. From the flood damage to bubbling springs, from ferocious storms to sunshine fit for a John Denver song and from the friendliest people to the murdering Maniac.

*Weeks later, I got a text with a picture of a newspaper article. It involved a guy getting arrested for drugs and poisoning. It was from Josh and Ketessa. The message below read, “Looks like our book got an ending.”

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Current River, Missouri
  • Miles Canoed: 45
  • Dates Canoed: 6-24/26-17
  • Weather: Sunny and hot to rainy and cool
  • Elevation: 906 feet to Approximately 650 feet
  • Launch Point: Cedar Grove (37.422087, -091.608381)
  • Campsite 1: Gravel bar on river right (37.317191, -091.451783)
  • Campsite 2: Big Creek gravel bar on river left (37.248444, -091.32647
  • Pullout Point: Two Rivers (2nd landing) (37.189246, -091.268615)
  • Songs Sung on the River: Half Moon Rising by the Yonder Mountain Spring Band, Fresh and Clean by Outkast and My Body Lies Over the Ocean (but replace Body with Trooper)
  • Thanks to the guy that drove us up to the Cedar Grove. Also thanks to the owners of Shady Lane Motel for the nice clean affordable room and help arranging transportation. Finally, thanks to the Dairy Shack for years of tasty treats and the Double O Bar for the birthday shot!
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Bald eagle, great blue heron, green heron, mourning dove, cardinal, robin, swallows, kingbird, hawk
  • Mammals: River otter, bats, cottontail
  • Reptiles/Amphibians: stripped water snake, red eared sliders, small frogs
  • Fish/decapoda: Gar, (little bottom ones), crawfish
  • Noted Species: Ozark Hellbender, (endangered bats), blind salamander, black bear
  • Dominant Vegetation: Sycamore, silver maple, pine, cedar
  • Ecoregion: Ozark Highlands, (39h) Current River Hills
  • Current Threats: Massive floods (like the 100-year-flood that occurred in the spring of 2017), which now occur more frequently due to the intensified “rain bombs” due to global climate change. Trash and pollution from tourism and runoff from local communities
  • Trash collected: Beer cans, bottles, plastic bottles, cigarette butts and boxes, plastic bags, beef jerky wrappers
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Halfway Home! Currently at $2541 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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Taylor’s First Canoe Tour: Current River, Missouri (Part I)

DSC_1724.JPG(State #29/50) We stood peering over the edge. My best friends and I — all skinny and largely void of chest hair — stared down at the river below. From 50+ feet the Current River looked like a stream of carwash runoff, flowing against a curb towards the gutter. The canoes were little pecan leaves washed to the side. Our fellow youth were gawking miniatures from a model train set. Everything was so far down and comically tiny. We had tested the turquoise water below and declared it was a suitable depth. All we needed to do was get enough distance to clear a tree branch and we’d be fine… so our underdeveloped teenage brains assured us.

If anyone was going to talk sense into my friends and I, it’d be our youth group leader, Chad. “I don’t know, this looks really high.” We shouted down. “Ba-kaaa buc buc buc ba-kaaa! Chickens!” Chad taunted back. The climb up was tricky enough —  hands grabbing roots of cedar trees, fingers clinging to fissures in the limestone and water-sock clad feet slipping in the mud messes created from our dripping suits. Picking ticks from our legs, we knew we were only going down the fast way. Nobody, however, was eager to volunteer to be the first lemming. We played a quick game of rock-paper-scissors. Andrew lost and an f-bomb echoed through the Ozark hills. Andrew, suddenly a shaky 90-year old man, crept to edge. Trevor, Marcus and I counted him down… at least 3 times. Finally, he leapt out and disappeared. We all leaned and watched our friend plummet past the clinging tree, through the air until his now small 6-5 frame turned into a white cloud of water. A moment passed and then a mop of wet hair surfaced and let out a tremendous celebratory cry. With Andrew alive, the 3 of us had no choice but to follow…DSC_0430 (1)

DSC_0576Fourteen years later I sat in the gravel at the same place we had camped, to exact date, back on that first trip to the Current. In that decade and a half, much had changed: floating the river was not part of an “Extreme Youth” trip for church, but one of many waters on my long journey to canoe all 50 states. My girlfriend, Taylor, took the place of my gangly high school compadres; it was her first long canoe tour and first visit to my favorite river. For my part, I had filled out with the muscle and fat of adulthood. I even had something akin to a beard, which Taylor had originally championed. But, over the last month it had gone totally wild-ass. “You look like Robin Williams from the beginning of Jumanji,” Taylor said, laughing.

As for the river: earlier in the spring, a 100-year-flood had ripped down the canyons, redrawing the details of the Current’s banks, gravel bars and overhanging sycamores. The flood devastated shops, homes, and towns. Even the store at Two Rivers, at least 20 feet above normal river level, was gone — I didn’t believe it until I saw the bare foundation where a building used to reside.DSC_0525

The Current River, despite the hellacious flood, remained gorgeous, pristine and remote. Gravel bars shift, trees fall and wash away, but the caves stay and the springs continue thrusting out millions upon millions of gallons of the cleanest, coldest, bluest water you can imagine. The memories of my first summer youth canoes and the more recent adventures (including two hospital trips) all exist in this river valley set between the green hills of the Ozarks. Over time these memories blur and mix, submerge and resurface, and carry on downstream to the warm and fuzzy place where nostalgia resides. Each new trip acts as a spring to recharge the river.DSC_0557

As I sat, partly hungover and waxing nostalgic, the June sun burned off the rain and clouds as the morning lengthened. Taylor slept, curled up in her sleeping bag on the gravel bank of Big Creek. I didn’t wake her as she had survived one night of raccoon raids and another night of rain falling on us with a tarp not quite big enough to cover both of us. “My feet are soaked,” she told me. Mine were too, but at least we hadn’t been killed by The Maniac.

DSC_0477 (1)We launched Rider two days before and thirty-five miles upstream at Cedar Grove. There, hordes of people unloaded from buses into canoes, kayaks and tubes (an unattractive feature that I don’t recall from our high school trips). Some, I’m sure, were there to enjoy America’s first National Scenic River, but the vast majority were there to get f’d-up. I can only judge to some extent, as much or our more recent guys trips have revolved heavily around beer and liquor. But, we don’t litter the river with empty cans as we float. We sleep out under the stars and take in the outdoors. Most importantly, we don’t lounge on a raft and listen to Limp Bizkit as our weird, fat bodies and bad tattoos redden in the sun. No, we get drunk and see how many of our weird bodies can fit on an inflatable alligator — we do being a jackass on the river right.DSC_0470 (1)

Minus cliff jumping, Taylor got the full experience of my youth and recent floats. She jumped in and swam in the freezing river, she skipped rocks, canoed under overhangs and slept out under the stars on a tarp. She paddled with more enthusiasm and genuine strokes than half of my friends ever have managed and became an efficient spotter of obstructions in the river. She looked for wildlife and was determined to see a river otter. I said mink, beaver and muskrat were more likely, but we’d look.

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Not quite as frightened in this one

Taylor even let me lead her a few hundred feet into the cave. She fell silent as the natural light faded away. I yammered on like normal, pointing out features and looking for cave salamanders, bats and the white monsters from the movie “The Descent.” Finally, I looked back at my mute girlfriend, saw her face and determined she’d had enough cave fun for one trip. “I think I need a beer,” Taylor half-joked when we reentered the light of day. I rummaged through the cooler and cracked two open — enjoyable for me, medicinal for her.

We canoed twenty miles that first day. With five miles to go, we stopped at the Pulltite takeout. Now evening, the tattooed flabby hordes were redder and drunker. One woman fell, bounced off a large raft and landed, laughing, into shallow water. Taylor was about to go help her up when the woman said, “Well… I’m peeing!” She continued giggling as we walked away.

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Taylor and I arrived at the campsite I had hoped for with enough time to gather firewood, set up camp and prepare all before dark. We drank beer and took bets on when the first firefly would appear; Taylor missed it by one minute. Falling asleep that night, Taylor called out and brought me back to consciences. A raccoon had stolen the small dry bag a foot from her head. I got it back, but the onslaught continued. Every time I dozed off, I’d hear “Eric! The raccoons are back.” I threw rocks near them to scare them off, but they kept at it most of the night, even bringing their adorable babies along with them. At one point, one stole the brown felt “Pharrell” hat out of the pile of food stuffs. The raccoon dropped it into a little lagoon as I hurled rocks. I missed wildly with one and nailed the side of my poor canoe, giving Rider a new dent in the hull.

The next afternoon we approached my favorite camping spot at Big Creek. But my heart sank as I saw a canoe on the gravel bar with stowed sleeping gear.  A couple walked back down the creek and we went to talk to them. “Oh we were just stopping, waiting for the rest of our group.” They told us. “So, it’s alright if we camp here?” I asked. “Sure!” They replied.

DSC_0548 (1)Their names were Josh and Katessa and they were from Southern Indiana. We hung out in the early evening sunshine, drinking beer, swapping stories of the river. We took pulls of “Mila,” — the Jack Daniels blend sponsored, ridiculously, by Mila Kunis. Josh and Katessa were great company, smiling, laughing and joking along with us by the riverside. One of the guys they were waiting on, however, was a murderer… (dun dun duuuuunnn)

Will we make it out alive? Will Taylor see her otter? Will the real Mila Kunis appear and save us? Find out in Part II when The Adventures of Rambling Rivers Eric continues!!!!

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