Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mississippi: Davenport to Nauvoo

The Mississippi changes its face completely after Minneapolis. Between Minneapolis and St. Louis she is tamed by 30 locks and dams built by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Huge barges ply her day and night. And she is huge herself. Even the side channels are wider than the river Rhine. Thousands of islands dot the river and create a labyrinth of channels with the main shipping channel marked by buoys and maintained deep by hundreds of wingdams. Despite all those human efforts to tame her she still retains a remote feeling and looks truly majestic. After leaving the industrial outskirts of Davenport behind I was very positively surprised how wild and remote the river still felt. Of course there were plenty of ugly plants along the shore but usually you can escape into a side channel and see nothing but trees and birds.

Our decoy
The wildlife changed as well. All of a sudden we started seeing hundreds of pelicans, a species that I had not expected to live that far North. They are so big and rather clumsy but the fly almost elegantly. And there were plenty of ducks - although they are currently getting decimated by hunters. It took us a bit to figure out what those conspicuous mounds in the middle of the river were: duck blinds! In order to attract birds the hunters place dozens of decoy birds around the hides. Some of those arrangements are so elaborate that they reminded us of nativity scenes. The hunters must spend a fortune on those plastic ducks. We caught an  escaped decoy but set it free soon because it took up too much space and we did not want to be shot at accidentally.

Duck hide with decoys
The big new challenge were the locks. They are huge - as are the barges that use them. In a tiny kayak you feel like a dwarf in them. They are 400 metres long - but the barges are even longer and some have to be split up to be locked through which takes about 2 hours! Our first two locks went smoothly. We did not have to wait but were immediately locked through. We arrived at the third lock in the evening and found a barge waiting already. As it did not make any sense to wait we just camped in the vicinity and Brian walked up to the lockmaster. He found out what we had already expected: you cannot make a reservation and barges have always priority.

Our bad luck continued next morning: As we were slowly packing up a double barge approached - and that meant at least a two hour wait - which is a big problem with only 9 hours of day light. We decided to at least paddle up to the  lock and wait in the warmth. But how would we get around the barge? As the barge was stationary we just paddled around it - and roused the anger of both the captain and the lockmaster. Barges have very little control sideways and sneaking through between a parked barge and a levy wall is dangerous. First the barge crew yelled at us but then signaled us to go ahead. Then the lock master yelled at us. We confessed that we were amateurs and were forgiven after a safety sermon and the barge captain even allowed us to be locked through first.

Flock of pelicans
But bad things come in three and our incidents continued that day. Brian ran into a submerged tree and got stuck. After shimming free he discovered water in the cockpit and we made an emergency landing to repair the hole. Of course we got immediately stuck in the mud and could not find any hole in Brian's boat. Soon the culprit was found: the water in the boat came from a leaking water bottle! Apparently his new keelstrips had done a good job. Next bad luck hit me. I tried to demonstrate a paddle bridge - and broke my 200 € carbon fibre paddle in half!  I paddled ashore with half a paddle and got the spare paddle out - at least we had not committed the mistake of not bringing a spare. Probably one of the few mistakes we have not committed on this trip....

The last half day into Navoo brought another problem. The wind and a huge body of water created waves much higher than we were comfortable with. We struggled for 3 hours in this roller coaster before we could beach at a public landing - were I sank into the mud again and got the rest of my dry clothes wet. Hopefully the wind will calm down tomorrow....

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