Monday, 12 November 2012

Mississippi: Louisiana, MO to St. Louis, MO

Three other paddlers
The marinas turned out to be very friendly to kayakers. After our great stop at Two Rivers Marina in Louisiana we stopped at John's Boat Harbour to pick up my replacement paddle shaft. We were greeted very friendly with free sodas and lots of questions about our trip. The marina staff was already worried about us because we had arrived much later than expected due to bad weather. The new paddle shaft posed a bit of a problem as it would not fit first. Lendal had included some sand paper and after a phone call to Lendal customer service we started to sand down the new shaft until it would finally fit. It was about time as the spare paddle is much heavier than the Lendal one and had made my upper arms hurt a lot. By the way: We are not the only idiots out here. Right at Clarksville we ran into 3 other paddlers in one big aluminium canoe. These three young guys even use a sail and paddle at  night! So now we know of a Canadian couple and our friend Alex behind us, these three young guys and a couple with a dog around us and a thruhiker called Out of order in a kayak in front of us. The Mississippi is much more popular than expected - even in cold November.

The wind has become our biggest problem now. Although we are still relatively lucky we have had two days with gusts up to 30 mph - and that is no fun in a small kayak and a huge body of water like the Mississippi. The larger the water surface the higher the waves can get. Lock 25 therefore turned into a nightmare for us. The whole day we had enjoyed a strong tail wind that had pushed us forward. But it also pushed the waves directly into the walls of lock 25 where they reverberated into even bigger waves. We were both scared as we approached knowing that we not only had to get into the lock, but also get to the lock wall and pull the cord for lockage. Brian got in first and I saw him back paddling immediately! As I approached him he told me that he had feared for his life inside the lock walls. No way we could get in there and get to the cord without being smashed from the waves. The only way to inform the lockmaster now was to call him from our cell phone. In an almost acrobatic act Brian got his cell phone and the piece of paper with the lock phone numbers out. He had to keep everything in his mouth while re-arranging his sprayskirt and he clang on to it with his dear life.

The lock master was unimpressed by our sufferings and did not even come out to greet us. We had to wait ten more minutes outside while he filled up the lock and those ten minutes felt like 10 hours. My arms would hurt for several days from the physical effort of trying to stay in place and not capsize in that boiling pot. Eventually the lock doors opened and we paddled furiously to get in as fast as possible. For the first time in this trip I thought I would capsize so choppy was it. But as soon as you are inside the lock and the lock doors close behind you it is peace on earth - at least for the ten minutes the lockage process takes. Luckily things were much better on the other side!

Going into the canal
But the very worst lock experience was the very last lock on the Mississippi right before St. Louis. This stretch of river is called Chain of Rocks and due to the rapids there it is not passable by barges. The Army Corps has therefore constructed a narrow canal around it with a lock in the middle. My first concern was if the canal would be wide enough to accommodate a barge and a kayak. Keep in mind that barges throw off a wake that can be pretty dangerous for a small craft like a kayak. But the canal was much wider than expected and several boats passed us with no problem. The weather forecast had predicted a very strong head wind and under normal conditions we would not have paddled that day. But we were so close to St. Louis and our warmshowers hosts that we decided to give it a last push. The first stretch in the canal was as smooth as glass and we were already wondering about the forecast. But then the canal's direction turned only a slight angle - and we were suddenly facing an incredibly strong wind directly in our face! This was the worst wind we have had on this trip and it reduced my paddling speed to about 1 mile per hour. I even contemplated dragging the boat but the canal sides were too rocky for that. So at a snail's pace I approached the lock where we were immediately locked through.

Plant on the shore
But when we asked the lock master about the wind situation on the other side he gave a very disconcerting answer. "The wind is your least problem.", he said. "We have had to close the lock at night for dredging and therefore barges have piled up. There are several barges outside waiting for lockage and the canal is very narrow. All I can do for you is radio ahead and warn them that you are coming. I wish you good luck because you will need it!" We left the lock with these encouraging words and immediately faced a brutal head wind and 5 barges parked all over the canal! We had no clue how to get around them as we had learnt our lesson earlier: Don't get between a barge and a levy wall! Luckily the lock master must have radioed ahead as the barge captains came out and gave us directions on how to pass them - not an easy task in a 30 mph direct head wind. The wind created waves and the barges' engines added turbulence. I was scared to death and kept on paddling only to survive. Things did not get better once we got past the parked barges and out of the canal. On the wide river the waves were even higher and I feared for my life again. Unfortunately along the shore there were only plants and railway lines - no real place to beach. But I was desperate. As soon as I saw a bit of sand for beaching I had to get out. I was physically so exhausted I could not continue paddling much longer and I continued shaking for almost half an hour. The place was less than ideal for taking out our boats as we had to drag them up a rocky long slope. On top was a bike path - no road! How would we get out of there? When scouting out the area I luckily ran into a local in a car who confirmed that cars are actually allowed to drive here. He gave me directions for our hosts and 2 hours later we had disassembled our boats, dragged up all our stuff up the slope and were happily sitting in Rich's car on our way to another great warmshowers place.

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