Saturday, 29 December 2012

Winter hike in the Appalachians: AT

Franklin and I at Neel's Gap
Franklin dropped me off at Neel's Gap on the AT on December 20th. In hindsight this turned out to be a big mistake already at the start of this trip. The forecast for that day was miserable. Chance of rain 100% and Franklin had invited me to stay another day and wait out the weather. But stupidly enough I had trusted one forecast that was talking about only 0.5 inches of rain which did not sound too bad. Franklin dropped me at the Walasi-Yi Centre where I saw the first sobo AT thruhikers sleeping under the roof in pouring rain. Still I was determined to start me hike, said goodbye to Franklin and headed straight into the first disastrous day of my hike.

First of all I had to realise that sitting in a kayak for 3 months straight is not the greatest preparation for a long hike. And carrying 8 days worth of food plus heavy winter gear did not help either. I crawled up the first mountain and it dawned on me that a daily mileage of 20 miles might be a bit overambitious in these conditions. The weather turned from bad into a nightmare. It had poured down when I started to hike and it never stopped the whole day - something I had very rarely seen before. The trail turned into a stream. My brandnew "waterproof" shoes were full of water. I could feel how my clothes got wetter and wetter under my rain gear. I did not dare to stop and check. As long as I moved I was warm. Stopping only meant getting cold and I dreaded that. Except for a pee and snack break I trudged through this downpour for 7 hours straight. I wanted to make it to the first shelter to get out of the rain and finally, much later than expected, I got there.

To my big surprise there was already someone in there: a young section hiker. I dropped all my stuff and checked the dryness of my clothes - only to discover that things were much worse than expected. Everything, really everything I wore was soaking wet. My shoes, socks, pants, underpants, all my baselayers and, worst of all, my thick fleece jacket. Fleece, pants and socks were so wet that I could wring them out. I became a bit concerned. The forecast had predicted very cold temperatures for tomorrow and my fleece jacket was my warmest layer. How would I survive without it? I wrung out my clothes as best as I could and hung them for drying. I set up my tent in the shelter for additional warmth and felt quite cosy in  my quilt. Soon two AT sobo hikers turned up. One of them was not even wearing a rain jacket, but only a woolen sweater. He was even more drenched than I and shaking uncontrollably. Compared to him my situation looked rosy.

Strangely enough I spent a rather comfortable night. We all chatted a lot, had a nice dinner and I was relatively warm inside my tent inside the shelter. The big bad surprise came in the morning. I checked on my wet clothes and found them all to be completely frozen stiff. My hiking pants, my underwear and my fleece jacket were frozen solid. It took ages to defrost my socks and shoes. This did not look good. The forecast was for a lot of wind and freezing temperatures for the next days. I needed warm layers and I needed to dry my stuff, but under these conditions there was only one way to do so: I had to wear them dry. In these cold conditions I could not put on all my wet clothes all at once or I would freeze myself. I had to start with one piece at a time. Meanwhile the rest of the frozen clothes had to go into my backpack which was a difficult undertaking as they took up a lot of room in their frozen state.

To cut a long story short: It took me three days to dry out all my clothes but slowly I managed. And slowly I progressed up the AT. I gave up on 20 miles per day. I could do 15 miles, maybe 17, but that was it. I called Wildcat, my next trail angel and told him I would be at least one day late. But I still struggled. On day four I had my first unexpected break through. At lunch break I met an older and apparently homeless hiker in a shelter. Among some incoherent stories about his military time in Germany and his buddies in prison he mentioned a way to short cut the AT. Instead of going up to over 5,000 ft on Standing Indian Mountain there was a much shorter low altitude route around it to Standing Indian campground. As the AT is very well marked I did not have any maps, but with the help of my data book and GPS I finally figured out what he was talking about. The short cut really existed and would not only save me a lot of climbing, but more than 10 miles of hiking! I would be back on schedule!

As a happy hiker a continued, found the turn off and reached Standing Indian Campground just at dusk. The campground was closed now in winter and everything was locked, but to my great delight I saw that the toilet buildings had a covered porch. To me this little sheltered roof was luxury! I set up my tent in the dark and went to sleep happily awaiting the rain. And it came promptly as predicted at midnight. Only it would not stop as predicted. It continued to rain the whole morning - and my precious little detour went down the drain. I could not get myself to get out and hike in this weather, but waiting would put me behind schedule again. This was Christmas, December 24th. No way I would hike in this misery. At 1 pm the rain finally stopped. I packed up and left my little sanctuary. To hell with my schedule: I would just hike to the next shelter and call it a day, Christmas day....

My Christmas refuge
But when I arrived at the next shelter I still felt energetic. There was one hour of daylight left and the rain was a drizzle only now. I checked the maps on my GPS and discovered that the AT was parelleling a nice wide forest road in the next section - ideal for night hiking! And so I decided to spend my Christmas eve night hiking... There was almost a full moon and I actually enjoyed the quiet night. My headlamp was useless in these conditions: There was so much fog that the light reflected in it instead of shining on the path. At 9 pm on Christmas eve I encountered my own private Christmas present: A house in the middle of nowhere with a covered porch. I was very much surprised to see it as I was hiking in National Forest. This house could not be private property, could it? There were no "No trespassing" signs and the covered porch was too tempting to pass. There were even some garden chairs to sit on and electrical light! I set up my tent and started to cook Christmas dinner when I heard a car approach. My heart sank. Maybe this was private property and I was trespassing. I could only plead for leniency on Christmas. I extinguished all lights and hoped for the best. The car stopped right in front of the house and I was just about to make myself known when it drove off again! I had been lucky... half an hour later the car came back and went towards the road. I was alone again and spent a quiet Christmas eve on that porch.

Night hiking had brought me back on schedule again and I could make it to the meeting point with Wildcat on time. I did not see anyone hiking for 4 days... no big surprise considering that it was awfully could and Christmas. I stayed in shelters every night that I had all to myself - even the infamous shelter mice had left. Still I was struggling. It was colder than expected, the trail was hard and slippery and I had gear problems. My gas canister stove did not work well in the cold. My backpack and tent were constantly frozen and difficult to pack. My feet and knees were hurting. But lying down in my tent at night and slowly warming up I felt as happy as could be.

The AT kicked my butt a last time the night before I met Wildcat. The day had been brutal with more than 4,000 ft elevation gain and difficult trail. With fading daylight I tried to make it to the next shelter when a snow storm set in. All my gear was frozen and my stove barely working. It took me several hours to warm up in my quilt and I dreaded the next morning. What would I see in the first daylight? What if there was several feet of snow? I got up before dawn and peered out into a winter wonderland. Luckily there was only a bit of snow, but all the trees were covered in ice - a surreal white world. It was bitterly cold but incredibly beautiful when I limped the last miles down to Fontana Dan to meet Wildcat. Part one of my winter hike was over and I had survived - but I have still three weeks to go!

Winter hike in the Appalachians: The plan

Snow at 4,400 ft
When planning the year 2013 I had wondered what to do after the Mississippi. It seemed frivolous to fly to the US and only spend 3 months there. But it would be winter at the end of my paddling trip and options for winter excursions where pretty limited. But for many years I had wanted to hike the some shorter trails in Southeastern US: The Pinhoti Trail and the Benton MacKaye in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. And although these states are not Florida, the winter in the Southeast is not extreme either. So a plan formed: I had always wanted to do an extended winter hiking trip. I had done several week long winter trips in Germany, but nothing longer than 8 days. I did not want to experience Arctic conditions but was looking for a moderate winter climate. Southeast US seemed perfect for two reasons: The average minimum temperatures hover only around freezing even in the middle of winter. Of course there could be an unexpected arctic blast, but most likely I would encounter sub freezing temps only at night. Serious snow should only be an issue at higher altitudes and the further South I would hike the less chance of snow. But the most striking argument was the amount of daylight. Even around Christmas I would have 10 hours of daylight. Add dusk and dawn and I would have almost 11 hours of daylight for hiking!

I was sold and decided to look at this trip as a learning experience. I realised that this would not be the most comfortable or easiest trip I have done. This would be a trip to test my limits. How long can I endure adverse weather without seriously suffering. How would my equipment fare? What sort of new experiences would I have and what skills would I learn? I started this trip curious and a bit frightened, but keen to see where it would take me.

Rare view on the AT
The plan was to hike get to the AT first because it was easiest logistically. The AT also had the highest altitude of this trip and I wanted to get this out of the way before the weather got seriously bad. Reluctantly I decided to skip the Smoky Mountains. They were too high and I did not have enough time before flying back. The risk of getting stuck in the snow there was simply too great. I had less time than expected and as I had thruhiked the AT before it did not matter to me where I would get on it. Franklin dropped me off at Neel's Gap at mile 30 of the AT. I would hike north on the AT for 130  miles to get to Fontana Dam at mile 161 and change onto the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT).

Cascade on the Pinhoti
The BMT is the AT's little know brother. It was created to relieve pressure from the AT. It is far less hiked than the AT though and has only two shelters. Like the AT it starts at Springer mountain, but ends at the Northern end of the Smokies at Davenport Gap. Between these two points the two trails form a big "8". The upper loop is the shorter one and entirely in the Smokies and I would skip that. I would only do the lower and longer loop south of the Smokies and hike the BMT South until reaching the Northern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail. I would then hike the Pinhoti all the way South until Bull's Gap through Georgia and Alabama. The official end of the Pinhoti is further South at Flagg Mountain, but this involves an almost 30 mile road walk as the trail has not been completed there yet.

The whole trip will be 550 miles to be covered in 5 weeks. This is an ambitious undertaking but there are several options for short cuts or hitching. For me this trip is about testing my winter hiking abilities and I do not care so much about a continuous hike. I just do hope I'll survive....

From the Mississippi to the Appalachians

To get from the end of my Mississippi paddling trip to the start of the my winter hiking trip in the Appalachians with all my gear seemed to be a nightmare - but turned into a logistical masterpiece due to the help of all my American trail friends. It was complicated but worked out great.

First problem was how to get away from Morgan City which has no public transportation whatsoever. Luckily I had remembered an AT hiker and trail angel called Bayou who lives in New Orleans and I was lucky. Bayou was in town and willing to help us. He came all the way to Morgan City with his van and took us to New Orleans (N'awlens). We had not wanted to impose on him with all our gear and special transportation requirements and I had organised a CS host. But this host turned into the first negative or at least weird CS experience I have ever had. All my email conversations with this host were nice and normal but when I called him on the phone to confirm our arrival date things turned weird. No matter what I asked our host answered "yes", no matter if this answer made sense or not. I was alarmed and conferred with Brian. After checking his CS profile again and seeing only positive references we decided that this person must have had just a bad day or be bad on the phone. Bayou drove us there and I was wondering how this CS host would turn out to be in a face to face conversation. Both Brian and I were shocked. Again our host gave only monosyllabic and non coherent answers. Don't get me wrong: He tried to be very friendly and welcoming, but we all had the impression that he did not understand what we were asking him. Brian and I stood there not knowing what to do but with a very bad gut feeling. It seemed to me that our host was either ill or under heavy medication, so very diplomatically I asked him whether he was ok. He did not seem to understand why we asked and invited us inside for the 100th time. Brian and I had to make a decision now and as bad as we both felt about it we did not feel comfortable and decided to leave - something I have never done before on CS. Bayou rescued us by letting us stay in his place - thank God! We discussed the issue back and forth between us and could not come up with any logical explanation for our host's weird behaviour. Luckily this has been the only negative CS experience I have ever had - and maybe all this was only due to a misunderstanding or miscommunication.

But things turned out very well. Bayou was the perfect host. He is working as a professional tour guide in New Orleans and gave us a great city tour. Brian left the next day to get back to his family, but I spent another very relaxed day with the ever ressourceful Bayou. Whatever the problem was Bayou came up with a great solution. We managed to dry my kayak with the help of an electrical fan and put away the whole kid and kaboodle in my kayak bag and a nice duffle bag Bayou provided. Together we even managed to dissassemble the stuck cheap spare paddle although we had to use the lubricant, a screw driver and two strong people to get it unstuck. We had some nice food, went to the library for internet and chatted for hours about the great outdoors. I had not had such a nice relaxing day in a long time. Very early next morning Bayou drove me to the New Orleans Amtrak station and stage 2 of my odysee.

I took Amtrak to Birmingham, AL where another hiker friend, Mother Nature's Son picked me up. Again, everything worked out perfectly. MNS was there when the train pulled in and helped with all my 120 pounds of gear. At his home several packages with outdoor goodies were waiting for me already and I received lots of information for my hike from him. I'll come back to MNS at the end of my hike to pick up all my paddling gear so I will write more about him later.

Next day he brought me back to Birmingham, AL where I boarded Megabus and went to Atlanta, GA where another hiker friend was waiting for me. I had planned to use the Hiker Hostel shuttle to get to the Appalachian Trail, but in the very last minute it had dawned on me that I actually knew someone there: A fellow AT sobo hiker from 2008. I had contacted Franklin at very short notice but had been lucky. Franklin was in town and even had time to pick me up. We went to REI to get rid of my reluctant spare paddle and then had some good trail talk while eating some great Southern BBQ. The trail talk continued until past midnight (real midnight, not hiker midnight!) and Franklin dropped off a very tired GT at the AT!

I can't believe how well everything worked out. It was so nice to re-connect with old hiking friends and swap stories. I am very lucky to have such good trail friends.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Mississippi: Dangers and annoyances

The Mississippi is not a difficult river and suitable even for beginners. Still each river section has its specific problems you should take into consideration:

Extricating my boots from the mud
Upper Mississippi to Minneapolis: Due to the record low water levels we encountered tons of class 1 rapids in this section - not the greatest situation for foldable kayaks. Brian poked holes in his boat already on day 2 and the situation became so bad that we hitched around two especially bad spots. In a normal water year this should not be much of a problem though. Lake Winnie poses another problem: It is huge and the wind can create waves so high that even motorized fisher boats capsize. Each year people die on Lake Winnie, so only attempt it in good weather conditions and stay close to the shore. The DNR maps recommend "portaging" around it, but there is no commercial shuttle service to help you. We were just incredibly lucky to run into Richard, a local who invited us to stay in his back yard and ended up taking pity on us. The DNR campsites are nice, but a bit of an annoyance. Due to erosion they are usually situated high up on a river bank with no beaching area and an incredibly slippery slope to climb up. For me they were not worth the effort and I much preferred easier free camping spots. Another problem that is probably due to the low water is mud. When we beaching we got sometimes stuck in mud really badly - we could only get unstuck with the help of pieces of wood to step on.

Getting out of the lock
Minneapolis to St. Louis: Locks are the biggest problem in this section. With a tail wind the area between the lock walls where you have to pull the lock cord can become a choppy nightmare. Bring a cell phone and lock phone numbers so that you can inform the lock master when it gets too dangerous to paddle inside. Getting out of the lock can be equally choppy if the adjacent dam releases water.  But as soon as you have passed the lock walls the water will calm down - you just have to survive a couple of hundred metres by paddling fast and furiously. Getting stuck behind a barge at a lock is a major annoyance - but there is nothing you can do about as commercial barge y traffic has priority. A double barge had to be taken apart to be locked through and this process takes two hours. Never pass a barge waiting in front of a lock. Use your cell phone to call the lock master and ask for instructions. Skippers and lock masters are usually very friendly to paddlers you might be squeezed in before a barge - but always ask for instructions first, don't try to jump the line on your own.  

A barge from behind
Lower Mississippi: Increased barge traffic is the biggest problem here. The river is wide and you always want to be on the correct side when passing a barge - and that means crossing the shipping channel often. This sounds easy but can be a problem. These huge barges cannot pass each other in bends and therefore the upstream barge waits for a downstream barge before the bend. Sometimes several barges pile up waiting and once they start moving you cannot pass between them - you are stuck. Also keep in mind that these barges take a lot of room to turn. Luckily everything moves very slowly and you'll have plenty of time to figure out what to do. The barges have loudspeakers and if you do something stupid you might get yelled at. Tug boats are much more difficult to predict. They move faster and cross the shipping channel back and forth.  Luckily you'll only encounter them around big cities and industries.

Mississippi: Gear recommendations

My Feathercraft K1
Boat: Everyone we met in the river was in a Canadian canoe and telling from the few Mississippi blogs this seems to be the preferred type of boat. I was in a foldable kayak and would definitely recommend a kayak. Why? Although a Canadian is definitely more comfortable and much easier to pack than a kayak it has several disadvantages on the Mississippi. In a canoe you have much more wind resistance and in the constant southerly headwinds we were better of in a kayak. Next problem is the waves either created by wind or the barges' wake. Several times we got severely swamped which did not really affect us in our kayaks with a sprayskirt. On the other hand being swamped in a canoe can be a potentially very dangerous situation and a fellow canoe paddler lost several pieces of gear this way. Also paddling that late in the season I felt much better protected.against the cold, rain and wind. I used.a foldable kayak because I can travel with it, but if that had not been an issue a hardshell kayak would probably have been better in this low water year. My Feathercraft K1 fared very well in class 1 rapids and despite hitting rocks and dragging my boat around a lot there its hardly a scratch at the bottom of the boat. Brian with his Folbot Cooper on the other hand had holes in his boat already on day 2!  For such a long trip I would definitely recommend keelstrips to prevent damage. And of course a rudder is great in the wind. A kayak has less loading capacity but for me as an ultralight hiker that did not really matter. Plus you don't want to have to much stuff anyways because of the long portages in Minnesota.

Getting out of my boots
Boat cart: We did not have one but we could help each other carrying our boats. If you are on your own you will definitely need a boat cart for the portages before Minneapolis. And even with a boat cart these long and steep portages will be hell.

Mud boots: These are a very essential piece of gear for the Mississippi. We were lost without them getting in and out of the boat especially in colder temperatures. Don't buy them too small. Getting in and out of the mud boots while sitting in a kayak is a rather acrobatic effort and even more difficult with tight boots.

Foam mat: When it got colder we were smart enough to buy a cheap cell foam mat, cut it in half and put it into our boats. This cheap little device worked miracles: First it kept me much warmer as my legs were not touching the cold boat skin any more. Secondly it also helped to prevent the butt pain from sitting too long in the same position because it slightly raised my butt higher than my ankles and therefore prevented pressure on the Ischias nerve.

Ropes: Bring enough long ropes so that you are able to tie your boat every night. Do take that advice serious: Two other paddlers we met had lost their boats because they had not tied them.

Phone: Our smart phones were invaluable on this trip. We needed them to call the locks, make arrangements with our hosts, do research and check out the weather forecast. AT&T had the best coverage and Brian had reception every day.

Mississippi: Tips and tricks

Fall in Minnesota
Start date:  We started our thru paddle Sep 29 and that was too late. It could have been done (and other paddlers who started around the same time did it) but it gets awfully cold at night and sometimes even during the day. We solved the problem by skipping a 400 mile section and this saving 2 weeks. Ideally you should start first week of September. This avoids most of the mosquito problem, gives you glorious fall colours and avoids the heat in the South. You should have decent day time temperatures but still count on temperatures around or even slightly below freezing at night. The biggest problem though is the lack of daylight that will limit your daily progress. A summer trip on the other hand will give you much more flexibility with day light, but the heat and mosquitoes might be intolerable.

Trip duration: With skipping the trip took us 77 days. This includes a start at Lake Bemidji instead of Itasca, the Atchafalaya in the end and limited seasonal daylight. Without skipping it would have taken us 90 days and this is what you should calculate as a minimum. People have paddled it in as little add 67 days, but this was without town stops and with long summer paddling. For a relaxed trip including days for sightseeing calculate 90 - 100 days depending on where you start and finish.

Lake Itasca
Start point: The official source of the Mississippi is at Lake Itasca. We drove up there and it is incredibly beautiful. Due to the record low water levels this year the rangers advices against starting there and therefore we put in at Lake Bemidji instead, 60 miles downstream. Even in a normal water year expect a very slow trip between Lake Itasca and Bemidji. The Mississippi is sometimes a trickle only and you'll have to carry your boat plus you can get lost in the swampy reeds.

Finish point: Before Baton Rouge we turned off onto the Atchafalaya and would definitely recommend that to other paddlers. After Baton Rouge the Mississippi turns into an industrial nightmare with increased barge traffic and plants everywhere. The Atchafalaya instead is incredibly peaceful, has hardly any barge traffic and is over 100 miles shorter. The only down side is that there is no public transport from Morgan City, the last town on the river. If you cannot arrange a private shuttle like us your only resort is the Hertz car rental there.

Maps: You don't have to pay anything for the maps for this trip! Excellent maps for the whole river can be downloaded for free from the DNR and US Army Corps of Engineering website. These maps are great and all you need. If possible try to print them in colour. You'll be able to see the different shades of white and blue for the shipping channel and the brown and green for sand bars vs land that can be useful for choosing a campsite.

Lock phone numbers: All the locks on the Mississippi can be reached by phone. Definitely download the lock phone numbers onto your phone. AT&T has the best coverage along the river. Being able to call the locks will save you a lot of problems if you get stuck behind a barge at a lock or if the water gets too choppy to pull the lock cord inside the lock walls. Believe me: you will want these phone numbers!

Town stop with Alex
Theft or going into town: Unfortunately, theft is a big problem for Mississippi paddlers. This year alone a paddler had his boat stolen in New Madrid while it was locked to a rail at the public boat ramp over night. Another couple had their boat stolen while camped on a sand bar close to Memphis. And fellow paddler Alex reported that someone had gone through his dry bags while be was portaging his boat before Minneapolis. Theft therefore was a huge concern for us especially since you cannot really lock up a foldable kayak. But we found a good solution and did not have a single problem. When going into town we were scooping out the maps for sand bars and/or wing dams around town. We would then beach there and HIDE our boats in the woods or grass so that they could not be seen from land or river. When possibly we would also lock them to a tree and camouflage them with a green tarp. We would leave most of our gear inside the boat but take all our valuables and expensive gear like electronics. The big cities were more difficult: In Minneapolis and St. Louis we disassembled our boats. Only Memphis had a secure marina where we could leave the boats over night.

Bank reinforcement
Securing the boats over night: We were almost anal about that. Every night we would carry out boats as high up as possible AND tie them to a tree. We felt vindicated for our efforts when we heard from our fellow paddlers mishaps. The three amigos lost their boat twice: Once they could retrieve it with the help of a friend, but the second time the fire brigade had to come and rescue them - luckily their boat had been found drifting downstream by a fishermen who had alarmed the sheriff. Paddlers Kevin and Sharon were not that lucky:  They lost their boat to rising water on an island and had to wait two days in desperation before they were  rescued - and their boat was lost.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Mississippi: Conclusion

The Mississippi has been a fantastic trip and it has by far exceeded my expectations. Despite all the different problems encountered I really liked it and yes, I would definitely recommend it to a friend. Overall I have been very lucky on this trip. Although cold, the weather has been very kind with lots of sun, very little rain, tolerable winds and hardly any fog. Neither of us has capsized, lost the boat or had any major accident.

Stuck in the mud
But although a great trip, it has also been very hard on me. I had to deal with lots of very different problems: a too late start, some unusually cold weather, a record low water level, my lack of paddling skills and problems with my paddling partner. But I want to emphasize that all those problems were due to planning errors and a climatically unusual year. As a rookie I suffered a lot more than an experienced paddler, but I also learned a lot. Not since my first long distance hike on the PCT in 2004 have I learnt so much in one single trip. Like us all the other paddlers we met were either beginners  or intermediate paddlers. You don't have to be an experienced paddler to survive the Mississippi.

But what made the Mississippi such a great experience? For me the most positive and surprising fact was how remote the Mississippi felt almost all the way. I had expected a heavily populated,industrialised and polluted river but almost the contrary is true. Usually the only signs of civilisation are the barges and the train noise. There are industrial installations along the river but they are very much concentrated around the bigger towns. There were very few towns along the river and especially on the lower Mississippi the only thing you can directly see from the river are floodplains. The towns are usually miles away behind the levies.

This remoteness had a lot of very positive effects. Free camping on the shore and on islands was generally very easy. I had been warned about noise pollution but did not find it very bad. I got very quickly used to the sounds of a passing barge and usually there was no or little noise from roads. Only in the middle section the train horns were rather annoying.

Bald eagle
The wildlife was incredible, of course especially the birds. I saw hundreds of bald eagles, pelicans and herons. Beaver and deer also abounded. Fish were jumping out of the water. And due to our late start we did not have a mosquito problem. The water quality was surprisingly good. Brian drank water straight out of the river without any treatment all the way to Minneapolis and did not have any problem. And even after that the water remained pretty good and hardly any trash was floating in the river.

Single lock
I also enjoyed the variety on the river. Each of the three stages is very different and keeps you busy. From the source to Minneapolis the river is free flowing and relatively pristine. Here you'll encounter most wildlife and if you have only a limited amount of time this is the most scenic section. There is not much current and we did about 20 - 25 miles per day.From Minneapolis to St. Louis  the river becomes very wide, but lots of side channels and islands provide scenic views and variety. You'll encounter the first barges although due to the locks the barge traffic is still very limited. The barges can only be up to 15 containers big and this year we only saw an average of 3-4 barges per day. The biggest challenge in this section are the locks that can be rather time consuming. Due to the locks and dams there is no or minimal current in this section and we made a maximum of 25 miles per day. After St. Louis the river becomes huge and can be almost intimidating especially after the confluence with the Ohio. Wind becomes a real problem. Barge traffic increases dramatically and we saw up to 20 barges per day. The Mississippi has tons of 180 bends in this section where the barges cannot pass each other and pile up waiting. The barges also increase in size and become monsters up to 35 containers big. You'll encounter a consistent current of 3 miles per hour and we did 40+ mile days.

River boat casino
I also enjoyed the cultural aspect of river in its towns. Of course there the four main cities Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, but I actually enjoyed the small towns even more. My favourite was the Mormon town Nauvoo. The Southern towns like Vicksburg and Natchez were very interesting, but rather rundown and definitely not as pretty as expected. A nice little bonus for paddlers are the AYCE buffets in the river casinos in the South. And of course: Don't miss the Southern cooking, the great BBQ and the seafood.

A last amazing aspect were the people we encountered. On no other trip have I received so many acts of kindness from strangers and I want to use this opportunity to thank them again for their help. We were given rides, food and places to stay. Whenever we needed help (and we needed it a lot!), miraculously a friendly person would show up and help us out.

The Mississippi has been a truly epic trip and should be every paddler's dream. Still, it is not very present in the media and you hear very little about it. There is no Mississippi paddling guidebook and only very few blogs. The Mississippi would deserve much more attention. Don't let an unjustified misconception of an industrialised river deter you from a paddling trip on the Mississippi - its beauty is gravely underestimated.

Mississippi: Atchafalaya to Gulf of Mexico

Sunset on the Atchafalaya
Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans the Mississippi has been dubbed "Cancer Alley" because there is so much industry along the river. The maps showed dozens of industrial installations on each page. That would not only mean difficult camping and rather ugly views, but also a lot of tug boat traffic. When researching this trip I had come across a much better alternative that is chosen by many paddlers: the Atchafalaya River! Over the last millions of years the Mississippi has chosen various basins and the Atchafalaya Basin is one of them. Actually the Mississippi is tending to go towards it again and only the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineering is preventing it. What would New Orleans be without the Mississippi?

The Atchafalaya route looked much nicer with hardly any industry and was also a lot shorter. It was therefore an easy decision for us. But the next question was how far to go. The last road access on the Atchafalaya Basin is in the town of Morgan City. After that it is all wetlands. Mile marker 0, the official start of the Gulf of Mexico was 21 miles further. This would involve paddling these miles back against the current and expose our kayaks to more aggressive salt water. We decided to take it easy and finish in Morgan City. Of course there is no public transport in Morgan City but luckily Bayou, a hiker friend of mine offered to pick us and all our tons of gear up.

Lock into the Atchafalaya
In order to turn onto the Atchafalaya we had to go through one last lock - and this was the most ghetto lock we have been through. There was not even a pull cord to inform the lock master of our arrival and we were just lucky that a Corps boat came out of the lock when we arrived. The poor lock master had to cycle along the lock - up North they use golf carts. "Down here we don't have any money for that." the lock master informed us. After a 7 mile canal of stagnant water we finally hit the Atchafalaya - and were soon disappointed by the current. Our arrival date in Morgan City depended on the current and we had not been able to find any information on that. Also this being an extremely low water year did not help. The Mississippi after St. Louis had had a consistent current of 3 miles per hour that allowed us to paddle 5 miles per hour. Now the current was 2 miles and less and we were struggling tremendously to make 40 miles per day. A storm front was forecasted and did not allow a later finish date.

I knew that these would be my last days of paddling for a long time and therefore I could power myself out. I was hurting a lot with my fingers being the biggest problem. The knuckles of both middle fingers where almost completely stiff when cold. I could not form a fist any more because the fingers would not bend - and the problem was spreading to other fingers. I just hoped I would survive these last paddling days without doing permanent damage.

On the Atachafalaya
Paddling without current was hard but the river was quite nice. It was much narrower than the Mississippi with very little barge traffic. In total I  saw only 4 barges on the Atchafalaya, but plenty of motor boats with fishermen - and unfortunately not all were polite enough to slow down for a kayak. We barely made 40 miles on our first day and that left another 40 mile and a 27 mile finish day with strong headwinds. Brian decided not to wait for me on our last days and so I was struggling on my own. I could not make 40 miles on day 2 and ended up with 33 miles left for the finish day. The prospect of having to paddle 33 miles into a headwind did not let me sleep and I had to resort to the only solution: paddling at night. I had always avoided it out of safety reasons but now I did not have any other choice. I got up at 3.30 am and paddled in the dark.

Last day of paddling
The paddling itself was nice with the river being calm, but the fisherman in motorboats were the problem. My only light was my headlamp and I did not know how visible it was to other  boaters. And for sure after one hour a speed boat came right towards me at high speed. I desperately flashed my headlamp and waved my paddle but it would not change its course. I nearly wet my pants so frightened was I. Only metres away from me the boat took a sharp turn and moved away from me. I could not figure out whether they had not seen me or just wanted to scare me. If they had intended the latter they have been very successful...

The finish pho
I paddled hard and was actually making good progress but the river fought back till the very last moment. 6 miles out off Morgan City I turned into a direct strong headwind. Normally I would not have paddled in that but there was nowhere to get out earlier. I had to make it to the public dock in Morgan City. A busy little port with tug boat traffic did not make things easier, but so close to the goal nothing could stop me - and finally on Dec 15 at 2 pm I finished my paddling trip. The public boat dock inMorgan City is probably the worst place I have ever finished a trip. Morgan City is a rundown place to start with. The boat ramp is located under a highway bridge where the local homeless hang out and the whole place smells of piss. There is not even a boat ramp, only a steep rocky shore - and a greeting committee of local drunkards. Luckily Bayou had arrived early to pick us up.... But in the end all that did not matter: I had somehow managed to paddle the Mighty Mississippi River and had succeeded despite all problems.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Mississippi: Vicksburg to Atchafalaya

On the whole trip we had free camped without any problem but on this short stretch we were "caught" twice. The first time I was just cooking dinner when a strong spotlight was shone onto the bank we were camped on. A boat was approaching and beached and we were soon detected by two hunters. They claimed that we were on private property that they had leased for hunting. Although they wanted us to move our campsite down onto the beach they finally just let us stay after we reassured them that we were not hunting. A couple of days later a similar thing happened  and we were detected by a farmer. Again we were told that we were on private property but his biggest concern was that we could be hunting. After telling him that we were harmless paddlers we were allowed to stay.

The three amigos in action
Although we had planned to paddle from Vicksburg to the end without any major stop the weather did not play along. A major thunderstorm and wind was forecasted. We survived the storm without any problem in a sheltered campsite but woke up to a very strong tailwind in the morning. Tailwind sounds good but turned out to be a big problem as we could not see the waves swamping us from behind. We might have muddled through the bad weather but after only 6 miles the town of Natchez was along the way. Grudgingly we decided to do the sensible thing and stop there for the day - which turned out to be the right decision.

We knew there was a campground along the river but the seawall prohibited beaching there. We finally found a beaching and boat hiding spot further along the river and settled into the very nice campground. For only 10$ for two persons we got a great primitive camping area, great showers and a warm laundry room to hang out. After some confusion we were even picked up by the casino shuttle bus. The AYCE casino buffet turned out to be cheap but rather disappointing. I decided to make the best of my town stay and indulge in some happy sightseeing. I started out with a posh antebellum house that turned out to be a big ripoff. For 12$ I saw a rather mediocre "Rosalie" mansion with an incredibly short 22 minute guided tour. My next stop at the free National Park William Johnson house on the other hand was a very interesting experience. Johnson was a free man of colour and his former house told about his interesting life. After that I walked around town but was rather disappointed. Natchez is a major Southern tourist destination and I expected posh villas - and encountered the usual rundown Southern town. Decrepit houses everywhere and an overall feeling of poverty.

The three amigos and Pizza
But we had a very unexpected meeting in Natchez - we ran into the "the amigos" again, the three guys in a canoe we had meet weeks before. We spent hours chatting about our respective adventures. They had lost their boat twice and had adopted a stray dog called Pizza. Pizza was very excited to meet me and of course received a lot of petting from me. The next day we finally saw the three amigos live in action for the first time - and what a wild sight they were! Three guys, one dog, a guitar and lots of gear squeezed into one 2 person canoe! They not only had a sail but also a pirate flag and sailed down the river to the sound of music from their loudspeakers. We looked lame in comparison and although they had had a lot more "incidents" than Brian and I they definitely had a lot more fun. Their enthusiasm was contagious and I do hope all their plans come true for them.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Mississippi: Memphis to Vicksburg

There is only one town directly on the river between Memphis and Vicksburg: Helena - and this is pretty useless because you reach Helena after only 1,5 days after Memphis. Brian just ran in quickly to satisfy his junk food and soda addiction while I stayed with the boats. With only short daylight and unpredictable weather our progress is difficult to predict and so we prepared for the worst and carried 10 days of food.

The good news is that temperatures have risen dramatically. During the day we often had more than 20 Celsius and even the nights are balmy - but that means we even have a mosquito problem again! I must admit that even I had not expected these summer temperatures again in December! But the nice temperatures come with one big down side: Wind! Almost every day we are battling 15 mph  winds - and of course every day the wind comes from the South and is a direct head wind. 15 mph head wind is still doable, especially since we have gotten used to the waves now. But 15 mph wind feels a lot stronger on a huge body of water and can be rather tiring. As a result both Brian and I suffer from a very sore middle finger knuckle, a problem that we both have had since the beginning of this trip, but that has gotten really bad now.

We have also encountered our first real thunderstorm on this stretch but due to the weather forecast we were prepared. We had decided to just paddle till 2 pm and had just finished to set up our tents and cooking when the storm broke loose. Thunder, lightning, wind and hail - but luckily we had a decent sheltered campsite and survived it completely unharmed.

Our boats and one container
The paddling itself has become rather uneventful. The river looks pretty much the same all the time. Very, very wide, plenty of wingdams and plenty of barges. To my great relief Brian has now been yelled at from a barge as well - although he is convinced that it was totally unjustified. Several days later we were paddling together and were both yelled at from a barge - and could both not understand what the barge captain was trying to tell us. We could not even figure out what the issue could have been as we were both way out of the shipping channel. Other than these occasional incidents we both have gotten very much used to the barges now and there are hardly any more panic maneuvers to outpaddle a barge or avoid its wake. 

The river itself is still surprisingly remote. Except for the occasional barge and industrial installation on the shore you see very little signs of civilisation. You don't see or hear any roads or trains. Everything is behind the levee - and the levee is often more than one mile inland because the Mississippi floods. There are plenty of camping options around the wing dams and at the end of revetments but although plentiful they are usually not very good. Either there are no or very little trees for shelter and/or the ground is completely overgrown with brush.One night we had finally found a halfway decent campsite when a barge stopped right in front of it - and showed no intention of leaving. We were wondering what the captain was up to until we saw flashlights in the dark. The crew was working on the containers and after 2 hours the barge finally left, which made us rather happy because the idling engine of a barge is still rather loud.

Crab legs and oysters
We were both looking forward to Vicksburg after this long stretch and I was almost dying to wash my hair so itchy was it. But approaching Vicksburg we were in for a bad surprise. We had scooped out a riverside park with a cheap hotel close by and wanted to take out the boats there and carry them up to our rooms. Although there was a decent sandy beaching area it was bordered by an incredibly steep and overgrown slope. We looked everywhere but could not find anywhere to carry our kayaks up. So grudgingly we decided to hide our kayaks in the brush and hope for the best. Because our hiding place is so close to civilisation I even carried up almost all of my gear. But at least the rest of our plan worked out. The Dixiana hotel was close by and acceptable and we were situated right between two casinos with AYCE buffets and am RV park with laundry. Unfortunately historic downtown was almost 2 miles away and no Casino shuttle bus. I still spent a very relaxing Friday doing errands, solving more logistical problems at the library computer and even doing some sightseeing in the brand new and free  Lower Mississippi River Museum. Resupply turned out to be a problem as the supermarkets were way out of town and no bus and sidewalk going there. This is something I hate about the US - you are lost without a car. But I finally managed to do a halfway decent resupply at the only downtown store, Fred's One Dollar store. In the evening I treated myself with an expensive but very good AYCE seafood buffet at the Ameristar Casino. Fresh oysters and crablegs - delicious!

If our boats are still there we will today embark on the last stretch of this trip. Only one more week and we'll be in the Gulf of Mexico. I am rather tired and ready to finish.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Mississippi: Memphis

Side canal in Memphis
We paddled into Memphis in a drizzle, but at least in bearable wind and even made record time. Our goal was the Memphis Yacht Club, a Marina on Mud Island close to Memphis centre. Marinas have always been helpful to us, but this yacht club is a fantastic asset for Mississippi paddlers. You can store your boat there for free, even for several days. The whole area has gated security and we were even able to lock our boats to a post. Plus there are toilets, water taps and a small store - and very friendly owners! We left our boats and most of our stuff and walked to the next restaurant, where we loitered happily for a couple of hours watching the increasing rain outside.

We were decompressing and waiting for our CS host Chere to pick us up. I had sent out five CS requests for Memphis and initially no one had even bothered to answer. This reminded me painfully of my European hike earlier this year where it had been similarly difficult to find a host. We had almost decided to skip Memphis, but just when the bad weather forecast had made a stay in Memphis almost inevitable Chere finally accepted my request.

Chere's studio
Chere was another very interesting CS host. She is an artist and art professor and let us stay in her studio. She even lent us her car thus allowing us to do an easy resupply at Aldi's (yep, there was another one for me) and even some sightseeing. Although the most interesting museums were closed on a Tuesday in off season I went to the Dixon art gallery where I was positively surprised by a huge German porcelain exhibition that of course interested me because of my professional background. On the way back to Chere I took the bus and was in for another adventure in American public transportation. No one in the museum had ever taken a bus in Memphis but after a lot of internet research I was directed to a bus stop - that turned out to be the one in the wrong direction. The bus driver told me to stay on the bus anyways and I got a nice loop ride with me being the only white person in the bus. But everyone was really friendly to this lost German tourist and made sure that I at least got out at the right stop.

Memphis Yacht Club
In the evening we had asked Chere to take us to a nice BBQ place and she helped me to another highlight in American cuisine. Although I generally don't like American food I do love this Southern BBQ! We had ribs followed by home made cheesecake and I was a very happy paddler! After dinner I used Cheres computer and was able to solve some logistical problems on this trip and update my blog. Altogether this has been a very relaxing and successful stay! Chere brought us back to the marina where we loaded our boats with food for ten days and embarked on the very long stretch to Vicksburg.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Mississippi River: Ohio River to Memphis

 The Ohio River was one big bad surprise: It is as big as the Mississippi and the two rivers combined create on big monster river that seems to be endlessly wide. And such a huge body of water is a real problem in wind as we already knew from earlier stretches. We were not happy! And I had even more cause for grief: I had pulled a muscle in my neck so badly that I could hardly turn my head anymore. Sleeping was almost impossible as I could hardly find a painfree position for my head at night. And of course paddling all day long did not help to heal my neck. Even during the day I was in pain and did not know how this would effect my paddling trip on the long run. I would not be able to paddle like this for 3 or 4 more weeks. I needed a break and therefore we decided to have a town stop in a place called New Madrid where we wanted to stay two nights.

Hide your kayak here
The whole adventure started very positively as we found a good place where to hide the boats and the walk into town was only about 20 minutes along the edge of a field. But what had looked like a decent sized town on the map was a pretty deserted place in reality. No super market, only a tiny general store that did not sell any fresh fruit or vegetables. And the only place to eat in town was a grotty gas station with a tiny AYCE buffet. But what looked like a disaster turned into a great town day. The gas station buffet looked horrible and people smoking inside did not improve that impression. The state of Missouri still allows smoking in restaurants! Everyone in that gas station looked like right out of a John Grisham novel and I could hardly understand what everyone was talking about because of their Southern drawl. But eventually I found out that the buffet was 6,99 $ and this being the only choice in town I resigned myself to it. After the first bite of chicken I could not believe what I tasted there: This was one of the most delicious pieces of chicken I had eaten in my entire life. Real Southern cooking! And the chops and ribs were equally good! The place looked horrible, but the food was incredibly good. Thus fortified I ventured into the local museum that displayed the usual hodge podge of things, but focused a lot on the big New Madrid earthquake in the early 1800's, one of the biggest earthquakes in the US. I spent a quiet entertaining hour in this little museum and ventured on into the local library with internet where I finally wanted to buy a flight back to Germany.

Nice campsite
I had done a lot of research on cheap flights back home and the cheapest solution seemed to be Iceland Air. Flying with a kayak makes the baggage allowance a big issue and Iceland Air still allows two bags for trans-Atlantic flights. But when I finalized the purchase on the internet the booking confirmation just stated 1 piece of luggage! I nearly freaked out and immediately called Iceland Air. What followed was one hour of intense discussion with Iceland Air customer service where I learned that international regulations have changed - although I could not confirm their statements on the internet. Now the first airline on a multi-leg flight determines the baggage allowance - before it used to be the airline with the longest distance of the whole flight. And unfortunately the first airline on my booked flight was American Airways, that allows only on bag. Luckily the customer service person was very patient and helpful and after moving the flight one day forward we found a flight combination that allowed two pieces of luggage - and no change or cancellation fees. Although all ended well the whole procedure was a nightmare.

Because we could not resupply in New Madrid we had to stop again only two days later in Carruthersville. Again we found a good place to hide our boats, had a 15 minute bushwhack and emerged into Carruthersville on Thanksgiving Day - only to find that almost everything was closed. We trudged to the super market and after some emergency breakfast decided to stay the night there. We found a really cheap motel for 38 $ per room that turned out to be one of the worst dumps I have ever stayed in. I was especially scared of bed bugs and was terrified when I found a huge black insect crawling out of the bed. I heroically caught it and brought it to reception demanding a new room. The Indian receptionist only stoically told me that this was not a bed bug, but a cock roach and proved it by showing me a picture on the insect spray that she kept handy for apparent reasons.... Although the place was still a dive, she was right. I survived the night un-bitten. In the evening we called the free casino shuttle service and got a ride to the casino restaurant, the only place in town that was open on Thanksgiving. We had a great 9,95 Thanksgiving dinner, did laundry in the adjacent RV park and retreated to our little dive with the free shuttle bus. The night in the motel did me a lot of good: My neck pain slowly subsided and two days later I am back to normal.

The next days were pretty warm but increasingly windy - with the wind coming from the South directly into our face. The last day before Memphis we just could not paddle any more - the wind was just to strong and the water too choppy. When coming out of a narrow bend I had apparently misjudged were the shipping channel was. Although I thought I was safely out of it an upstream barge thought differently and I was yelled from the barges loudspeaker. Alarmed I looked around and saw the barge behind me coming directly towards me. I paddled like crazy into the brutal head wind to get out of its way and finally it turned and angled away from me. You are never bored on the Mississippi...

Mississippi: St. Louis to Ohio River

We were both very much excited to start this new stage of the Mississippi, where the river is eventually free flowing again - and that meant that we would have a noticeable current for the first time. After a couple of minutes on the water I took out my GPS and checked. And for sure: Even without paddling we were going at almost 3 mph! Our new average speed from now on would be about 5 mph and despite the lack of daylight we would now average about 40 miles per day. Eventually we were making progress southward towards the warmer temperatures! Still leaving St. Louis was a bit stressful due to the amount of barge traffic. So far we had only encountered about 2 - 3 barges every day and now that has increased to 12 - 15 barges. Plus St. Louis is a busy port and tug boats were going ever which way. I was glad to leave frantic St. Louis behind.

The river had changed dramatically. Not only did we have current, the river was surprisingly small now. The Army Corps of Engineering has blocked off all the little side channels funneling the river into one relatively narrow river bed that is regulated by hundreds of wing dams on each side. The narrow river and the amount of barge traffic created a new problem for us: How can we avoid the huge wake of the barges? The wake had so far not been much of a problem. There had been few barges that all went at low speed with little wake and plenty of room to avoid them. But now the barges had become much bigger. Before St. Louis the biggest barges were pushing 15 containers, 3 wide and 5 long. Bigger barges were not possible due to the size of locks. But now, with no more locks to get through the barges were up to 35 containers big, 5 wide and 7 long. On top of all that the barges going upstream had to fight the current now which created an even bigger wake. In order to avoid the worst of the wake you want to be on the inside bend of the river or the one opposite the levy and all of a sudden we had to change sides all the time - always on the run from the barges. In the beginning I felt very uncomfortable and wondered what would happen if I got caught on the wrong side of the shipping channel in the wake. Luckily, the channel is relatively small in this section and therefore we could quickly change sides.

Morning fog
One morning we woke up and to our big surprise we could not see anything due to thick fog. The weather forecast had not predicted anything like it and the fog caught us completely by surprise. I retreated into my tent and decided to use the unexpected free time to call my paddling teacher Alan in Australia thanks to my T-mobile international flat rate. Again Alan was incredibly helpful and amongst other tips he assured me that my little folding kayak (or lump of canvas) can take a lot of waves. I started to calm down a bit and realized that the wake is usually not as bad as it seems. By now I have passed hundreds of barges and have gotten used to the wake.

Cape Girardeau from our campsite
Cape Girardeau was our town stop in this section. What to do with our boats during our town stay was the usual big question and we solved it by hiding the boats on the other side of the river, bushwhacking half a mile to a highway bridge, crossing the bridge and walking into town. Although our boats seemed pretty secure and we had a good camp site, the walk into town took an hour and was a horrible bushwhack back in the pitch dark night. We were delighted to find out that only a month ago a new casino had opened in Cape Girardeau - with an AYCE buffet. Locals assured us that the casino was only about 5 block away. These five blocks turned into a walk of more than a mile and proves that most Americans are not used to walking. But when we finally arrived at the casino completely exhausted we were rewarded with an incredible buffet where we spent most of the day stuffing ourselves and recharging our phones.

Unloading at camp
The stretch from St. Louis to the Ohio River turned out to be a mixed bag. It was nice and easy paddling in a protected narrow canal with a good current. Some stretches were actually quite pretty, especially the narrow bends. But on the other side we encountered a lot of industrial activity: Plants and quarries dot the river and the barge traffic is intense. Although still quite nice in places, this has been the most un-scenic stretch so far. At least the camping very good: The numerous wing dams create little sand bar that make for good beaching and great access to the elevated shore line with trees. You can camp almost anywhere - as long as you can get away from the industrial operations.