Wednesday, 31 October 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....

Mississippi: Davenport

We drove down to Davenport in almost hot weather. It seemed incredible that soon another cold front would move in. We treated ourselves with an AYCE buffet in the local swimming casino and went to bed in the nearby state park camp ground with a evening temperature of 20 Celsius. Next morning was already overcast and windy but we were still confident to start paddling. This turned out to be a huge mistake!

At Davenport promenade
Brian dropped off the rental car and soon we had assembled our boats at the Davenport municipal boat ramp. But each time I looked out on the water the waves seemed to get higher and the wind blowing stronger. The idea of paddling in these whitecaps literally made me feel sick. But here we were in. the middle of Davenport with our boats assembled and the rental car dropped off - we were basically immobile again. Why had we been so stupid to return the rental car and assemble our boats in such a public place with no obvious camping options? I scooped out the vicinity and even found a passable campsite - that had previously been used by homeless people and was full of trash. So now we had a choice of paddling into a thunderstorm in whitecaps or camping in a public park probably visited by the local cops or some vagrants. Neither option was very attractive and we stood there under a pavilion amidst all our gear looking pretty pathetic.

But again we seemed to have an guardian angel. At this exact moment a lady taking a walk approached us and after hearing our sad story immediately asked us of we needed a place to stay. This sealed our fate immediately especially after she mentioned that she had a big van that would accommodate our kayaks. And true to her word Mary returned 15 minutes later with a huge van, loaded our boats, gear and us into out and brought us to her home. Mary turned out to be a fascinating character who runs several homes for people with special needs. We spent a very comfortable afternoon in her house relaxing while outside a wild thunderstorm was raging. Mary even treated us to dinner at night and I really don't know what we have done to deserve so much luck and such helpful people.

Next morning Mary drove us back to the river and what a change: the Mississippi was now almost as smooth as a baby's butt and the sun was shining - but it was very cold.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Mississippi: The decision

Two days from Minneapolis Brian and I did some research on the climate charts for the upcoming river segments and came up with shocking results. Not only were we heading into another cold front but also the average temperatures ahead were not promising. We had to eventually face it: We were paddling too late in the year. We had had a late start and had not been able to make up time due to low water levels. The next stretch between Minneapolis to St. Louis would be slow again due to the locks and we would get into St. Louis only around November 1st. Basically we were facing around freezing temps for the whole next months. Brian was especially worried since he tolerates the cold much less than I do and he started to consider quitting. Over and over he said "We are just 2 weeks late." And that gave me the redeeming idea: Why not skip 2 weeks ahead?

Neither of us liked skipping and on our hikes we are usually pretty much purists who insist on connecting steps. But maintaining this purist attitude would make Brian quit the Mississippi and provide a very cold and lonely trip for me. Eventually we decided that this was more a learning trip than a thru paddle and skipping was probably the most sensible decision. The occasion was good as we had already planned two rest days with our former CS hosts in Minneapolis. This would give us the chance to do research and book a rental car. And once the idea was born the details fell into place easily. We will skip ahead from Minneapolis, MN to Davenport, IA. This stretch of 370 river miles would have taken us 15 - 18 days and by skipping we will hopefully be able to get into some decent weather again.

Paddling the upper Mississippi River: Tips and logistics

Paddling the upper Mississippi River from Lake Bemidji to Minneapolis has been a paddlers's dream and I cannot understand that this 400 mile trip is not more popular. The scenery is gorgeous, the logistics relatively easy and the paddling even suitable for beginners. I can only highly recommend this trip to any paddler. Here are some tips on how to plan this trip and what to expect:

Mississippi at Lake Itasca
What is the river like? The river starts out almost as a trickle at the source in Lake Itasca and although it is a very scenic area I would recommend starting a bit later at Lake Bemidji from where on the Mississippi is at least several metres wide. As it winds down its way through Minnesota it passes several small and big lakes and becomes wider and wider with plenty of islands and side channels. By the time it enters Minneapolis it is over 200 metres wide. But no matter where on this stretch the Mississippi feels very remote. You might hear the horn of a train or the white noise of a highway in the distance but out on the river you feel like in the wilderness. Keep in mind that the Mississippi up in Minnesota has nothing to do with your image of the Tom Sawyer river. On its first 400 miles it has a very Scandinavian feeling about it and is not yet the mighty brown and lazy river that Mark Twain described. The water is incredibly clear and wildlife is abundant. You will see hundreds of bald eagles that are almost extinct anywhere else in the US. There are plenty of beavers, otters and deer. And although there is a lot of farmland along the Mississippi you will not see much of it from the river.

How difficult is it? In a normal year paddling the Mississippi in Minnesota is very easy and suitable even for beginners. You might encounter some class I rapids but nothing serious. In a normal water level year the only problem are the big lakes, especially Lake Winnie. It is the third biggest lake in Minnesota and in bad    weather the waves have killed several paddlers and even fishermen in motorboats. Don't cross the lake but stay along the shore. The DNR even recommends shuttling around the lake but unfortunately there is no commercial shuttle service. You will face a difficult hitch if you decide to portage around.
In a low water year  things become more difficult and in the record drought year we paddled in some stretches of the river become outright difficult with shallow rapids almost every mile. Although not life threatening getting in and out of the boat to walk through or around them is very time consuming and annoying. And in a foldable kayak you always run the risk of getting a hole when hitting a rock. But I want to emphasize that the conditions we encountered were very unusual and paddlers should normally have a very smooth run.

Fall colors
What maps do you need? You can download the maps for the whole stretch from the DNR website. The maps are great and you won't need any other maps. They even give you some background information on each segment.

What is the best time to go? We started our trip 29th of September and this was definitely too late in the year. I would still recommend paddling in fall because of two reasons: There are very little or no bugs in fall and the fall colors are absolutely spectacular. I recommend starting in the first half of September.

How long will it take? It took us 3 weeks and one day to get from Lake Bemidji to downtown Minneapolis including one full and one half rest day. Keep in mind that we had to deal with relatively little daylight and low water issues. Other paddlers have done the same stretch in 16 days, but I would still suggest to plan for 3 weeks.

Power company dam
Are there a lot of portages? Altogether there are around 10 portages. This does not sound like much, but the portages are generally pretty horrible. Only at Grand Rapids the power company offers a free motorized 24/7 shuttle service. You will find the telephone number posted next to the take out place and you can use the phone at the adjacent ranger station during office hours. The shuttle service will come within half an hour with a pick up truck and a canoe trailer for 6 canoes. On all the other portages you are on your own and it is definitely worth bringing a cart. The portages are up to 700 metres long and some involve some pretty steep ascents and descents. At Sartell you face three portages within 6 miles with the first one being down an almost impossible steep slope. If you have a foldable kayak you can avoid the three portages by using the Orange Cab van service. The approximate cab fare from Sartell dam to St. Cloud Dam will be 15$.

DNR campsite
Where can you camp? The camping options are great! The DNR has created designated camp sites all along the river. These campsites are rather primitive and only provide a small flat camping area, a bench and table, a fire ring and a pit toilet. Although we liked those campsites they had one big disadvantage: Due to erosion they are usually very difficult to access. After some mud battles we resigned ourselves to free camping which was usually very easy and we found some very scenic camping spots. You will find very few houses on the shore and usually your only reminder of civilization will be the train horns in the distance.

Where can you resupply? Starting at Bemidji our first resupply stop was Grand Rapids. There is an official  campground at the put out portage place but it is directly next to a busy highway and railway line and also far away from downtown and supermarkets. We camped at the put in place which was probably illegal and next to a residential area. If you put in there and paddle for only a couple of 100 metres you will find some good camping on the river banks. From the put in place it is only a 10 minute walk into downtown and a fantastic cheap AYCE Chinese buffet. The supermarket is about 10 minutes further.
Our next resupply stop was Aitkin which is the perfect town stop for paddlers. There is a nice free campground right on the river within walking distance of Aitkin. Within 20 minutes you can get to the great Roadside diner or fastfood places. A bit out of town you will find the laundromat with a hotel and showers opposite. Unfortunately the supermarket is outside town and it will take you more than half an hour walking to get there.
Our next resupply was Sartell where the Coburn supermarket is only one block from the river. Although there is no official dock, it is possible to beach there and walk over to the supermarket.
Monticello has a nice public park with a picknick shelter and public toilets next to the boat access and a big drugsture is right next to the park.

Lake Bemidji
How do I get there and back? Logistics are actually not too difficult or expensive and it is definitely feasible to come over from Europe for this paddling adventure. At the time of writing the cheapest way to get here from Germany was to fly with Iceland Air which flies directly to Minneapolis from Rejkjavik. The one-way flight from Berlin to Minneapolis cost me 440 EUR. In Minneapolis rent a car and drive up to Lake Bemidji. Definitely book the rental car in Germany which is only half the price you would pay in the US. The 2 day one way rental with Hertz cost me 90$. It will take you almost the whole day to drive up to Lake Bemidji, especially if you make the side trip to Lake Itasca. In Bemdiji stay in the campground in Lake Bemidji State Park which is just within the 15 minute drop off service offered by Hertz. The campground is located on the lake shore and from some campsites it is just 200 metres to the water.
You can paddle right through downtown Minneapolis. We took our kayaks out at Boom Island Park boat access which is a nice park with toilets and shelters right in the centre of Minneapolis.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Mississippi: Little Falls to Minneapolis

Blanchard Dam
Our luck lasted just 1 11/2 days after our skipping to Little Falls. For 1 1/2 days we were more or less happily paddling or walking our boats through rapids. We were definitely not happy when we arrived at Blanchard Dam. The portage there was more than 700 metres long and involved dragging your boat up and down two steep railroad grades. My boat is much heavier than Brian's and we had to take numerous breaks when shlepping it around. After dragging our two boats and all our stuff around for hours we were completely exhausted, but we could not even much enjoy our lunch break because it started raining.

Mucky portage
But even this hard portage seemed easy compared to what awaited us at the next power plant dam in Sartell. A quick inspection showed that the portage was a disaster. Although the put out place was decent, it was a very long portage and the put in place the worst I have ever seen. First we could not even find it as there was no sign. You had to steeply climb down over rocks to put your boat into swirling eddies over huge boulders. I even had problems trying to get down there without a boat and we had no clue how we would get our kayaks down. The power companies are legally obligated to provide portage routes for paddlers, but it is a shame that they can get away by providing these horrible portage trails. Locals told us that years ago the adjacent mill provided motorized shuttles like we had had in Grand Rapids. But the mill had blown up and was never re-built - and therefore no more portages provided.

Break in the cold
Not only was the portage a nightmare, but we could already see plenty of rocks and rapids ahead in the river. Low water had hit us again. On top of all that we knew that only three miles later there would be another portage around rapids and only another three miles further on a portage around a power plant dam. Our spirits sank and the drizzling rain did not help. It did not take long and we decided to skip around these three portages. The only question was how. I suggested a taxi and a quick phone call confirmed that it was a good idea, although we would have to disassemble our boats. We decided to do further planning over a pizza. With the pizza devoured we realized that we faced another problem. The taxi could drop us at the last portage but by the time we had reassembled the boat it would be too dark to start paddling again. And the camping situation did not look good. The pizza place owner took pity on us and even called ahead to verify the camping situation. Unfortunately the put in place was on a university campus and campus security would kick us out for sure. The next road accessible put in place was next to a major highway. And after that the next road accessible put in place was so far away that we would not get there by taxi. So what to do now?

When we had been assembling our boats in Little Falls two days ago Brian had met a very friendly lady offering us help in case of any future problems and we decided to give her a call. We only reached her answering service and left a message not expecting much, but an hour later Brian received a call. The woman herself did not have time, but she had asked a friend an Sartell to help us. And again to our great surprise this friend Twyla went far out of her way for us. She came to get us and all our gear and drove us half an hour down the Mississippi to the next put in place with camping possibilities. We receive so much help from strangers on this trip it is amazing. And again we did not know how to thank Twyla for her incredible help. The put in area and the campsite were very nice and peaceful - just what we needed after such a stressful day. I even  managed to reassemble my boat in 1,5 hours without a nervous breakdown just before sunset.

Despite all our good hopes the last two days into Minneapolis remained stressful. Every hour we would encounter rapids and rocks. Although we became quite good in reading the water we still ended up being stuck on rocks several times. Of course when we got out to walk our boats out water would get into our mud boots and we ended the day with wet and cold feet. But the most scary situations were when the current got strong and we actually bounced off the rocks or we could feel them scraping under our legs. It is amazing how much abuse the Feathercraft would take without even showing the slightest scrape on the bottom. Although we got kind of used to the rapids I still had adrenaline pumping every time the current sucked me into a set of rapids and I saw myself running straight into a huge boulder. I would even have nightmares at night about them.

Paddling into Minneapolis
The water remained incredibly low all the way into Minneapolis. Brian hit his last submerged obstacle one hour before we beached in central Minneapolis. Whitewater kayaking is definitely not on my wish list for the future and I am so happy that the low water issues are over now. After Minneapolis the Mississippi is controlled by locks and commercial barge traffic is going up and down the river year round. And where a barge can go, we should have no trouble with our kayaks. On the plus side we survived all those rapids without capsizing once. The bottom of Brian's Folbot shows a lot of abrasion, but no holes and my Feathercraft still looks almost new. And by our last portage at Coon Rapids Dam we had the whole unpacking, portaging and repacking procedure so down pat that we mastered the whole process in less than an hour. But like low water portages are hopefully a thing of the past now.

We were lucky because we could stay with our CS hosts in Minneapolis again. They even picked us up from the public boat ramp where we had disassembled our boats and dried all our stuff. But again our days in Minneapolis were spent organising the next stretch of our trip, replacing gear and going shoppping - no time for sightseeing. It was very nice to be at the same place again where we already knew our way around - and the way to Aldi's...

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Mississippi: Little Falls

Sunrise over the Mississippi
Before Little Falls we were taught again that our low water problems were not over yet. Several times we had already encountered very shallow and rocky stretches but we had always been able to find a deep channel through - with my Warship in front and Brian following me in his POS. But 10 miles before Little Falls we encountered a section with ripples all across the river and rocks sticking out all over the place. I nearly got sucked into those small rapids while scouting them out and we both got stuck several times. We did not dare to go down those shallow rapids and eventually walked our boats through. But barely 10 minutes later we came across a similar section. To make things worse the map guide said that the next 4 miles would all be full of ripples, rapids and rocks and very difficult in low water. And we did not only have low water, we were in a record drought year.

Brian was especially worried because of his more sensitive Folbot and did not want to go on. We discussed our options and realised that we were at a very good strategic spot with a public boat access right next to a major highway. If we wanted to get out, this was the perfect place to do it. If we continued and encountered more problems, we would be stuck. It was a question of now or never. I must admit that I was not very happy with skipping another section and hitching with all our gear and boats seemed like a nightmare. But the alternative of going on and possibly damaging the boat did not sound very tempting either. Especially Brian's Folbot could be damaged beyond repair in these rapids. We eventually decided to try and hitch around this section.

Grudgingly we beached and I was not much looking forward to this difficult hitch when Brian had the redeeming idea. Three weeks ago in Lake Bemidji we had met Catherine who lived in this area and had offered us help. I found her business card and Brian gave her a call. And the unbelievable became true. Catherine answered the phone herself, remembered us and immediately offered to come and get us. We had had the incredible luck to call her at the right moment because she was in the vicinity and had a bit of spare time. I set a new record of disassembling the boat in 45 minutes and we were just about ready when Catherine showed up in her big van. She drove us the 10 miles to Little Falls thus even saving us the portage around the dam there. It is incredible how helpful people like Catherine and Richard have been to is on this trip going far out of their way to help us. We might not have had a lot of luck with the weather and water levels, but we have encountered the most helpful people possible.

After a hearty lunch I began to reassemble my kayak in 20 Celsius sunshine but everything seemed to go wrong. After almost 2 hours my boat was still not complete, my hands and arms hurting and I in tears. The park we were at was the local drug dealing place and all the locals recommended against camping there. Therefore I had to get the boat together at least an hour before sunset so that we could find another place were to camp. I just made it in time temporarily hating my Feathercraft as much as Brian hates his Folbot. With the last sunrays we found a nice campsite on an island and by next morning I had to admit that instead of hating my Feathercraft for its difficult assembly I should rather read and use the assembly instructions next time.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Mississippi: Aitkin to Little Falls

We started out in relatively good weather and it stayed like that for the whole stage. No more sub freezing temperatures and actually a lot of sunshine during the days. Day time temperatures are now around 12 Celsius and make life a lot easier. Lunch breaks are relaxing again when you don't have to massage your numb toes back into life. But life is still not easy on the river which is mostly due to the very low water levels this year. Central US has gone through almost a drought year and you definitely notice it on the river. For us this has the following two negative effects:

We are still getting stuck a lot in the low water. If this happens on sand bars it is not too bad, but more often we get stuck on rocks. In the beginning we had then tried to shimmy off again, but this resulted in a major leak in Brian's Folbot. So now we try to get out of the boat to get unstuck again. Usually this is possible because there is hardly any current, but in smaller rapids this can be very scary. Luckily none of us has capsized yet, but Brian does not want to risk more holes. He is so unhappy with his rather sensitive Folbot that he named it POS, short for Piece of Shit whereas my more robust Feathercraft has been named the Warship. So whenever we see ripples, rocks or rapids I am sent out first in the Warship to go through. And if I make it alive and in one piece Brian follows the same course in the POS.

Still Brian seems to be calling Folbot almost daily to fix his boat problems and I start wondering whether he has taken a romantic interest in Ashley, the Folbot customer service person who has already sent him two packages with spare parts.... In Minneapolis Brian will glue on extra keel strips and hopefully this will solve the problem.

Brian fighting the mud
The second  low water problem is mud. Beaching on a muddy  shore is a nightmare. One lunch break turned into a disaster because of this. When trying to get out of my boat I got stuck in the mud with my mud boots and while trying to extract one foot the other one sank in even deeper until mud was running into the boots and I was completely stuck. Brian had to bring pieces of wood to step on and it took my 15 minutes of digging until I got my boots out again. Of course by then my socks and pants were wet and completely covered with muck. And despite careful treading Brian encountered the same fortune when trying to get into his boat. Our short lunch break turned into a 2 hour fight with the mud. Although we now test the ground with our paddles before beaching it is still difficult to tell how firm the ground really is.

GSSS in action
At least I have discovered a way to get back into your boat without making too much of a mess and drowning. Brian calls it the GSSS (German Straddle, Shimmy and Sit) and it works as follows: You take the end of the kayak between  your legs (straddle), carefully work your way towards the cockpit using the kayak as a support when you start sinking (shimmy) and once your butt has made it to the cockpit you collapse into it (sit). The while procedure looks like an  awkward Kamasutra position and will not win you any price for elegance but it prevents you from sinking in too much and keeps the cockpit clean as you don't have to step into your boat with your dirty mud boots any more.

Despite our daily little rock and mud incidents the river itself is absolutely gorgeous in this section and still feels very remote. We are even seeing some late fall colours and plenty of wildlife. Dawn and dusk on the river are absolutely spectacular. It has been a hard, but beautiful trip so far.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Mississippi: Aitkin

Aitkin campground
Things improved rapidly after Brian had fallen into the water while beaching at Aitkin campground. We quickly set up our tents and set off to hike into Aitkin for dinner. We even managed to get a ride from a local fireman who told is that his wife's cold butt won't feel that bad tonight thinking of us freezing our asses off in the campground. But after this comforting comment her recommended is a really nice diner where we warmed up and had a great dinner. Although this was to be the coldest night of our trip I slept warm in anticipation of our first real full rest day.

And what a great rest day we had: I started with a huge steak and eggs breakfast in the diner. We then managed to get a ride to the one and only laundromat in town that happened to be just opposite the one and only public shower. Life was a lot better already with clean clothes and freshly showered but I even topped that by getting a new haircut for 18$ only. The hairdresser called herself an army brat and revelled in her sweet memories of Germany. The library in town let us use the computers as long as we liked which eventually have me the opportunity to post some pictures. And when we returned to our campsite all our gear and kayaks were still there! Although being spread out quite a bit Aitkin had all that a paddler could wish for and the locals were really friendly.

I enjoyed that rest day tremendously and could have easily spend another day but the weather forecast for the next week is relatively good and we want to take advantage of that and paddle as far South as possible - into warmer climate!

Friday, 12 October 2012

Mississippi: Grand Rapids to Aitkin

These last days have been pretty miserable due to the extremely cold weather. The forecasted 3-day cold front extended into a whole week of freezing weather. We have been paddling in snow, hail and rain, but precipitation has not been our biggest problem. It is just way too cold for the season! We have had frost almost every night and I mean serious frost. Today I woke up staring at the fog my breath created in the tent. Then I could not open my tent zippers because they were frozen solid! Packing the frozen tent in the morning in the worst part of the morning routine. The tent becomes very bulky and after 30 seconds your hands freeze. This is definitely not the Indian summer I had expected.

But on the plus side the river is very beautiful and feels very remote. Every day we see tons of wildlife including dozens of bald eagles that were almost extinct several years ago but are widespread in this part of Minnesota. The have an impressive wing span and build even more impressive huge nests. But we also saw plenty of beavers, otters and deer - plus more and more cows watching us from the shore. The water is surprisingly clear and Brian drinks it without treatment - so far without any ill effects, although I am still treating my water. The only good side of the cold weather is that we do not have any bug problems. I have not seen a single mosquito in 10 days.

Camping has become easier than expected. First we tried to stay at the designated DNR campsites but this has turned out to be a mistake. They are usually located high up on a bank with no or very difficult access. Whether this is intentional or due to erosion I have not been able to figure out. I only know that the few times we tried to stay there turned into a disaster and me almost being in tears. The bank is so steep that you cannot properly beach a kayak and with our foldables being so sensitive it is almost impossible to drag them up. The ground is usually so muddy that you sink in immediately and get stuck. On top of all that the kayaks are so difficult to pack and unpack that the whole process turns into a muddy and slippery nightmare. The campsites themselves do not offer much either beside a picknick bench, a fire ring and a rustic toilet seat. Even the camping area is tiny.

We therefore quickly gave up on these designated campsites and started free camping which turned out to be much more relaxing. We chose the site according to its easy beach access and although I still got stuck in the mud a couple of times things are a lot easier on a flat beach than on a steep bank. And usually it is not difficult to find a bit of flat ground in the woods. Still, our kayaks are covered in mud and look very used. I am daily scratching out the mud and all my clothes are mud spots all over.

The cold weather makes everything really tiresome. Day time temperatures are below 10 Celsius and every night has been below freezing. We spend our breaks trying to warm our frozen toes. Breaks are not very relaxing and we keep them short because we are freezing. Cooking at night with frozen fingers is also not too much fun. Surprisingly enough I have not been cold at night yet. My new quilt is much warmer than expected and of course I am wearing several layers of warm clothes. But getting out of my warm quilt in the morning and start packing the muddy and wet boat - that is another question. But things get really nasty once you get wet. Brian has had special bad luck in this regard and got stuck on rocks and sand banks several times. When he had to get out of the kayak he got water inside his rubber boats - a disaster when you already have cold feet in almost freezing temps. When we beached at Aitkin he almost completely fell into the water because he got surprisingly stuck in the knee deep mud. Luckily this was the end of the day....Alex, a solo canoeist we had met in Grand Rapids has stayed with us the whole time and does a great job with building camp fires every night. This is a great help after a long cold day on the river!

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Mississippi: Lessons learnt so far

Two frozen kayaks
Feathercraft vs. Folbot: When I bought my kayak my biggest concern had been whether I should really spend 6,000 $ on a high end boat. In the end I purchased my dream kayak, the Feathercraft K 1 at a much lower price because I found an exhibition piece and received a substantial discount. I still spent 4,300 $ on it whereas Brian's boat, a Folbot Cooper was less than half the price. But now, only one week into our trip I realise that I have made the right purchase decision. So far Brian has had a lot of trouble with his boat, whereas I didn't have a single problem except a rather long assembly. The Folbot has a rather thin skin and comes without keelstrips and Brian had 3 leaks already on day 2. Although I got stuck on rocks more often than Brian my boat skin does not even show signs of abrasion.  Also Brian's foot pedal broke on day 5. Generally speaking my Feathercraft seems to be much more robust than the Folbot and has a lot of nice little add ons that make life a lot easier like an extra rope, better foot pedals and more space. The only big disadvantage of the Feathercraft is that it is very difficult to pack. But on the flip side both boats have proven to be very stable in high waves.

Brian in Saran wrap
Rubber boots: Although we had seen rubber boots on other paddlers' gear list this was the one item that neither one of us had brought which turned out to be the biggest gear mistake of our trip so far. With temperatures being below freezing getting in and out of the boat without getting your get wet is essential - but impossible without waterproof boots. Neoprene socks and sandals just lead to numb toes. We even tried Saran wrap around our feet but it helped only marginally - and looked pretty weird. So the most important lesson learnt so far is: You need rubber boots for any paddling trip in colder weather.

Packing: The packing and unpacking of the kayak has turned out to be the most annoying problem for both of us. It just takes up so much time and energy that every portage turns into a nightmare. Steep, muddy and slippery banks make things even more complicated. I have become more efficient with packing and every little thing has its proper place now but still the whole process is way too time consuming. Unfortunately I don't have the slightest idea how to make it easier and I guess this is the price you have to pay for paddling a kayak.

Weather: We knew that  our late season trip was sort of a weather risk but the weather has turned out to be a lot more unpredictable than expected. We started out in sunshine wearing T-shirts and shorts and only four days later we had to paddle through heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures. We just hope that the weather improves when we get further south, because the last few cold and rainy days have been rather unpleasant. Basically we are freezing our asses off every night and most of the days..

Monday, 8 October 2012

Mississippi: Grand Rapids

In Grand Rapids we were nearly ecstatic that we had made it despite the horrible weather but as soon as we had beached we sought shelter in the warm Ranger office and tried to defrost. There are two dams in Grand Rapids with long portages and the local power company provides free shuttles to paddlers. When we called them to pick us up they nearly thought it was a practical joke as they did not expect anyone to be paddling in this miserable weather. Frank, the guy who came to pick us up, greeted us with "You guys out here to prove something or what?" He had brought a canoe trailer and we were worried how our rather fragile canoes would fare on it. Frank drove very slowly and to our great relief the kayaks survived.


But at the put in place another surprise was waiting for us. Construction work was going on. We intended to camp there and were now wondering what to do. The construction work actually turned out to be a great help as the workers promised to have an eye on our stuff while we were shopping in town. And so we quickly pitched our tents and made our way to a great Chinese AYCE buffet to stuff our faces and defrost. Although being camped right in town and the temps dropping below freezing I got a good night's sleep.

I also want to mention that we had two surprise visitors in Grand Rapids. Peter and Robin, our CS hosts from Minneapolis, turned up on their way to a cabin for a long weekend. They even brought me a sweater that I had forgotten in their house. But most importantly they reassured us that this cold weather is unusual for this time of the year. We hope to see them again when we pass through Minneapolis.

Next day was all a big rush. Brian had to get a package from the post office, we had to do a resupply and buy more gear, and I still had hopes to repair my stove. And of course we wanted to eat as well. We got everything done eventually but it was hard work. Luckily Grand Rapids had a big outfitter where we could buy rubber boots and warm socks. And just as we were to set out in out kayaks, Alex, a solo canoeist showed up and we all spend the night in the next camp site down the river.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Mississippi: Bemidji to Grand Rapids

To say that this trip has been challenging would be an understatement. To put it positively you could say that our learning curve has been very steep. At least we have survived so far...

Day one: It takes us two hours to get all our shit together and packed in our kayaks. Eventually we are on the water in glorious sunshine sweating in T-shirts and shorts. Brian is ahead of me - and all of a sudden is disappeared. I don't know whether he is still ahead of me or behind. I almost panick (how would I explain to his parents that their son mysteriously disappeared on day one hour one of our paddling trip) and even call him on his cell phone when he suddenly turns up behind me. He had tried a shortcut through the reeds and got stuck.

Day two: We have to go through some Class 1 rapids in the morning and I am nearly wetting my pants so scared am I. Of course I get stuck on rocks several times and have to get out of the boat to free myself. Brian only gets stuck once, but.... Later that day he starts complaining about water in his boat and pumps out serious amounts of water. It becomes apparent that he has a leak! He has punctured his boat already on day two and is definitely not happy about it. We stop early and check the bottom of the boat. And for sure there are three holes. They are easily repaired but Brian is definitely not happy with his Folbot.

Day three: We cross Lake Andrusia and get swamped by high waves in the wind. After half an hour we are completely soaked and exhausted. Although our boats were very stable I felt completely uncomfortable in the high wind. To make things worse tomorrow we have to cross Lake Winnie, the third largest lake in Minnesota with a high wind weather forecast, a cold front moving in and the knowledge that each year several paddlers die on that lake.

Day four: We have decided not to die on Lake Winnie and hitch around it.  To see how desperate we were imagine this hitch: We have to pack up all our gear and boats, walk a mile up a dirt road to a minor paved road, try to get a driver to stop and come down the dirt road to get all our gear, get a 20 mile ride along two highways to the other side of Lake Winnie and reassemble our boats. But luck was on our side. When we still tried to find the public landing, a local saw us and waved us over. First he invited us to camp in his back yard, then to have a beer, then to a huge breakfast and eventually he even offered to give us a ride. On that day Richard has definitely done so many good deeds that they will last for a month! Without him we would probably still stand at this dirt road and he deserves a river angel medal for his  help. It only took me 2 hours to reassemble my boat which is a huge success for me.

Day five: Last night had a bad ending. We could not find a campsite and had to paddle almost into dark. When I wanted to cook my petrol stove died and could not be revived. This is the day when the cold front moved in and while paddling the temperature dropped more and more. We barely made it to a designated camp site before becoming hypothermic. I could hardly feel my toes anymore and Brian just collapsed in his tent. Although I tried I still could not repair my stove and finally snow started to fall on our tents....

Day six: After a morning group meeting we decide to try paddling despite the weather forecast being even worse than the day before. We put on several layers of clothes and luckily even have a dock to help us getting into our boats without getting our feet wet. Our goal is to paddle 17 miles to Grand Rapids. The temperature is 3 Celsius and there are gusts up to 60 km/h. Still the paddling goes surprisingly well- at least as long as we don't stop and get cold. Then a snow storm hits us and I mean serious snow. I can't believe we are doing this and people stare at us in disbelief. A small lake turns out to be brutal in high winds. I try not to think what will happen if I capsize. But miraculously we somehow make it to Grand Rapids in one piece and no frost bite. It is snowing hard on us when we beach our boats....