This is written in a ‘what you need and what to expect’ format, but intended to be light and fun enough to interest and hopefully entertain the layman reader. If you are seeing this because you are doing your research and planning your trip please leave a comment or email me at email@example.com. I took a lot from the experiences of others before I did this trip and am happy to pay back with more detailed information.
Time. That was pretty easy for me. I was let go from my job in May, 2003, at age 59. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just knew that I didn’t want to look for another job and that I had wanted to ‘be someplace else’ for a long time. That and my canoe experience and the lure and lore of the Mississippi River, which I had explored and lived a block from in Iowa for several years, came together and I announced to my wife over dinner one evening that I was going to canoe the river. I think she was simply happy I found something to do and wouldn’t be underfoot. This trip took me three and a half months. A couple I came to know in St. Cloud, MN, Jim and Carol Otremba, did it in three months years ago because that’s all the time off of work they had. They hustled their butts off. I paddled hard every day I was on the river, but took some one or two day breaks and didn’t paddle through rainstorms like they did. So figure at least three months for this. (Jim and Carol’s book is called “A Journal of a Mississippi River Canoe Adventure: It’s a Long Way for a Beignet”)
Paddling experience. That was easy for me too. I have owned my Grumman 17-foot standard weight double-end aluminum canoe since the early 70’s. I have put many miles on it both paddling and under sail on rivers and lakes in Iowa, Illinois and Florida. This canoe was my dear old friend and it was coming along! If you are a beginning paddler just understand that you have a learning curve you’ll have to climb as you go along. Not a problem, or a reason not to go, but just another factor to deal with. I estimated that I did a million paddle strokes on this trip (meaning that you’ll have plenty of time to practice your strokes to get it just right).
The house. This is a very long camping trip. You’ll need to build your house every day. An easy to set up tent is a must. I like the room of a 3-4 person rating (for my body length and because I could bring into the tent the stuff I wanted to keep near me at all times). It should pack small, and have a good rainfly and a groundcloth. And be prepared to tie it down in heavy winds. Holed up for two very windy and rainy days in an exposed spot on the lower portion of the river, I even lined the INSIDE of my tent with small boulders so I wouldn’t get blown away.
The bed. I knew I needed a comfortable night’s sleep. And I also knew I would not have the space for a big mattress and cot nor the energy to blow up an air mattress every day. I found a great, self-inflating, four-inch thick mattress. I chose a moderate-temperature down sleeping bag. They pack nice and small.
The campsite. The level of the river was pretty low and campsites were easy to find when I went. You need some high ground and a way to tie up the canoe so it doesn’t disappear overnight. Wide sandbars are nice and woods are great, especially if a storm is coming up. In the very upper reaches in Minnesota there are established campsites maintained by the state for paddlers. Through the Midwest there are lots of choices. Areas around boat ramps and even city parks (but check for automatic sprinkling systems first!) were fair game for me and I was never hassled. Downstream from St. Louis it becomes more difficult because of all the huge stones and other riprap used to control erosion and maintain the channel. Because I usually started paddling as the sun came up I was ready to look for a good campsite while there was still plenty of light left in the long summer days. The one thing I decided early on was that I did not want to be on the river in the dark looking for a place to sleep.
The food. I am a minimalist with food. Breakfasts and lunches were granola bars or cereal bars in whatever varieties I chose to buy, supplemented with a jar of peanut butter, and eaten on the fly. I ate more than a thousand bars on this trip. That made resupply fun; just pop into a store and grab one or two of every variety of bar they had. Supper at night after setting up the tent was a one-pot meal cooked on a one-burner stove. I used Lipton Sides or equivalent (pasta or rice in various flavors, cooked in boiling water) and a variety of canned meats (chicken, turkey, tuna fish, Spam, small sausages etc.) to mix in, and I usually devoured the whole thing every night. I always kept a couple weeks’ supply of food with me.
The liquid. I decided not to deal with the logistics of finding ice, so I didn’t bring a cooler—not an easy decision for a beer lover. When I needed a hops boost on a warm day I got pretty good at pulling up to sandbars filled with picnicking day trippers and at fish camps looking really tired and thirsty. I had a seven-gallon container of water packed in the bottom of the canoe up front for ballast and a two-gallon container within reach to fill my water bottle when needed. I found that to be plenty for all the cooking and drinking, even in the long stretches without towns in the lower reaches of the river.
The packing. I used watertight bags, a plastic camping box with a clamp-down lid and a five-gallon bucket with a screw-on lid so I did not have to worry about things getting wet. A large dry bag held my shelter and bed—the tent, the mattress and the sleeping bag—so that at the end of a day, that bag would be all I needed to set up my house. I used three smaller dry bags for clothes, maps, extra ropes, extra batteries, books to read, etc. The camping box held food, stove and utensils. The bucket held the important stuff and stayed right behind me in the canoe and was with me in the tent every night. In it was a small backpack (thank you Kim and Summer) with the camera (thank you Peter Brandt) and memory cards, the cell phone, the money and credit cards, and the maps for the immediate upcoming sections of the river. That backpack was with me whenever I left the canoe to go into a town. Permanently attached to the handle of the bucket was the alarm wristwatch that woke me up in the tent every morning. And the bucket also served as a table, a footstool and a guest chair. So, to make myself secure and comfortable every night all I needed to remove from the canoe were three things—the large bag with the house and bed, the box with the kitchen and the bucket with the important stuff and the alarm clock.
The wheels. These were essential. Above Minneapolis-St. Paul there are a number of dams. The owners of those dams, usually a power company or municipality or the Corps of Engineers, are required to maintain a take-out point, a portage path and a put in point, but it is up to you to get your stuff around the dam on the portage path, sometimes several hundred yards long, generally up a hill then down a hill. A good set of wheels allowed me to take the canoe and all my cargo around most of the dams in one, or at the most, two, trips. As easy as that sounds, I was exhausted after most portages and took a catnap in the shade before setting off.
The clothes. I packed up all the old clothes I had around the house. I took way too much. You’re a river bum. No one expects you to smell nice or look good. The people you see tomorrow will not be the same people you saw today. And sometimes you can go a week without seeing anyone. If you stop in towns you can wash your clothes. So take three changes at most and make sure you have what you need to layer up if it gets chilly. And take a rain suit with pants. It’ll double as a windbreaker. Along the way I bought a pair of waterproof gloves when it got cold, so if you already have some, pack them. One pair of tennis shoes and a pair of water shoes was all I took and all I needed.
Your safety. Obviously take a first aid kit along and know basic first aid. And be very aware that the slip of a knife or the small trip and sprain, or even the swallowing of a pill (bring chewable ones) is potentially way more dangerous for you in the middle of nowhere than it would be in your house. The bottom line is don’t take chances. If you aren’t already a capable gun owner don’t even think about buying one for this trip. If you think you need a weapon, take one of your paddles into the tent with you at night. The one thing you definitely need is a life jacket that automatically inflates if you hit the water. A regular life jacket is bulky and hot and its easy to talk yourself into not wearing it. The self-inflatable ones (thank you Amanda and my friends at Splash News in Los Angeles) are light and small. I wore mine nearly all the time.
The river. The Mississippi River is basically three rivers: 1. From the beginning at Lake Itasca to Minneapolis-St. Paul it goes from a sometimes shallow and narrow creek to a channel or not-so-defined channel through wild rice swamps to a nice pleasant narrow river with some current. And it passes through several very large lakes too. Included are 11 dams that have to be portaged and some nice Minnesota river towns. 2. At Minneapolis-St. Paul it becomes an increasingly busy and wide commercial river, with 29 locks and dams built and controlled by the Corp of Engineers, all the way to St. Louis. Towboats with numerous barges are present the entire way. They are slow, very visible and easy to avoid. The nice thing is that you can use the locks instead of portaging, but the downside is that the dams create ‘pools,’ basically lakes stretching 30 or 40 miles long. With winds generally from the south and southwest in the late summer and early fall it makes for some hard paddling with little help from the current. 3. After St. Louis there are no more dams and the river is free-flowing again. Sounds good, but it’s extremely wide with lots of miles-long oxbows. If the current is sluggish, as it was for me, prepare to paddle all the time. This lower section takes on a different flavor south of Baton Rouge, where ocean-going ships and the fast, large-wake-leaving tugboats that service them ply the waters. These boats move way faster than the towboats and barges upstream and you need to be very wary of them, especially if you paddle at night.
Navigation. Definitely get the series of maps from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for the section from Lake Itasca to the Minnesota border. They are invaluable in the upper reaches for the detail about conditions and towns and campsites, many built in the Civilian Conservation Corps days. They are small and easy to read in a canoe. The Corps of Engineers has navigation maps from Minneapolis-St. Paul down to New Orleans. They are huge books. I found them helpful, but cumbersome for daily use. I usually just took one out at the campsite and made notes from it for the next few day’s paddling. Navigation buoys exist below Minneapolis-St. Paul, but they just tell you where the main channel is, not where the towns and shortcuts are. For that you need a decent map. You might also want to pick up a Quimby’s guide, even an older one. It is more commercial and is a good guide to marinas.
The getting there and the getting home. Lake Itasca, MN, where the Mississippi River begins, is a couple hundred miles north of Minneapolis in a pretty rural area. I had used my nationwide Sierra Club volunteer connections to try to find someone around there who’d be willing to drop me on the river and store my car for me, but nothing was working out. Even scant weeks from setting off I figured I’d just get up there and find someone to help me somehow. And then a conversation with Franklin Berger, a photographer friend in California, started a ball rolling. Franklin had a friend in La Crosse, WI, who had a friend near Minneapolis. So, with the help of Jim Bogdan in La Crosse and Bill Melby in Northfield, MN, I had a plan: I stopped in La Crosse on the way up, Jim and I drove separate cars to Bill’s and left his there and we then drove together to Lake Itasca in my car. I put in the river there, Jim drove my car to Bill’s and left it there, and drove home in his own car. A plus for me was that Bill used the car occasionally, so it didn’t just sit there (he also paid for a brake job on it in exchange for his use of it). The ending arrangements fell together easier. Maurice Coman, a Sierra Club friend from Florida who had relocated to New Orleans, volunteered early on to pick me up from the river. He and his wife, Barbara, hosted me for a couple days and stored my canoe and stuff at their house while I headed north on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans. Bill picked me up at the Minneapolis train station in my car. Sweet! If that all hadn’t fallen into place so nicely, I probably would have looked into one-way car rentals for the beginning and the end.
The rocking chair. As an afterthought before I left Florida I threw a fold up aluminum rocking chair into the car and I was thankful every single day on the river that I had it with me. There is nothing better for a weary body that has paddled all day, found a good campsite and set up the house than to relax in a rocking chair with a hot cup of coffee, feet up on the bucket, and watch the sun set. You deserve a rocking chair!