Day 30 (24 Miles)
August 26, 2003
From my island campsite last night it took me from 7 am to noon to get to Lock and Dam No. 2, just upstream from Hastings, MN.
The normal pattern was already setting in on this lock and dam controlled part of the river I was now on, and it would be the same until St. Louis. Upstream from every lock and dam stretching for ten to forty miles is a wide lake (called a ‘pool’ in Corps of Engineers parlance), formed because of the backed-up flow.
Because I was in a low-flow, low-current, time of the year, the stretches could be either a nice paddle on a long, wide lake, or a lousy slog for miles. It all depended on the wind, and the wind always seemed to come from some southerly direction. And, unfortunately, I needed to go south to get to New Orleans.
Today, for example, it took me five hours to go the 14 miles to Lock and Dam No. 2, just under three miles an hour. The first half was good as I was heading northeast, the last half was tougher, headed southeast.
My musings of yesterday about how big and commercial and urban the river was becoming has a plus side of course: More interesting towns, closer together, to stop into. Today I skipped Hastings, MN, just past the lock and dam, because I had decided to stop at Prescott, WI, on the eastern shore, only a few miles further on. It would be my first footsteps in a state other than Minnesota in a month.
The St. Croix River, which separates Minnesota and Wisconsin for many miles, joins the Mississippi River at Prescott. There are ten states that border the Mississippi River. I was now in the second one.
At Prescott there is a private marina right at the rivers’ junction, but a hundred yards or so upstream on the St. Croix, just under the railroad bridge, was a very nice municipal courtesy dock.
A block uphill from the river was Broad Street, seemingly the main downtown business stretch. I wandered around, always happy to be ‘someplace else.’ I had a late lunch and a few beers at Hammers Outpost Inn, where they were kind enough to let me use the phone to call my cellphone company and sort out a problem.
I found a nice campsite near mile marker 804, about seven miles downstream from Prescott, to spend the night. That would leave me only 12 miles tomorrow to get to Red Wing, MN, where I’d arranged to meet Jim Bogdan and Bill Melby for dinner at the Harbor Hut on the Wisconsin side of the river.
Day 31 (12 miles)
August 27, 2003
On the way to Red Wing today I stopped briefly after a couple miles to take a look at a really pleasant, though primitive, weekend getaway spot. It was on the east side of the river, and on the low land between the water and the railroad tracks, which run right along the river in this section. The site contained a small ramshackle cottage for sleeping and was complete with a fire pit, roughly-built tables, a dish drying rack and citronella candles. I don’t know if someone actually owned that small spit of land on the river side of the tracks or if it was simply a squatter who decided to eke out a riverside hideout. Whatever the situation, it looked very comfortable.
Later on, a crow and a kingfisher decided to get really mad at each other. It was really loud and raucous. I wondered if they understood each other. And today also included a woodpecker banging against a hollow tree.
There were enough side channels and the like today to make the map look like a spider web. There were even a couple large lakes that were not part of the main channel that were I am sure created with the building of Lock and Dam No. 3, just upstream from Red Wing. I had decided to always follow the channel markers. A lot of local knowledge would be needed to figure out which of the side paths would be passable and I did not want to end up at a dead end and have to backtrack for miles.
The main river channel was pretty narrow and right up against the Red Wing shoreline. All the marshes and backwaters were on the Wisconsin side. On the right side was the town. Directly across from it was the Harbor Hut and a short ways downstream from it was the Island Campground, where I would stay for the night. It was a short walk from the campground to the Harbor Hut.
Red Wing was very nice. The waterfront park was terrific and the courtesy docks were very handy. A block or so from the river I found the post office, the library, a grocery store and a bar. Everything I needed. I could see from the activity that a lot of the old buildings in the downtown area were being rehabbed.
I got interviewed by the local paper and made sure I stressed the great ways that Red Wing took advantage of its location on the Mississippi River. Red Wing, of course, is the home of Red Wing Shoes.
After my visit in town I made my way across the river to book a site at the Island Campground. Owners Bob and Margi Moyer were extremely helpful.
The wind was pretty strong when I set up the tent, so I used the stakes for the first time. I was happy I did, as the wind kept up during the night. It didn’t bode well for tomorrow, as I would be on what’s called Lake Pepin, a long, wide bulge in the river behind the next lock and dam. It was famous, according to Bob Moyer, for high winds and rough paddling.
Tomorrow would be a slow, tough, 17-mile slog against the wind, I realized, but tonight was a reunion dinner with the two new friends who’d facilitated my start on this voyage.
In the late afternoon I settled down on the riverside patio behind the Harbor Hut with a beer. It was weird seeing Bill and Jim pull up in my car, but also great to see them so I could share with them some of what I’d been through since I’d last seen them.
Day 32 (17 miles, 8 hours on the river)
August 28, 2003
I woke up this morning to a very windy day. I was glad I had staked the tent down well, but it was a fitful night anyway. It was my first time in a month to have a windy night in the tent and I couldn’t sleep with all the flapping.
It was one of those mornings when I didn’t want to move from the tent. I could have happily slept in until noon and made the Harbor Bar, the Island Campground and downtown Redwing my home for a week, but that wouldn’t get me any further down the river.
Today was Lake Pepin. On a calm day it would be a slow but easy paddle, much as Lake Winnie had been nearly a month ago. Today, with the wind strong from the southeast, it would be an ugly, tiring slog, not only to make progress forward but to keep from getting pushed into the extensive weedbeds on the western shoreline.
The eastern shoreline might have offered a bit of protection from the wind, but because the river went east and then turned southerly it would have meant more miles of paddling. I was aiming for Lake City, MN, some 17 miles from Redwing. I knew that at the end of the day I would at least want a good, windless restaurant meal, if not a hotel too! The very last thing I wanted tonight was to pull up on some sandbar and set up my tent in a howling wind and try to cook dinner.
In addition to the small Minnesota Department of Natural Resources maps, I was now also using a booklet put out by the same agency that covered the section from Hastings, MN, to the Iowa border. Meant for power boaters and not just paddlers, it included a lot of details about commercial as well as public facilities along the way that the small maps didn’t.
I was aiming for a place on the northern end of Lake City listed in the booklet called Digger’s Marine, promising docks and a restaurant. Little did I know it had been closed for a while, but lucky for me a couple named Becky and Duane had opened up a restaurant on the site in January called Skyline on Pepin.
After a brutal eight hours of paddling (barely over two miles an hour against the wind) I happily pulled up to the dock behind the restaurant late in the afternoon, ready to call it quits for the day. Everyone was more than friendly. Owners Becky and Duane greeted me and Andy, on bartender duty, poured me a nice beer. They gave me the OK to leave my canoe at the dock for the night and told me about a motel a couple blocks down the street. I had a couple drinks and a snack and decided to head for the motel and get cleaned up and come back for dinner.
The Sunshine Inn was just a short walk from the restaurant on North Lake Shore Drive. The hot shower felt great and I was ready for a huge dinner and a good night’s sleep.
I had stopped at a convenience store on the way to the motel and spotted the Red Wing paper. Remembering that I’d been interviewed by them the day before, I picked one up and yes, there I was in the local section. As I paid for three copies the cashier looked at me weirdly so I explained that I was getting three because I was in it. He took a look at the article and said he remembered reading about the anthrax attack on American Media back in 2001.
I had a great dinner at the restaurant, chatted a lot with the staff and a few customers, had some photos taken and went happily back to the motel for the night.
Day 33 (22 miles, 8 hours on the river)
August 29, 2003
Leaving Lake City in the morning I was fortunate to be paddling with a left quarter TAILWIND down the eight miles remaining of Lake Pepin. How I would have loved to have had that yesterday! At the bottom of Lake Pepin the river narrows and for the last four miles to Wabasha, MN, I actually had a straight-on tailwind!
It was becoming a case of so many towns so little time and that would be true all through the Midwest. Stopping to explore them all was impossible; I’d never get to New Orleans.
Wabasha looked great as I approached it and I was making good time with the tailwinds, so I decided to stop for a while. The downtown was right by the river and the courtesy dock next to the bridge looked inviting. I spent an hour and a half there. The woman at the chamber of commerce office proudly showed me the office bathroom, furnished entirely with recycled fixtures and furniture salvaged from the river. I ate a sandwich at the café, gobbled cookies at the bakery, bought postcards at the pharmacy and took a nap in the park.
Wabasha, of course, is the setting for movieland’s Grumpy Old Men franchise (though the filming did not occur there) and takes advantage of it. It is also, coincidentally, the home of professional wrestler Baron Von Raschke, who I met the day before I started this trip.
About seven miles past Wabasha I hit Lock and Dam No. 4. The locks are always on one shore or the other and this one was on the Wisconsin side.
I locked through with no delay and just a few hundred yards down was the municipal dock for Alma, WI. It was irresistible! It’s a tiny town, population about a thousand, scrunched between the high, imposing river bluff and the edge of the water. The main drag was on level ground at the water’s edge and the rest of the town was uphill. If the bluff belched, Alma would find itself in the Mississippi River. I had to stop there!
I tied up at the dock and set off. Historic Main Street ran parallel to the river and was a quick walk across the train tracks. I found three bars nearby, one in an old hotel, a biker bar and a regular bar. I had a leisurely beer at each and set off again in the canoe to find a campsite for the night.
I knew from the maps that I was missing a lot of wildlife these days by sticking to the main channel. There were side channels on both sides (depending on which side the main channel followed) that were filled with migratory-bird-friendly marshes and great fishing locations. Unfortunately most of the side routes involved a good chance of having to wade through shallow water or a physical portage of some sort and mentally and physically I was done with all that.
I was happy sticking with the main channel and the effortless locks.
The temperatures were cooler, the wind wasn’t in my face lately and I was happy. What’s not to like about being able to pull up under one’s own steam in one’s own canoe, with one’s own house aboard, and saunter into a strange town a couple times a day?
I found a pleasant island campsite not far from Alma and settled in for the night. It was good being back in the tent after the night in the motel at Lake City; a feeling like I was back at home. I never thought I’d get so used to a tent and a sleeping pad and bag that it would become home sweet home.
Day 34 (24 miles)
August 30, 2003
Paddled today in a light tailwind and mild temperatures. The best of all worlds.
As a kid I had always had a Lionel model train set. It was set up in the basement on a platform about the size of a ping-pong table and it was pretty elaborate. It had the trains and a switchyard of course, but also lots of buildings, crossing gates and small cars and even miniature people.
My travels down this section of the river reminded me constantly of looking at a train set. Train tracks hugged the shoreline on both sides of the river and there were cars on the riverside roads and buildings and people in the small towns along the river. From the middle of the river, a distance away, it was like I was sitting in the middle of a massive train set.
About two this afternoon I approached Fountain City, WI, another small Wisconsin town wedged between the bluff and the shore. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stop, but a lot of yelling and gesturing convinced me. As I paddled along I saw three guys waving and whistling at me from the rooftop of a house right near the water on the main street. They were pointing downstream toward the town courtesy dock and they clambered down the ladder and started running that way.
I docked and as I was tying up they arrived and introduced themselves. One of them owned the house that needed the roof work and his friends were pitching in. They saw me and decided to take a break, find out what I was doing and buy me a beer. One of them was Joe Libera, owner of River City Kayaks in town.
They were just happy to take a break from their work and give me a welcome and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I’d been seeing lots of speedboats, cabin cruisers, and even houseboats on the river and realized I was in the middle of a big weekend for fun on the water: Labor Day. So far they weren’t getting in my way at all, though the town dock at Fountain City was pretty busy.
There’ve been lots of bass boats around lately too, the kind with the big outboards that can get up to 60 mph or so. From a long distance away, with the glare shimmering off the water, they looked like fast cars on the Bonneville Flats sending up plumes of dust as they sped along. The boat itself was a dot in the distance, but the plume of water was huge.
Some four miles down from Fountain City was Lock and Dam No. 5A. Passage was on the Minnesota side and it was uneventful. I found a campsite a short ways downstream from the dam and went to bed looking forward to breakfast in Winona, MN, less than an hour away.
Day 35 (16 miles)
August 31, 2003
At 8 am, I made it to Winona, MN, after paddling though nice wispy whirlpools of fog on the river. I was ready for bacon and eggs. That didn’t happen. I trudged all over the downtown area and asked the few people I saw if there was someplace nearby to have breakfast. Nothing.
The only thing I found was a McDonald’s. Inside there were several regulars having coffee and waiting for the long-overdue delivery of the Sunday edition of the Minneapolis paper. It never arrived while I was there.
OK, one town disappoints. So what. There will be others. On the way south through the rest of downtown I spotted a Godfather’s Pizza at the Levee Park Dock that had a huge sign with a phone number and a marine radio frequency on it for boaters to arrange carryout. Too bad it wasn’t lunchtime!
About nine miles past Winona is the town of Trempealeau with its historic Trempealeau Hotel. I planned to stop there. It would be about lunchtime and there was another lock right there I’d have to go through. I had decided to take advantage of having all these towns around.
Along the way I crossed paths with a kayaker. His name was Dan and he lived on the Minnesota side and was going across the river to portage into the huge marsh area on the Wisconsin side. It reminded me of my years living along the river in Iowa and exploring all the nearby backwaters and tributaries. As a through traveler wanting to get done before winter set in, I just did not have the time to do much exploring. Another reminder that I was missing a lot.
Dan would have to portage over the railroad tracks to get to the marsh, which was a mile or so wide. The tracks at that point were actually way out in the middle of the river valley, with the wide marsh on the Wisconsin side and the actual channel on the Minnesota side.
At Trempealeau I pulled ashore just above Lock and Dam No. 6. The town was basically built along the shore next to the lock and the Trempealeau Hotel was just before the lock. The setting was typical of river towns. The railroad ran right along the shoreline and the town began just past the tracks. The first road parallel to the tracks was First Street, and on up the hill going away from the river the numbered streets continued.
The hotel was at First and Main streets, set back on a huge expanse of grass. It was a holiday weekend Sunday so the restaurant and tiny bar were pretty busy, though all of the eight rooms looked empty. There were lots of motorcycles there and many bicycles. Funny how the larger people gravitate to the motorcycles and the lighter ones to the bicycles.
With its outdoor veranda and the wide expanse of lawn it sort of reminded me like a nice rural British pub, but without the friendliness.
I had a couple of beers and a sandwich and settled in the shade on the lawn for a short nap. When I went back to the canoe I saw there was a huge tow ready to lock through. It would be another hour or so before my turn.
So I headed back up Main Street and found Linda’s Place, a block and a half up from the hotel. The people were friendlier and the beer was cheaper–$2 instead of $2.75!
I finally cleared the lock and left Trempealeau in the middle of the afternoon and found a nice campsite on an island a few miles down.
Tomorrow I would be in La Crosse, WI. Jim Bogdan lived there and I’d be touching base with him of course. Picking me up from the river would be a couple of Sierra Club members, Barbara and Don Frank. As a decades-long volunteer with the Sierra Club, I had emailed other volunteers along the river and introduced myself and explained what I was doing.
That resulted in some nice visits along the way and some offers of lodging. Barbara and Don are veteran volunteer activists and Barbara has served on the national Board of Directors. I was looking forward to meeting them.
Day 36 (15 miles)
September 1, 2003
It was a river of noise today. Noise travels well over water and I was out in the water, surrounded by noise. It was Labor Day, so the pleasure boats were out en masse. They didn’t bother my paddling, but added to the din, as did the traffic noise from the highways.
The train horns were the greatest source of noise. Tracks lined both sides of the river and even when the tracks were a long ways from the channel, like miles away on the east side of Lake Onalaska, the sound skipped off the water and bounced off the high bluffs.
A mile or so past Lock and Dam No. 7, on the Minnesota side, I stopped at a large bridge and trudged up a hill for some shade and a rest. It was a nice paddle today, but very hot. Turned out I had found a rest area for Interstate 90, which crossed the river at that point. There were people carrying more stuff out of their cars to picnic tables for lunch than I carry out of my canoe to spend a night camping.
Don Frank picked me up at our rendezvous point in La Crosse in the early afternoon. He’d brought his ‘canoe hauler,’ an older model car with a roof rack and plenty of space for my stuff.
He and Barbara and their dog welcomed me into their home. The hot shower was great and for dinner they invited seven other local Sierra volunteers over and we had a great time. It was a nice gathering of liberal, intelligent, informed, civic-minded and patriotic Americans who put their money where their mouth is by actually volunteering for what they believe in.
Day 37 (in La Crosse)
September 2, 2003
Slept in at the Frank’s today. It felt good. It was a nice lazy day. Did some laundry and some shopping and had dinner with Jim Bogdan.
Day 38 (11 miles)
September 3, 2003
After a pleasant breakfast and a newspaper interview I said goodby to the Franks late in the morning and resumed my journey. I launched at a boat ramp at Clinton Street, on the Black River. A short ways down it met the Mississippi and I was back in the channel. I met up with Jim Bogdan at Pettibone Park, directly across from the downtown, for some photos.
With a lock and dam every 30 to 40 miles along I was encountering a lot of long wide open water. Fortunately today the wind was at my back as I headed south on the seven-mile long, two-mile wide open lake I had to traverse. Also lucky for me it seemed a bit cooler today.
The channel took me back over to the Minnesota side. Because of the late start I planned to hit tiny (500 pop.) Brownsville, MN, for an early dinner and sleep at a campground just south of town.
The Minnesota river bank today was typical for the Midwest. The railroad tracks ran on an embankment right along the river and parallel was the highway, in this case Route 26, part of the Great River Road network. Occasionally there was some lowland on the river side of the tracks. In Brownsville this area contained some riverfront homes and a marina. And then up from the river rose massive bluffs, which provided the terrific echos when the train whistles blew.
I pulled into an inlet near some houses at Brownsville and was able to beach the canoe right by the tracks, so it was a short walk across them and the highway into town. I found Bissen’s Tavern on south Third Street for a couple of beers and the delightful Copper Penny Restaurant on Main Street for dinner.
The bartender confirmed for me that the campground, Wildcat Park and Landing, that was on my map still existed (it turned out it was Corps of Engineers property and leased out and managed by Houston County). He reminisced about another camping area that had long ago become McMansions along the river.
Once back in the canoe it was only a mile or so to the campground.
Day 39 (20 miles, 6 hours on the river)
September 4, 2003
I kept hitting the snooze alarm when the watch went off today, and it took a very noisy woodpecker to finally get me going at 7 am.
By 8 I was on the water, headed to the really tiny (half the size of Brownsville) town of Genoa, WI, for breakfast. I was really enjoying all these very accessible river towns. I’d actually started feeling a little guilty about it and all the time wasted, but that didn’t last long. Stopping, even briefly, was part of the fun of the voyage and I was going to take advantage of it.
Lock and Dam No. 8 was right at Genoa and I could see a barge waiting to get through so I figured I’d have a couple hours. The situation was again typical, railroad tracks, the highway, the town and the bluffs off in the distance.
As I paddled along I saw that the shoreline was nothing but big rocks. The westerly wind was pushing the waves onto the rocks and there was no way I could leave the canoe banging up against the rocks while I went into town.
But closer to town I saw an inlet of sorts. I paddled into it, under the railroad tracks and under the highway, and there was a nice spot to beach the canoe, well protected from the wind. I got out and climbed up the bank. Downtown was just a short walk down the highway!
After a terrific late breakfast at the Big River Inn (built in 1879) I wandered around a bit. Commercial Main Sreet seemed to be just four bars, a hotel, a bank and the post office. Four bars in a town of less than 300 people! I must be in a Wisconsin river town! It was mandatory I pop into all four of them.
After a couple hours I could see from town that the lock was clear, so I hopped into the canoe and headed through.
By 3 pm I was at another town. This was great. And I was now south of the Iowa-Minnesota border. Unfortunately, the channel is on the Wisconsin side and the first Iowa town, New Albin, was a mile or more away through a maze of backwater passageways. To stop there would have meant a half day finding my way through the sloughs and a long walk into the town itself. Stepping on Iowa soil, the third of ten states I would walk on in this trip, would have to wait a few days.
On the Wisconsin side was Victory, according to the map. An unicorporated dot on the map, it didn’t appear to be all that close to the river or all that big, but there was a boat ramp there on the river side of the railroad tracks so I decided to stop and look around. It had taken me two hours to paddle here from Genoa. By car it’s a ten-minute ride, tops.
A couple blocks away was the Edelweiss German Restaurant, about the only business I could see. The co-owner was a German musician who’d toured in the U.S. and married an American and ended up living here. It was a nice little place with a great view of the river.
One of the guys I spoke to at the boat ramp when I was setting off was a fisherman named Lenny, who owned the Falling Rock Bar and Grill downriver at Gordon Bay Landing, on the Wisconsin side.
I figured if the channel took me to that side I would stop there. The river valley through here was very wide—some three miles in some spots—with the usual spider web of islands and backwaters. Through that went a relatively narrow, defined river channel about a quarter-mile wide. (Actually, it is a maintained, nine-foot deep channel for shipping.) That channel was sometimes out in the middle of the valley and sometimes along one shore or another.
I stopped for the night along the channel on the sandy shoreline of Battle Island.
Day 40 (22 miles, 9 hours on the river)
September 5, 2003
There was a tough headwind all day long. It showed in the distance I went. Yesterday I went 20 miles in six hours of paddling. Today I went 22 miles and it took me nine hours.
One thing pleased me however. I had become a strong paddler. Physically I could easily paddle nine hours against the wind. Mentally it was still tough though (Hey Stupid, you could walk faster than this!).
The channel took me close to DeSoto, WI, but I didn’t stop. It looked like a long hike into town. And I was looking forward to downriver, where the channel swung across the river valley and took me against the shoreline of Iowa, my third state.
My Minnesota maps and the Minnesota booklet were past resources now that I was out of that state. I started using a bunch of maps that went through until the end of Iowa. I’d printed them off the internet and put them into plastic sleeves in a loose leaf binder. They had both public and private facilities noted, as well as mile markers. I also started using one of the huge, very detailed navigation maps from the Corps of Engineers.
Both of these were unwieldly to use in the canoe so I consulted them every few evenings and made detailed notes in a small notebook I could consult as I was paddling. Both were extremely helpful.
I took an hour break in Lansing, IA, for a late breakfast. It was a very pleasant town and I ate at Sweeney’s on the River, on Front Street, the first road parallel to the river.
Below Lansing the channel swung over to the Wisconsin side again for the passage though Lock and Dam No. 9.
Gordon Bay Landing (really just a boat ramp with some houses and the Falling Rock Bar and Grill across the road) was just over a mile downriver from the dam. Lenny wasn’t working today. I stayed for a couple beers and early dinner and headed downstream to find a camping spot. I grabbed the first sandy beach I came to. It had been a tiring day.
Day 41 (16 miles, 7 hours on the river)
September 6, 2003
Before the alarm went off this morning I was roused by the roaring of a bunch of fishing boats flying past the campsite. There must have been a tournament going on somewhere.
Today was another very hot slog against the wind. I was thankful for the towns along the way to break up the routine. (I unfortunately skipped both Harper’s Ferry, IA, and Prairie du Chien, WI, because they were on the opposite sides of the river valley from where the channel took me.)
The main channel took me past Marquette and McGregor, both on the Iowa side.
Marquette was the first stop. It’s named after half of the Marquette and Joliet explorer duo and has a population under 500. In its heyday a huge railroad hub, it is now mostly a summer tourist destination and home to one of the ubiquitous floating casinos along the river. It’s basically a crossroads directly across the wide river valley from the much larger Prairie du Chien, WI.
Just under the tall bridge connecting the two cities, I stopped at the town dock and headed across the tracks.
Fittingly enough I ended up at the River Country Restaurant, whose owner, David Matthew, told me he was a descendent of his namesake, the famed American railroad pioneer David Matthew. It was he who told me what a huge railroad town Marquette had been, even boasting a roundhouse!
McGregor, about double the size of Marquette, was a very short ways downstream. I wasn’t really planning to stop, but the McGregor Marina looked oh so inviting. A huge covered veranda overlooked the river and there was a nice docking area.
Some folks at one of the tables waved me over. They’d seen me pull up and recognized me from the La Crosse paper’s article about me. Mary Kay and her brother and sister had roots in the area and were here on a family reunion with their spouses. While we were there, a cabin cruiser pulled up and a couple got out and were greeted by the manager. Mary Kay put her ear to the ground and the word was that a celebrity had arrived.
If it was a celebrity it was no one I or anyone else there recognized. (Mary Kay wrote me later that it was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the San Francisco poet. I never confirmed that)
My sitting time today was catching up to my paddling time. I left McGregor after an hour and found a nice campsite about four miles later, just below where the Wisconsin River joins the Mississippi.
I decided to go around behind one of the many small islands and camp off the channel. I could barely hear the tows if they were a ways away, but along this stretch, where the channel was narrow and they were close to me, the diesel engines were loud. Especially so because it was hot and all the engine room doors were left open. It was like sleeping in a bus terminal.
That evening before dark a fisherman came along and we chatted. His name was Bruce and he too had seen the newspaper article. He was out checking and baiting his submerged lines.
Day 42 (18 miles)
September 7, 2003
Shortly after I broke camp and headed out, one of the fishermen I’d seen in the distance started waving me over. It was Bruce and his nephew and he had a gift for me. A nice package of home-cured venison sausage. What a terrific surprise. I ate off of that for days.
Lock and Dam No. 10 and the town of Guttenburg, IA, were ahead today. As I neared the lock I could see there was a tow with a double load of barges ahead of me and it would mean at least a couple hours.
Large tows, with more barges than will fit into the lock chamber, have to go through a lengthy process of putting some of the barges in and untying from those. Those barges are then locked through and moved forward with lines and pullies. Then the lock chamber is refilled and the towboat and the rest of the barges are locked though, everything once again tied together and the tow moves along. (towboats push the barges, they don’t pull them, and the combination of the boat and the barges is called a tow)
I elected to take a nap in the shade just upstream in a small grassy area. If I had realized how close I was to downtown Guttenburg I’d have walked there. Instead, I waited for the lock to clear and made my way though and stopped at the town dock just a short ways downstream.
The railroad tracks didn’t run right along the river through Guttenburg, so there was no embankment hiding the business section from me as I paddled along. I put ashore next to what I guess had been a fish market at one time and walked the 50 yards to South River Park Road. Just up Schiller Street was Doug’s Steakhouse. They happily let me charge up my cell phone and I devoured a huge lunch in a place with a great view of the river.
Sunday afternoon football in the bar. What would America be without it?
I found a spot to camp tonight off the channel again, behind one of the islands. I even found a nice shallow sandy area to take a bath in instead of just pouring a bucket over my head to cool off and clean up a bit.
Day 43 (23 miles, 8 hours on the river)
September 8, 2003
I tried to get an early start, so pushed off at 7, only to spend 45 minutes slopping though shallow water and over sandbars at the bottom of the slough where I’d camped, having decided to go south from the campsite instead of backtracking north up around the island the way I’d come in the night before.
Oh well, good intentions…
I had the wind at my back until about 1:30 and then a headwind set in. The channel took me back across the river valley to the Wisconsin side and I was looking forward to stopping in Cassville, WI, for a late breakfast.
The railroad tracks were right along the river here and I put ashore near the Cassville landing of the ferry that operated between Wisconsin and Iowa. A block away from the river I spotted the Rivers Café. It had a window-side table just waiting for me, just like that place a month ago in Minnesota. Now that’s a sign! And in true Midwestern fashion, they didn’t serve home fries for breakfast, just hash browns. After a leisurely breakfast I headed back to the canoe.
As I walked down Denniston Street and got to Front Street, parallel to the tracks, I heard a train whistle. The train itself was coming from the north. The fascinating thing is that the sound of the whistle was not just from the north, but all around me as it bounced off the bluffs at my back and off of the bluffs way across the river valley on the Iowa side.
I was just transfixed by this incredible sound display. The train horn would blow, and the sound would be echoed perfectly and loudly all around me. It was like being in the middle of a great concert hall, completely surrounded by sound. The spell broke of course when the train moved south.
I stopped paddling for the day about 4 pm and pulled into the county campground at Mud Lake Park, on the Iowa side. It’s just a bit north of Dubuque, IA, where I would stop tomorrow and meet up with some local Sierra Club volunteers.
Day 44 (8 miles, 3 hours on the river)
September 9, 2003
I only had a few miles to go to get to Dubuque, but with the time it took to get through Lock and Dam No. 11 and a tough headwind, it took me three hours. I was headed to Miller Riverview Campground, a city-owned facility on the riverfront.
I set up the tent and staked it down well.
I was meeting up today with Sierra Club members Dick Worm, Barb Cooey and Charles Winterwood and his wife Gretel. Dick squired me around and we visited the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium and some places with good views of the river.
Dick owns a farm north of town with river frontage and access to the shoreline through a short culvert (or down a very steep bluff). I actually spotted it on my way south the next day. He’s been civic minded enough to sign a conservation easement on the bluffs area of his property. Many of the bluffs along the river have been and will be destroyed in our constant quest for easily-obtained building materials, much of which is shipped downstream by barge and exported.
It was a very nice afternoon and evening with some very nice people.
Day 45 (21 miles, 9 hours on the river)
September 10, 2003
The wind was still howling when the alarm went off. The only times I have really never wanted to get out of the tent it was because of the wind. A big wind in the morning promises a tough day. Who wants to get out of bed for that?
And today it was just that. It was coming from the southeast, and I was headed that way. It was a day-long, 21-mile slog. The wind was trying to push me backwards and the waves were bouncing me all over. I hugged the Iowa shore, sticking so close in an attempt to let the overhanging trees shelter me from the wind that I was poling the boat as much as paddling it. A little over two miles an hour? Yes, I could walk that!
As I struggled slowly along the Iowa shore, I saw the large culvert at Dick Worm’s farm and the gravel outflow he described.
And amidst all the wind and waves, I spotted my first beaver. He was brown, about the size of a medium sized dog and had the distinctive beaver tail. He was right there on the rocks on the river side of the railroad tracks and dove quickly into the water as I approached.
I stopped for the night at Spruce Creek Park, a county-owned campground and marina a couple miles north of Bellevue, IA. The territory was becoming familiar. I had worked for the Quad-City Times in Davenport for about four years in the mid-70’s. Davenport was only about 60 miles away and Bellevue was one of the many places along the river I’d explored while I lived there.
Day 46 (18 miles, 9 hours on the river)
September 11, 2003
A great howling wind greeted me again today. And the sky was looking cloudy and unsettled. I had so far escaped getting caught in one of the Midwest’s huge thunderstorms, but I felt one coming.
Just 50 yards past Lock and Dam No. 12 I pulled up at Bellevue’s riverside park and boat ramp. Riverview Drive ran along the river and across the street was downtown. I settled on the Riverview Hotel for breakfast. The three signs hanging outside boasted “saloon,” “food,” and “rooms.” The bar and the restaurant were on the first floor and the hotel’s 13 rooms were on the second, which was lined by a balcony, a la New Orleans.
The local pastime that morning seemed to be to have breakfast and watch the road construction outside, so I joined in. On the way back to the canoe I stopped in the adjacent bookstore and bought some more used paperbacks.
The heavy waves bounced me around the rest of the day. I stopped for a half-hour nap early in the afternoon. I had started doing that lately. It was more out of wanting to break up the sheer drudgery of paddling against the wind than out of exhaustion.
I found a great island campsite for the night. I was in the woods and sort of protected from the wind, but I also had a great view of the river looking downstream. I was happy for the shelter of the woods, because the wind kept up all night long.
Day 47 (7 miles, 5 hours on the river)
September 12, 2003
The sky might have looked cloudy and unsettled yesterday morning but today it looked downright nasty. If I had had any sense I’d have checked the weather reports during my breakfast stop in Bellevue and probably seen fit to check myself into the Riverview Hotel.
My goal on this wild and windy morning was to just slog it out to Sabula, IA, about seven miles away, and find a hotel to hide in. I put my raingear on, closed up all the dry bags tight and set out.
The going was really slow, just over a mile an hour. The drizzles started after the first hour and by the third hour it was pouring. Even a bridge I passed under offered no respite. It was too high and the rain was being driven sideways by the wind. I did provide some entertainment to some construction workers who were atop it though.
I was heading for the marina on the south end of town, the Island City Harbor Marina. Lots of places were called Island City something or other, because Sabula is on an island.
I was dripping wet when I walked into the marina office. Jerry and Pat Lawson were in charge and I was quickly taken care of. No, there wasn’t a hotel in town, but there was a bed and breakfast. It was closed for the season, but they knew a daughter of the owner and they got her on the phone. Yes, they would be happy to take me in.
We got the canoe and gear put in a safe place and one of the marina employees, James Smith, offered me a ride to the bed and breakfast.
The Castle Bed and Breakfast was in an old building right on River Street, across the street from the river. Sharon Mangler and her sister, Mary, greeted me when I arrived. I had a choice of two rooms. One, at $50 a night, had a view of the river, and the other, at $35 a night, didn’t. I chose the cheaper room. I’d seen about all of the river I wanted to see for a while anyway.
Sharon explained that breakfast would be sparse, as they weren’t really officially open and prepared for guests. Coffee and toast would be available. That was fine with me and most kind of Sharon and her sister. They made me feel completely at home during my two-night stay, did my laundry for me, and arranged with a friend for a ride back to the marina the morning I left.
It was great having an afternoon to spend in an interesting little town and a nice dry bed to look forward to. It was still windy, with intermittent rain, so I kept the rain suit on. I quickly found the Home Port Bar on the river side of River Street a short ways from the bed and breakfast. A rain-soaked deck in the back had a terrific view of the river of course, and the folks inside were friendly.
Later that afternoon I walked back to the marina to check on the canoe and bail some water out of it.
For dinner I went to the Island City Café, which I had seen earlier in my walk around town. The ribeye special was $8.95. It was one of those places in one of those towns where the cliché “everybody knows your name” comes to life.
There were about a dozen people in there when I opened the door. Ever have the feeling everyone’s looking at you? Well, they were. And it wasn’t just me. I found as I was eating that the place went as quiet as a hotel lobby whenever the door opened and all eyes were on whoever walked in. There were always a few waves and hellos and some conversations started. In the center of the place was a large table that seemed to be the communal gathering spot for some kind of in-crowd and those who were only slight acquaintances were literally on the periphery.
I’d seen a TV report that said the rain would continue tomorrow, so I knew I wouldn’t be going anywhere soon. That evening I called home, my daughter in CT and my parents in Ocala, FL, to fill them in and I also thought of calling up a friend in Chicago. I had worked with Debbie Donovan in Davenport years ago, and lived in the same apartment house there. Through the years I had kept in touch with her and her husband, James.
So I called her and got caught up and they fortunately were up for making a trip over to Sabula the next day so we could go out for dinner.
Day 48 (stayed in Sabula)
September 13, 2003
The rain continued as forecast, great weather for sleeping in. I had a leisurely cup of coffee with Sharon on the enclosed veranda, read the paper, wrote some postcards, and just generally enjoyed my no-paddle morning.
In the afternoon I did some more exploring (no, the barbershop didn’t want to tackle my beard) and got back in time to get cleaned up and meet Debbie and James. Sharon had recommended the Hillside Stables Restaurant, a German eatery on the mainland of Iowa.
It proved a good choice and we had a great evening.
Day 49 (23 miles, 7 hours on the river)
September 14, 2003
Day dawned bright and clear and I was ready to move. Sharon’s friend drove me to the marina and I shoved off about 9. A decent tailwind and a nice current below Lock and Dam 13 made for a better than 3 mph day.
This genuine, functioning, Dutch-made windmill, called De Immigrant, is located in Fulton, IL. It was dedicated during the Dutch Days Festival in 2000. It is perched atop the flood-control levee.
I was headed for Camanche, IA, where I knew I would want to camp on shore because I was meeting up with another Sierra Club member for dinner. I was half-thinking of stopping in Clinton, IA, but downtown is behind a dike, a ways from the riverbank, and not very visible. By the time I’d passed the city’s theatre boat I knew I’d missed it and didn’t feel like backtracking.
I took a shortcut, Beaver Slough, along the Iowa shoreline, because the main channel swerved out into the middle through here. The map reassured me it was passable. Boy was it. It turned out to be a shipping canal, lined with refineries, grain silos, piles of coal and rows of docked barges. Not the most scenic trip.
Right at the bottom of the slough, I found a small dock and a great grassy area adjacent to a small marina and behind an ice cream shop. I got the OK to pitch the tent. I headed up the street for a beer.
I found Spanky’s a few blocks away and settled in, one of two customers. As I was sitting there talking with the bartender, a woman with her small son, Brian, drove up and she came right over to me. Turned out that Kathy Youmans Driscoll had seen me pull up in the canoe. She later saw me walking up the street and entering the bar. She was stopping, believe it or not, to ask me a very nice question: “Do you need anything?”
I am sure if I didn’t already have a place to sleep and dinner plans she’d have taken me in.
After visiting with her for a bit I headed back to the river to get the tent set up. As I was doing that, Jerry Neff, from the local group of the Sierra Club, came by to collect me for dinner.
Day 50 (20 miles)
September 15, 2003
I got started at 7 today. The wind was not a problem in the morning, but about noon it was in my face pretty hard.
I stopped at Princeton, IA, for a snack and at LeClaire, IA, for a beer at the Riverview Roadhouse, on U.S. 67, right along the river and just over the railroad tracks. I was really in familiar territory now and getting closer to Davenport.
I stopped at mid-afternoon at Illiniwek park, on the Illinois side of the river, just below Lock and Dam No. 14. A reporter from the Rock Island Argus would be meeting me there later in the day for an interview.
Day 51 (12 miles)
September 16, 2003
A homecoming of sorts today. I hadn’t been back to Davenport in years. When there I had lived in an apartment house up the hill from the river on Oneida Street, north of downtown. I could see it as I paddled by.
Familiar Arsenal Island and the towns of Moline and Rock Island in Illinois were on the left shore. Just past Lock and Dam No. 15 I had to battle the current a bit to get over to downtown Davenport on the right shore.
I pulled up at a boat ramp next to the casino boat (they are everywhere—if the gambling house is floating it’s legal!). The rest of the shoreline along the downtown area is armored with a seawall.
I walked a bit downtown, but really didn’t recognize much. The newspaper had moved into a new building several blocks north. The bar I used to frequent when the paper went to press at midnight was either gone or I could not find it, and nothing looked familiar. All of the folks I had worked with and stayed in contact with had since moved on.
I did drop into the office of Dan Hayes, then managing editor of the paper and now part of Lee Enterprises, the corporate parent. I knew he was out of town but he’d given me the OK to use his office for a FedEx drop. My wife had sent me my rainsuit. I had bought one for this trip but hadn’t brought it because my father had given me his. Unfortunately, it was so old the thread in the seams was giving up. I didn’t know that until I started using it on the way to Sabula in the rain.
I left downtown and continued on. I wasn’t sure how far I was going to go before calling it a day, but the weather made up my mind. The wind had picked up and my path was taking me right into it. After paddling for an hour and a half I only got as far as Credit Island, which is a mere two miles east of downtown along the river, which flows east and west through the area. It’s an ‘island’ of sorts, connected to the mainland by a causeway.
I knew I could find a place to pitch my tent there so I pulled ashore at the boat ramp. Fortunately for me, the public golf course there now boasted a small clubhouse/restaurant. I settled in, got the formal OK to set up the tent and soon enough a reporter and photographer from the Davenport paper came by for an interview. They’d been sent by Bill Wundram, who’d been in charge of the features department when I was there and was still with the company.
Day 52 (23 miles, 8 hours on the river)
September 17, 2003
There was some wind today, but it wasn’t as bad as it had been. A nice thing along this stretch was that the river valley itself was relatively narrow, so it was easy for me to move from one side to the other and choose the side that would give me the best shelter from the wind.
The narrowness also meant I could take the occasional shortcut that looked good on the map without ending up in a marsh a mile or more from the main channel.
Ladybugs have been swarming. They were all over the outside of the tent this morning and would be with me most of the day.
I camped for the night at an island just below Lock and Dam No. 16, and went to sleep looking forward to breakfast in Muscatine, IA, less than a mile away.
Below are a couple of my sunset photos from today.
Day 53 (20 miles, 7 hours on the river)
September 18, 2003
Lots of strong wind today, but I stuck to the narrow chutes on the Illinois side and made out OK. It didn’t get really brutal until later in the day on the approach to Lock and Dam No. 17.
Stopped for breakfast at the Cookie Crumb Café in Muscatine, just a block or so up from the river. It was sort of nice having the feeling that all I had to do was pack up and pour myself into the canoe and paddle half a mile for a nice breakfast.
Downtown also included a combination Ace Hardware/pharmacy/grocery. First time I’ve seen that particular mixture in the same building.
I was getting a bit bothered about the wind. It started picking up about eight in the morning and kept up until six or beyond. The trick I guess was to get started earlier than I have been. We’ll see….
Noisy blue herons were around all day today, and the ladybugs were still thick on the tent this morning. The herons weren’t the only noisy things. My campsite last night had unfortunately been close to a bridge across the river, so the night was filled with road noise. And a narrow river valley meant for nicer paddling, but it also meant the train tracks on each side of the river were closer and the whistles louder.
One of the chutes on the Illinois side took me past the Blanchard Island Public Use Area. I took a break there and chatted with the ‘hosts,’ a husband and wife duo who basically looked after the place in exchange for being able to camp there in their RV for the summer. It certainly looked like a nice deal to me. It was a tiny place in the middle of nowhere and had no public camping, so the ‘hosting’ duties couldn’t be very taxing.
I found a campsite on an island just south of Lock and Dam No. 17.
Day 54 (21 miles, 7 ½ hours)
September 19, 2003
“Dark and Stormy Night” would describe it. Rain, thunder and lightning all night. I slept in until 8 (so much for getting started early). It felt good. By the time I ventured out of the tent the weather had cleared a bit.
I was aiming for Oquawka, IL, today, ready for a nice big restaurant dinner.
I had a huge tailwind today. It sounds good, but the waves it kicks up can be dangerous. The wind and waves are always trying to push the canoe to one side or another and whenever one of the big waves hits and boat is too far sideways the wave travels down the side at an angle and the top of it laps over the edge into the boat.
With a headwind and the waves coming at me, avoiding such a bad situation is easy. With a tailwind and big waves though, I had to continually glance over my shoulder. In the afternoon I had a side wind, with another set of problems.
The town dock and boat ramp at Oquawka were nice and I found a grassy area and got the tent set up. I spotted a restaurant for dinner later and headed over to Fisherman’s Bar for a beer. It was a nice friendly place with a pretty big Friday night crowd.
I headed back to the tent before dark and settled in for the night.
Day 55 (12 miles)
September 20, 2003
At 5 a.m. all hell broke loose. I peeked out of the tent at the boat ramp area and it seemed like every pickup truck, boat and hunting dog had congregated with the intention of making as much noise as possible. A half hour later all was quiet. Then at 6 a.m. it sounded like fireworks going off in the river valley.
At breakfast in a nearby café, I asked about all the activity. I had witnessed the first day of duck hunting season.
I was heading for Burlington, IA, today and would meet with another Sierra Club person, Cindy Gaffney, and her husband, Mike, and their daughter, Beth.
Passage through Lock and Dam No. 18 was routine.
The wind was quiet for a while today, but then a headwind kicked in the last few miles before Burlington. I pulled into the Bluff Harbor Marina, where I arranged to leave the canoe, and met up with Cindy and her daughter.
Cindy took me for a nice ride around town and then we headed to her house. Her husband is a pilot and built his own plane. After dinner he took me for a ride in it. It was interesting, but a little intimidating to see from the air the river I’d be paddling on for the next couple days. This was sure a big river!
Day 56 (6 miles)
September 21, 2003
After breakfast, Cindy drove me back to the marina. I had an interview with the local paper and set off about 11.
After a couple hours, I noticed the western sky was turning dark. That was not a good sign in the Midwest. I put my rainsuit on and started looking for a place to find some shelter. The Iowa side would offer more protection from the wind, but all there was along there was a high bank fortified with large rocks, and the railroad tracks, so I stuck to the Illinois side.
As the dark cloud got closer and the wind started picking up I found a nice sheltered clearing in the woods just above a boat ramp.
I’d no sooner put the tent up and staked down and the stuff tossed inside than the rain started. The thunder, lightning and rain continued almost steadily from about 2 p.m. until the early hours of the morning. I wasn’t as comfortable during this storm as I was during my stay at the bed and breakfast in Sabula, but I was safe and dry.
Day 57 (16 miles, 6 hours on the river)
September 22, 2003
It was cloudy but clearing when I woke up, and the wind was still heavy. I got started at 8:30 and it was a steady, slog. To stop paddling, or even slow down much, meant killing the forward momentum and going backwards.
By 2:30 I was nearing Fort Madison, IA, ready to stop, ready for a beer and ready for a hotel for the night.
Fort Madison, like many towns of any size along the river, isn’t the most canoe friendly. Most have a marina for river access, or maybe a boat ramp in one of the heavily-industrial riverside areas, but there are few small parks for setting up a tent and there certainly are few access points within walking distance of downtown. And, of course, few towns of any size have interesting downtowns anymore. Fortunately, most of the smaller towns have managed to hang onto a decent downtown.
Part of my quandary was deciding which side of the river to be on. I’d elected to stay on the Iowa side and therefore missed the much smaller and probably more hospitable Dallas City, on the Illinois side. To cross the river, even though it was only about two miles from side to side here, would have meant expending a lot of energy, an hour or so of time, and navigating dangerous waves coming at me from the side. It’s harder to make forward progress going at an angle to the waves than it is to just go at them head on.
So, I pulled into the North Shore Marina, on the north edge of town, knowing from the map that it was the only access point. It was also not within walking distance of anything. The rest of the shoreline at Fort Madison was just a massive industrial area, except for the park at the municipal boat ramp. I wasn’t ready to leave my boat and stuff unsecured at a riverside boat ramp or camp out at a riverside park in a town of this size.
The marina’s bar/restaurant was staffed by Kathy, who was most helpful, steering me to a cheap motel, the Santa Fe Motel, and giving me a lift there when she got off work later in the afternoon. I have yet to encounter a marina that didn’t give me free space to park the canoe and offer me any assistance I needed.
Day 58 (16 miles, 7 ½ hours on the river)
September 23, 2003
Today was a repeat of yesterday. Light wind in the morning, heavy and hard in my face after 11. My start was earlier, 6:30.
I skipped Nauvoo, IL. Whatever downtown there was seemed a long way from the river and it’s senseless to make a quick stop to see a town if I have to walk a half hour to get there.
I had a great audio/visual experience on the way to Keokuk today. The train tracks on the Iowa side bordered the river and there was a long line of coal cars waiting to be unloaded at a terminal, where the coal would be loaded into barges.
The engine pulling the long line of cars inched them forward one car at a time for the unloading. As it did so I could hear all those couplings on all those cars pulling tight as the engine moved forward and then banging together as the engine stopped. It was like a long, audio domino effect, played back and forth.
As I paddled along I was entertained by this ricocheting noise that moved to the right and then back to the left along a half-mile or longer train of cars. It echoed off the bluff and was amplified by the water.
My eyes could practically watch the sound moving as my ears followed it right to left and back again.
It was a nice diversion from the tough slog of today.
As I neared Keokuk, IA, about two in the afternoon, I could see a large tow ahead of me headed to Lock and Dam No. 18, another mile or so away. I knew that would delay me by at least two hours. Upcoming on my right was the Keokuk Yacht Harbor. I pulled in and called it a day. It was a nice quiet place. I didn’t see one ‘yacht’ but a lot of everyday boats and nice people.
The wind was taking its toll on my psyche. All I wanted to do at the end of these slogging days was find a beer, a meal and a hotel bed.
Was I feeling guilty about spending the money and having a cushy shore life? YES! Was I enjoying myself? YES! In the end this trip was about me and what I wanted to do and that’s what I needed to listen to. And the last thing I wanted at the end of an exasperating and tiring slog at two miles an hour was to search for a decent campsite and pitch a tent if I had a restaurant meal/motel option.
In addition, it was getting harder to find a decent spot to beach the canoe and camp out. The banks on this stretch were becoming increasingly steep and armored with large rocks, if not actual seawalls. And many of the islands were no better: steep muddy banks and dense vegetation right up to the edge.
All this was causing me a bit of will-I-find-a-decent-place-to-camp-tonight anxiety. I never shook that entirely the whole trip, but kept it in check by stopping in the middle or late afternoon if I saw a good spot, and rejected feeling guilty about it.
Michael at the marina pointed me to the Holiday Inn Express in town and called a cab for me. He also said to look for PeeWee’s bar around the corner from the hotel. After a nice hot shower I did just that and had a nice time. In fact, me and my trip quickly became the buzz of the small place. I guess worse things could happen! And it’s all about me, after all!
Day 59 (19 miles, 8 hours on the river)
September 24, 2003
I got a 7 a.m. start from the Keokuk Yacht Club. The wind was again in my face, but not as aggressive as yesterday. I went through Lock and Dam No. 19 without delay. The drop was 38 feet, a bit more than what I’d been encountering.
I knew I’d be passing out of Iowa and into Missouri today and sure enough, along the dirt road that lined the Missouri shoreline on my right a pickup trip stopped and a man got out. HEY YOU IN THE SILVER BOAT, WELCOME TO MISSOURI! I knew he’d read the Burlington paper’s interview. The reporter didn’t understand the concept of an aluminum canoe and instead called it a ‘silver boat.’
My greeter invited me to ‘dinner’ (midwesternese for lunch) at his house, just south, but I was making pretty good time and feeling good so I didn’t want to interrupt and I declined thankfully. In retrospect I wish I had stopped, but the thing about this trip was that there were no do-overs.
I decided to stop for the night at the Fenway Landing Public Use Area on the Missouri shore, a Corps of Engineers facility. It was a nice, laid back place with plenty of space to pitch the tent.
Day 60 (15 miles)
September 25, 2003
Paddling was great today. There was a light wind, often at my back, the temps had cooled and the sky was clear.
Lock and Dam No. 20, a mile above Canton, MO, delayed me for a couple of hours while I waited for a tow. There was nowhere to go to kill the time so I just sat in the canoe.
From the map, whatever commercial center Canton had looked like a long hike from the river, so I didn’t stop there. A ferry connecting Missouri to Illinois operated from Canton.
I stopped briefly in LaGrange, MO, for lunch. I poked around but couldn’t find any LaGrange, MO, postcards to send to people.
For the night I pulled into the Clinton Chute Recreational Area on the Illinois side, another quiet and pleasant Corps of Engineers facility. From the map I had, there was nothing on the Iowa shore but mile after mile of huge rock rip-rap. I had seen this area on the map and had moved to the Illinois side so I could stop there.
Day 61 (19 miles)
September 26, 2003
I started off at seven this morning and the wind was just awful. I made it to Quincy, IL, at nine and pulled into the boat ramp at Bicentennial Park for an interview with the local paper. It was treacherous getting in and out of the canoe at the wet, algae-slick, boat ramp with the waves trying to push me downstream. There was no place nearby for breakfast so I set off again at ten.
The passage through Lock and Dam No. 21 was routine.
Wing dams were a problem today. They are all along the river, coming out from the shore and pointing downstream at a 45 degree angle. They are usually made of a long pile of rocks jutting from the shore out into the river The theory is they direct current toward the shipping channel and keep it scoured and deep. Unfortunately for a paddler, they also mean that you cannot stick close to shore. You need to be out in the river to go around the ends of the wing dams. And then you need to be on the lookout for whirlpools created at the end of the wing dams. I got caught a couple times and completely spun around.
I had a severe headwind until about noon, and then it shifted to the west and later in the afternoon the skies looked like hell. This was not a good sign.
I braved the rock rip-rap on the Missouri shore on the downriver side of one of the wing dams and headed for the woods. The landing wasn’t pleasant. I threw the stuff from the canoe up onto the rocks, hauled the canoe up to a safe level and clambered up the rocks to the woods to find a tent site.
I got the tent set up and secured in the woods as the storm hit, with hellacious winds, lightning, thunder and rain.
It all cleared in a couple hours, but I was in no mood to pack up and move on, so I stayed there for the night.
Day 62 (4 miles, 2 hours on the river)
September 27, 2003
Had a barking dog outside my tent at daybreak today and he actually followed me down the shoreline for a while. I didn’t see a collar, and he was accompanied by a more timid, smaller, collar-less friend. I was wary, but he kept his distance.
I stopped as planned about nine this morning at Hannibal, MO. After all, one cannot paddle the Mississippi River without stopping at Hannibal. I planned to spend the day sightseeing, the night at a hotel and leave in the morning.
As I pulled into the Hannibal Boat Harbor I spotted a familiar boat. It was a two-story houseboat belonging to Dave and Susan Bruinekool. I had first met them at the marina in Burlington. They were traveling down the Mississippi and then upstream on the Ohio. Their destination was somewhere in Alabama, where they would spend the winter on their boat.
I pulled up next to them and tied up the canoe. They weren’t aboard, probably off being tourists. We’d meet up and visit later in the day. In some ways I envied their travel method, with its beds, stove, refrigerator, table to sit at and engines. On the other hand, I was also happy with mine: no mechanical problems, no maintenance, and no dependency on dockage places and fuel supplies. But it was sure nice to visit with them and simply open the refrigerator for a beer! Dave had an older edition of the Quimby’s Guide to the river that he wasn’t using. He gave it to me and it came in handy the rest of my trip. It lists the marine facilities along the river and the Corps maps generally do not.
Larry Graves, the harbormaster, gave me the thumbs up to leave my canoe there. I went off to find breakfast.
Hannibal of course is the boyhood home of Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn), and it’s all about him. I had the buffet breakfast at the Mark Twain Diner and lunch at the Becky Thatcher Café. I wandered in and out of souvenir shops and museums. The tourist traffic, this late in September, seemed to be light, fortunately.
I chose the Ole Planters Restaurant for dinner. It was like being in my own private dining room. I slept for the night at Motel 7, a half mile walk up the road from downtown.
Day 63 (26 miles, 8 hours on the river)
September 28, 2003
I set off at 7:30. Dave and Susan weren’t up yet.
The water level had dropped since they’d docked and one side of his boat was in the mud. Also, the entrance to the harbor between the breakwaters was pretty shallow. He would be there until the water got higher or until he could get a tow. Another plus for the simplicity of a canoe I guess. If I get stuck in the mud I just pick it up and move to deeper water.
My fancy, self-inflating life jacket (bought with a gift certificate to REI from my good friends at Splash News and Features in Los Angeles) decided to inflate itself overnight. I don’t know whether it was the heavy dew or a bit of rain, but something set off the moisture-sensitive sensor. It was nice to know it worked.
Had a really heavy tailwind today (hence the four miles an hour), but it brought me the problems of a tailwind and following seas. It’s a decent trade-off I guess: a bit of a push forward in exchange for being more vigilant about getting swamped.
Wing dams were prevalent, but because the wind was at my back I wasn’t bothered about not being able to paddle close to shore.
The big bummer today was Lock and Dam No. 22. There was about an hour delay and there was nowhere for me to wait out of the wind. So I had to work to just maintain my position. If I relaxed I was pushed forward toward the lock too early. And I couldn’t wait by the upper extended wall of the lock because the waves were always banging me into it. So I just bobbed around for an hour, making sure I was at the right angle to the waves and trying to hold a steady position.
I spotted lots of deer on shore today and huge flocks of birds that moved about in the sky like big black waves. Was there a bird convention somewhere?
I set up the tent for the night on the Illinois side, just opposite Lousiana, MO, where I planned to stop for breakfast in the morning.
Day 64 (24 miles, 8 hours on the river)
September 29, 2003
Breakfast at 8 a.m. was at the Eagle’s Nest in Louisiana, which boasts: “The most intact Victorian Streetscape in the State of Missouri.” It was a pretty nice town, but the restaurant was bit upscale and ‘gourmet’ for my plebian tastes. The potatoes were some kind a weird cross between hash browns and home fries and the toast was some odd kind of bread served on a clear plate. It certainly wasn’t the down and dirty café breakfast I expected in a small Missouri town. It was good, but a bit jarring.
The tailwind today was delightful, enough to push me along, but not so hard it created the large, dangerous following waves I encountered yesterday.
As I approached Lock and Dam No. 24 (there was no Lock and Dam No. 23 for those keeping track—I don’t know why) at Clarksville, MO, I saw that the upstream gate was open, but inside the lock chamber there was a barge with a crane on it and another barge and small tug behind that. I pulled the signal cord on the wall.
A lockmaster named Buck came out and told me there would be a delay because of maintenance. He told me to enter the lock and directed me to the ladder on the side of the lock, where I was to tie up the canoe and climb up to shore. He said to be back in an hour and a half. The maintenance would be done and I could then lock through. I explored a bit of Clarksville and after an hour I was back at the lock and dam.
WOW! There was Buck, sitting in my canoe in the lock chamber and the water level was down about 30 feet. Obviously things had happened earlier than he expected and if he hadn’t boarded the canoe and loosened the rope tying it to the ladder it would now be hanging 30 feet up in the air and my stuff would be floating in the water.
As he paddled out of the chamber he shouted that he’d meet me at the town dock just a block downstream and I happily complied. As we parted he handed me a great, hand-made present: A rope with a heavy, fist-sized, beautifully symmetrical knot at one end. It was meant for throwing for water rescues.
I camped for the night at the Hamburg Ferry landing area on the Missouri side of the river. I’d encountered lots of deer again today.
Day 65 (20 miles)
September 30, 2003
I followed some off-channel sloughs today and had a lot of angry blue heron squawking at me. It was much colder, with a slight drizzle and mild tailwinds.
About an hour out I encountered Dave and Susan in the houseboat again at Lock and Dam No. 25. Dave asked me if I wanted to tie up to the back of his boat. I was tempted. It was a cold, miserable day. But NO, I didn’t want to do that, so I said thanks but no thanks. I waved goodby as they powered out of the bottom of the lock channel and were on their way.
OK, so it was a cold, wet day. In reality it was my first cold, wet day. What’s the big deal?
I found a nice sandbar near mile marker 239 and set up the tent. The gritty, wet sand stuck to everything. The nice thing about the river in this commercial stretch since Minneapolis-St. Paul is that there were big signs along the way marking the miles. Mile marker 239 meant I was 239 miles above the tip of Illinois, where the Ohio River joins the Mississippi.
My sleeping bag barely kept up with the temperature so I started layering up. I also realized I needed some warm, waterproof gloves.
Day 66 (21 miles, 6 ½ hours)
October 1, 2003
It was cold today, with a light wind from the side and rear. I had decided to check out Grafton, IL, with an eye on staying in a hotel there for the night. It was just below where the Illinois River joined the Mississippi.
As I paddled along I could see the northern edge of Grafton between a couple of islands. It looked like a great, classic river town and, as I would find out, it was. I scooted between the islands and paralleled downtown as I looked for a place to pull up. There were large concrete structures everywhere along the bank, but I eventually found some docks near a large riverside industrial-type building. There were no signs around, so I decided to tie up and sort things out later.
I found a great old downtown hotel, the Reubel Hotel, and checked in for the night. I explained to the clerk that I was traveling by canoe and asked if she knew who owned the docks where I had tied up. She did and tried to call them, but there was no answer. She gave me the address, a house across the street from the docks.
When I went back to the canoe to get my stuff for the night I pasted a note on the door of the house, explaining what I had done and leaving my cellphone number to call if there was a problem with leaving the canoe there. I never got a call.
After settling into my room at the hotel I set off for a beer. A block or so down I wandered into an inviting looking place, Sanger’s Tavern. It proved a good choice. Regulars Mike, Sandy, Sam and Lamoyne had seen me paddling into town and greeted me like an old friend. I had unwittingly walked into a group of instant pals and I had a great evening.
Day 67 (16 miles, 6 hours)
October 2, 2003
The bluffs along the Illinois shore today from Grafton to my next stop, Alton, were really spectacular. The sight more than made up for the cold, sometimes heavy, headwind. I was on my way to meet up with another Sierra Club person, Bob Freeman.
The whole waterfront area was either concrete or industrial, so I planned to keep the boat at the Alton Marina. The entrance was right by the Clark Bridge a little south of downtown. And what a relatively posh marina it was. I was getting close to St. Louis, and the pleasure boats were big and needed secure homes.
Bob had some connections there and had arranged a slip for the canoe. It was the first time the canoe had actually stayed in a slip, instead of just an out of the way spot, in a marina. And it was a huge covered slip. I guessed that my one slip alone could have handled 30 or 40 canoes.
Bob and his wife, Louise, looked after me as well as they had my canoe. We visited the National Great Rivers Museum at Lock and Dam No. 26, and Bob drove me out to see the Chain of Rocks portion of the river. This is a section of river, just below the confluence with the Missouri River, characterized by rock ledges, historically making commercial navigation difficult to impossible during low water levels. In the 1950’s a low water dam was constructed there and a few miles east a bypass canal was built, the Chain of Rocks Canal, and a lock installed at the bottom end of it. That was the route I would take on my way to St. Louis.
The old Chain of Rocks Bridge across the river is now a bicyle/pedestrian path, after being closed for years. The narrow bridge, with a 22-degree curve in the middle, used to carry Route 66 traffic across the river.
For dinner we met up with another Sierra Club volunteer, Sandy Wood. I’d be staying overnight at her house in Alton. After dinner, a quick look at the weather report for the next day decided my travel plans for me. It was going to rain all day.
Day 68 (In Alton)
October 3, 2003
It was a relaxed day of errands. Sandy ferried me around for some grocery shopping and a trip to the Bass Pro Shop. I found some nice waterproof and warm gloves and a new sensor and air cartridge for my life jacket. (I realized when I was installing it that the jacket already had a spare—better to have two I guess)
On the way back to Sandy’s house we spent a few hours at the Lewis and Clark Museum. My decision to stay off the river today was a good one. The weather was really lousy all day long.
Day 69 (26 miles, 8 hours on the river)
October 4, 2003
Sandy and Bob and his wife came to see me off this morning. Now that the storm had passed it wasn’t quite as chilly and the winds were light. I looked forward to a good paddle.
Lock and Dam No. 26 was only about a mile downstream from the marina. There was no delay locking through. About six miles down I saw the Missouri River coming in on the right and a bit beyond that I took the left fork for the Chain of Rocks Canal. It was as its name states, straight and narrow.
This is a busy commercial area and I expected to have to be watching out for, and waiting for, heavy barge traffic. There was little, however, maybe because it was Saturday, I don’t know.
At the bottom end of the 10-mile canal I had a routine lock through at Lock and Dam No. 27, the last one on the river. From now on the Mississippi was free-flowing, but, as I was to learn, it didn’t mean a free ride from now on. Far from it.
For today, however, I did feel some current making the paddle strokes easier. Happy paddling, I called it. I actually felt like I was getting somewhere.
Barge terminals and docks were everywhere. This was a heavily commercial stretch that would continue all through and well past the St. Louis metropolitan area. I knew the area was way too long for me to get through today, so my thought was to get to the Gateway Arch and see if I could find a place to pitch the tent on the opposite side of the river. If I was going to tent camp in the middle of a city this size I wanted to have a good view of its landmark and not be hunkered down at some riverside park waiting for the police to tell me to move along. Fortunately there was a pretty good gap between the ever-present barges moored along the Illinois shoreline across from the arch and a nice big sandy area.
I saw the remains of a couple long-ago campfires so I knew the area was used occasionally, but figured the sight of a bearded old man and a tent would dissuade anyone from getting close. And it did too.
I got the tent up about 5 and settled into my rocking chair with a cup of coffee, ready to enjoy the evening and have a nice dinner with a terrific view of the arch.
Go HERE for the St. Louis to New Orleans portion of the trip.