Tuesday, April 16, 2013

October 18: Amusement and despair

The early Mississippi is an amusement park ride.  I began the day by packing my things and saying goodbye to the people who had gathered at the hostel -- despite shyness that came with the impact of human contact and minor celebrity that came from the bicycle portage.

I rolled the canoe down the hill from the hostel, trying to maintain control by pulling from behind, first from the left, and then from the right as the boat scurried to the lake.  I put it in the water.  The wind was blowing northward, quite dangerously to my land-lubbin' eyes.  The dock was supported by steep pipes of varying heights which whistled as the waves crested.

I made a quick call to my parents to tell them I was going, but the connection was cut short and after a minute of un-answered "hello"s I hung up and got in the canoe, for the first time in ten days.

My canoe reached the artificial line of rocks which marks the official beginning of the Mississippi River.  Immediately, I asked those gathered at the point to help me portage around the ceremonial rocks, as well as the log that had been added later on to allow anyone to easily cross the river here.  About seven men immediately grab the bow and we struggle forward a couple yards before I drop it, saying, "Could we have maybe one or two people back here with me?"

The source of the Mississippi was carved by man to give a more "noble" appearance to the headwaters of the great American river.  So I think of it here as some awesome theme park ride.  First you wind around a bit, and quickly come to a low bridge, its lower edge covered in gum placed for luck by previous adventurers.  You must duck this.  Then come a series of wooden footbridges, filled with admirers and questioners trying to get their words in before you float around the next bend.  Next comes the culvert which runs under the main park drive.  It is a tunnel carved through the road, just tall enough for your head, and just wide enough for your canoe, which chutes through with the water rushing and your heart rushing as well.

This chute ejects you back into the manufactured wilderness for a time before the channel enters into the marsh which is the true face of the upper Mississippi.  Here you can get lost in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike in the autumn grasses as you flush mallards and the beautiful white snow geese.

The marshes are broken briefly by a tiny "dam" built by loggers one hundred years ago.  Now, it does not appear to be anything but a rather bad rapid, heavy in logs and rocks.  It must be portaged, and unlike most Canadian portages I did, my wheels were useless here due to the slope and growth around the path.  I carried over everything except the canoe, which I dragged.

Then there is a series of rapids which would not be so bad except it is continuous for 4 miles, during which there is barely time to think with all the weaving through current and dodging limbs straining the water.  I was wondering how long this would last, and turned around for my pack which held my map. Something was very wrong.  On top of this pack had been my portage wheel; on top of that my expensive new jacket, just purchased in Winnipeg.  I had taken it off when the weather got warm, and just laid it there behind me.  The wheels were gone, nabbed by some grasping tree as I weaved the waters, and with the wheels, my jacket.

I could not see them behind me.

There was a portage trail around a bridge that is probably low in very high water.  Here I docked my canoe and hoped to go back and recover my loss.  But there was simply nowhere to walk on the banks of the early Mississippi.

I returned to the canoe and, heart heavy, continued on through the five miles of marsh that lay before my campsite.  There was a notch in the bank where many canoes had been pulled up before, up to a mowed lawn with a fire pit, a three-walled shelter, and a latrine.  A footbridge crossed the river to another maintained campsite, with a pit and water pump.

I felt sick to my stomach about the loss, the unintentional pollution and the thought of making the 200-300 yard portages further down the Mississippi without any wheels.  I was by no means as carefree as when the hitch broke: but I recognized I could not go back for them.  I couldn't walk the non-existent banks, and couldn't wade or swim up 4 miles of rapids in October.

The sun set by the time I ate my meal, cooked on the pre-gathered firewood.  What should have been a day of exhilaration and triumph felt sad and uncomfortable.

Day 119 ended: Coffee Pot Landing

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