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The 90 Day Plan
Sunday, August 7, 2011
SUP Mississippi Expedition Blog: I am Small
When the waves come, I am a dwarf. Across the channel a white tug pushes over 30 barge containers, each close to 200 feet long, 35 feet wide and 12 feet high. The rollers start when I am level with the mid-section of the craft but the water only begins to churn properly behind the tug, a long line of white water jumping up and down, snakelike. You could surf these waves but if you fell you'd need a good three minutes of breath. I stay away, just little old me on my paddleboard, rising and falling at the whim of the river. The key is to go with it, but don't let it take you.
For 1300 miles I have been at home on the Mississippi; this famous, iconic waterway, this giant among rivers, a second in a name, a breeding ground for generations of writers and musicians. The river starts small, as we all do, but it didn't take long to become strong. It has let me be its friend, so far. Mike Clarke, the St Louis-based waterman who has paddled more miles on this river than most, described his relationship with the Mississippi perfectly; 'it is benevolent, it gives and gives and gives, but now and then it will take something, we call it an offering. If it doesn't take you, it's a fair offering.'
This is not the typical rattling of a foreigners cage forced by either over-protectiveness or ignorance, Mike knows what he's talking about, and once the Middle Mississippi is joined by the other Big Miss, the Missouri, the true nature of a big river is revealed. Up until now I've seen endless new sights, things that made me tense up or murmur 'wow' beneath my breath, but just as I was getting the hang of life on the Mississippi the challenge is ramped up, the costs are obvious whether you see them or not. The river isn't just big anymore, it is enormous. I am very small and there are reminders everywhere.
Sure, the barges are enormous, but the river has never been so dominant. I had become used to my pace but the arrival of the Missouri has forced a recalculation. Suddenly a hard paddle can bring 9 miles per hour, where at the headwaters it was 3.5 mph and at Minneapolis 5.5 mph. I am travelling faster, which means there is more water, which means more danger. All at once parts of the river fold in on themselves. A thin ripple metres ahead of me can break apart as though a chasm in a violent earthquake, and in milliseconds the two sides of the void curl and spin around each other, creating a whirlpool with an eye two-foot across. I could jump in and not touch the sides, and instinct tells my toes to grip a little harder, my knees bend to brace against the river's attempt to pull my board down. Awesome is a word too overused, but this is nothing but awesome, to see hydraulics like this.
The river is wide, and so is the sky. Many of the bluffs that followed the Upper River have been etched away over time and now sandbars and a thin tree line border the Mississippi, the grasslands and plains beyond them are hidden unless you go walkabout. I find myself stood on my board, drifting downstream, my paddle to attention at my feet like a Masai Warrior on guard, both of us becoming accustomed to our surroundings, learning to understand just how small we are when set against this river.
On June 20th 2011 Dave started the 4th journey of his Expedition1000 project, a 2400 mile source to sea descent of the Mississippi River, by Stand Up Paddleboard. Dave is aiming to raise £1,000,000 throughout the project, please find out more about his charities, here