The Lost World
The seasons changed as I picked my way down the Lower Mississippi River. Green buds, the start of new leaves, filled the branches of the cottonwoods and oaks that lined the banks. Gentle rain showers drifted over the river from time to time. More and more fisherman were on the river. Insects chirped in the dormant jungles that covered the islands. And a few birds—not migratory birds, but resident birds—started to sing the songs of Spring.
I could paddle 50 to 70 miles a day. The muscles of my upper body surged with newfound strength. My face was tan. I slept soundly during my nights beside the river.
The bitter cold of the Great Plains gave way to a damp chill found in the southern wetlands during these months. March passed. April arrived. Memphis was close.
A couple of days away from Memphis, I ran through the calendar in my head. The entire trip would take a month and a half. About 2/3 of that time was on the river. I spent the other third waiting. I waited on boat ramps, in snow banks, in mud pits, in thunderstorms and blizzards, and in hotel rooms and homes. I reached St. Louis before winter’s end. I talked with three newspaper reporters, one TV reporter, and had raised over $3,000 for Autism research and awareness. And I hadn’t died—yet.
I had been on the river long enough to match its rhythm. We were at ease with each other—for the most part. Each day I took detours into flooded sloughs and explored the islands of sand and brush that are common to the Lower Mississippi.
This part of the river had a calming effect on me. Nature here emanated a primordial peace.
Navigating the Mississippi down here was a challenge. There were many options around islands, into dead-end sloughs, and up tributaries. The river was so massive, flooding into so many nooks, that sometimes I wasn’t sure if I was paddling upstream or down, across it or with it. Was I in a river-sized slough or in the river itself?
On the Missouri, I only looked at the navigation charts for fun. Down here, I had to look at them many times a day. I became a micro-barge, navigating from channel marker to channel marker.
Sometimes a dense fog covered the river. It reduced visibility to a few feet. My eyes were useless in these conditions. Sure, they still worked, but there was nothing to see. So I navigated by sound and instruments, keeping the GPS on my lap.
“Where am I going?” I often asked the fog as a vertiginous feeling took hold of my cerebral cortex. Then I would look at the GPS and see that I was paddling across the river. It was an eerie feeling, and I liked it.
A barge emerged from the mist. I watched as it morphed into a dragon. Its engines became a roar, asserting its dominance over the land. The water boiled beneath it, no doubt caused by the furnace burning within the beast.
I held my breath as it passed and didn’t move. Maybe it wouldn’t notice me.
Just as it had appeared, the river dragon disappeared into another fog bank.
The following morning the river was again a foggy mystery. Water droplets hung suspended in the air.
The space I paddled through felt timeless. My hallucinations were more sustained. Dragons passed by all day. I tried not to anger them.
Around noon, as I paddled within 100 feet of the bank, I heard a strange sound. It was a deep, angry noise—a warning bell of some kind. The sound reminded me of the “self-destruct” noise in action movies after the hero has defeated the villain.
“That can’t be good,” I said aloud. I looked around in panic, but the fog obscured everything.
Then, a few swift strokes ahead of me and faintly visible through the fog, an empty barge skidded down the bank and crashed into the river. At 175 feet long and 35 feet wide, it created a wake large enough to raise more alarm in my blood. The wake traveled upstream and rocked the canoe. The empty, motorless barge drifted downriver. Then a tugboat emerged from the fog, deftly docked with the barge, and moved it to a growing fleet of refurbished barges. As I paddled closer, I saw a building filled with barges under repair. The workers had staged another barge to slide into the river and onto me. I quickly paddled further into the river, deciding it was better to take my chances with the big fleets than the craziness next to shore.
That night I built camp in a sandy forest on a small island. I watched barges pass in the night—their large flood beams scanning the river for hazards.
I was only 58 miles from Memphis. The weather forecast for the next day called for intermittent rain showers and gentle winds. I could make it.
“That will be nice,” I thought. “A casual day on the river. And tomorrow afternoon, Memphis.”