977 Miles to Go
The second day started off with calm winds and smooth water. My goal was to reach Nebraska City, Nebraska, where I would meet my parents for lunch and then continue further south.
I was excited to get on the water. The river was smooth, and the air was quiet save for the sounds of flowing water and the occasional birdcall. I jumped in the canoe and shoved off from shore with a dehydrated breakfast still cooking in its plastic bag.
Once in the main channel, I stowed my paddle and let the river gently push me south as I ate my hot “eggs and potatoes” fresh from the factory.
I was happy for the glassy water and still air, but the wind on the river is like the wind in the mountains. It is calm in the dark of the early morning and fierce during the day. Eager to cover as many miles as possible in these conditions, I slurped down the rest of my breakfast and put the blade of my paddle back in the river.
The main channel of the river is where the fastest moving water runs. It is the ideal place for a long distance paddler to pilot their boat—sending the canoe a few extra miles downriver each day. Over the course of a long expedition, this boost can add up to hundreds of miles.
As the river meandered south, I followed the outside bend of its broad, smooth, and sweeping curves. The channel of the river hugs the outside of the bend, and this is where I found the swiftest water.
I stayed in this fast lane of the channel for most of the journey. This strategy required that I cross from one side of the river to the other as it made giant “S” curves similar to those seen in National Geographic aerial photos of the Amazon and the other great rivers of the world. The river here was about 200 yards across—sometimes more. I grew more aware of its immensity with each crossing from the outside of one bend to the other.
The problem with these curves was that sometimes the wind came head-on, sometimes from the rear, and the rest of the time from various angles broadside to the canoe.
The wind crept up on me slowly that day. I first noticed its effect on my travel while paddling a ten-mile straight away.
Halfway through this stretch, an abandoned concrete building emerged from the cottonwoods a few hundred yards ahead of me. It was an old loading dock of some kind. The structure was still solid, but its dock and windowed rooms where lonesome and long silent. I wondered about the goods that passed over its supports. Grain, perhaps? Or maybe it was a way-station of some kind—a place for barges to wait while traffic came from the other direction.
Covering the short distance to the building was heartbreakingly slow. I doubted I was moving at the speed of the current. The wind gusted at twenty miles per hour—maybe more.
I was close to the shore, and I used it as a speedometer. I paddled hard, but forward progress grew more difficult with each stroke of the paddle. Walking on shore would have been faster. This thought was disheartening. I stopped paddling to take a drink from my steel canteen. As I rested and hydrated, I saw that the wind was blowing the canoe upstream, against the current!
Over the years, I’ve watched the parents of children with autism struggle and fight against a world not designed to help the autistic. They fight for the final diagnosis. They push back against school districts unwilling to give support that is legitimately needed. And, like Atlas collapsing under the weight of the Earth, they try to help their child find a path in a world that is not structured for autism. How many tears have these parents shed in this struggle? How often do they feel powerless in the face of an uncaring world that pushes them back, as I did at that moment?
“Well,” I thought, “this is why I’m out here.”
I moved into the posture that would become my identity while on this river. I made my body small, tucked my chest down close to my legs, lowered my head, and gazed ahead with no particular focus. My paddle became a paintbrush placed on the canvas of the river—a tool to be deftly handled or risk losing to the wind. A series of strokes went like so:
- I dip the blade of the paddle into the water on the right side of the canoe at full arm’s reach without bending my upper body.
- I pull the blade through the water while transferring energy through my legs—which are pushing against a foot brace—to create a more powerful stroke
- Once my hands are even with my torso, I release pressure on the blade.
- The blade follows through behind my torso.
- The bow now bears slightly more to the left than before the stroke.
- With hands at my side and blade extended behind me, I flick the blade to the outside—the finishing stroke.
- The flick pushes the stern of the boat ever so slightly to the right, serving as a counterforce to the main stroke and correcting the canoe’s bearing.
- In ideal conditions, repeat a total of four times.
- Even with finishing strokes, the canoe’s bearing still drifts to the left. Time to switch sides.
- With the fourth stroke, I bring the blade out of the water. The blade is behind me and parallel to the water’s surface. The shaft is parallel to the canoe.
- I swing the paddle around to the front, keeping the blade horizontal. It cuts through the wind—I feel no resistance.
- The paddle stretches out in front of me, pointing toward the bow of the canoe.
- Without stopping, I release my left hand—my topmost hand—from the handle.
- My right hand slides up the shaft to take the place of the left.
- The left takes the place of the right.
- And the blade is instantly back in the water, this time on the left side of the boat.
At midday, the boat ramp at Nebraska City came into view. Standing on the concrete pad, once again shivering in a Great Plains wind chill of 19 degrees, were my parents and one other person.
That other person was a reporter for the Nebraska City newspaper. We talked for about 15 minutes while I ate a sandwich.
The reporter asked me, “Why in the winter?”
“It’s just that much harder,” I said. “The elements are out to make me fail.”
I told him about my nephew with autism. I explained the difficulties that he and his family face now and will face in the future.
“It’s a constant challenge for them,” I said. “This trip is a symbol of their struggle.”
Meanwhile, the weather was getting worse. A full-blown blizzard was scheduled to strike the Great Plains in two days. It was pushed south out of the Arctic circle by a temperature imbalance. A smaller front preceded the blizzard, and that front had just arrived at Nebraska City. The body language of my parents gave away their concern for my safety.
First, only small flurries zipped across the river toward our group of four. Within minutes, however, the wind pushed thick snowflakes into our faces. My three companions on the boat dock were shivering in their heavy layers, and I was ready to keep paddling. I jumped back in the canoe, shoved off, and headed into the whiteout that descended on the river.
I can only imagine what the reporter thought when I paddled in. I wore two thin outer layers and uninsulated farm store muck boots that I had used to clean manure out of the stalls at my family’s farm. Or, what did he think when I slid into the canoe as large snowflakes whipped around us? The truth is, I don’t know what he was thinking. But I do know what my parents were thinking, “He’s crazy.”
After an hour or so the snowstorm dissipated, but the strength of the wind continued to grow.
Feeling somewhat emboldened—having paddled through an ice flow, being on my second day, talking to a reporter, and paddling through a snowstorm—I decided to try sailing the canoe.
“If I can figure out the physics,” I thought, “I bet I can cover a lot of exertion-free miles.”
Before the start of the trip, I knew that canoe covers would be an essential part of my gear and make the journey far more enjoyable. The covers would wrap over the fore and aft cargo areas of the canoe. They would prevent the wind from catching the inside walls of the canoe and pushing it in random directions as I experienced on that first and only test run. They would also shed snow and rain during the storms I was sure to encounter.
I’ve always enjoyed making my gear. In the case of the canoe covers, I used a hardware store tarp, polypropylene webbing, bungee straps, and a sewing machine to make two covers that fit the boat. The fore cover wrapped the bow and extended to the thwart above the footrests. The aft cover wrapped the stern and continued to the thwart located behind the seat. Adjustable backpacking snaps held the covers to the thwarts. Bungee straps maintained tension from gunwale to gunwale. The gunwales are the upper edges of a boat—if water goes over the gunwales, it goes into the canoe. I needed about half a day to make the covers.
I designed the fore canoe cover so that it could double as a sail. To sail, all I had to do was release the bungee straps, hold one in each hand, and catch the wind.
At first, it worked! The wind was strong but steady. The boat skipped across the waves.
Then the wind changed direction. Without the guiding pressure of the paddle in the water, the wind grabbed the stern of the boat and pushed it perpendicular to the wind’s direction. With the sail out and the stern also functioning as a sail, the wind shoved the canoe sideways through the growing waves at an alarming and unstable pace.
The crests of wind-blown waves splashed over the gunwales and into the boat. I felt the growing instability of the canoe beneath me. The starboard side leaned dangerously into the waves. And then a gunwale nearly dipped into the heart of a wave. I was horrified. I knew I was too close to the edge of disaster. A capsized boat was near at hand. And with that a complete submersion in freezing water for me. Adrenaline flooded through my veins. I was on the verge of losing the canoe and my life.
I dropped the cover and struggled to reattach it to the boat. Twice it escaped my grip and transformed back into a sail. I was fighting gear that I had made in a battle of balance and speed.
Finally, I reattached the cover, but the powerful wind continued to push the boat into the waves. I grabbed my paddle and dug deep and fast into the water, for my life depended on each stroke.
Soon I had the canoe on the right bearing, pointed downstream and into the waves.
The wind continued to grow in force. As the wind howled more fiercely, the fear inside of me built too. Unfortunately, I had to cross the river regularly to avoid wing dikes, from outside bend to outside bend. Near to shore, I felt the safety of proximity to land and the forests that break the wind. However, making a crossing from shore to shore required venturing into open waters where the wind howled up the river valley unchecked. Each crossing fed the horror within me. That horror reached levels I had never known.
“Why am I doing this?” I asked.
The wind does not like the shape of a canoe. I once thought that a canoe, especially a long and narrow canoe like mine, would work like a weathervane. It would point into or away from the wind along its length. Sometimes this is true if the wind is striking the boat at a perfect angle. Most of the time, the opposite is true. The boat itself becomes a sail and turns perpendicular to the wind. In these conditions, I used all of my strength to cross the river and keep the canoe pointed in the right direction. I often had to paddle on one side for twenty minutes without rest—for a moment’s rest would allow the wind to flip the boat.
After several challenging and nervous crossings, I found a tiny cove where I took a breather. I ate a tasteless, dry granola bar. I eyed it with disgust, but it was fuel for my body, and I needed fuel.
The break allowed my nerves to settle and my courage to recharge. I decided to push on in the hope that the wind would ease its onslaught. This was a foolish thought.
I quickly consulted my maps before picking up my paddle. I would have to cross the river again in few miles. And a mile or so after that, I would arrive below a hilly, wooded landscape that rose out of the seasonally barren plains.
“Hills,” I thought, “maybe I will find some relief from the wind in their shadow.”
But first I would have to get there.
Crossing the river had put me on the outside of a long straightaway with a slight bend. Now I could paddle next to the shore for a few miles. This sense of safety was a comforting thought as the possibility of capsizing danced in the front of my mind.
I paddled past a summer river retreat and the retreat’s private boat ramp. Tattered trailer homes and shacks dotted the bank. A weathered rope swing hung from a cottonwood branch that dangled over the river. It looked abandoned.
Then I thought I saw someone on the shore standing among the structures. I latched on to the thought of someone nearby to help should something go wrong. But the shape was not a person. It was a stump. This little island of civilization was soon behind me, and with it went the strange comfort I had found in its presence.
Over an hour later I came to the end of the straightaway. I had to make another crossing from one bank to the other to follow the channel and avoid the exposed wing dikes.
I was nervous. I didn’t want to make the crossing, but I needed to move forward. I dipped the blade of my paddle into the leeward side of the canoe and pressed hard.
Exhaustion and the desire to achieve clouded my judgment. It was the perfect recipe for an accident.
The inside bend of the bank and its tall river bottom trees created a small wind shadow. The shadow protected me from the brunt of the wind. Within several minutes, I paddled beyond the shadow and into the heart of the river. The wind slammed into the port side of the canoe. Every third wave sent water splashing into the boat. I fought hard to keep the boat pointed downriver.
The wind was too strong, the waves too violent, and the boat too unstable. This was the razor’s edge. If I leaned too far to the right or too far to the left, there was death. If I paddled at 109% instead of 110%, there was death. I felt its presence looming over me as the waves broke over the gunwales and flooded into the canoe.
The gunwales emerged from beneath the water. A couple of inches of water sat in the bottom of the boat. I could not risk a longer submersion. If it happened again, the buoyancy of the boat would not overcome the weight of the water. My control over the situation was marginal at best.
Despite my muscle and sweat, the wind pushed the boat parallel to the waves. This is the most dangerous position for any boat. The waves rolled under the canoe and rocked it from side to side. The wind and the waves traveled in the same direction. This magnified the instability I felt. I stopped fighting the wind and paddled with it. This brought the canoe around and soon it pointed upstream and opposite to the direction I needed to go. I pushed hard against the current, the wind, and the waves. I slowly worked the boat toward the riverbank.
As I neared the shore, a massive release of tension came over me.
“I’m not going to die yet,” I thought. “I can swim to shore from here should it all go to hell.”
My struggle against the wind and waves continued as I chugged toward the hills.
The safety of the hills was a chimera. They did not give the protection I wanted. Instead, they created a bottleneck that channeled and concentrated the southerly wind right into me. The fast-moving and cresting waves grew to over two feet high.
On my streamlined canoe, the freeboard was only about 12 or 14 inches. Freeboard is the height of the boat above the water. On flat water, this is enough distance to keep the inside of the boat and the paddler dry. But in heavy chop, like on this day, I wanted more freeboard—a lot more.
The waves that day had a high frequency, and the bow of the boat bounced from the crest of one wave to the next. However, about every sixty-seconds the frequency of waves faltered, and the bow plunged into the trough of an oncoming wave. Each plunge threatened to dump gallons of water into the boat. My homemade canoe covers fought the river’s fury. I had stitched them together from hardware store tarps. They held firm against each successive wave, shedding water back into the river.
Undeterred, I prepared to make another river crossing over the expanse of the wind-ravaged river.
The winds gusted up to 50 mph. I paddled with every ounce of muscle I had, but each stroke only pushed the canoe forward by an inch. And then fortune struck in the form of a complete inability to paddle forward. I kept pushing my paddle through the water, but the canoe could not make headway.
The wind rounded the boat. It pushed me closer and closer to the riverbank, against my will. As the riprap of the bank neared, I paddled harder. I had to keep moving forward! I had to cover more miles. But the weather refused to allow me passage.
Before I could act, waves threw the canoe into the riprap of the bank. I scrambled to get out of the unstable boat and pull it ashore before waves and riprap bashed it to pieces in their unforgiving grip.
I tied up the canoe amidst the riprap and out of the river’s reach. Then I walked up the bank to the forest where I found a grove of trees to shelter me from the weather. I looked into the tempest the river had become.
“I can’t return to the river today,” I thought.
Not only was it impossible, but it was foolish to paddle in these conditions.
I resigned to rest there for the night. I set up camp and shuttled my gear up the bank and into the trees. I thought of my friends back home. I had borrowed about half of the gear: dry bags from Dan, a life vest from Tim, and a small tent from Greg. The sky grew ominous and dark, so I hastily strung a tarp between four trees to provide shelter from above. Then I pitched the tiny, borrowed bivouac tent. I barely fit inside. “Is this a shelter or a coffin,” I thought.
The waves continued to grow while I pitched camp. The wind screamed with even more terror.
The Midwest is no stranger to harsh winds. There are tornados, inland hurricanes, thunderstorms that last days, and winter storms that cover the land in either ice or snow.
I remembered when I was caught in a tornado while paddling on the Meramec River in Central Missouri the previous summer. I had huddled in a ditch—shirtless, shoeless—while watching old growth cottonwoods get sucked out of the ground and thrown into the air. I had been confident that I would die that day—sucked into the vortex of the tornado or impaled by one of the sticks flying through the air. Hail beat my bare skin. The 40-degree temperature drop sent me into blue-lipped, full body convulsions until I covered my body in the thick mud along the bank. I curled up under my blanket of mud and waited for the storm to pass.
Looking over the river, I knew this wind storm too would pass.
With shelter built, I stripped off my sweat soaked clothing. I hoped that the synthetic garments and wetsuit would dry by morning. Then I cooked a quick meal and climbed into the claustrophobic shelter.
The wind howled long into the night. At some point, the thermometer hit zero. I wore all of my dry clothes inside the zero-degree sleeping bag. Still, I shivered. Sleep never came. Nor did rest for my tired muscles.