A kayak strapped to the roof of my truck gave me the excuse to stop off at the Mississippi River on my way home from work. I had picked up my spare kayak I had loaned to my brother on a visit to the hometown on Easter Sunday, and rather then putting it away in the garage, I decided to leave it strapped to the truck and take it to work with me the next day. My decision was a good one. I worried that with the spring thaws and rains that the flows might make it difficult to paddle in the fast water. But I figured if the geese and ducks that had gathered around the seed left at the side of the river for the water fowl to feast on could paddle in the swift water, then I too could dip my paddle in it. The only place I could find on what is called the West Bank of the River in St. Paul to launch the kayak is on what I believe is the south west end of Harriet Island. I wonder why they call it Harriet Island, since there is no appearance of an island on the map of the area.
I was relieved to see a nice earthen bank along the path the escaping geese and ducks had taken with some slow water for launching the kayak. I changed out of my work cloths, and un-strapped the boat from the roof. Unloading the kayak from the truck, I lost the balance of it and slammed the rear nose into the gravel with a loud thump. I reminded myself out load how I hated it when that happened. I set the kayak down on the grass, and checked for major damage and was relieved that just another dent to the wooden surface had occurred; nothing a touch up of varnish couldn’t fix. So I adjusted the foot peddles, pulled my spray skirt on, strapped on my life vest and launched into the river.
As always on the first paddle of spring when the water temperature is barely above freezing, moving faster then I like, and new to me, I felt a bit apprehensive. The thought of overturning in the icy cold, fast moving, and sediment filled waters made me tense up, and pay more attention, which is probably a good thing. Moving into the fast water, I found that I could make pretty decent progress as I headed upstream. I always like to paddle upstream on the first leg of these round-trip river paddles, just encase the current is too strong to make any headway I can bail out of the trip. An option not possible if I go with the flow to start. I felt good as I paddled up the river, the sun was out in full glory, and as I paddled hard to keep moving up-river I started to worry that I might be over dressed for the forty or so degrees temperatures.
There was quite a bit of debris floating downstream, lots of logs, sticks, and trash. Trapped behind the trees that had tipped over and skimmed the water were quantities of floatables; plastic beverage bottles were by far the dominant trash behind these skimmers. Probably hundreds of clear or green bottles were found bobbing behind each of these fallen trees. I recalled the recent news stories about the body of an infant being found washed up along the shore further down river not too long ago; and the findings of a boater I had talked to in the parking lot of my office a few weeks earlier who had reported seeing bloated goats, calves, and chickens on his first boat trip of the year on the river. I wondered what I would do if I came across a body among the other items the river had claimed.
Fortunately for me the only bodies I came across on my paddle were still full of life and full of flight. I chased a number of pairs of Canadian geese, mallards, and wood ducks from the resting and likely nesting places along the shore. Several blue herons also took to flight as I disturbed their fishing perches. And a coal black double-crested cormorant took to flight across the river as I neared the power plant.
There were no other water craft out on the river during my paddle. A few barges were tied off near some of the loading and unloading stations. I had to be careful on my return journey to avoid the one foot wave created on one of them as the down rushing water was forced under and around the fixed barge. The wave was a good reminder of just how fast the water was actually moving. I also came across an interesting raft that was tied to the trees of the flood plain. Some boat builders had cobbled together what looked like a very seaworthy craft out of wooden crates lashed together with some timbers; with plastic containers for floatation strategically placed underneath the wooden raft. Gear of some sort was stowed beneath tarps on the deck of the raft. I was temped to board the vessel and find out what contraband existed, but noticed a campsite further back in the trees and decided to respect the privacy of the owners. The camp itself appeared unoccupied for the moment and a pair of watch geese sounded the alarm honks that I was trespassing on the site. I paddled on up river, wondering if the vessel had actually been navigated out on the river yet, or was still waiting for its maiden voyage. It would be difficult to maneuver such a craft with the river moving so swift, and I would worry about crashing in to a bridge or other obstruction in the river. I also wondered if the lock masters would let such a craft through.
The strain of paddling upstream with the sunbeams striking me head on eventually forced me to pull over to the shore, where I could find it, and take off my coat to avoid breaking out in a sweat. A felt a bit chilled without the coat which gave me some additional incentive to keep paddling upstream at a faster pace to avoid being washed back down. The current seemed to pick up as I rounded the bend in the river and the Interstate 35 Bridge came into view. I decided to make paddling under the bridge my turn around point and picked up the paddling pace once more wondering if I would make that far. When I looked straight ahead into the oncoming water and floating logs, it seemed like I was moving at a tremendous pace. But when I looked over at the shore next to me, the red stems of the Red-osier dogwood that lined the bank were moving upstream faster then I was. I decided to cross over to the east bank of the river in hopes that the current might not be as strong, but when I got there, I found my progress not much greater then it was on the other side. Keeping my head down and avoiding too many glances at the shore to avoid noticing my lack of progress, I eventually neared the bridge.
I was also relieved to see there were some lowlands along the bottom of the bridge that were flooded with the high water where the current of the open river did not reach. I paddled to a spot of dry ground and got out to stretch for a minute. The bridge had blocked the setting sun now and I put my coat back on to try and fend off the chill that was starting to fill the river valley. Looking up river I noticed the huge mansions that lined the cliffs on top of the west bank of the river to the south west of the bridge. At first I assumed the buildings were multi-dwelling condos or apartments, but after closer inspection they all seemed to be single family homes. I wondered why anyone would need such a large home. The houses seemed to be three stories or more, and the walls facing the river were lined with windows that allowed the occupants to peer down at the river from their lofty positions. I crawled back into the kayak, attached my skirt and paddled up and under the bridge and paddled back out to the middle of the river.
Turning back down stream, I looked forward to the swift ride back. It was much easier to look around and enjoy the ride on the return trip. One thing I wanted to get a closer look at was the source of the smoke I had noticed collecting in the flood plain trees on the shore opposite from the mansions on my way upstream. As I rounded the bend near the source of the smoke, I was greeted with a hello from two gentlemen sitting in front of a camp fire. Sleeping bags were hung out on the branches around their camp site and a tent was set up further back in the woods. I naively exclaimed “what a great night for camping” to the men and was reminded by one of them that they were not camping, but living on that site by the river. I then stated “what a great place to live” and was reminded by another that he could think of better places to live. Trying to save some grace I then said “well what a great view” and finally he agreed with me. They complemented me on my wooden boat and asked if it was hand made. I told them it was and wished them a warm night. I had heard that snows were on the way and wondered how they might weather the colder temperatures and wet snowy conditions that might greet them the next night.
It seemed like my return trip going down stream took me about a half an hour, while the upstream trip into the current took about an hour and a half. Despite the shorter duration, not having to fight to avoid be washed back down stream allowed me the freedom to look around more and reflect on what I was seeing. I thought about the two gentlemen living on the side of the river and contrasted them with the people living in the mansion atop the bluff. I wondered who had a better relationship to the river. Was it the people who seemed to isolate themselves from it in there high perches, who might on occasion peer out their windows to see it passing by them. Or was it the two men living out of tent, surrounded by its flood waters, who could feel the cold winds that swept along it surface as the sun receded below the trees. Maybe neither of them could really appreciate what it was that passed before them, because like so many of us they came to take for granted the beauty that this river system can bring to our lives when we take the time to appreciate it for what it is. Instead we look at it as simply a nice place to perch a house or a tent, or a place to dispose of our wastes, or maybe even our unwanted lives. Until we see the river as something that we are a part of, something that brings meaning to our lives, it will just be another place to spend some time.
At least on that evening, it was a place that I was great-full for. Approaching the high bridge on my way back to Harriet Island, I stopped paddling for a moment and admired the view of the St. Paul skyline framed by the bridge. There was a beauty of sorts in the view; a quiet filled the valley that seemed to cover up all the noise of the City. Somehow the river seemed to be able to wash away many of the troubles that could fill a city. And so reluctantly I paddled to shore, loaded the kayak back on my truck and headed for my home; feeling somewhat content that I could return again when I felt the need for some cleansing of the soul.