THE CHAIN LOCKER
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That would be us. . .
A Trip Down The Mississippi, Fit 3 - Can't Get Started; Or, Am I My Own Worst Enemy?

In Fit 2, you learned about our dory, SEADRAGON - how we'd acquired her, modified her, and equipped her. We'd had fun and learned a lot while doing all that, and couldn't wait to test her, and ourselves, in action on the Big River. (If you haven't read that story, click on "Fit 1" & "Fit 2" in the Categories list on the right side of the page!) So in the fall - later in the season than we'd planned, because the company sent our reliefs late - we hitched up my old sedan to our converted horse trailor with SEADRAGON on it, and hurried toward Wisconsin and the Mississippi River. 

We meant to put in at a public boat ramp we'd picked out on the map. I really can't remember why we chose that spot; perhaps because it wasn't far from Interstate 90. We just wanted to get on the river, and that must have looked like a good place to start. And we were in a hurry! Our planning up to that point had been pretty thorough, so this hasty decision looks jarring in retrospect. These days, root cause analysis would identify it as the source of most of our subsequent troubles. I've no defense for it; all I can say is that we let the rush color our judgment. But the Mississippi River, like the sea, is intolerant of ignorance, and quickly taught us some simple, lasting lessons.

In spite of the lateness of the season - it was November already - the weather seemed to smile, and we were filled with optimism when we found the boat ramp. After putting in the dory, and storing the car and trailer at a service station nearby, we cast off lines and, Pow! headed directly toward the main channel. 

Between the boat ramp and the main channel was a dense group of low, marshy islands - a slough - about a mile wide. Looking at current maps, I think it was Wigwam Slough, near LaCrosse, Wisconsin - but at the time we didn't know that, because we had no chart book! The reason we lacked this fundamental resource was because we'd come so late in the season that the local bait store was sold out. Was that a red flag? Nah. Huck Finn didn't need a chart book. Hell's bells, we could see the channel from where we stood! Get into that, and how could we go wrong? Didn't need no stinkin' chart book for that. We'd buy one further down the river. No sweat, let's get going!

If we'd had a chart book and done even cursory trip planning, we'd immediately have seen that by keeping in easy clear water close to the Wisconsin bank for a few miles, we'd join the main channel further south with no fooling around or wasted time. We didn't draw any water, so we didn't need to be in the channel - indeed, given towboat traffic were better off out of it. But, we didn't know that. Pig-headed and ignorant, we wanted the main channel - the real river! So we set off into a maze of channels between the islets, beyond which we could see towboats moving up and down the river. The channels between the islets appeared easy to negotiate, and they appeared to be the most direct route; our goal was in view! Appearances, famously, can be decieving.

I won't go into detail about our trials in the slough that day. We'd cast off in the early afternoon; 20 minutes later, we were caught among stumps and snags that stopped our outboard and bumped the dory's bottom. Out came the oars, not to row, but to push with. A couple of times we got hung up in spots we didn't think we'd get out of. After a miserable, sweaty time - and this wasn't hot weather - we fought clear of the snags and motored back to the dock we'd departed from a few hours earlier, chastened but only somewhat discouraged. Evening was coming on - better to wait here for now and start again in the morning. In the meantime, we sought local knowledge.

The man at the bait shop was surprised to see us back, but if he was amused at our misadventure he courteously didn't show it. Instead, he dug out an old worn chart book of his own. He showed us the slough where we'd been pleasantly disporting ourselves for the past few hours. He showed us the easy route to join the channel. And he also generously - or maybe out of pity - made us a present of his old chart book to use "for the time being" and urged us to acquire an up-to-date one as soon as possible! He was a good man, and obviously didn't want to see two strangers die of terminal ignorance within the borders of Wisconsin, if he could do anything to prevent it. We were starting to see his point.

Armed with chart book and pilot directions courtesy of the bait shop man, we got going early the next morning after a quick ham-n-egg breakfast at a restaurant - the last bought meal we figured to eat in a while. This day was colder, with a gusty wind and threat of rain. Nothing loth, off we went, adding oilskins to our warm clothes as we went south and got into a wide-open pool several miles across. The strengthening wind kicked up a nasty chop, and whipped sheets of cold spray over the boat while we huddled at the stern pretending to have a good time. I'm not sure whether I convinced John that I was having one, but I know that he completely failed to convince me. Finally the river narrowed down a bit, giving the cold waves less fetch, and we approached our first lock.

Among the things John and I were completely ignorant of was how to get through a lock. We had some pamphlets that told the casual sportsman how to hail a lock, though, so we got on the radio and called this one. That was after we figured out that the long, dam-looking thingy  with the water roaring over it was something to keep away from; and as we did that, we doped out from the chart that the other walled contraption on the Wisconsin side was the lock. I don't remember how we got through that lock for some reason, but I do remember we passed through alone - later on we did many lock transits along with tows. Once through we set off with renewed energy, and the hope of the clueless, down a long stretch of open river.

It got colder and colder, the wind picked up, the sky got grim. After mid-day, we kept an eye out for likely camping spots, but didn't see any. In spite of the rain gear we were wet through, and shivering cold with it. Snow began to fall, and it fell so hard that between that and the spray, we could hardly see. Then the sun went down. 

Pretense gave way completely at this point. John and I were cold, wet, shaking and miserable. A small town hove into view on the Wisconsin side of the river. A marina, we thought - to Hell with camping, let's find a marina! But there didn't seem to be one. 

As we despairingly slid by the very last of the town, we spotted a boathouse. Obviously private property, but so what. . . it was shelter! Pointing the dory straight at it, we arrowed through the driving snow at far too fast a speed toward this sudden haven, and made it safely inside somehow. Mooring the dory with numb fingers, we struggled out into the storm past a dark house, toward some nearby lights. One of them turned out to be a bar and restaurant! 

We made for it, like Shackleton sliding down the mountain toward Stromness at South Georgia Island, if you know that story from Endurance! Within minutes we were basking in steam heat, wolfing down hot food and had a couple of whiskies inside us - death by hypothermia averted. When we were thoroughly warm and dried out we returned to the dory, rigged the tent, made ourselves one last hot drink on the Primus stove, strung hammocks and turned in. You might imagine we slept like dead men, and you'd be right. 

We were brewing coffee next morning when we heard steps on the pier next to the boat, and popping a couple of frowzy heads out of the tent, we saw a young girl staring down at us - looking a little alarmed, as well she might. Our story soon earned her sympathy, though. She told us we could stay, but that we really should have asked at the house the night before - her father was the local Sheriff! 

We went up, explained ourselves, and offered to pay, but those good people were just glad - like the bait shop man - to have helped Wisconsin avoid a spike in ignoramus fatalities. For a second time in one day, we'd been aided by strangers! God looks out for children, drunks and seamen. 

Oddly enough, this first day's adventure wasn't enough to dampen our spirits. I don't know whether it was courage, youth, stupidity or sheer bloody-mindedness, but we carried on down the Mississippi. Our theory, founded soundly on geography and modern climate science, was that if we traveled south fast enough we'd outrun Old Man Winter and leave him snorting in our wake. It was a good theory, too, but we couldn't make it work. Thanksgiving found us frozen solid in the ice at Hannibal, Missouri - yeah, that Hannibal, Mark Twain's boyhood home - forcing a sober (not to mention cold-blooded) review of our options. We decided to throw in the towel and come back next year. 

While John prepared SEADRAGON for layup, I took a bus to Wisconsin to retreive the car and trailer. Breaking ice all the way across the little harbor to reach the boat ramp we got the dory on her trailer, and left her for the winter. We'd learned a lot, we hadn't died, and (in spite of pain, or because of it) had some great stories to tell. We sure knew what NOT to do. 

And so ends Fit 3. In Fit 4 you'll find out how we made out after our sad, hilarious beginning. There was lots to come, most of it great fun and all of it interesting - girls, snakes, fellow-travelers, quick thinking, and some lucky scrapes. So watch for Fit 4 - coming soon to a blog near you!