As we paddled down the wide, fast, brown waters of the Sacramento, I asked Lou to tell us about a favorite stretch of the Mississippi…
She did not have to think about it much, the memory and images came back like an instinctual reflex responding to a clear stimulus. The descriptive words of this place came right out of her mouth - she had obviously talked about this spot multiple times. Her brain had a blueprint of the experience and how to tell it. She described the vibrant colors at bottom of the river, the way the vegetation met at the canopy, creating this tunnel of green and mirroring reflections. "It was from another world,” she said. After taking in the imagery with an inhale and a sigh, she continued, "not anything like what Jules saw on the river. She got the worst of it."
The section of the Sacramento we were currently floating down, the 100 miles of water that flows from Redding to Sacramento, is part of a suffer-fest event, the California River Quest. Along with a fellow adventurous paddler and friend, Tiffany, LouAnne and I took 2 days off to scout the waterway, camping mid-way. Being on one river, analyzing its currents and turns, called up memories from that other paddling adventure.
Tiffany and I were eager to hear more of Lou’s Mississippi trip, particularly because I did get the worst of it scenery-wise. Unlike the green banks of the Sacramento, the state boundary river that so culturally divides the east from the west is more an engineering marvel than a wild running river the further south it gets.
I joined Lou for the last week of the trip. We met in Chattanooga, TN. Lou took a mini-break from the Mississippi to paddle 31 miles on the Tennessee River Gorge. Another well-known suffer-fest - Chattajack. We are on track to get our 5 year Belt Buckle and she couldn't skip the race. It's a big deal, that belt buckle - you only get it after completing 5 consecutive CJs. As our 4th Chattajack wrapped up, Lou and I headed back to Falls River to spend the night at a River Angel's home and head out the next morning. It would be Lou's 8th week and my first day on the Mississippi.
The 280 miles that I got to know on the river were surreal in a very dystopian way. Most of the miles and miles along the banks of the river are man-made walls. There were some sections where it turned green again, but other than for factories or refineries, there wasn't any access to the water or from the water. Finding overnight accommodations was a challenge. I knew it wouldn't be wild, but I wasn't expecting that level of industrialization and manipulation.
The only night we were to camp somewhere untouched, was this island in the middle of the river on our very first night. As we approached the sandbank, we watched a huge flock of white pelicans fly beneath the sunset sky. It was an incredible sight and the perfect end to my first night. Grateful to have planned to push that first day to reach the island, as the following 5 evenings we ended up setting up tents on boat landings, boat ramps or climbed the river wall to take a cab to a nearby hotel. And as the wildlife continues to dwindle as we approach New Orleans, the ships get longer in tow, the docks larger, the engineering more and more impressive, the walls taller, the divide between land and river gets wider.
Past the last big city and our last paddle to the Gulf, the river changes again as it approaches its final destination. Flowing and splitting through the bayou, we saw flamingos, alligators, and more seabirds. It's finally free to go, not owing humans any transport duties, but beat up from all that it has gone through. The pollution of the lower section of the Mississippi leaves a dead zone on the gulf coast. It has a devastating impact on sea life, of course, and also on humans as many of the towns rely on the fishing industry, which is unregulated and therefore not protected by legislation. Overfishing shrimp, for instance, is creating divides in long-standing communities of fishermen and local eateries, affecting tourism and commerce.
As we were closing in on our 100th mile on the Sacramento, I kept thinking about that last day on the Mississippi as she was wrapping up a monumental physical and psychological effort. I paddled right behind her to not block her view of the last miles. And to take photos and document the moment. Dolphins greeted her to the Gulf and with just a few more strokes out of the inlet, the trip had come to a conclusion.
Just. Like. That.
Well... Not quite. We paddled around the spit and surf-landed on the beach on very shallow waters and I ate it surfing in. -inert laughing emoji- Lou dropped to her knees. Once on the beach, hugs were given, eyes all watery. All the emotions of a goal well accomplished, intensified by her mom and dad waiting for her on that beach. To celebrate it all, she had to go in the water. In a theatrical effort to run, arms wide open into the sea, we watched her run in knee-high waves for a few hundred miles till she turned to us and yelled 'it's so shallow!!' We laughed and she dove in.
Bringing our awareness back to the current river we’re paddling, we start noticing all our pain, our fatigue, and tiredness. Will we accomplish our goal on this river on race day? I’m not sure. What I do know is that the feeling of accomplishment I get flooded with every time I reach a finish line was nothing like watching Lou reach hers. On any race day, what drives us to the finish line, what truly, deeply motivates us, is that hug of success at the end of it all. I made it because you made it, I’m strong because you’re strong. Together we go far.