I've developed a slide show presentation about the trip that I've been able to share with people dozens of times all over the country. For the first time ever on Saturday May 12th I finally have a chance to do it in my home town of Wausau Wisconsin. If you have plans to be in Wausau on Mother's day weekend and are looking for a great way to entertain your mom come check it out. Details about the show are listed on the home page of my web site at www.portagetoportage.com
Start: 7:30 AM - MM 232
Finish 10:00 AM - MM 218 Grafton Illinois
Time: 2:30 hours
Daily dist: 14 miles
Total dist: 5740 miles
Companions: Jason Cummings
Weather: Overcast, low 70’s, SE wind 5-10 mph
Notes: Yeee ha!
It was about a year ago that I was in San Diego nervously trying to get my head around all the logistics for a trip I’d dreamt about for years. The mere fact that the idea of the trip had morphed into very real planning seemed like a dream itself. My mind was in a fog of what-ifs and unknowns as well as the sadness that comes with leaving friends behind when you head off in a new direction in life. I’d been kayak camping before, but only for a week or so, and never on something of this magnitude. Five thousand miles seemed like an almost insurmountable mountain to climb. It would be at least two hundred days of paddling to figure out. The obstacles, campsites, water stops, re-supply points… It was too much to take in all at once, so I decided not to. Instead I started out with a broad view of where the trip would take me. Then I took it one month, one week, one day, one hour, one minute, and finally one stroke at a time.
That’s how I did it
5740 miles… one stroke at a time.
In the planning stage I realized how, instead of vanishing into the wilderness, this trip would encircle the core of our country passing along the edges of some of our most populated cities. With the proximity to civilization, I realized that this trip could be shared with others all along the way. I thought that, if people could follow along, this trip might serve as a reminder of what adventures await us close to home. I also believed that this trip (accessible - in parts - to almost everyone) could motivate people to get out and explore their local waters on their own. For those reasons I decided this was a trip that should be shared.
So it was that I brought along ten pounds of computer, charger, spare batteries and cords. So it was, as well, that on so many nights when I was tired and sore and so desperately just wanted to get to bed, that I stayed up and fought my heavy eye lids to get the blog post up for that day. I knew the daily reports and computer could put me in touch with people along the way. But I never could have anticipated how many people would answer my call to share in this adventure with me. It was a tremendous effort to keep the blog going day after day. But for every person that opened their home to me, joined me on the water, sent a word of encouragement via. E-mail, or told me they were enjoying following along, it was all worth it.
Two hundred eighty days and 5740 miles since it began on a crisp early winter day last December, I have shared a daily account of this trip and my life. With a bumpy start, and many ups and downs, it has been an experience of a lifetime. I am so glad I could bring you along for the ride. Today I am pleased to report that I have paddled the last stroke into Grafton Illinois.
The loop is complete.
It is done.
Start: 7:30 AM - MM 267
Finish 2:00 PM - MM 232
Time: 6:30 hours
Daily dist: 35 miles
Lock 25: 11:30-12:30 - 1:00 actually locked through this time
Total dist: 5400+
Companions: Jason caught up with me in camp
Weather: Overcast with a little drizzle/mist, low 70’s, SE wind 5-10 mph
Notes: Last full day on the water - I am excited to see the finish line in Grafton
To say I’m excited to see the finish line in Grafton is an understatement. I am VERY excited. It struck me as I pulled out of Lock 25 today that, with only 23 miles to go to Grafton, the time it will take to get there can be measured in hours instead of the months used in the beginning of this trip. By 2:00 when I pulled off the water I’d already come 35 miles and Grafton waited a tantalizingly short 14 miles downstream. It wouldn’t have taken long to grind out those last few miles but I had bigger plans.
Last December when I put in on the Mississippi for the first time I was joined by Jason Cummings. He had paddled up from Portage Des Sioux, MO and escorted me for my first five miles on the way back down to his put-in. As he put it a “Portage to Portage” trip of his own. A few weeks ago Jason e-mailed and asked if I was going to close up the gap in the trip. Of course I was, so we made plans for him to join me in camp the last night and paddle together on the final leg back into Grafton. It just seems right to have the same person that joined me on the first day out of Grafton to also join me for the last day back into town.
Jason had to work all day (somebody has to work after all) so he didn’t get on the water until the early evening. By then I had camp set up and fire wood gathered for what would be only the second campfire I built on this entire trip. At about 5:30 Jason called to double check what island I was on before he committed to heading downstream on what he thought was the correct channel. Having to paddle upstream to correct the mistake of going down the wrong channel would have taken a gargantuan amount of effort in the rapidly fading daylight. I lit the fire to try to create some smoke to mark where I was but amazingly the soaking wet wood burned so hot it didn’t create any smoke (it may have had something to do with the pint of camp fuel I used). Thankfully Jason could smell the fire which was just enough to assure him that he was on the right track.
With a half hour of daylight to spare Jason glided into camp for what he informed me would be his first kayak camping experience. Coming fully prepared with a tent, marshmallows and smores fixings, a few beers, and a cold Coke for me, I think he’s already got kayak camping all figured out.
This last night has me it bit in a daze. I’m excited to be on the cusp of completing the loop, and at the same time a bit melancholy knowing that this is the end of it all. Looking at my food bags almost empty and not being the least bit concerned is strange. My batteries are getting a bit low, and that’s no big deal. I have more water than I need and may actually dump the extra to lighten the load. It‘s odd to think that all my gear (a little thread bare and faded) that has served me so well can finally rest when I reach the boat ramp in Grafton tomorrow.
After digging out the one 8.5”x11” map that I’ll need for the day, planning for tomorrow’s paddle took about two minutes. There are no locks, no long crossings, no big winds, no logistical hurdles at all between here and the finish line, just point my kayak down stream and go.
Check out full day 277 post below
Start: 6:45 AM - MM 301 - 8 miles south of Hannibal, MO
Finish 12:45 PM - MM 267
Time: 6:00 hours
Daily dist: 34 miles
Lock 24: 11:15-11:30 Portaged lock and dam
Total dist: 5400+
Weather: Mostly cloudy to overcast, 70’s, SE wind 5-10 mph
Notes: Showers threatened all day but it only rained an hour or so.
After a week and a half with apparently nothing to haul, the barge industry is back in action. Over the last two days I’ve seen more barge traffic than I had seen in the ten days prior. This traffic is resulting in bottlenecks at every lock. When I reached Lock 24 today (Lord knows what happened to Lock 23) two barges were waiting to lock through downstream while an upstream barge was already re-assembling himself after locking through. It didn’t matter to me because once again I was able to slide the Ikkuma, fully loaded, over the dry spillway on the far end of the dam. It took a little doing to round up the logs and sticks required to act as bumpers over the rocky embankment, but I was up, over, and back in the water in just fifteen minutes, faster than it takes to lock through even without a waiting line.
The weather man had been talking about a lot of rain on its way from the disintegrating hurricane that rolled into the Gulf last week. The sky was cloudy but thankfully, so far, all I’ve seen is a couple short showers. In fact the entire afternoon was dry and beautiful with a hint of sunshine even popping out just before sunset.
With a little more time at the end of the day’s paddling than I’m used to I was able to go for a walk along shore where I’m camped. I could only go about 100 yds in either direction until the sand ran out and became sticky mud, but along the way I did find an interesting animal tooth (looks like a molar from something big). I also took the time to clean up my kayak a bit. Weeks in tannic rivers had yellowed the normally bright white hull. The other day I had pulled the Ikkuma up on a mud beach for a break and before I launched I rubbed the sticky mud off the hull. In so doing I discovered that I’d rubbed some of the yellowing off the hull. Figuring it couldn’t hurt, today I rolled the Ikkuma up on its side and polished out the entire hull with Mississippi River mud. Incredibly the mud and a little elbow grease did a great job in making the kayak look presentable again. It seems like a silly thing to polish a boat in the midst of a 5000 mile trip, but wouldn’t it be a shame to come across the final finish line with a dirty boat.
Jake is out of cell coverage again so he phoned in a report. He had a great day of paddling and is enjoying what will probably be the last rain free campsite of the trip. He also able to portage the last two locks avoiding a lot of barge traffic today.
Start: 10:30 AM - MM 327 Quincy, IL
Finish 3:00 PM - MM 301 - 8 miles south of Hannibal, MO
Time: 4:30 hours
Daily dist: 26 miles
Lock 21: 10:45-11:00 Portaged lock and dam
Lock 22: 2:30-2:45 Portaged lock and dam
Total dist: 5400+
Weather: Clear blue skies, 70’s, calm winds
Notes: Luck allowed me to avoid long waits by portaging two dams
Today was one of those wonderful late summer days where the weather was warm, clear, and dry. I’m enjoying it for all it’s worth as I carefully watch a weather system move in from the south, a remnant of the hurricane that spun into the Gulf of Mexico last week. The weather man says it’s going to be a wet end to the week, but for now I’m loving life.
With a great breakfast with the Strosakers to start the day I was on the water by 10:30 and right from the put-in I could see that there was a lot of traffic at Lock 21 just down stream. With one barge in the lock, another waiting upstream, and a third waiting downstream it could take all day to wait a turn to lock through. Thankfully this lock is a bit different than all the rest I’d seen upstream. On the far side of the dam, opposite the lock chamber, is a concrete spillway. Right now it’s lying about six inches above the water holding back the river above, but at flood stage it would allow water to flow freely over the top. This structure is flat topped and smooth much like a road and about as wide. It was easy business to slide the Ikkuma out onto the dam then across and down a short slope to the other side. Instead of hours of waiting it took mere minutes and I was on my way. The only thing I missed was the opportunity to have my picture taken in a lock by David and Esther who had driven down to see me lock through. I did paddle back across to thank them once again for their hospitality, I guess we’ll have to get a picture next time.
A few hours of paddling brought me to and past Hannibal Missouri which we drove down to visit yesterday. Only eight miles further I came to Lock 22 which was just as busy as the one above. Thank heavens this dam was constructed much like the one above and I, once again, was able to jump across in fifteen minutes. Just a few hundred yards below the lock I found a great camp spot high above the water with cool shade trees and a great view of the river and hills on the far shore. I timed how long it took the barge that was in line in front of me to get through the lock and was very grateful to have been able to portage saving myself three hours of waiting above.
All of this barge traffic is a bit of a surprise after a week of seeing very few. With only 83 miles and two locks to go and three days to reach Grafton I can handle some waiting. But if the locks continue to be of the same design I’ll be happy to keep sliding over the spillways and continuing on my way.
Start: 6:15 AM - MM 361 IA/MO border mouth of Des Moines River
Finish 12:00 PM - MM 327 Quincy, IL
Time: 5:45 hours
Daily dist: 34 miles
Lock 20: 9:15-9:45
Total dist: 5400+
Weather: Clear blue skies, 70’s, W wind 10+
Notes: A great day on the water
Admittedly worn out from pulling into the wind all day yesterday, I was grateful to have a comparatively short and much easier go of it today. In addition I ended the day not on a sand blasted river bar like yesterday, but instead at the home of the father and step-mom of my good friend Duane.
Last fall when I was driving back to Wisconsin from San Diego I had a bunch of kayaks to deliver along the way. [It’s rare for any of my paddling friends to do a cross country drive without at least one extra boat to deliver somewhere]. One of those deliveries was right here in Quincy Illinois for Duane. The boat I was delivering was his home made “mini me” kayak he wanted to keep at his father’s house so he could have something to paddle when he comes to visit (which isn’t nearly often enough Duane). Duane’s parents, David and Esther, were not home but I did meet their next door neighbor who let me into the Strosaker’s garage. Becky was very interested in the trip I was about to embark on and she made sure I added her contact information to the Strosaker’s just in case I should need help when I was passing through Quincy. With very few contacts on the Upper Mississippi at that time, on what I knew would be a very cold run down the river, their offer as a potential source of help was a treasure.
As it turned out winter shut me out long before Quincy and my re-start was below, so I never did need Becky’s number. As I came in to town on a very beautiful day with sublime weather the stopover was much more social than logistical, yet (as you know) I always appreciate a comfy bed and home cooked meal. Ahead of schedule, due to the river pushing me incredibly fast, I arrived at the boat launch at noon less than six hours after starting out 34 miles above. David knows this river well and figured I’d be moving faster than I expected and he and Esther were there right on time to pick me up. Once the Ikkuma was emptied of gear and loaded on their van, David whisked me back to their house where I got cleaned up before we headed down to Hannibal Missouri.
Hannibal is a little river town who’s claim to fame is being the childhood home of Mark Twain. We started our tour of town with a stop at “Lover’s Leap” which provided a panoramic view of town as well as the river valley. From there we made our way to the Mark Twain Cave where I enjoyed a walk through the famous cave that appeared in the Adventures of Huckleberry Fin.
From the cave we made our way downtown where we saw Mark Twain’s childhood home and the famous white fence. Capitalizing on it’s Mark Twain connection a short walk down Main Street in Hannibal also allowed me to see; The Mark Twain ice cream parlor, The Mark Twain bookstore, The Twain Pub, The Mark Twain diner, The Mark Twain drycleaner… I think I even saw a Mark Twain septic pump drive by. It was a neat little town and one worth visiting if you get the chance, especially the cave.
Start: 6:00 AM - MM 409 Burlington, IA
Finish 5:00 PM - MM 361 IA/MO border mouth of Des Moines River
Time: 11:00 hours
Daily dist: 48 miles
Lock 19: 3:40-4:20
Total dist: 5400+
Weather: Storms in AM then clear, 70’s, S wind 20+ (headwind)
Notes: A long hard day paddling into the wind.
Sloppy wet and slow going with headwinds pushing against the current.
The wind was blowing out of the south at well over 20mph… South being, of course, the very direction I was headed… That’s all I’m going to say about that.
The day was a bit of a slog but not without highlights. Shortly after getting on the water this morning I passed through Burlington, IA. At one of the loading docks was the Living Lands and Waters barge. Living Lands and Waters is the organization started by Chad Pregracke, the parents of whom I stayed with last week. The organization has done a lot to clean up the Mississippi River, as well as others. The barge is their base of operations where they store the trash they’ve collected until they can off load it to the landfill.
A bit further on form Burlington I had to take a forced break to wait out a storm. The front actually slowed the wind for a while, and as much as I wanted to stay on the water and take advantage of the lull, there was a lot of lighting associated with the storm so I thought it wise to wait it out. While watching the storm pass I was treated to some amazing cloud formations.
What was my destination for most of the day ended up being one of the most remarkable things I saw. Lock 19 I was told is a behemoth but nothing could have prepared me for the true enormity of the lock. Designed to allow tows consisting of three barges wide and five long with a tow boat behind to lock through in one pass. To accommodate that size tow the chamber is well over 1200 feet long and 120 feet wide. To add to the experience of being alone in a lock chamber that it took me ten minutes to paddle end to end, was the fact that it also lowered me over 40 feet. By the time the huge gates swung open to the lower river level the lock chamber looked like an empty blimp hanger. It was HUGE!
Start: 1:00 PM - MM 433 New Boston, IL
Finish 6:00 PM - MM 409 Burlington, IA
Time: 5:00 hours
Daily dist: 24 miles
Lock 18: 5:15-5:45
Total dist: 5400+
Companions: Joe and Joe for the first two miles from their cabin back to the river
Weather: Mostly clear, 70’s, S wind 15+ (headwind)
Notes: Left Jo’s cabin at 11:15 for paddle to main channel
As of yesterday I had paddled ten days I a row. They weren’t all long days but it felt good to sleep in a bit this morning just the same. After a nice breakfast prepared by Jo the three of us (Joe, Jo, and me) launched off the beach by their cabin and paddled together back out Sturgeon Bay to the main channel in New Boston. There we said our goodbyes and I turned my kayak into the wind and started south.
After parting ways with the Joes, it was a fairly uneventful day aside from the choppy water from the strong wind blowing straight upstream. The later than normal start didn’t give me a lot of time before dark which didn’t matter because with the wind blowing like it was I didn’t want to slog it out any longer than I had anyway. The campsite I ended up in is on a beautiful point of land on the downstream end of an island that I’d bet was under water little more than a week ago. In fact I’ve noticed the river dropping significantly over the last six days I’ve been on it. Hopefully this trend will reveal even more dry land like I found tonight and make the daily chore of finding accessible, campable, camp spots a lot easier.
Start: 7:00 AM - MM 463 Fairport, IA
Finish 1:45 PM - MM 433 New Boston, IL
Time: 6:45 hours
Daily dist: 32 miles
Lock 16: 8:00-8:30
Lock 17: 11:45-Noon
Total dist: 5400+
Companions: Joe and Joe for the last two miles to their cabin
Weather: Mostly clear, 70’s, NW wind 10+ (tailwind)
Notes: New Boston by 12:45 then paddled up to Joes’ cabin on Sturgeon Bay
There was no wind to be complained about today. Right at Muscatine, IA the river took a sharp bend to the south putting the brisk northwest wind at my back. With a helping push and temperatures low enough to almost require a jacket I hardly broke a sweat as I headed downstream toward New Boston, IL.
Along the way I passed through two locks at the first (Lock 16) I learned a bit of the lingo used by the barge industry. When I radioed the lockmaster an requested lockage he told me to hold tight on his “river wall” because a “side by one” was locking through on his way upstream. The “river wall” he automatically clarified on the radio was the lock wall closest to the main channel (which was also the furthest away from the active lock chamber where the barge would be coming out). A “side by one” I knew was some sort of tow/barge arrangement because I could see it in the lock chamber, but I had to ask the lockmaster just what that meant.
So while I was being lowered six feet closer to the sea level in the lock I struck up a conversation with the lock master. There I learned that a “side by one” is a tow arrangement that is small enough to lock through in ONE go but the tow boat has to break loose and lock through on the SIDE of the raft of barges. Most of the lock chambers I’ve seen so far are big enough to accommodate three barges lashed side by side, and long enough to accommodate three in a row with a tow boat behind. The size of the particular tow boat that was coming through works better if the barges are lashed only two wide. That means that in order to maximize the number of barges he can push, the captain was pushing a raft four barges long and two wide. This lock can accommodate a raft four barges long, but not with the tow boat behind it. Therefore the towboat had to push the barges in, then break loose, come in along side, tie up, lock up, nudge the raft ahead just far enough to make room for him to maneuver back behind the barges, tie back up, and finally go on his way. The whole process takes a while but it’s still faster than having to break a long raft in half and take it through in two sections.
That's it... only one foot
The next lock I came to (Lock 17) provided me with the shortest lockage I’ve done so far. After entering the giant chamber and having the equally giant lock gates groan shut behind me, the downstream valves were opened and I watched only one foot of the wet lock wall reveal itself before the downstream lock gates started to open to send me on my way.
From Lock 17 to New Boston was only about four miles and with the current and wind pushing me I made it there in less than an hour. Waiting for me there were Joe and Jo a couple from the Quad Cities area that has a cabin on the end of Sturgeon Bay just above New Boston. They had been following along with the blog since the very beginning and when they realized I was coming through on my way to close up the gap they invited me to stay at their cabin. Through a couple e-mails and phone calls we hatched the idea to have them meet me in town and paddle up the couple of miles to their cabin together which would make them only the third and forth people to paddle with me on the river so far. As we shook hands and exchanged hellos at the boat ramp a steady stream of huge motor boats were launching into the river. Then as we made our way up the bay that stream of boats now motored their way past us on their way further up. Joe explained that up ahead was a popular beach that the boaters liked to hang out at. Sure enough, when we passed under a bridge there was a growing crowd of boats and people hauled out on the beach to the left. Just beyond the party beach on the right shore was the Joes’ cabin where we pulled our boats up on the sand beach and ended a wonderful day of paddling.
After reading the blog for so long, Jo was dialed in to my frequent mention of food and set about making sure I didn’t go hungry while I was with them. With a spread of every snack food you could imagine we enjoyed a nice chat before heading into Muscatine so I could see a bit of the city I’d paddled by earlier from land. Made from clam shells harvested from the river, Muscatine once was the largest button producing town in the world and to honor that tradition a huge statue of a clam digger has been placed by the water front. With the advent of plastic buttons that industry died out but the town also is the home of Heinz Ketsup and Hon office furniture. The statue of a bottle of ketsup on an office chair is yet to come. After dinner at Jo’s favorite local Mexican restaurant and a visit to the local ice cream parlor, we capped off the evening by stopping back down by the river front to see the highway bridge over the river light up with colored lights. Joe was disappointed that the normally choreographed changing multi colored lights seemed to be stuck on one color, but it was impressive just the same.