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  • Writer's pictureRoberta Rathert

River: Four Ways

Way One

It was May when I put in at Winnie Dam, east of Lake Winnibigoshish, and had my first moments with this Mississippi River water that comes from the far north. It was smooth, clear, and shiny. Agreeable, I thought. I wanted this kind of water and I got it despite the nearby downriver dams being wide open. It was difficult to consider the water I was first riding on to be the same water being spewed out of the dams below. Its mood had changed like a scary person who goes from calm and gentle to loud-mouthed and fitful at a spontaneous moment with no warning. Nobody wants to be around it. This brash contrast set up the tentative relationship I had with the water these few weeks I’ve been on it.

On the first day, as I floated along, sighing relief that I am here after all the planning and, look, the water is good-natured. It is behaving one way and that’s the way I like it. We enjoyed that first day, and again the second after I got an early start following those first sleep-out nights by myself and away from home. It was good sleep even though not enough. Everything is going well, that’s what I thought many times those initial days. Even the second day’s water was perfect, maybe more perfect than the first. I feel foolish now, like when a friend is made and trusted too soon, and they turn ugly before the beginning is even over. But in this situation, there was no going home and shutting the door when you think they were coming up the walk. I was on a long thread of water that did not permit a change of mind. So here I was, trusting and not trusting at the same time. It left me with slight nervousness.

Way Two

There were other times when the river water showed this calmer side, one of a human being who is in control of their tendencies and labile emotions. I fell for it most times, shamefully trusting it, but was nagged by the truth underneath. There was more to it than this, I knew, but I was enjoying so much its good-hearted spirit that I put the water’s potential for change in my periphery. I wrote about it one day, in “Lost and Found” on June 3, when I found myself in flood waters. I felt so betrayed. It definitely was a trick, of course, that I assumed was planned just for me. But later, I heard from a fellow paddler that it happened to him the same. Paddling along, possibly literally humming a sing-songy tune, as the river swelled below the boat, started swirling quietly, filling every empty space of grazing land, woodland, and hollow, without a sound. It was disgusting how devious, but there was no time to think about that while circling the same sloppy wet, rapidly shifting and swirling, thick whirlpooling water paths that all ended up in the same places. I was rescued from the peril of that day, but not from the skepticism I developed about the water itself.

Way Three

In “Live Long and Prosper,” I told how I all but drowned to circumstances and my own ignorance. If I hadn’t learned it before, I learned then that the water always needs the upper hand. That day, I missed some of the cues that, if I’d noticed, go together into a full picture of its character. Of course, I realized, I was in the water’s house. It is this riverbed that gets changed by the water, by getting too full or not full enough, too fast or not at all moving, this is the will of the water. Its home is here. But if the water comes into my house, through the roof or an opened window, maybe a broken pipe, it is mine to speak loudly about. It was on this day, the river water rose up around me like a bad dad who lurches across the supper table with a hard slap to your cheek, out of nowhere for a slight you didn’t even know you perpetrated. More hurtful to the heart than painful to the face because you thought you were doing right all along. It’s an ugly feeling and one that can’t be undone with a sorry. This day left me with the slap, without faith in myself, like I was surrounded by someone always bigger than me, smarter too. It took a bunch of days to wear it off, but when it didn’t go completely, I got back on the river anyway. I figured I just had to live with it now.

Way Four

Lake Pepin was not a mistake. It was a necessity, like passing over a bridge with a troll underneath to get to a sleeping beauty. I was not fully confident after the slap-down nearly ten days earlier. But I went back anyway, the sting still burning. The Source-to-Sea trip is long and I had to get restarted, or just plain quit. On June 18, I was back at it. The first hour was like a hum-along song. The water was smooth and uncongested. I was foolishly feeling the potential. Along we go, I said, and the river obliged without a mood. I noticed things started to widen and add some significant elbow turns, which causes a kayaker to paddle hard and wide to get across the chasms caused by these twists. The main channel ran efficiently across the corners and, on that day, it was filled with pleasure boats and cruisers. I don’t care what anyone says, kayaks are at the bottom of this food chain unless someone is riding in a barrel. Cutting across in or outside the channel makes no difference, we are sitting ducks wherever we go.

Was it my imagination or was Lake Pepin water turning opaque? This was new because no matter what its attitude, the water had always been clear. The Pepin water was thick and left a dry powdery brown smear on my boat, paddles, arms, and water boots. This is the first time the river water left its stain on everything. I went along with little understanding of this transformation until I noticed the riverbank was solid runny mud. Up north, it was mud but not like this. Down home, it was warm and sandy. Pepin’s mud leached into everything and sucked out roots to leave the trees leaning on one another like dominoes. Others were standing on their unearthed roots like fingertips imbalanced toward a passing-by kayaker. The water was brown with no evidence at all of what was beneath. This wasn’t all the conversion there was. I barely got used to this heavy water when it started lifting up from its bed. Not in only one way or in any reliable style. First, it came wavy as an echo of passing speed boats. It would rise, then calm, over and again. After that, fields of small rollers came and left, repeatedly. Some larger rollers lumbered through and took up lots of room. Twice a tow of barges came slowly but left hulking rollers behind. I decided to turn my boat sideways in the river, perpendicular to the rollers as they came, so my bow could penetrate the roller and divide it. This really helped to diminish the impact of a side roller but straightening the boat and getting started again took a lot of energy. I thought I had it all learned and was implementing things with confidence when the wave field changed again. Then came waves two-feet and three-feet high, rollers were joining in, some with white caps. If this wasn’t bad enough, here I was going downstream while the surface was moving upstream. If that wasn’t difficult, the action was produced southeast to northwest, pushing me in a tilt-back upriver. Every paddle stroke was like walking down an up escalator, obviously more effort than result. I decided to pull out and take a break but realized there have been no boat ramps, no safe solid riverbank, all covered with riprap. The water had upped the game with no warning. I wondered if I could even surrender now.

The Mississippi River’s water is not finished with me. I have kayaked nearly 18% of its route but have witnessed only a thin skin of its potential. It has a complicated persona and I am no good match for it. How persistent is my tenacity? I am determined, but to what extent? Between us, the water is stronger and, in its own natural environment, a whole lot smarter. But I can float, it cannot. Humans have dammed it up, but water has gone around and made new routes for itself. It evaporates, I do not; I can drown in water, but it will never die. We cannot be in a battle of who is on top. I’m just trying to float along downriver, but will the water allow me by?

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