Canoeing the Mississippi: Thunderstorms
Posted: Saturday, October 6, 2012 at 4:45pm
July 29, 2012
Dark ominous thunderclouds are forming behind us. You can smell the salt. We’re so close, only a few miles left in our two-month trip. Streaks of jagged light are off in the west. We’re counting the time between flash and sound, approximating its striking distance from us. Okay, we’re good. Keep paddling. Are we riding a storm into the ocean, like some fabled myth? It now has overcome us. Rain pelts us with the force of a Midwest hailstorm, graying our visibility… and we ABSOLUTELY love it! Grinning from ear to ear.
Thunderstorms have been an important part of this trip, an important part of our own discovery. Early on in Minnesota, we were fearful of thunderstorms and sought protection in our raincoats and under trees. For good reason too: we had cooler days up north and one hair-raising lightning strike that scared the you-know-what out of us. But by the end of the trip, thunderstorms had become welcomed companions.
Whether it was the refreshing, cool shower or the visual symphony of water droplets indenting the river, rainstorms always gave us energy. They afforded us a break from a scorching sun, and they gave us an ambience of adventure with lower visibility and thus less certainty. They also became an intersection of even greater connection with our elements. With shirts stripped, rain would slap our exposed skin and wash off layers of human-salt and earth-dirt. It reminded us of how this rain is the water underneath us and how this river is the rain that’s hitting us. And we were somehow in-between. These were times of connection, of energy, and of transformation.
It was a gradual process. Embracing thunderstorms is not always pleasant. Yet, it’s a matter of perspective. Mark knew this. One time, after rushing to set up our tents due to a powerful storm barreling in, Mark forwent dryness and decided to find shelter in another way: he submerged himself in the warm river and let the pounding, cold rain hit just the top of his head. He reminded us that certain inconveniences are gifts.
We discovered that to embrace thunderstorms appropriately, you had to respect their power while simultaneously looking for their benefits. They were like lions: appreciate their beauty but respect their danger. For example, we had a thunderstorm paddle right before entering Memphis. It led to greater anticipation and some awesome action shots. But with tight channels and a fast current, we had some precarious cuts alongside and in between huge barges. During this time, there was a good probability that the tugboats didn’t see us until we had pulled up next to them. Their tight turns produced great wake, reverberating off the shore, and with an already strong wind, the water was choppy and unstable. Jeff and Jonathan had one turn where they slipped between thirty yards of water separating a barge and the bank. As they rode parallel to the passing barge, they cut through a strong eddy, almost loosing control and getting slammed with wake in every direction. But the cut was perfect. If not for the great line, they would have tipped, with dangerous currents underneath them. You must respect its power.
We encountered another thunderstorm as we paddled back upstream from the Gulf of Mexico to Venice. It was officially our last day on the river. We had a strong wind behind us that actually pushed us upstream, allowing an easier paddle. But that strong wind also produced huge whitecaps crashing behind us. With strong wake from ocean liners as we traversed the Head of Passes, our canoes were being hit like bumper cars and then getting pulled back into the rising whitecaps. The wind was so strong that an ironic thought entered my mind: we might tip (or worst case, die) in the Mississippi River on the last day after already canoeing its entirety. You must respect its power.
You have to respect its power and adjust to its effects. Yes, we had to bail more frequently. Yes, we had more instability and wake. Yes, we had lower visibility. Yes, we needed to have heightened awareness with barges and lightning strikes. But you must be reminded of its gift. As we entered the Gulf like a fabled myth, we were washed cleaned and purified by thunderstorms. Grinning from ear to ear.