Mississippi River Source to Sea: 2 Months

2 months. 62 days. 4 zeros. 58 days on the river. 1,752 miles down. 568 miles to go.


Final Locks

I made my way through all the locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi. Previous information says there are 29 locks but that is not accurate. There are only 26 with #23 being nonexistent but having a 5 & 5A. Lock #27 is for the barges with the canoers' option as the chain of rocks. I got into a good rhythm for a while getting to locks and not having to wait, but there were a handful of times where I did have to wait and hour or so for a barge to pass through. I arrived at one lock around 10AM to be told it wouldn’t open until 3PM. I asked about a portage and was told I could just go over the spillway. So I rowed over to the other side of the river to the end of the dam and easily crossed a concrete ramp just barely rising above the river. Easy peasy. But I should note that I got permission first, you should still absolutely call the lockmaster first before trying such a thing cause each dam levels are different.

But my luck turned at the last dam, lock #26, just before St. Louis. I had heard ahead of time that they were repairing the lock so you had to portage. I arrived around 3 and called the lockmaster who said they couldn’t take a recreation vessel until they take 3 commercial barges which at 2 hours a piece would be 6 hours. Or I could portage around along a bike path. Well, I couldn’t wait that long because it would be after 9 and I’m night blind so I wouldn’t be able to see nor would I be able to find a camping spot on the other side. So I tried to portage. I took all my stuff out of the canoe and somehow, miraculously hauled the 18 &1/2ft. canoe, containing my 15lb rowing insert, up and over a steep bank of boulder rocks. After that I put the wheels on and had to walk it around. However, it was a long way, over a mile and I was trying to carry everything at once which made it extremely heavy and bent the wheels. I hit a wall and just couldn’t go a step further, it was too hard. That was one of my lowest moments.

Luckily, my dad was able to drive up and rescue me. He arrived at 2:30AM after driving nonstop back up after leaving me that morning due to van troubles. We hauled the canoe up and over a grassy bank and loaded it on the van after taking the insert out. The chain of rocks was 10 miles further so I decided to just put in after that since I wasn’t sure how the water levels were for going over it. But to my dismay and scouting around a park in the dark at 4AM we couldn’t find another put in. The area immediately became industrial with no access. The next boat ramp I could find was 40 miles from where I took out at Lock #26. So I skipped 40 miles of the river. I’m not too hardup about it because it was a super industrial and busy area of St. Louis. I was just disappointed to not get a picture by the Arch that I had been thinking about for weeks.

Swing of Things

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It seems as though it has taken 7 weeks for me to finally get in the swing of things out on the river. I’m finally rowing 40 miles a day consistently. I’m getting into a routine with breaks during the day and camp set-up.  It all seems to have improved since leaving the lock and dam system after St. Louis. The water level is lower so all the sandy beaches are exposed making it much easier to find places to camp rather than searching for hours. [Previously I would look at google maps for a sandy spot around the mile marker I was hoping to reach for the day. I would pin a spot on the app and make my way there. However, I started having to pin several spots as most would not be there when I arrived due to being under water or just an old sat pic.]

Breaks

The sandy spots also make it easier for me to stop for breaks and get out of the canoe and into the shade. I have found that I reach a breaking point and lose it if I try to take a break and can’t find a place. I need a place that I can land my canoe on that isn’t rocky or quick-mud and that has shade. I tend to wait till the last minute to stop and if I can’t get out of the boat that instant I get rageful and my emotions pour out. This outcome is probably attributed to being dehydrated, hungry, tired, and perpetually exposed to the harsh sun all day, every day. On the hottest days I feel as if the sun is boiling my brain and melting my skin.

That’s where I think this experience has been more difficult than say my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Even on trail I tended to not stop very often. I wouldn’t stop to take off layers, to get a snack, or even to pee. I just didn’t want to set down my pack and have to put it on again so I developed this habit of just not stopping. However, if I ever really needed to I could, in an instant, stop walking and sit down to rest exactly where I just stood. I just can’t do that in the boat. Sure I can stop rowing but it’s not restful because I’m still in the boat, still sitting on a super uncomfortable seat, and exposed to the sun. There have been times where I just don’t want to or can’t take even one. more. stroke. I get this overwhelming urge to get out of the situation and jump out of the boat and not row anymore, but I can’t because I’m in the middle of the river. I just can’t stop and get out of the boat. I have to keep rowing till I find a suitable place. And that seemingly small thing is actually a big thing for me. It’s that inability to quickly stop to break that I don’t have access to. I can't stress this enough, being exposed to the sun like that all day is oppressive and seems to hit a fever pitch where I become increasingly angry if I can’t get out of that situation and into the shade to cool down.

Attitude

You might not make the connection between attitude and a consistent power supply but allow me to elaborate.

I use a Goal Zero Nomad 7 solar panel and their Venture 30 power bank to charge my phone and other electronics. However, if it’s cloudy 3 days in a row I’m shot. The power bank is good for a few charges but if the weather isn’t going to be sunny there’s no way I can charge my phone. And since I use my phone to navigate the river, find places to camp, figure out mileage, tell time, and to give a location of my whereabouts to my parents I need it to be working at all times. So if I have to conserve my phone battery that means I can’t listen to music or podcasts. Which means I row in silence for 10 hours a day and then sit in camp in silence, leading to all day in silence since I usually never see anyone out on the river.

Now, over the years I've gained experience of being and adventuring solo so I can handle it, I’m sure far better than most. And I do think it is an acquired skill, to be able to be alone in the woods or river or wherever. One that I think is highly undervalued or unrecognized until you actually go do it yourself. [As a side note, I think this is actually a major factor in why some folks are not successful at backpacking or any other comparative activity for an extended period of time. In this over-stimulating time people are not used to being solely by themselves and left to their own minds. Plus, being solitary isn't exactly viewed positively or "successful" in our western culture.] I have digressed; I am usually okay in silence. I’ve taken road trips where I sit in silence for hours just in my head thinking; I stay awake in bed at night lost in my head daydreaming, creating, and planning.

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However, after days in silence and getting caught up in unrealistic daydreams it got to a point where I felt my mental attitude was being negatively impacted by living in a false world and not being present. That’s something I always struggle with, staying present. And it's not lost on me that I'm not present when I listen to podcasts and music, but sometimes I desperately need a distraction from the monotony and pain. Because when I’m in silence and I’m not lost in my daydreams then I’m thinking of the pain in my butt, back, and hands, how hot I am, etc, and my mood sours.

I have noticeably recognized a change in my attitude, and I am much happier when I can listen to podcasts and music compared to when I am in silence for days on end trying to conserve battery. So this has added an unexpected challenge. Moving forward, making sure I have plenty of power to charge my phone and speaker is very important to me because there is no need to have a negative attitude when I know what I can do to fix it. I mean one of my favorite things is jamming out to music in my boat when I have the whole river to myself.

After St. Louis

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I hit my max mileage thus far, 47 miles one day. I quickly passed out of the Upper Mississippi River section after Cairo, Illinois, and started a new mile marker countdown that would lead me to the gulf. From that point I also passed through several states one right after another. Soon thereafter, I arrived in Memphis where my parents and granny met me for the night. Memphis is the closest spot on the river to where I'm from, and the drive for them was less than 4 hours. The kind folks at Mud Island Marina let me keep my canoe overnight for free while I got to clean up at a hotel and have a nice dinner out with my family.

Now

Which leads me to here. After 2 months on the river on August 12th, and 1,752 miles completed, I got off the river. But not permanently. I’ll be taking a little over a month off because I got an exciting opportunity to work for ESPN as a runner at the U.S. Open in New York City. It’s something I had been hoping to get to do so it was always in the plans that if I got the opportunity I would take it even if I wasn’t finished on the river. I’m super stoked about the job and to live in NYC for a month, but I’m also glad to have a break from the river to rest my body. I’ve been having serious joint pains in my fingers from gripping the oars, and I’m hoping that a break from rowing will fix the problem and that I haven’t caused irreparable damage to my fingers. So the plan is to get back on the river at the end of September with just 568 miles to go taking around 2 weeks to get to the gulf.

Sara Leibold