March 21, 2017 (Tuesday)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Weather conditions:
High – 60
Low – 35
Skies: sunshine and clouds, 20% chance of rain
Winds : NNE 11 mph

Miles traveled: 6
Total miles: 10
Where we are: Mosenthein Island

My view this morning:
As I sit here on a driftwood tree, roots included, sludge spews from the arms of a dredge sitting in the mouth of the Missouri, working to keep the sailing lane open for the tows and barges. Sea gulls gathered on a small sand bar appear to be a moving island of rocks with a few loose “rocks” floating away.

Rivergator John Ruskey, Driftwood Johnnie, sits at a roll-away blue table; his face intent as he captures a campfire scene in the gray of the morning with his watercolors on what started out as a blank canvas that same day. He is dressed for the cold morning in his blue Patagonia coat and sock-hat, which proudly displays an American Flag motif.  Driftwood Johnnie, founder and owner of Quapaw Canoe Company and expert of the Lower Mississippi for many years, recently added Middle Mississippi to his mastery. This expedition is a celebration of the addition of the Middle Mississippi to Rivergator.

I saw my first flying pelicans pass over our campsite during a breakfast of eggs, bacon, fruit, and homemade (by Lena) herb bread this morning. They fly kind-of like a flock of geese, but their sloppier “V” formation is more like a 160 degree angle instead of the 30 degrees the geese.

Sand-colored Dolly, the four-legged member of our crew, runs across the beach leaving her paw prints next to our human prints. She nonchalantly bumps my leg, politely asking for some attention.

Earlier, John and I walked down the beach in search of an eagle’s nest on the other side of the island. We easily spotted one of the largest nest we have ever seen. While we were on the Wabash a couples of years ago, we saw several nests, but none compared to the size of this one. The building of a nest amazes me. How do they keep it from crumbling with each additional stick? I can’t even build a stick foundation of kindling when starting a fire without it tumbling down.

My morning view is interrupted by the beating of a drum. I must go. I am being summoned to a Native American Smoke Smudging Ceremony.


I have now reached the end of my day and am sitting at the base of a bluff snuggled by the fire. For dinner we enjoyed raft potatoes (a special recipe born on a raft trip many years ago)–potatoes, onions, garlic, and cheese eaten with corn tortillas and Louisiana hot sauce. The air is cooling quickly as the yellow round source of heat slowly slips below the tree-line. Our tent is perched high on the bluff providing a spectacular view of the river. I would love to live in a house on a bluff such as this, as long as I still had access to the river. I would be sure I had a lot of windows and a pair of binoculars always readily available. I would watch the eagles fly by. Maybe I would see one catch its lunch from the river and carry it away to finish its meal. I would be on the watch for deer and other animals to come to the water for a drink.

Although we traveled only six miles by river, we crossed barriers as a united crew–spiritual and physical.

One barrier was a spiritual one during the Native Smoke Smudging Ceremony, which began with Rivers’ drum signal. As I walked to the head of the island, I saw a map drawn in the sand via the end of a long stick, John Ruskey’s, known as Driftwood, artwork. The map represented an Eagle’s eye view of this region of the river, including the confluences with the Illinois and Missouri.

I turned to see Driftwood walking down the beach carrying an ash-filled blue metal coffee cup and a piece of smoking wood. He approached each member of our expedition individually saying, “Would you like the healing powers of white sage?” The white sage, one of four sacred herbs, came from the Columbia River Valley.

“With outstretched arms, rotate with the sun.” Rivers continued to beat the drum as Driftwood waved the smoldering piece of sage over the body.

“Lift each leg to get the entire body.” He passed the smoking object under each foot.

“The smoke cleanses the soul just as water cleanses the body,”

When all had been cleansed by the smoking sage, John introduced us to two people, Jimmy and Lou, whose ashes he was going to return to the river because we are all joined by the river. After he told us the stories of these two souls, he turned to Lena to ask if she wanted to speak of Jimmy. She breathed out ” I can not!” as her eyes welled red with tears. Driftwood picked up the blue coffee cup, Lena joined him with a bag. They walked together into the Mississippi River and released the ashes into the water Jimmy and Lou so loved. As Driftwood and Lena returned to the beach, Rivers beat the drum one last time indicating the end of the ceremony. We all walked solemnly back to the campsite.

We finished loading the canoes and paddled to The Chain of Rocks, where our next barrier, a physical one, awaited us. The Chain of Rocks a natural rock ledge, where the bottom falls out of the river as it looses latitude on its way to the Gulf. From above on the ledge, the initial drop looked large but smooth. However, where the dropping waters renter the surface of the river below, the waters churned white with wild currents. Our options? 1–we could run them, but running the Chain was too dangerous in fully loaded canoes. 2– portage the gear and the boats up the steep rocky bank and around the Chain. We decided on option # 3. Unload all the gear, throw it up to the ledge of the lookout, and carry everything through a parking lot to the other side. Then, with small crews, run the two big canoes over the dangerous Chain.

Once everything was transported, John volunteered to be one of the crew members of “Grasshopoer” as they prepared to take her and Junebug I” over the Chain. I chose to stay behind and film the event from the lookout. I was scared. I kissed him and said my usual prayer, “Keep him upright and safe.”

The river was at 13.5′ on the St. Louis gage. Not ideal, since deeper water would significantly diminish the drop and ensuing Rapids. But Driftwood and Big Muddy Mike assured the teams that it could be done.

I took my place at the lookout and watched as John, Rivers, Lena, Tim, and Driftwood climbed in “Grasshopoer.” They worked their way back upstream via the eddy in order to give a longer approach and took their time approaching in order to achieve the perfect angle. They looked on as “Junebug 1” dropped into the chain, the large canoe disappearing from sight for those and then from those coming behind in the “Grashopper”. Then, as the current grabbed “Grasshopper”, she too dropped into the chain, a white burst of seas spilling over the port bow sending gallons of water sloshing inside. But paddling furious to loose themselves from the grasp of the Rapids, both boats emerged safely and unscathed, putting ashore in order to begin the task of restoring all of our gear and supplies.

After both canoes were safely on the other side, we had a gourmet lunch of salmon and lunch meat sandwiches, hummus, veggies, and fruit. Don’t you feel sorry for us “roughing it” here in the wilderness?

Our four-legged friend, Dolly, and Alicia left us at Chain of Rocks today. Our girl number is down to three–Lena, Janet, and me.

When then reloaded “Junebug I” and “Grasshopper” a second time today and paddled down the river to our home for the night, Mosenthein Island.

In the amount of time it has taken me to complete the last portion of this daily journal entry, the yellow round source of heat has completely disappeared and has been replaced by the lights of St Louis reflecting on the river downstream.

It is time to climb the bluff and into my tent eager to see what my view will be tomorrow morning.