Saturday, August 25, 2012

Missouri River Rumble-Day 8

A juvenile Mississippi kite.

I hadn’t been back at the park long last night before sleep beckoned. The first flashes of light filtered through the tent and awoke me at 4 a.m. Then I could hear the thunder. The frequency of the light and sound show had me debating whether or not I should try to break camp and risk waking others, but then I heard a couple others rattling gear. The object was to get gear packed before the storm came through and soaked everything, and within minutes we could see people scurrying about everywhere.

Breakfast was to be catered at the St. Charles train station, but unfortunately we had no access to its interior. As the storm broke, those of us who had our gear safely packed away in the truck, huddled under the overhanging eaves of the train station’s roof. The caterer arrived and started setting up breakfast in the wind and driving rain. I suggested she move the table around the corner in the lee of the building and grabbed one end of the table. She agreed, and breakfast was on the move. That kept the food dry, but finding a sheltered place to eat was another matter. The rain continued on and off for most of the morning, but after being wet all week from sweat, a bit of heavenly fresh water didn’t arouse as much as a second thought.

A mere seven miles east of St. Charles we would pass Charbonier Bluff. At 655-feet, it is 25 feet higher than the top of the Gateway to the West arch in St. Louis. It was considered sacred by Native Americans, and evidence of their villages and burial mounds there date to the Mississippian period, or 800-1400 A.D. It was recorded in Clark’s expedition journal in May, 1804. In 1819, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne landed there to establish a Native American Catholic School, and several buildings were erected by the students of St. Stanislaus Seminary. Ruins of the buildings are still evident today in what is now called the St. Stanislaus Conservation Area.

There are mile markers set all along the river to help with pilotage. The markers took on new significance when we could see them drop to single digits, and then there was the one-mile marker, which measured the distance to the middle of the Mississippi River channel. We could see the treetops whipping back and forth, but when we came into the open water of the confluence, the wind coming up the Mississippi hit us. The river ripples quickly grew into big waves.

Our destination was a bit south of the confluence. It was laid out as a 29 mile paddle, but as we entered the confluence a couple boats turned north and paddled close to the point of land between the two rivers. There were a number of people in our group that had been here before, so I interpreted this as a tactical move to shortcut much of the turbulence in the confluence. We learned later that someone had just make a mistake and turned the wrong way, so in the great tradition of the blind leading the blind, a dozen of us, apparently all thinking this was a smart tactical move, followed in his wake and added a 1.6-mile further slog against the wind and waves for 30.6 miles on the day, and 159.7 miles for the trip.

To make sure we didn’t run afoul of any commercial shipping, both natural resources and corps of engineers boats turned out to watch and monitor our crossing. The Mississippi was determined to make our crossing memorable and hard-won. With what would have been the most logical time to have a few boats capsize, everyone was on their best game, although a couple did have to be towed in because they simply couldn’t make progress against the wind and waves. Everyone just pretty much headed straight across to reach the east bank, and then paddled south in a bit of a lee and calmer water near the bank. The takeout was undoubtedly the toughest of the trip. There was no ramp, and our boats had to be carried over rocks and gullies to mount the high bank along the shore and reach a Corps of Engineers work area. Everyone pitched in to get the boats up on level ground, and then a shuttle took us back to the Lewis and Clark Visitors’ Center to retrieve our gear from the shuttle truck, and our vehicles. We then drove back to the Corps of Engineers lot to load our boats. There was a flurry of activity to drive to our respective hotels, shower and change, and then drive into Alton, IL, to the Masonic building for a banquet. That would wrap up the trip, and lead us to a night’s sleep in a real bed. For all of us on the river during this time, it had to mark the hottest temperatures and lowest waters for many, many years.

It was hot enough for us, but Jean described what was going on while they had 115-degree temperatures for several days at home. She filled the bird bath two and three times a day, and rigged a misting hose for the birds. Normal enemies, or birds of prey and their dinners, settled under the mister. The hawks, like the Mississippi kite, came in and just flopped on their bellies with their wings outspread, and laid there all day surrounded by small birds and squirrels, all spread eagle in the cooling mist to survive.

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