Floating With Smokey

(written without apologies to Steinbeck)

I don’t remember how I first heard it, but in the early Summer of 2009 I learned that the Missouri River was open water from Sioux City Iowa to its confluence with the Mississippi at St. Louis Missouri.  It had long been a fantasy to float a raft down the Mississippi, surely the Missouri could serve as well.  So I started making plans.  I had already scheduled a month off work for the Fall to go to Maine to see the Fall color change, so it was fairly easy to move things forward a couple of weeks and start planning to raft the Missouri instead.
As I started researching and hunting for a used raft, it slowly dawned on me that a raft would not do the trick, I needed a canoe or a small aluminum boat.  I started telling friends and family of my plans, some were incredulous, some were skeptical, and some were downright impressed.  A couple of months before the trip, I started getting a little scared, I thought maybe I should make other vacation plans, plans that were less extreme.  So I started getting maps of other areas and contemplating doing something other than throwing myself to the fates of a river.  But it was too late for that, too many people expected me to follow through, people were asking about my trip wondering if I was getting ready.  Not having the heart to tell them that I had chickened out, I hurriedly bought a canoe, thus locking myself into the trip.
While I did rush into buying a canoe, this does not mean that I did not research my purchase.  I ended up with a mid-range plastic canoe, a Mad River Adventure 14, a general purpose multi-use canoe.
I and a house mate took the canoe up to San Pablo Reservoir to test it out.  We enjoyed paddling around the reservoir, the canoe was stable and fairly easy to paddle and control.  After a few hours the wind came up and the water became choppy, we ended up tipping into the cold water.  With the wind and waves we were unable to right it or push it to shore.  We treaded water until the police came to rescue us.  Not a very noble beginning to an adventure.  But the police and rescue were very kind, while they warmed me up they also dragged my canoe to shore, loaded it on the van and tied it down.
With this mis-adventure in mind, I had to rethink things.  As I researched adding flotation to the canoe, I became aware of outriggers.  Basically an aluminum arm that sticks out each side of the canoe with a piece of styrofoam on it, this prevents the canoe from tipping.  Keeping the canoe upright was an even better idea than making it float better after being tipped.
I never really got a chance to acclimate Smokey to the canoe before it was time to head for the river.  We loaded the canoe on top of the van and drove like mad men (and dogs) to Missouri, spent a long holiday weekend with family, then it was the moment we had been building to.  Dad drove us up to Craig Missouri, where we entered the water at H.F. Thurneau access.  I unloaded the canoe, loaded it up, and tied the various ropes and gear to it.  Taking a deep breath, I grabbed Smokey up and threw her in the canoe and shoved off.  Like it or not, we were now committed to the river.

The first day on the river was a struggle, we only made 13 miles. I had heard horror stories of the barge traffic on the river. Knowing that the barges used the main channel on the outside of the curves, I cut the curves on the inside to avoid them. I was paddling the shortest distance from point A to point B, from inside curve to inside curve, ignoring the current. I paddled steadily for six hours and ended the day exhausted. I was wondering what I had gotten myself into, was the entire trip to be such a struggle? Smokey did not relax that first day, she stood stiff with her head between my knees. That first night we found a nice campsite along the river. There was quite a bit of mud, but I pitched camp and fell asleep early. During the night, it rained…and rained. Even though I was awake long before sunup, we stayed in the tent, and waited for the rain to quit. About 8 AM the rain slowed to a drizzle and we got up, made coffee and packed up camp. I loaded everything into the canoe, and when I tossed Smokey in, she scrambled around, spilling my coffee and leading to a caffeine free start to the day.
I took up where I had left off the previous day, paddling steadily, ignoring the flow of the river and working much harder than was necessary. Around 10 AM we were hailed by two fishermen in a bass boat. They pulled up wondering where we were going, impressed with our story, they gave me a coke and waved as they pushed away. The soda did much to brighten my spirits and I bit deep as I paddled, enjoying the trip for the first time. Around noon the sun came out briefly so I stopped along the bank and spread my gear out to dry. I made another cup of coffee before loading the canoe and pushing off for points downstream. It was while drinking this cup of coffee (and after having a few puffs), that I noticed that the current moved pretty quickly around the outside of the curves. So I let myself drift around the bends then I would paddle across the river and do it again. Smokey also ventured out from between my feet and climbed into the middle seat where she set stiffly and stared at me. We made 27 miles that day and ended the day refreshed and on a high note. We camped that night on the Missouri side of the river and a prettier campsite is rarely found.

Awoke the next morning to fog and a light drizzle. The river was calm and all was quiet. The good feelings of the previous evening carried over to the morning and I actually enjoyed the drizzle. Since all was wet, we simply tossed everything into the canoe wet, made coffee and set off. the morning was spent drifting through the fog and drizzle and may have been the high point of the trip. Around 11 we stopped to hang the tent and sleeping bag out to dry while we made coffee. A couple of boats stopped by while waiting for the tent to dry, it was here that I noticed that some people were curious about where we were coming from and some were interested in where we were going, but rarely was anyone interested in both. While we were taking our break I took the opportunity to redistribute the weight in the canoe. I moved weight forward, while it made the canoe more sluggish and harder to maneuver, it also brought the front down and made the wind less of a big deal to deal with.
Shortly after our mid morning stop we sighted our first barge. I noticed it far downstream and immediately moved to the off side of the river. I waited but the tug and barge appeared stopped. After a while I decided to cross the river and bypass the barge as much as possible. When I got about a third of the way across, I heard the tug power up and could see it churning water at the stern. I paddled back to shore and got out of the canoe allowing Smokey to nose around on shore. I noted that it was a small work barge and a Coast Guard tug as the pilot gave a blast on his horn and waved as they passed. After they had passed and I noted no waves of any note I told Smokey to jump in and we shoved off to paddle to the other side. The water was only slightly choppy until near the middle when the waves became two feet and were rolling in from two different directions. The canoe was leaning heavily as it rolled the waves, the outriggers were extended three feet on each side and while the canoe would not flip, we had it leaning and dropping at steep angles. I was digging deep with the paddles trying to keep the nose of the canoe where the waves were crashing together while moving downstream. As I went to dig with the paddle to bring the canoe around to meet the waves, the canoe rose and the paddle caught nothing but air. I nearly tumbled out of the canoe as the wave rolled through. After reassuming my seat the worst of the waves were over and another five or ten minutes found us continuing on our way. Smokey ventured out towards the front of the canoe, finally making herself comfortable.

Latter that day we passed through the city of St. Joseph. The river was narrow and fairly fast, there were also a couple of bridges to navigate. As we made our way through St. Joseph there were also a few work barges moving empty barges back and forth across the river. It was at this time that I realized I did not want to float through Kansas City, so I called Mike to see if he would pick me up in Atchison and drive me to the other side of KC. He agreed. We learned to avoid the mud when we stopped that night and found a rocky bank to tie up to and make camp.
With the rain and fog over, and with only 20 miles to get to Atchison, I decided to stay late in camp and let things dry. At 11, stuff was still wet so I tossed it into the canoe and headed downstream. We went slow, with only 15 miles to accomplish that day. We didn’t see many people along the river that day and made an early camp 6 miles above Atchison. We enjoyed a long evening and built a fire to help pass the time.
Before the trip, I had done research on where we would camp each night; this seemed important. Missouri has numerous conservation areas along the river to serve as flood mediators and I had carefully mapped each one using the Missouri DNR website. Once I was actually on the river I found that all of that work had been for naught, most of the river bank was empty of human occupation and the entire thing was open to camping. It was a very small percentage of the river banks that were actually occupied and we could pull up and camp anywhere that looked like it might be flat enough to set up the tent. I found that this was representative of my preparations, I had researched and prepared for things that in the end did not pan out to be real problems. Not knowing what the true problems would be on the river, I was prepared for all of the real problems and a goodly number of things that did not turn out to be problems at all.
Up early the following morning we floated halfway to Atchison and stopped to let things dry out and drink more coffee. We made it to Atchison shortly after 11 and tied up at a dock near downtown at Liberty park. The locals were very friendly and let me use their phone as Verizon did not have coverage. I also heard tales of Lewis and Clark’s time in the area, there was much local pride in that they had spent Independence day near this area and had stayed a few days to repair their gear and clean their guns. Mike arrived and we loaded the canoe back onto the van for the trip back to Columbia where we were going to spend the rest of the weekend. I found Atchison to be a friendly and inviting town.

When the weekend had passed, Dad drove me and the Smokester over to Sibley Missouri and dropped us back off at the river to continue our journey. The river had started to change below St. Joseph, below KC the changes were even more pronounced. Less curves meant more paddling, there were also dikes on the outside of the curves meaning I had to back paddle as I made each one to keep from being pushed over. In all the river was wider, straighter, and slower with the current broken around the edges by numerous dikes. We set off and made 20 miles that first half day, we saw no one on the river. It was the hottest day of the trip so far and I found if I set the tent up in the woods off the river that the dew was greatly reduced and our mid day dry out period could be lessened, but not eliminated.
One of the problems that I had foreseen was mosquitoes. I was expecting them to be out in droves, I was fearful that Smokey (who has no experience with mosquitoes) would be tormented by the blood suckers. To combat this I had bought a couple of bottles of military grade DEET. I expected the bugs to be a constant companion, but in the end they were not a problem. On the river itself, there were no mosquitoes. In retrospect I suppose that the combination of open water and wind kept them well outside the river banks. It was only when I set up camp above the banks in the woods that they were a problem, but even here they were not as bad as I had feared. So it became a trade off, camp on the river and wake to everything soaking wet from the dew, or camp amongst the trees and deal with the mosquitoes.
The next day was more of the same, hot and a current that demanded constant paddling. For a second day in a row we saw no one on the river. Daily a Corp of Engineers tug would push a barge either upstream or down. The tug captain was very kind and would cut his engine and idle past us not creating a huge wake and not disrupting our journey to a great degree. We made 23 miles that day and camped a bit early within view of Waverly.

That night I was awakened about midnight with a piercing headache, I laid there holding my head till I finally was relieved again with sleep about 4 AM. It was 8 before I got out of bed and I still felt head achey and generally run down. I popped a couple of ibuprofen and jumped into the river. I drifted slowly for a few hours while the ibuprofen slowly did their magic. Sometime after our morning break the wind picked up and blew steadily into our face. I don’t know how it did it, but whether we were pushing North, East, or South, the wind was always a head wind. Feeling like crap I paddled desultorily and did my best to make progress downstream. Around 3 the water got choppy, this made for a rough ride and made Smokey nervous making her pace the canoe adding to the steady rise and fall. It took us all day to make 20 miles and it was a relief to find a sandbar to end the day on. After a hearty dinner, I took a couple more ibuprofen and went to bed early.
The next morning I awoke at 4 AM feeling great. I had the canoe ready to push off as soon as it was light enough to feel safe. With the rising sun the wind returned, blowing harder than the previous day. Feeling good, I set the canoe into it and paddled away. After noon the water got choppy, much choppier than the previous day. I had to tack back and forth across the river to make progress, more than once I quit paddling to rest and found myself being pushed back upstream. If I rested too long the canoe would get side ways to the waves and they would sometimes come over the gunnels. So I was interspersing my paddling with periodic bailing of the water accumulating in the canoe. We took a long lunch and got back to it in the afternoon. We paddled until our usual stop time and slowly cruised the bank looking for a flat spot for the tent. The first few that we stopped and checked out were overrun with poison ivy, so we continued on. Shortly before dark we found a spot that wasn’t as flat as I would have like but seemed to be relatively free of poison ivy. Somehow we had made 29 miles that day. It had also been our longest day, in the water before sunup until after sundown. And while it had been a struggle to get down river, I had enjoyed it, it was a good sort of exhaustion that led me to sleep as soon as camp was pitched and dinner was finished.

We awoke to a beautiful day. The wind had died down, the overcast had lifted, the sky was populated with white fluffy clouds which bounded overhead, seemingly as happy with the day as I was. We took a break and just let the river slowly take us downstream toward our destination. We only made 21 miles that day, but we wanted nothing more. We stopped often and played on the banks and just generally enjoyed the break from the winds. This was the most Tom Sawyer like day of our trip, no worries, no hassles, just a serene float. We started running into fishermen again, they were friendly and would hail us wondering where we were going or where we had come from. That night we made camp on the prettiest sandbar that one could hope for pulling ourselves out of the river a good two hours early to enjoy the evening. Smokey was wound up from being cooped up and spent her evening running up and down the bank and rolling in the sand, she was effusive and the joy she radiated was contagious leading to a wonderful time on shore. Some locals came along in their bass boat and we shared some of my herb and some of their Busch Lite and told tall tales as the sun slowly arched its way down the Western sky. They told me of the Asian catfish that would jump out of the water and knock people out of their boats. I must have looked dubious because they loaded me and Smokey up and we criss crossed the river corralling some fish behind a wing dike. As we slowly idled through, catfish started jumping. They were two to two and a half feet long and jumped completely out of the water right next to the boat. I had to admit that my incredulousness was misplaced. We were dropped back off at camp and made a feast to finish off a beautiful day.
That night there was a competing cacophony of owls, cicadas, crickets, whippoorwills, and unidentified birds and insects that, along with the roil of the river, led to a peaceful–if occasionally interrupted–night’s rest. We awoke to a foggy morning with a bright clear sky.
Our plan was then to float 20 miles downstream and meet Mike the morning after in Glasgow so he could paddle with us the last 40 miles. But, as they say: “The best laid plans of mice and men…” When I got to within 12 miles of Glasgow I received an email that an aunt had died and that my ride needed to leave town to go the funeral, they wanted to meet me in Glasgow that afternoon to pull me and Smokey out of the water. This news placed a different perspective on our day, this was it, the final hours of our trip. We drifted, Smokey relaxed, me sort of melancholy and seeking to adjust to the news. The river had really lived up to all expectations. I wanted an adventure and the river supplied one. I wished to get off by myself and let the day to day pressures be left behind and the river responded to my wishes. Overall the trip had been all that I had wished for and then some. Smokey, a normally rambunctious two years old, had been everything one could hope for in a companion, she had been attentive and obedient to a tee.

We got down to Glasgow about 3 and called for our ride. While we waited, I emptied the canoe and carried the gear to the top of the bank. Dad arrived and we loaded up the canoe and carted it back to Columbia.
I got up the next morning and spent a few hours cleaning my gear and scrubbing the Missouri mud off the canoe. I sold the canoe before noon of that day, this brought the trip to an end.

More photos are here.

Note: This essay first appeared on my personal website, I moved it here while condensing and considating.


15 Best Albums of 2009, A Biased List

I tried…I really tried…

But I just could not trim the list down to a top 10, so 15 it is–and be thankful that I got it below 20.  The pain it took to prune this list is a testament to the quality of music being released.  If you have other ideas and choices, leave a comment below.

(Hint: You can stream music from most artist’s sites these days.)

15) The Band of Heathens: One Foot in the Ether.  Second studio release from this Austin based group.  A review the band’s homepage.

14) Son Volt: American Central Dust.  A tight album, good to see them back at it.  A review,   the band’s homepage.

13) Wolfmother: Cosmic Egg.  If you like 70s rock, you will love these Australian guitar rockers.  A reviewthe band’s homepage.

12) Will Hoge: The Wreckage.  He has put out 10 albums in 12 years, this is the only one I’ve heard.  A review, the band’s homepage.

11) Wilco: Wilco (The Album).  The best Wilco since Summerteeth.  A review, the band’s homepage.

10) Steve Earle: Townes.  I must say I did not care for this album the first time I heard it, but it has grown on me pushing it into the top 10.  A review, the artist’ homepage.

9) Patterson Hood: Murdering Oscar.  The sophomore solo album from the talented Drive-By Trucker.  A review, the artist’s homepage.

8) Justin Townes Earle: Midnight at the Movies.  Shows a lot of advancement since his first release, pushing him ahead of his father’s 2009 release.  A review, the artist’s page on Bloodshot Records.

7) Jessie James: Jessie James.  Kind of like Miranda Lambert with more pop.  A review, the artist’s page.

6) The Flatlanders: Hills and Valleys.  This super group is incapable of putting out a bad album.  A review, the band’s site.

5) Antje Duvekot: The Near Demise of the High Wire Dancer.  This album deserves every folk album of the year award offered, it is that good.  A reveiw, the artist’s page.

4) The Bottle Rockets: Lean Forward.  A decent release, typical Bottle Rockets styled mid-West rock.  A review, the band’s page.

–These last three could have gone in any order.

3) The Dustin Bentall Outfit: Six Shooter.  This Canadian’s sophomore release show cases some of the best songwriting available.  A review, the artist’s page.

2) Ryan Bingham: Roadhouse Sun.  He can pull this album off because he is a true cowboy.  Country music rarely has this much soul in it.  A review, the artist’s page.

1) Chuck Mead: Journeyman’s Wager.  Former front-man for BR549, this solo debut shows that country music has a future.  A review, artist’s page.

Honorable mentions go to:

  • Drive-By Truckers: The Fine Print;
  • Charlie Robison: Beautiful Day;
  • Miranda Lambert: Revolution; and,
  • The Road Hammers: The Road Hammers II.

What did you listen to in 2009?

Border Questions for Michael Savage (and his ilk)

This post could also be called My Border Experience and What it Means for Immigration Policy

The US can not stem the flow of undocumented migrants into this country, by some estimates the flow is almost one every minute…drip…drip…  All of our efforts in stemming this flow, have thus far, been largely ineffective.

As I’ve previously posted, I just got back from a two week vacation to SW Texas.  Most of the vacation was spent within a few score of miles of the border.

My first intimation that things were not the same along the border as in the rest of the country was an impromptu stop by a Border Patrol checkpoint.  A friendly Hispanic male in a sharply creased uniform approached my window while 3 well armed white males stood back and watched.  “Where are you coming from,” the officer asked as I put down my window.  My hackles were raised by this invasion, but I held it in check and told him.  Next he wanted to know where I was going, which I told him.  Then he wanted to know my citizenship and what I planned to do at my destination.  I was mad, but I played along.  “Alright, you can go,” he told me.  Mad now that it was sinking in how invasive this experience had been, I told the officer that he should look for a new job.  When he asked why, I told him that “when the Constitution is restored he would be out of work.”  I held back on adding, “those of you not hanging from telephone poles, anyways” as I drove away.
I was angry.  This had obviously been a search of my vehicle, it had also been a detention of myself and my vehicle.  All with no probable cause.  Therefore extra-Constitutional.  It was a checkpoint in my country by my government to determine if I could freely travel…this is not a part of the America that I know and love.  This invasive behavior is one step away from requiring travel documents to move around.  And what if I wasn’t white?  What if I was brown and spoke broken English, like so many of my fellow American citizens, what would my experience have been then?
I went on down to Big Bend National Park.  Big Bend is a large desert park with the Southern boundary consisting of over 100 miles of Rio Grande River/Mexican border.  There is no border crossing anywhere near but there is an isolated Mexican village across the river.  The park’s newspaper is called the Paisano.  Paisano translates from the Spanish as countryman, loosely it means country folk.  What got me is the extent that the paper’s editors went through to make the reader fear those country folk from across the river.  Almost every page contained an admonition to fear those folks across the river.  And for humans, fear easily turns into hate.  And while avoiding explicit warnings to hate the brown people across the river, the paper’s editors still managed to evoke this message at every turn of the page.  Am I accusing the paper’s editors of being a bunch of racists?  No, but I am saying that their attitudes and words tend to increase–and are in fact indicative of–the racism already present in those who visit the park.  Fear the brown man, if not he will be arrested and deported to some place far away, your property will be seized, and you will be fined $5000.  It is this sort of incendiary writing that we refer to as fear mongering.  And, like Lou Dobbs, these folks will claim that they are not trying to incite hatred of the other, but the results are clear to anyone lucid enough to step back and critically view the situation.
When I left the park, I traveled along the border to the West about 75 miles to Presidio, TX.  This drive contained an estimated 70 miles of Rio Grande/border for a total of almost 200 miles of border.  Not a fence in site, the river is some places shallow enough to wade across.  Running in and out of canyons and weaving its way through the desert it showed to me that there is no way to “secure” this area, it is too open, too vast, too isolated, and too barren.  Terlinqua to Presidio was about 50 road miles, there is nothing in between.  Not a town, not a retail business, a couple of ranches near Presidio and that was it.
When I headed North out of Presidio, and then twice more as I paralleled the border on I-10, I ran into border patrol “inspection” stations.  Always it was either a woman or a Hispanic that approached my window and always armed white guys stood around watching in their para-military garb.  I did my best at these encounters to be both non-cooperative and non-antagonistic, not an easy fence to straddle and I was successful to varying degrees.  “Where are you coming from?”  I am coming from the South I would reply.  “No, where have you been?”  I have been in the South.  “Are you a US citizen?” Yes.  “Where are you going?”  I am going to the North.  “What, do you have a problem?”  Am I being detained, am I free to go?  With this last I would repeat, “Am I being detained, am I free to go?” to any question they asked.  At some point Smokey would start barking (her barking annoys me to no end but in this case I was glad to hear it) and they would eventually tell me to go ahead.
A couple of more observations to round out this account.  In Arizona on I-40, many miles from the border, I noted many SUVs of different colors with whip antenna patrolling the highway.  Sometimes two or three of these vehicles were parked together in the median.  I noted many Border Patrol vehicles sitting along both the highways and the secondary roads monitoring traffic, these vehicles were seen as far North as Kingman, AZ.
I made a similar trip to Glacier NP on the Canadian border.  I noted no such activity, no inspection stations,  no Park Service exhortations to fear our neighbors, nothing at all like the atmosphere created at our Southern border.  Despite the fact that terrorists have been caught trying to get in from Canada, but–to my knowledge–never from Mexico.  Still, the two borders of our neighbors are treated far differently…and the only difference that I can see is the color of their skin.
These events and observations illuminated two things for me.  First, the border is indefensible with anything but the most intensive and invasive measures.  And, two, the border area is a de-facto police state, essential liberties have already been surrendered in a no-win attempt to thwart these erstwhile migrants.

So the question becomes, how far are you willing to go to secure the border and which liberties are you willing to give up to do so?

For certainly, we have the means to secure the border, should that ever become our passion.  Here, for instance are some steps that would realistically secure the border:
Institute a national biometric based ID to be used for obtaining employment;
Make a stiff penalty for employing undocumented workers, say 5k for individuals and 50k for businesses;
Wall off the urban areas, perhaps a 20 foot wall separating the two nations;
Build a fence half a mile on our side in the rural areas and place land mines between the river and the fence;
Deport immediately any undocumented person who shows up at a school or a hospital;
Increase Border Patrol check points and patrols; and
Run ad campaigns offering rewards for any tips that lead to deportations.

The above is not very realistic, yet is, never-the-less, doable.  Still, I don’t know how you feel about it, but that is not the nation that I want to live in.
With that said, something needs to be done with the immigration issue.  Having 12-20,000,000 undocumented, unlicensed, uninsured, unprotected people in our midst is obviously not a good thing.
I would argue that far more benefits could be gained by abandoning our present course and adopting a course of investment in Mexico.  Jobs, education, and health care should be the objectives of these investments..  By raising the living standards of Mexicans living in Mexico we avoid having our living standards fall to their levels (Which present trends make seem inevitable).  With education, jobs, and opportunity, the pull of the North would decrease drastically and would eventually balance out with migration to the South.  As more balance is achieved we could give logistical and military support to help Mexico seal its Southern border.  As Mexico becomes more stable and secure in its borders we could begin dismantling the barriers between our countries.  After all, goods and services already flow freely across the border, is it not time for people to join in that?
I see no one in leadership with the political vision to give us real immigration reform.  Instead, incremental changes will be made that does nothing to stem the flow and leaves millions upon millions out in the cold while depriving the rest of us of our liberties, one at a time…drip…drip…

Disagree?  Got a better plan?  Leave it in the comments.  But remember, my idea requires that WE GIVE UP ZERO CIVIL LIBERTIES, be sure to list which liberties you are willing to give up to implement some other idea.  To state, “build a fence”, is jingoistic nonsense; anyone who spouts this has either never been to the border or is stupid.