August 10, 2003—At the last minute Ian and I moved from the waiting list to a spot on the Friends of the Mississippi’s group paddle down a twelve mile stretch just north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Early Sunday morning we joined fifty-three other paddlers at a roadside park in Elk River where we dropped our canoes and supplies. We drove to Anoka where we left our cars and boarded a school bus that would shuttle us all back to our boats. As it was our first group trip we had to learn PATIENCE as we waited for all of our fellow travelers to gather their things and be ready to go. (The bus was hot. I had time to learn a lot of patience.)
We traveled in a flotilla and were led by our marvelous Park Service guide, Kate. She paddled a small solo Bell canoe. She told us the amazing story of having driven this very canoe to the Green River in Colorado where she paddled alongside a group of rafters on a five day river trip. She managed all of the rapids with only one early spill. Kate “loves rivers,” and she inspired me with her ease, her commitment to river preservation, and her careful solo paddling style. (Keeping a canoe on a straight course by yourself is not easy.)
This particular morning the air was still and clouds moved in and out, drawing their reflections all around us. The great river widened. One man told stories about the early explorers dragging boats for miles along the shore because they did not know how paddle a canoe in shallow waters. The modern paddlers moved in and around each other, fluid, and eventually we met the amazing Ann.
She paddled an inflatable kayak and proved to be a true Mississippi River woman.In the summers she lives on a houseboat that floats on the Mississippi, in St. Paul. She’s read more books about the river than anyone I know and taught herself to steer her houseboat “by making mistakes,” she said.
We stopped for lunch and rest and then paddled into the big heat of the day. But the river brought one more boat for us—A canoe so beautiful that it cast a spell on me…We had passed it early on and I wondered at its age, and its beautiful wooden gunnels, and the stories of its hundreds of dings and scratches.
It turned out that owner received the canoe when he was a young man, in 1978, and he has paddled it a thousand miles in the decades since—The longest trip arched up to Hudson Bay. Now the owner, Whitney Clark, paddles this canoe in his job as executive director of the Friends of the Mississippi River. He talked about how he could get a newer canoe, a sleeker, lighter canoe, but the history is too deep and it’s the only one canoe where he feels at home…Someday I hope our canoe looks like Whitney’s. (Visit the Friends of the Mississippi River’s good work at www.fmr.org) I asked Whitney…What river would you recommend for our 50 rivers project and he paused only for a moment… “The Hayes,” he answered. “Canada.” “You’d have to fly in but that’s easy these days…”