Peter Lourie

I have been a traveler of many rivers, from the Amazon to the Yukon, from the Missouri to the
Hudson. But I put off traveling America's greatest waterway, the Mississippi, until last September.  I thought I knew the river; I'd read so much about it.  Spending a month working my way down the Father of Waters by canoe, car, and portable bicycle, however, showed me I was wrong.  Old Man River was more commercial, more monumental, more diverse, and more beautiful than I had imagined a river could be. 

The day after Labor Day, my paddling partner Ernie LaPrairie (Hudson River, Yukon River) and I launched our canoe into the river's highest pond source, Lake Itasca, more than two thousand miles from the sea. Only a hundred miles from the Canadian border, already in early September the loons were calling, the geese were heading south, and the early northern winter seemed close at hand. We made coffee at the outlet, where the Mississippi trickles over some rocks.  Then we paddled the narrow channel (sometimes no wider than the canoe itself) through stands of white and red pine.  The summer had been dry, so we had a hard time finding our way in swampy sections. Once, we got hung up on a beaver dam and had to backtrack in order to find the proper channel. Two sea kayakers heading for Minneapolis had had to be rescued by helicopter the week before. At low water, the channel was that tricky to find.  Around Bemidji we passed through lovely pastel-colored stands of wild rice, most of it having just been harvested by the
Ojibwe.  The river opened up, and we paddled through many lakes.  Bald eagles followed us as
we worked our way south.  We saw muskrat, beaver, mink, ducks and kingfishers.  

Four hundred miles from Itasca, at Minneapolis I paddled through the first big lock on the upper Mississippi, the 400-foot chamber at St. Anthony's Falls.  I've paddled the Erie and the Champlain canals, perhaps passing through fifty locks over the years, but this one was surely my biggest of all.  Ernie took pictures from the lock wall, and I dropped into that dungeon of slimy darkness, nearly fifty feet in ten minutes. It was eerie to feel the water boil under me.  The big gates on the upstream side made creaky noises as if they would bust and let a tidal wave crash over me. Five million gallons were displaced for my canoe alone.  Five million!  From the bottom of that lock, I paddled into the big bright river and headed downstream past St. Paul.  The flood plain grew miles wide as I followed the bluffs along the river's edge to Red Wing and Winona.  Here Ernie and I toured the canoe factory where our beautiful canoe was made. In Winona, too, we paddled into the night past nesting cormorants and around islands which we explored just like Tom and Huck.  We wondered how many steamboat wrecks lay beneath us in the mud. Tomorrow I'd say goodbye to my friend, and head off alone past LeClaire,Iowa, where Buffalo Bill Cody grew up on the edge of the prairie, and then down to Hannibal, Missouri, hometown of the river's greatest chronicler, Mark Twain.  

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