By Hank Burdine
“When you set out for ITHAKA
Ask that your way be long.
Full of adventure, full of instruction…”
It ain’t much of a river, it ain’t even a stream where the small flow of water trickles over the rocks at Lake Itasca, the headwaters of the third largest river system in the world. And almost 2,400 miles south it empties into the Gulf of Mexico after cutting through the heartland of the North American continent. Once she gains her headway, the Mississippi River is a romping, tromping, meandering and gallivanting lady that once knew no bounds, but, that was before man stepped in and dammed her and locked her up and told her to go this way, go that way, and sometimes, she does…
My son, Matt Burdine grew up on the banks of the Mississippi River on Lake Ferguson outside of Greenville. During several high water events he, along with the rest of the children on the lake, would go back and forth to school on my raft because the roads were closed due to flooding. On summer weekends he would play along the sandbars and camp out with his friends around a big bonfire of collected driftwood, while listening to stories of the River, as towboats shined their searchlights on us and blew their mournful horns. I believe it was during these times that the Big Muddy crept into his soul.
When we moved to the Wet Valley of the Sangre de Christo mountain range in southern Colorado, Matt spent many a day fly fishing and floating on the Arkansas River. Its headwaters are above Buena Vista which is close to where we lived. His love of water grew. And when his mama was diagnosed with breast cancer, we moved to the Florida panhandle to could be close to her family and I could be closer to the Delta. Matt became a surfer on the sugar sand beaches of Destin and I taught him how to fish in the deep blue sea. Again, he was surrounded by water.
Matt was almost 18 years old when he lost his mama, but he never lost the love of water that she instilled in him at an early age as she herself had grown up on the beaches of Miami. After getting his MBA from Ole Miss, Matt somewhat pushed away the pull of Wall Street and headed back out to Colorado. He became a snow ski instructor for youngsters and a white-water rafting guide on the headwaters of the Arkansas River in the summer. During his visits back home to the Delta, he would meet and get to know paddlers that were coming down the Mississippi. He became inspired by “seeing their oceanic eyes and hearing their voices that sounded like water. I knew that regardless of age or occupation, anything is possible. By challenging one’s self to learn something new, or to do something different, whole new arenas of perspectives open up and one’s life can be changed.”
The River pulled him like never before. He wanted to experience the sights and sounds and the feelings he had heard about. Matt realized he had to paddle the entire length of the great river, with or without a cause, for it tugged at his heartstrings. “Every person who goes on a long distance trip, whether solo or as a team, is most likely after some kind of personal or spiritual transformation. One is not the same as he or she was before. One’s perspective alloys their experience. Life becomes more vibrant and vast, gratitude fills the heart and awe floods the mind.” Matt could schedule his voyage with no time restraints. Bacon and beans are not that expensive and five gallons of drinking water will go a long way. However, after losing his mother and grandmother to breast cancer, he decided to paddle for The Breast Cancer Research Foundation. “It gave me a little more fuel in each paddle stroke; it gave me inspiration during those times when my head was in my hands.” He called his journey “A Million Strokes for a Cure”. The trip “was by all means my personal Odyssey, in search of ITHAKA, of being immersed in the journey, and all of its trials and tribulations.” And so, his journey began.
Exuberant that he was to be sponsored by the Wenona Canoe Company of Minnesota , and outfitted with a safe river canoe, preparation was made for the long journey north with supplies, gear and a guitar. He chose to start his trip in the fall when most river paddlers are finishing theirs. He wanted to experience the fall colors and be on the river as the days got shorter and colder and the ducks and geese began their annual migration. It would mean paddling until the winter weather made him take out and wait until spring. “This added a whole new level of excitement and seriousness to the trip. To be uncomfortable and in unknown situations enticed me. Equally powerful were the miserable moments as they were also somewhat the most pleasant. One learns to take things as they come equally. Storms will forever hold magic to me.” The first mile or so entailed dragging his canoe and all his gear through a marshland with barely enough water to float the boat. On his second night out he camped with two Ojibwe Native Americans who still relied on the wild rice growing in the headwaters area. He spent the next day beating sticks over the sides of their canoe as he helped in the harvest of the wild rice. He was on river time.
Portaging was an issue in the headwaters area. Log jams, fallen trees and beaver dams had to be dealt with as well as man-made dams. “Being alone on the River and not being in a hurry or on a time schedule, one can go with the flow of whatever the river brings, on land, or off. Bliss always follows. Time doesn’t exist and one lives by the sun and his own mood.”
“Ask that your way be long
At many a summer dawn to enter
With what gratitude, what joy!”
Soon, the stream emerged from the Northern marshlands and opened up to a river course through the bluff country, “the Driftless Area where the glaciers didn’t cut through. Massive bluffs rise on either side and by paddling in the fall I was moving along with the coloring of the leaves. Humble she begins, yet wildly massive she grows.” Lakes were ahead, “beautiful blue water lakes that can turn into an ocean at any moment.” This is the land of the great bald eagles, “they would fly off at the sound of a boat motor or an engine, but would look quietly at a passing canoe with awe.”
Once the river starts to grow, the lock and dam system begins. “Sometimes there would be a two or three hour wait while a barge goes through the lock. Other times the gate would be open and waiting for you and would lower you down to the next pool all by yourself. Resupply packages were shipped to these locks and lowered down to you in a rope basket, usually with a cold Snicker bar as a gift from the Lockmaster.”
“People on the river are happy to give”
“Some of the most magical moments I have are from meeting people and immersing myself into the culture surrounding that particular part of the river. The wilderness was breathtaking along with the wildlife, and meeting strangers along the way was one of my favorite memories. To see how each accent and culture changed from river town to river town was awesome. The spontaneous, authentic kindness people showed along the river astounded me. From simple words of encouragement, to a ride into town, shelter from a storm or a cold beer from a passing boat, each little act of kindness and generosity will always be remembered, appreciated and paid forward.” Had Matt not been on ‘river time’ it is doubtful he would have ever experienced a lot of these random acts of kindness, feelings and sensations.
“Each day while paddling alone, a whole range of emotions course through you, from utter exhaustion to exhilaration, from absolute bliss to fright. You have to be absolutely and constantly aware of your surroundings and the River. For hours on end you must be ever extremely attentive to what is going on around you. You get into what I call a River Trance, your peripheral vision widens and a 360 degree awareness opens the mind of the paddler. Without being aware, there is danger lurking with no backup.”
Once out of the locks and dams of the Upper Mississippi, and away from the quaint little river towns with beer halls on the bluffs, the Mississippi opens up to a major transportation artery as the Missouri joins her flow and then the Ohio beefs her up with its huge input of water. The river widens and barge traffic is a constant factor to deal with. Eddies, undercurrents and upheavals, dangerous swirls and flat, fast water have to be dealt with. At certain stages of the river, there may not be a sandbar to sleep on for miles and a decision has to be made to tie up early or just hope you see sand around the next bend. The River becomes a force to be dealt with for it is no longer just a leisurely paddle downstream. Vigilance is imperative and decisions have to be made around every bend as to which side to be on and where the currents are along with the rock dikes that control the flow of the stream. Huge sandbars and islands appear with pristine backwater areas ripe for exploring. “In recalling the moments I spent on the River during those months, I can still feel my bare feet on the island sands, I can still feel the pulse of the river as I pulled myself downstream, walking with my hands for almost 2,400 miles. I can still feel and see those early morning moments and evening sunsets that produce the world’s two greatest light shows, while the coffee pot boils over a driftwood fire.”
“Some look at the River as masculine, as Old Man River. Yes, he will discipline you and teach you about life and survival. However, we all have our individual interpretations for aspects of this world. In my perspective, the River is feminine, a grandmother, a mother, a sister and an intimate friend. She is a nurturer, life giver, teacher, healer and a role model.”
Matt decided not to follow the river down through Baton Rouge and New Orleans with its huge, conglomerate smoking petrochemical plants and burgeoning, towering ocean going ship traffic. He decided to take a right at the Old River Control Structure which allows 30% of the total flow of the Mississippi to go down the Atchafalaya to the Gulf of Mexico. Without this structure the River, as we know it, would have changed its course by now and spilled itself into the Gulf below Morgan City. It almost did in 1973. The ports of New Orleans and Baton Rouge would possibly have silted in and dried up to navigation. The Atchafalaya River is a beautiful and pristine sanctuary with little barge traffic. It is true Cajun country and known for its swampy wilderness and lack of river industry. Alligators and nutria adorn fallen cypress trees overhung with Spanish moss. I was glad Matt chose this route to the sea.
Almost 30 miles below Morgan City is the mouth of the Atchafalaya and its opening into the Gulf of Mexico. I trailered my boat down, put in the river at Morgan City and headed south to pick up my son and his canoe. I found him on the last island, in the last channel, where his next landfall would have been South America. His journey had ended, or maybe, it had just begun…
“Always keep ITHAKA fixed on your mind
Your arrival there is what you are destined for
But do not in the least hurry the journey
Better that it last for years
So that when you reach the island you are old
Rich with all you have gained along the way”
ITHAKA By C.P. Cavafy