Today I have a guest blogger… My wife Jo Ann! Saturday we participated in the Big River Regional Paddle, a 13 miler down the Mississippi River. After we were done, Jo decided she wanted to write a blog about her experience. Although I might be a little biased, I think she did a great job! So, here it is:
My Day On The Mighty Mississip
About 2 months ago I was sitting at home feeling kind of sorry for myself. My husband (and partner in crime), Robbie, was at summer camp with our Boy Scout Troop. I had chosen to stay at home for several reasons, the main one being that we were dog sitting and the visiting dogs and our dogs didn’t get along … at all. So I was sitting at home watching all of the neat things going on in Facebook World. I was ready to get out and do something fun. About that time I saw a Facebook posting about the Big River Paddle. I remembered my friend Julie Rutherford had talked about paddling in a kayak race in Natchez the last couple of years. The first one was something like 40 miles long. The second one, called the Half-Phat, was for 18 miles. Hmmmm … I thought. I could do that. I mean, really you are going with the flow, so to speak. Then I saw this post… Big River Paddle 13 miler. Ok .. I could probably do that. I had kayaked the Okatoma several times which was a blast. I was scared the first time I did it, but overcame that fear and had a great time.
So, before I could change my mind, I signed up. And, I signed Robbie up also. What was I thinking?? The closer it got to August 30th – the day of the race – the more nervous I got. You see, I am not athletic at all. I stay busy. I stay active. But I don’t do much in which I have to depend on my own strength. I am not very competitive unless it comes to a good game of Scrabble. And I have signed up for this kayak race … on the biggest, fastest river in the country!!
I started worrying. Of course, I am really good at covering up just how nervous or worried I am. I put on my confident face and talked about how excited I was about paddling the Mississippi. I also admitted I was scared, but only in a joking kind of way.
All the What If’s started …
What if I turned over the kayak getting into it at the start of the race?
What if I flipped the kayak over in the middle of the freaking MISSISSIPPI River and couldn’t get back in?
What if I lost my paddles and had to be rescued?
What if I had to go to the bathroom? How would I do that?
What if I got worn out and couldn’t finish?
What if I was the very last person in the race, and they made me get out because they couldn’t hold the river traffic longer than the 15 hours I was sure it was going to take me to finish?
I mean .. we are talking about the Mighty Mississippi River! I had ridden and/or driven over the Mississippi all of my life. I had been on the Mississippi in those huge cruise ships. It wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I actually rode a paddle wheel on the Mississippi for a dinner cruise. But that was still a big boat. I knew that people died on the Mississippi River while they were fishing out of small boats. I had been taught all of my life to fear the Mississippi River. I didn’t know of anyone personally who paddled the Mississippi just because. And here I was .. signed up to do that very thing.
I put on my game face because I was the one who signed up. Why did I sign up? I wasn’t sure. Bragging rights? Doubtful, that isn’t my style. Did I have something to prove? I don’t think so. I still don’t know why I signed up. But now that I had, I was going to do everything I could to make sure I finished. Robbie and I went to an informational meeting beforehand. The race directors assured me that it was something I could do. They said that many of the boaters/paddlers were first-timers. Robbie and I spent the week before the race making sure that we had everything we would need. Type III PFD .. check; Safety whistle .. check; Camelbacks .. check; sunscreen .. check; and on and on. Fortunately we had everything on the safety list except polarized sunglasses. We are veteran Scouters after all.
So .. on Friday evening, Robbie and I loaded up the kayaks and all of our gear and headed to Baton Rouge. The plan was to pick up our race packet, drop the kayaks at the start line, meet the kids for some supper and have our nephew Cale bring the trailer to his house during the race. We then checked into the Hotel Indigo, who is a sponsor of the Big River, and hit the sack early because Saturday was the big day. Saturday morning came bright and early (or rather dark and early). We got up, lathered ourselves with sunscreen and headed toward the river.
There were about 140 people registered for this event – mostly SUP (Stand Up Paddle) entrants with quite a few kayakers. There was even a 4 person sail boat and a canoe entered in the event. The forecast ominously declared an 80% chance of thunderstorms for that morning, but the weather looked beautiful.
My friend Sharon came with her dog, Ashok. Sharon is one of those people who inspires me to be more …. more adventurous … more introspective… just more. After a few photo shoots, the moment I had anticipated had arrived. It was time to get in the water.
This was going to be my first .. what if .. What if I turned over the kayak getting in? What if it took 4 men to hold my kayak steady for me to get in? My stomach was starting to hurt from worrying, but I put on my brave face. Thankfully the race director instructed those of us with sturdy kayaks to put in off of the rocks to the side of the dock because of the bottleneck that was forming. What?!? THIS I could do. For some reason I thought that there would be a huge drop off right there. Not so. Just had to wade through some mud and muck and boom .. my kayak was in the water with my rear firmly planted in my seat. No problem. Now it was time to paddle upstream. Upstream?? All the racers had to get behind the buoys before the start of the race. So I started paddling and guess what .. yep .. it was easy. Hmmmmm I thought. This may not be so bad after all.
After everyone had gotten in the water and behind the starting lines, we were given a one minute warning and then an air horn signaled the start of the race. Robbie and I had already talked about hanging back because we weren’t there to win. We just wanted to finish. We just wanted to enjoy the race.
The race started just north of the new Mississippi River Bridge. It was exciting to be paddling under that massive structure. No problems. The river wasn’t rough, and there wasn’t a strong current, even in the middle of the river. Cool. This means that my What if I flipped my kayak over in the middle of the freaking Mississippi River? had a very low chance of happening.
After about 10 minutes of paddling, I quickly realized that I was paddling into the wind. Hmphh. I guess this was going to be harder than I thought. I had no strong current and was paddling into the wind. At about that point I realized that in order for me to finish this race in a timely manner I was going to have to get with it. Robbie wasn’t in any big hurry. He was enjoying the river and being the master of his own craft. But something in me told me that I needed to get with the program, dig in and get going. So I told Robbie of my plans and took off. I was secretly scared that if I didn’t put some effort into this while I was fresh I wouldn’t be able to finish at all. You know ..that What if I took 15 hours to finish the race and held up all of the Mississippi River boat traffic for a day fear.
The longer I paddled, the worse the weather looked. I caught up with a young woman who was on a YOLO board. Her name is Katelynn and this was her first SUP race. She is 26 years old, used to dance in high school and decided to do this race on the spur of the moment. Her friends were ahead of her. We talked for a little bit as the two of us continued paddling down the river. At this point the wind was blowing hard enough that if I quit paddling, even to take a sip of water, my kayak would turn with the wind and start going upstream. Again I realized that if I was going to finish this race I needed to get going. Soon after I left Katelynn a monsoon hit. Hard, heavy raindrops that were very warm. After about 10 minutes of that deluge, the rain turned cold, and I couldn’t tell if I was paddling up stream, down stream, towards Baton Rouge or towards Brusly. The only thing I could see was the faint blue flashing lights on the patrol boats in the distance.
The second monsoon came in the way of a low cloud. I could see it starting to envelop the banks…. then the river … then me. With the cloud obscuring my vision and rain pouring on me, the only thing I could see was a paddler about 500 feet ahead of me in a bright orange shirt. I focused on that shirt, losing myself in the steady, rhythmic paddling.
I never at any point in this adventure felt truly scared. The river was shut down to barge traffic. All the tug boats and barges were parked on the side of the river. Everyone was so nice, waving and wishing us well. The Coast Guard, East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries were monitoring the river the entire length of the race along with several privately owned vessels. These race volunteers would check on us, offer water and make sure that everything was going okay. At one point I asked them what time it was, and if I had passed the half way mark. They said yes .. I was over half way there and that it was 10:00. Again, I was worried about losing steam so I dug my paddles in deep, counting along as I went .. 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 1, 2.
I soon caught up with a young man who was Katelynn’s friend. He and I paddled along together, wondering what time it was and if the take-out point was around the next bend. It was raining at this point but not heavily. I still felt physically able. It was hard because at this point I had been paddling nonstop for 3 hours, but I felt as if I could go on. And then it happened .. lightning. Oh no. I knew that if it was lightning, the Coast Guard would call the race and make us get off the water. Robbie and I had just made a similar decision two days before for our scout troop trip. They were planning a canoe trip in Mississippi the same day as the Big River. Because the weather forecasted an 80% chance of thunderstorms, we as leaders, made the decision to postpone. Crap. Another clap of thunder. I edged towards the bank from the middle of the river. If it got bad enough I figured I could get on the bank under my kayak and wait it out. Another paddler, a young girl, came up beside me and asked if I thought they would call the race. I said “probably”. About that time a LDWF boat came up in the middle of the river. The agents on board yelled for us to head to the middle of the river. My response was .. “why?” Is the current better in the middle?
That’s when he confirmed that the race was canceled. Of course I wasn’t ready to quit just yet. I asked how much farther? He said about 3 more miles. An older gentleman on a Yolo Board asked if he could continue because he wanted to finish the race. They informed us that they had pulled all the racers behind us and if we didn’t get in the boat then we were on our own. The race had been canceled, it was thundering and lightening, and I still had 3 miles to go. I knew that they were there for our safety, but I was mad because that meant that I was going to get a DNF… Did Not Finish. I know in my heart of hearts that I could have completed that race in the one hour I had left. It was not meant to be. When Sharon asked how I felt about getting pulled, I really couldn’t answer how I felt. In that moment I was mad, I was tired, and I had adrenaline flowing. I knew the weather was bad, and I was relieved I was safe. But I guess I really felt cheated.
So now I have this longing in my heart to complete a race. This is something that was not there before. Will I do the Big River again?? Maybe. Or I may find something a little more relaxed so that I can ensure I don’t get a DNF. I just know that I want the satisfaction of saying that I completed a race.