Besides 30 or 45 minutes back in Missouri, I’ve mostly avoided sitting in the stern. I see it as the hot seat: the stern paddler has to guide the canoe home. This is an expedition, and we’ve got miles to cover; might as well leave that to the pros.
Then again, if I want to understand this river, stern paddling seems like a task to tackle, too. So, dear reader, today was as good as any. Just after launching from Tunica Bar this morning, I climbed towards the boat’s rear.
It was a windy day, which I found a virtue. Up in the boat, wind means you have nothing to attend to but your own suffering: you are stuck in your seat, and your task is to paddle, until the wind breaks or a landing gives you relief though.
From the stern, though, there seem to be a thousand signs to watch for: where is the wind headed, and is gusting? Where is the fastest line of water? Just where does that tugboat want to go? To find the answers, you have to read the smallest signals: a riffle on the water, maybe, or the angle of a barge’s long side. John says that to find the water, it’s less about vision than a kind of feeling: you have to open yourself up. You make most of the decisions before you can absorb or calculate it all. The stern, it turns out, is a good place to lose yourself, even amid the wind.
And so we paddled: south first, dead into the wind, and then the relief of Morgan’s Bend, where paddling east, the woods below us blocked the gusts.
As we turned to the south again, the winds hit. Perhaps I was doing it right, my job in the stern, because in that moment my mind went nearly blank. There was nothing but John’s command, to head for the riprap, and me shouting out, “We’re making the crossing” -- I had to shout to be heardf -- and then just paddling, keep on paddling, get to where we need to go. There is a vague memory of the waves crashing in from the left and the right at once, and the boat rocking back and forth, and the water coming over the bow. There is a vague memory of my one desire: let it not be on my watch that the boat goes down, or that we turn ourselves into the water.
Reader, we made it, though we had to bail gallons of water from the boat.
Now, though, we faced a decision. Clearly the winds were a bit stronger than the forecast had advertised, and, over the next two days, they’ll only be getting getting worse. We were looking at two days locked down, but our ice was melting, and two days would also mean many pounds of spoiled meat.
So it was time -- for a moment -- to leave the walled-in wild. We hoofed through the woods, and the dewberry brambles, and walked through the mud. (I had put on my boots to avoid the stickers, so I had to remove them when we waded a cow-stinking slough.) We un-trespassed -- climbing a fence whose sign faced away from us, so we saw only its slate grey back. We walked down a highway, sweaty with river-stink, in search of gas-station ice.
I couldn’t help but wonder what the town folk thought of us: this band of grimy hobos with drybags slung across our backs. Though, to be honest, I didn’t think much of this town. From the top of the levee, I could see both worlds: the wild swamps beyond the levee, and the run-down shacks in town. There was a railroad, and a few scrubby gardens. We cut down the woods for this?
It isn’t fair, of course. For all our wilderness rigor, we’d be nowhere without our bags of chips and blocks of ice. Besides, inside the gas station was a pleasant cafe, decked out in cypress wood, with deep-fried boudin balls for sale -- an easy path to my heart. (The Spillway Cafe, named for the floodway that begins just above town of Morganza: I hope to go back there one day.)
Still, as I sit in here in storm camp -- home for two days, most likely, while the wind has its way again -- I’ve got to say we’ve found somewhere pleasant, somewhere I’d recommend. I took my bath in the cooling river, and drank a beer I bought at the gas station, and the pork roast, saved from spoiling, will be served up soon.