What I Learned: Standup Paddling the Entire Mississippi River

LouAnne Harris_Mississippi
Courtesy of John F. Sullivan

“Luck would have it, the spillway I wound up paddling over had about a two-foot drop,” LouAnne Harris explains. Of the nearly 30 locks Harris has portaged in her ongoing effort to be the first known woman to standup paddleboard the entire 2,300-mile length of the Mississippi River, this was the first she encountered that actually had water spilling over in the lower-flow months of late summer.

Harris faced a unique challenge compared to the canoes and kayaks that make the journey each year. Standup paddlers are excluded from using the navigational locks that move everything from barges to kayaks along the upper Mississippi. With most of the spillways dry, she found an efficient portage system: paddling up, jumping off her board, and a short stroll to the other side. “Some of the dam crews told me if the water level is high enough and going over the spillway, you can just scooch over.” Harris knows the dangers of lowhead dam formations, but accepted the advice of the dam operators, which eventually found her in the predicament of navigating the flowing spillway.

LouAnne Harris_Portage
Courtesy of John F. Sullivan

“There was enough water going over for me to barely clear it. I scooched over and sat down. My fin dragged along the bottom. I just got ready to brace, steer and paddle,” Harris recounts. “The spillway had a recirculation at the bottom. It wasn’t big, but it was there. As soon as I got to the bottom, the current turned the board back sideways. So I was up against it, lengthwise. Thankfully it wasn’t super powerful. It was shallow. I kicked off the concrete to bring myself back around. I paddled hard and got out of it, but it was sketchy.”

Harris is no stranger to the rollercoaster ride that is a long-distance paddling journey. In 2016, with fellow paddleboarder Jules Gismondi, she completed a four-month, 1,500-mile trip down the East Coast, from her home in New York City to Miami. As with the Atlantic trip, part of her endeavor is raising money for organizations; this time it’s Rivers for Change, a nonprofit devoted to educating people on waterways through source to sea expeditions. Aside from that parallel, Harris says this trip is completely different. It’s a solo endeavor on a waterway with a whole different set of conditions.

Harris plans on reaching the Gulf of Mexico by early November. With the episode at the spillway, not to mention around 2,000 miles, behind her, she already has a few lessons to share from her historic standup paddle voyage down the Mississippi River.

 

LouAnne Harris_upper Mississippi
Courtesy of John F. Sullivan

The biggest challenges are man-made. “Yes it is the Mississippi, it’s big, it’s powerful, you have to respect it. But the biggest challenges I’ve faced aren’t the river itself; it’s dealing with all of the stuff we have put on and in the river. Having to deal with all of the locks and dams and now navigating things like wingdams. I’m having to follow the navigation channel pretty directly, because along the sides of the river there may be or not be these big wingdams.

Same thing with following the navigation channels. The river takes these huge bends and snakes around from time-to-time. As you’re coming around these big bends there will be these islands at the end. You naturally think, ‘I’m just going to cut around the back of the island and cut a mile or two off of my distance,’ but behind the islands are blocked off with these big dikes, and that same situation, where you have a drop and a bunch of turbulence at the bottom of it. They use it to steer the river. They don’t want the current splitting too much. So just follow the river. It may be a little bit extra mileage, but that is where the current is going.”

 

It’s about more than just paddling. “Meeting people along the way is one of my favorite things. When they hear what you are doing they are just so warm and wonderful.

There is a lot to be said for actually seeing where you are and where you’ve been. A lot of these places, people have been here for generations. Some of these families are the original families that homesteaded and settled on the river. There is a lot of history and knowledge. Up north in Minnesota there are sections of limestone and sandstone bluffs. A lot of the bluffs have stories and legends attached to them from the native community. I have people come up to me on their boats and just start chatting and sharing their stories. Sharing how it was when their grandparents were living there and how the river has changed since.”

Bring gear that can withstand abuse (i.e. flexible fins). “My fins have taken a beating. Especially in the headwaters. There are a lot of rocks and rapids. Now down here there are dikes and dams. You try your best to avoid everything, but it is just going to happen from time-to-time. With the speed you are moving they take a solid hit. So my fins are Mississippi River fins, then they are retired.”

Trust your plan. “Local knowledge is not always the best advice to follow. You have to take into account people’s experience basis. At a certain point you just have to trust yourself and follow your own advice.

If you have a game plan there is a reason why you made that decision. There is no such thing as a shortcut on the Mississippi River.”

River angels are real. “Like the Appalachian Trail has trail angels the Mississippi River has river angels. Some people have paddled the river themselves, or sections of it. Other people are just really excited about paddlers being out here. They are just set up to help people along the way, whether it’s a resupply, or repair, or just to give paddlers a place to stay for a night and a hot meal. They are a really amazing network of people out here supporting paddlers.”

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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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