Chapter 1: Big Muddy, Here We Come
The idea for the trip down the Mississippi River came while poison dripped slowly into my arm.
I was 50 years old and recently diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells. Every third Friday for five months, I sat for eight hours at Fairview Hospital in Cleveland undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
As cancers go, this wasn’t the worst, according to my doctor.
“It’s very aggressive, but it’s very treatable,” he told me. “If you’re gonna get cancer, this is what you should get.”
I guess that should have made me feel better but it’s hard to crack a smile when you’ve got a 3 ½ inch tumor growing inside your chest.
Toward the end of my chemotherapy in December 2006, I started thinking about taking an adventure. I wanted something to look forward to, something to celebrate my survival.
I still had a couple of months of radiation ahead, but I figured the toughest part was over.
During my long hours in chemotherapy, I read an article titled “One Hundred and One Days on the Mississippi” about how a guy named Guy Haglund canoed the Mississippi River in 101 days.
I liked the idea of an adventure down the Mississippi. It had a romantic feel to it, like a Mark Twain novel.
But I didn’t want to travel in a canoe. I didn’t have the time. I had two, maybe three weeks of vacation to cover the 1,700 miles from St. Paul, Minnesota to New Orleans.
So I thought about taking a motorcycle trip along the river. Motorcycles were fast, adventurous, fun.
Then I thought, “Too dangerous.”
What about jet skis? They’re sort of like motorcycles on the water.
I had jet-skied a little before, so why not?
From that moment, I embraced the idea and never let go.
I liked the idea of a mission to accomplish and I wanted my family -- wife, Nancy and teenage daughters, Jennifer and Jackie -- to be my team.
To my knowledge, no other women had jet-skied down the Mississippi.
My good friend and business partner, Larry Fischer, thought I was crazy.
“Are you out of your friggin’ mind taking your wife and kids on this trip?” he asked me, noting they aren’t the rugged outdoor types. “This is the ultimate guys’ trip.”
But I wanted my family there.
Larry thought my goal was to pull the family together. Things had been rocky with Nancy and me for a while. And the girls? They fought constantly.
But I don’t think that’s why I did it. At least not consciously.
With my second chance at life, I wanted an adventure to show that I was still alive. And I wanted to nurture my relationship with my daughters. I had spent so much time working when they were younger, I wanted this opportunity to do something special with them.
I had no idea at then how my journey conquering cancer and The Big Muddy would change my family and me, and bring me closer to my daughters along the way.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Day 1: St. Paul, Minnesota to Alma, Wisconsin
Jennifer and I were flying down the river having fun, each on our own jet ski. It was the first day of our trip and we were full of energy.
“I was pumped to be out doing something adventurous and to be experiencing something that no one I know had done,’’ said Jennifer, who proudly wore her first pair of designer Armani sunglasses.
She didn’t want to wear the more practical sunglasses I had brought for her. Or use the band to keep them snug around her head.
She was too cool.
We left St. Paul, Minnesota, earlier that morning from beautiful Hidden Falls Regional Park, just below the first lock and dam on the river at mile marker 844.
Hidden Falls Park was one of the four original park areas selected for St. Paul in 1887 by noted landscape architect, Horace Cleveland. Coincidentally, Cleveland was a descendant of Moses Cleveland, who founded Cleveland, Ohio, in 1796.
Huge, towering cottonwood trees dotted the shoreline of the park and Jackie marveled at their massive, claw-like roots that arched out of the ground and into the water.
Our destination that day was Alma, Wisconsin, 95 miles away.
We dubbed Jackie “The Navigator” because she and Nancy stayed off the river and drove the Jeep. Their mission was to pick up Jennifer and me at each destination.
The pairings were intentional.
“If Jackie and I had to spend a day in the car together, we wouldn’t have made it to the ramp,’’ Jennifer said. “We would have been fighting and one of us would have been left behind.”
Two Jet Skis: Stop!
About an hour into our trip, I looked in my rear view mirror and saw flashing red lights atop a boat manned by the Department of Natural Resources, which patrols the river.
“I wonder if we should pull over,” I thought.
Soon, we heard a booming voice on a loudspeaker: “Two jet skis! Stop what you’re doing immediately and turn off your engines!”
The boat pulled up next to us and an official asked for our identification and registration. He wanted to know why we had walkie-talkies.
I didn’t tell him we were on a two-week journey, headed for New Orleans. We had just started our adventure and the destination didn’t seem real yet.
Jennifer was quiet and nervous during the stop.
“I thought I was in trouble,’’ she said. “I was on probation for DUI, but my dad didn’t know that. I wasn’t supposed to leave the state unless I told my P.O. And I didn’t.”
Turns out our “offense” was simply riding too close together. They gave us a warning and off we went.
After that, things went smoothly for a while, even though it was slow going at times.
There were locks and dams about every 25 miles.
We often had to wait for long periods, sometimes hours, to be let through. We’d pass the time by studying our maps or just lying back on the jet skis and resting.
The 27 locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi, as we learned, were built to control the water levels and tame a series of rapids on the upper Mississippi from St. Paul to St. Louis, Missouri.
Over this 600-mile stretch, the water fell more than 400 feet, often through boulders, rapids or small waterfall systems.
The first lock and dam was built in 1913 near Keokuk, Iowa. Twenty years later, the Army Corp of Engineers started to build another lock and dam to control the rapids near Rock Island, Illinois.
Since then, 25 more have been added along the Upper Mississippi.
Entering a lock was sort of like getting into a full bathtub. Once inside, water poured out to lower you to the next portion of the river.
It’s kind of like a series of steps that allows boats and barges to “walk” up and down the river.
A Romantic River Turns Treacherous
About halfway through our trip that day, a storm hit. The rain and wind stirred up the river something fierce.
“The waves were huge,” Jennifer said. “They were washing over the front of my jet ski and into my face and over my head. I was soaked. And I was getting thrown around and beat up.”
At one point, she stood up and a wave crashed into her, almost knocking her off her jet ski.
“I put my head down and when I looked up, I saw my sunglasses float right off the back,’’ Jennifer said. “I almost went after them.
“I turned the jet ski off and just sat there. I didn’t care if I capsized. Then a big wave came and almost capsized me and I was like, ‘OK and I turned it back on and got going.”
Jennifer screamed to get my attention but I couldn’t hear her. My walkie-talkie was turned off.
“Dad! I don’t know what to do!” she shouted.
When she finally caught up to me, she glared.
“What the hell?!” she said. “Where’s your walkie-talkie? I could have died behind you. I could have died!”
It didn’t get any better when we reached Lake Pepin at about 2 o’clock that day. The lake, the largest on the Mississippi, was about two miles wide. Traveling through it was wicked because we rode straight into the headwind and the waves really picked up.
“I’m looking left and I’m looking right and I can’t see shit,’’ Jennifer said. “When we sped up, [the rain] felt like you’re getting nailed in the face by rocks.
“And I had no sunglasses, so I couldn’t keep my eyes open. My hair was like a bird’s nest. Our rain gear did nothing. I was miserable.”
We spent an hour battling the whitecaps. The air was cold and my hands started to get numb with the wind in my face and the waves crashing down on me.
No wonder that during my research, experts said you needed at least an 18-foot boat to withstand the waves and wakes on the river. Our jet skis were only12 feet long.
But I thought if we could just get to the end of the lake, things would get back to normal.
We arrived safely in Alma but the girls' nerves were frayed. It didn't help that a woman we met that night warned us of whirlpools she claimed could pull entire boats under.
She was referring to the strong currents created by wing dams. But they do not “eat” boats.
The first wing dam was designed and built in 1879 under the leadership of Captain James B. Eads.
Eads was famous for building the country’s first steel bridge, which still spans the Mississippi River and connects St. Louis, Missouri, to East St. Louis, Illinois.
His wing dam concept was even more significant.
Sediment build-up near the mouth of the river in New Orleans created sandbars that grounded the huge cargo ships critical to the city’s port.
To alleviate the sediment buildup, Eads designed jetties, underwater walls running perpendicular to the shoreline. He was so confident the jetties would work, he told the government not to pay him unless he succeeded.
He did succeed and now wing dams are used throughout the river.
Jackie didn’t know this history and listened to that woman the first night.
“That lady really scared me,’’ she said.
This wasn't the kind of start I anticipated. I knew then that our trip was going to be more unpredictable and perhaps more dangerous than I expected.