Published on September 22nd, 2016 | by Kevin Williams0
Go as a River
“To all the people over the years who told me I shouldn’t do this… fuck you!” I shouted, laughing. With my paddleboard tethered to my ankle I was swimming a backstroke in the cold channel of the Mississippi River just west of Winterville. My friends in their canoes were laughing too. The whole world opened up, with me floating peacefully in the center of a giant blue and green marble. My friend, Josh Adams, once said being in the middle of the Mississippi is like floating “in the palm of God’s hand.”
The evening before, I was on the phone with Matthew Burdine, a bearded Ole Miss alum who recently paddled the length of the Mississippi to raise money for breast cancer research.
“We’re gonna get going about ten o’clock,” He explained. The next morning, about ten o’clock, the phone calls started between myself, Matthew, and Ryan Moore, owner of Cicero’s Restaurant in Stoneville, Mississippi.
At Eustace Winn’s riverfront property about two o’clock, we were staring at a dried up old arm of the Mississippi once known as Miller’s Bend. The Corps of Engineers, of course, had changed the course of the river such that this was a mere backwater channel of the third largest river on Earth.
“You may just have to drag across if it’s too shallow in some places,” Eustace explained. My fin got stuck several times as we made our way through the shallow slack-water. I felt like an explorer of a narrow tributary of the Amazon with the trees leaning in towards the water on either side. We stopped at beach where the channel opened to the Mississippi River.
The wake from the first tow of barges cut into our inlet like waves on a secluded Caribbean beach. They broke off of the underwater rock dike. The next time a tow passed, I waited to see the wake begin to break on the rocks and paddled swiftly out to towards the break. I had made it almost to the rocks when I heard Matthew yell out to me not to go all the way out there.
At that point, I could feel the current begin to drag me downstream. The wooded bank was moving past me like a chase sequence from a Yogi Bear cartoon, so I paddled hard towards it and into the slack water.
With the barges running upstream out of the way, we had a window. I paddled back to the beach and the crew was starting to get ready.
“We’ll enter into the current at an angle. You’re going from a slack water area to about a five mile-an-hour current, so if you hit it straight on, it could flip your canoe over,” Matthew said looking at the newly-wed Ryan and Susan Moore.
Riding the main channel was not as fast as I had imagined, but we kept a nice pace. I got ahead of the group at one point, hitting the sweet spot through a rapid along a rock dike. I could hear water rushing over another rock dike ahead and to the right, so I paddled towards it, eager to hit another rapid. The next thing I knew I was paddling slowly through a slack water armpit of the river without taking particular notice until I heard a whistle to the east. My party was clearly in the fast moving main channel, and ahead of me. I felt like a far-flung character in a Salvador Dali perspective painting as I changed course to catch the drift of the fast water with my friends.
“Are ya’ll okay?” a concerned Party Barge captain yelled out to me as we made our final push across to Warfield Point.
“Yeah,” I returned his thumbs-up.
As the concerned citizen had cleared the view, I noticed a nine-barge towline moving upstream about a quarter mile from me. I was right in his path in the downstream current and the wake from the previous tow had kicked up two to four foot high wake. It was a struggle to stay on my board, but I knew this was no time to falter. I focused all of my strength straight ahead one paddle at a time. Matthew, who was already in the slack water, was documenting my efforts with his IPhone, which seemed a little morbid to me at the time.
I could see the giant barges towering over me. The top of the towboat rose like a portable corporate office building with its shaded windows and antennas, it was all business. All this expensive equipment, unable to stop; someone else’s family fortune threatening my life as I paddled towards the point with everything I had. Making it to the other side with little celebration, I looked up towards the captain as he gave me a honk to say “you’re crazy,” or “good job for not winding up in my tow.” I gave him a salute.