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sams.solo.river.run sams.solo.river.run

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Sam Mathieu  Start date: 6/3/2017. Follow my solo attempt to kayak the Mississippi River from its source in Itasca State Park, MN to the Gulf of Mexico!

The aftermath: the morning after I finished my trip, I woke up in time to catch one of the best sunrises of the trip, shining over the Gulf, the last one I'll see for my time on the "river". I made the brief paddle back up to Port Eads marina, where I climbed up the lighthouse and drank in the panoramic views, still unable to understand that the trip is over. My Mom, Aunt Colleen, and incredible girlfriend Kate came and picked me up in a chartered boat! We cracked a few celebratory beers and cruised out to where I paddled to in the ocean. After that, we took the boat back up to Venice, and then proceeded to drive to our hotel in New Orleans, where I took my first shower since the morning that I left Memphis, on Day 59! We spent the evening touring around the French Quarter, having coffee and beignets at Café du Monde, and stopping at several bars on Beale St. At one of them, we met a couple and the lady happened to be high up at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas (NOLA aquarium). After some good conversation she ended up offering us complimentary tickets to the aquarium, which we slated for the next day! The next morning we took our time waking up and getting ready, then set off for the well renowned WWII museum. It was an incredible museum (rated as 4th best museum in the nation), and incredible to read the countless heroics of the war. It would've been easy to spend an entire day there, walking through the exhibits of the 4 building complex. After the museum, we walked over to the aquarium, where we learned that our tickets had a $45 value each!!! The kind lady from the night before saved us some serious money, and we definitely enjoyed walking by all the impressive tanks and reading about the fishes within. Tired from the night before, and with an early morning ahead of us, we called it early and were asleep around 9:30pm. The following morning we hit the road at 3:45am and made the 18 hour drive back home. Since then, I've been adjusting to living in a house and having a normal life. Despite the finish being 1 week ago, I still feel like there's something I'm missing in every day. I think it's undeniable that the river has become a part of me, and...

Day 76 (yesterday): per usual, I got up around 7am, tired from the nearby grunts and snorts of some feral hogs last night, just as I was falling asleep. I hit the water for my LAST day of paddling around an hour or so after waking up! It was a beautiful day and I couldn't have picked better conditions to finish off the trip. I made my way south, getting an enthusiastic wave from one of the captains of the last ship I passed. A couple hours into the paddle, I crossed the "Head of the Passes", Mile 0! I made my way into the South Pass, savoring every second of the stretch, knowing this would be my last. I paddled on, seeing a few gators as I neared Port Eads Marina! Just as I was pulling up, planning to take advantage of the wifi there (since I had "No Service"), I heard @paddlingfortheplanet call out my name! They were just at that moment getting picked up by a boat to head back to Venice, and then New Orleans! We all hugged it out and congratulated one another, in disbelief that it was over (at least almost for me). After they went on their way and I sent off my texts, I paddled the short distance down to the Gulf of Mexico!!! I paddled around a mile or so past the end of the land, and out to where the muddy brown water stopped and the green blue of the ocean began, past the furthest buoy that I could see. I honestly can't describe the emotions felt; gratitude, appreciation, happiness, a little bit of sadness, just about everything under the sun. The best analogy for it would probably relate it to summiting a difficult mountain, but a mountain that you've spent 2.5 months climbing. It was unbelievably surreal and somewhat overwhelming. I made my way back towards the beach at the mouth of the river and made camp. Then, I enjoyed a celebratory cigar and bottle of champagne, while I went for a walk down the beach! I found some awesome oyster shells, played with hermit crabs in the 95 degree tide pools, and when there was a lull in the fishing boat traffic, went skinny dipping in the ocean 👍🏼 I spent the evening watching the sunset, struggling to cope with reality. As the sun disappeared, I had the fortune of a very starry night. Being without any cell service...

Day 75: I woke up around 7am this morning, packing up the kayak and hitting the water around 8:15am. Just a couple miles in I crossed the river and started paddling down LBD (I spent all of yesterday on RBD). Well either I missed out yesterday, or this side and stretch of river was spectacular! There were no rocks lining the shoreline and no levee visible through the trees, just pure and unobstructed nature. Beautiful willow trees intermixed with palm fronds, and small little bayous and swamps leading off the main channel. The whole stretch from Port Sulphur to northern Buras was just gorgeous. At one point, I saw a young, skinny coyote (weirdest looking coyote I've ever seen) trotting down the side of the river. I quietly paddled up towards him, careful not to scare him off into the trees and undergrowth. I snapped a few pictures and then paddled closer. He noticed me but wasn't startled, as I was likely the first human contact of his life. I was able to paddle right up to the shore until my kayak stopped in the sand, and he just stood there on the bank looking at me. I made the little kissy noise and he cocked his head, confused, then turned and jogged into the brush. It was an amazing encounter, and one of the definite highlights of the entire trip. I paddled on, unable to keep from smiling (I named the little dude Kiko, it seemed like a fitting name for him). As the distance between the side of the river and the ocean grew thinner, the rocks started up on this side of the river. Occasionally I'd pass a gap in them that would lead deep back into a swampy bayou. I decided to explore, realizing I may never have this opportunity again. It turned out to be pretty incredible! There were some cattle hanging out right after I entered, with a few crossing the bayou before I could get my phone out in time. The vegetation was breathtaking, and made me feel as though I had been paddling down a tributary of the Amazon! After my little side trip, I continued on for another couple hours, at one point passing a "No Trespassing" sign in the middle of absolute nowhere. I can't imagine how the owners have had a problem with that in the past, as there is nowhere someone can...

Day 74: I woke up relatively early, around 7am, and began breaking down camp, collecting quite a few mosquito bites in the process. I hit the water around 8:15am, with beautiful blue skies above. I quickly came to a realization, the presence of the barges was nearly over, with the waterway being primarily dominated by ships from here on out. A couple hours into the paddle a decent storm passed just north of me, bringing with it some daylong cloud cover. I could hear fighter jets taking off at the nearby Air Force base, but was unable to see any of them unfortunately /: it began to drizzle (which turned out to be on and off until I stopped paddling for the day), just as I was pulling up to the shore for a quick stop. I had searched the canal previously and this location proved to be just about the most accessible gas station / last water stop until the end. Well I decided to stop up river from it a ways, where I had an easier access to the road, as opposed to downstream where I would've had to hike it through 1/4-1/2 mile of dense swamps and jungle. About halfway into my 2 mile walk a cop pulled over beside me, offering to give me a lift! I gratefully accepted and hopped in the back. Once we got there, I foolishly tried to hop on out, pulling the inside handle of the car door in the back repeatedly. Only when I went to unlatch the lock and saw there was none did I realize - no crap you can't open a cop car door from the inside of the back (it was my first time in the back of a cop car..). He let me out and I went and grabbed a chocolate milk and a last gallon of water! He had nothing going on so gave me a lift back to the nearest street by my kayak, on which we introduced ourselves. Bubba was a super friendly cop, and when we hopped out he asked if I wouldn't mind if he said a quick prayer over me! Of course I don't mind, I'll take any sort of good wishes I can get! It was very genuine and from the heart, and I really appreciated the gesture. We wished each other safety and said goodbye. Back on the water the rain picked up again, with some light thunder rolling overhead. I continued on for another hour or so until I passed a promising looking swamp area. I...

Day 73: I slept LATE! I woke up at 9:30am, around the time I'm usually hitting the water! Today's paddling didn't begin until shortly after 11am, and it was hot right off the bat. As I finished off chemical corridor, the tops of the NOLA skyscrapers came into view. As I drew nearer, I was treated to a low flying military chopper (Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion, I believe), likely doing some training out of the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base of New Orleans. The video didn't do it justice, it was a tank of a helicopter! I continued on, passing a few naval cargo ships as I entered the "Port of New Orleans". Amongst all the barges and ships lining the sides of the river, I also came across several paddlewheel boats as well as a cruise ship! It was pretty awesome, just about every single person on each of these boats (barges included) that saw you would give out a big "WOOHOOOO!!", followed up by enthusiastic two handed waves or thumbs up. On my marine radio I even heard a couple barges saying "Man, some people have some serious guts", with the response being along the lines of "Yeah, you wouldn't catch me doing that". I thought to myself how after +2,300 miles of paddling, it wasn't frightening in the least being out there on the busy water with some seriously massive vessels. As I drifted past downtown New Orleans (and over the deepest spot of the river, Algiers Point - 250ft!), I had the last of my tasty jambalaya for lunch, heating it up in a couple of minutes by just setting it on the deck in front of me - it was 94 degrees out and felt like 108! I also took the time to send up a heartfelt prayer for Jimmy Gilbert, wishing on behalf of John Anderson (Grand Rapids, MN) that he finally made it and was enjoying the view from upstairs. After I left the downtown section, a Coast Guard boat came cruising up to me, explaining that the cruise ship would be coming downstream soon and kicking up some pretty big wake, just giving me a heads up. They asked where I docked at, and confused I asked them what they meant, they asked where I put in on the river. When I said I had started at the headwaters, 589 miles upstream from Minneapolis, they were blown away. They...

Day 72: I woke up this morning around the usual 8am or so, packing up camp and paddling off around 9:20am. It was a gorgeous morning, with there being more blue sky than clouds for the entire day. I passed countless more ships today, many sporting some awesome names - Orient Tiger, Cielo di Iyo, Qi Xian Ling, Zaliv Baikal, Kazdanga, and my absolute favorite being the Southern Quokka (if you don't know what a Quokka is, google it, you'll smile). Around 1pm or so, I approached a pretty cool bridge, and ever so faintly thought I heard "SAAAAAAAAM! SAAAAAAAM!", over and over! I was completely confused, as I hadn't been contacted by anyone about meeting up and didn't know anyone that it might be. I scanned the shorelines (I was on LBD, left bank descending) and thought I may have seen a person under the bridge over on the opposite side of the river. It kind of looked like someone waving a white shirt around or something, but as it was the same height as the flags behind the levee I figured it was just that, a flag. Deciding I was maybe just imagining things and having auditory hallucinations, I continued on. Maybe 5 miles down the river, I heard the "SAAAAAM!" again! Only louder! I scanned the shorelines and on the one nearest to me (LBD still) I saw a man standing there waving around a white shirt! I realized he was definitely trying to flag me down and paddled over. The guy introduced himself as Blake Stevens, and had driven from Lafayette, LA (a 2 hour drive!!!) to meet me and give me supplies! He brought me water, fresh pineapple, watermelon and oranges, some AMAZING homemade jambalaya, Gatorade, Clif bars, and some gummy bears! He explained how he was from Cajun country, and that they're all about hospitality and taking care of their own (he recognized my french last name). We hung out in the shade for an hour and a half or so talking and eating lunch. Apparently, he was on the internet and somehow stumbled across the Stillwater Gazette article about me, and has been following me on Instagram ever since (he unfortunately doesn't have an account so wasn't sure how to contact me). While I had the amazing jambalaya (and ate all of the pineapple and watermelon)...

Day 71: I woke up this morning around 8am, not hitting the water until 9:20am or so. I started off passing a beautiful plantation home right off the bat, the Nottoway Plantation. As for the rest of the day, much of it was the same, with some heavy ship/barge traffic throughout the entire day (keeping me out of the current for much of it 🙄)! I passed (or was passed) by at least a dozen ocean-farers, and came to understand the nickname "Chemical Corridor". There were a few points where you'd get a draft straight off one of the refineries that would make your eyes water and nose sting, leaving me with a lasting headache for majority of the day (no evidence to back up the fumes + headache correlation, but I know I wasn't dehydrated). The entire day, there was some strong weather to the south of me, but today was actually the first day where I wasn't rained on in quite some time! It was a nice change for a bit! I ended the day in Paulina, LA, meeting up with @tboy1324! He drove me to the grocery store where I got some more canned fruit, nature valleys and pop tarts (I want to eat well/not be super hungry for the finale). I also stocked up on several gallons of water. We spent the evening at his cousins house, hanging out and sharing stories, before his cousin dropped me back off at the beach for the night! 46 miles today, meaning that I only need to paddle 32 a day from here on out to finish on Thursday as planned!

Day 70: I woke up around 6:40am this morning, promptly packing up camp in the hopes of having a decent day. I loaded up the kayak with a beautiful sunrise before me, and paddled off around 7:30am. The first several hours were uneventful, until I entered the southern stretch on which Baton Rouge lay at the halfway point of. On the north side of that stint I passed my first two REAL ocean going ships, the first one being from HONG KONG - and I thought I'd traveled far! It was pretty unbelievable paddling by these ships (you can listen to the chatter on my radio if you turn volume up). The "large" barges from before were now the small boats on the river, making me nothing more than an ant on a stick! I stopped in Baton Rouge, grabbing a quick lunch at Canes fried chicken (Caniac all the way), and stopped at a supermarket for some canned fruit which I've sorely been craving, as well as water, gatorade, and nature valleys. I also picked up some pop tarts for the occasional dessert! I arrived to the beach to find one of those beautifully sad sights - some gorgeous flowers that were fresh, thrown on the ground, noticed right as some rain began falling. Anywho, I paddled off just an hour after arriving, right into a light rain and a stronggg headwind. The wind came straight from the south, building waves up the entire stretch I was on, with barges lining the sides of it to help their growth. At the very end of it, they were larger than the ones I had the other day, several had to be in the 6ft range (I could see these coming and avoided them), as they would be WELL higher than my head when I was in a trough. The rain never escalated to anything more than a strong drizzle, and once I was finished with the southern stretch I was finished with the wind and waves too. The rest of the day was easy paddling, with surprisingly light shipping traffic (knock on wood) through my first 35 miles of "chemical corridor" (Baton Rouge -> New Orleans, nickname because of all of the refineries/plants/etc.). Today was long, but the midday break helped make it far more tolerable, paddling ~4 hours in the morning and ~6 hours after Baton Rouge. Despite 10 hours of work, there was only 60...

Day 69: I woke up at 5:45am to a couple of guys talking on the beach I was camped out at, they both headlights on and after a couple of seconds of coming to, I realized that there was a barge right behind them at beach! Acknowledging that these guys were either USACE or worked on a tow that possibly got stuck, I went back to sleep. I officially got up around 8am, starting the paddling 45 minutes later. The day started off overcast, with the sun occasionally poking through, at one point showcasing a decent sundog! Something I haven't seen since paddling with my mom, @teresathompsonmathieu, through Winona, MN! There was a lot of debris in the water today, including several whole trees I paddled by. I had lunch right around the time I was passing Morganza, LA, which consisted of a cranberry raisin trail mix pack and a berry pomegranate chia Clif bar (which is actually amazing, the best Clif bar I've ever had). I was drifting around the outside of the bend, on the leeward side of the river, when a drizzle started up. I figured it was just going to be a quick sprinkle, but turned out to be WAY wrong. It rapidly became one of the most intense rains I've experienced in my life (the new "most extreme" rain of the trip.. I think Mother Nature read my Instagram last night and got a little riled). I managed to snag a video just before it got real chaotic, almost being describable as violent. Unlike the rains when I entered Natchez, there was nowhere to hide this time. I paddled on under the downpour for about an hour, then there was a 25-30 minute lapse between major cells where I tried searching the bank for a place to hide out, no dice. The second storm that rolled in was much more electrically active, with constant lightning and some loud thunder, strong enough to feel it inside your chest. The rains of this second storm weren't quite as intense, but were still super intense (no clue why the video is sideways). At this point I was at least under some tall trees that were in the water/right on the riverbank, providing some (minimal) protection from the lightning. Just as that storm was easing up, a 3rd one built up on it's backside and rolled through, calmer than it's...

Day 68: I had some difficulties falling asleep last night, causing me to immediately silence my 6am alarm this morning. I woke up a little before 8am and started the pack up process, getting on the water at 8:45am. Conditions were perfect for the first half of the day, partly cloudy, hardly any wind, not too hot at all - just right. Around noon a peculiar drizzle fell, with nothing but a small cloud above me and blue skies. It lasted just a couple minutes, hardly long enough to dampen my shirt. Around 1pm, a REAL storm rolled in. While I managed to avoid most of the downpour, I was caught in the "fire and fury" of the waves though. They were a steady 4ft, with some of the larger ones being ~5ft. I had a couple that broke over the top of my shoulder! They got this big, and so quickly, because I was entering a 90 degree bend in the river, with all of the Mississippi's might piling that water up, and a strong crosswind to build them as well, forming pyramidal type waves. At one point, one built beneath me and lifted my entire cumulative 250lbs (kayak/gear/self) out of the water, balancing me by the middle of the kayak, bow and stern in the air. It was an intense and fun hour or so. It also made me realize that I've had a lot of my "most extremes" in the last couple of days. Today was the biggest waves, yesterday was hardest rain, and the day before that was strongest winds! While today was certainly exhilarating, I hope the trend calms down and doesn't keep ramping up! I paddled on for several more hours, with a light, steady drizzle following the storm that passed. I started getting really hungry, so decided to call it a day and make dinner once I left the state of Mississippi. I'm now entirely in the state of Louisiana, with the last time I was in a single state, and not straddling the border of two, being back in Hastings, MN! Even with the crazy storm around midday I was still able to get 53 miles down, a number I'm happy with!

Day 67: I woke up around 8:30am, deciding to catch a few more z's before getting up for the day. I finally got up around 9:40am and broke camp. Once I got Bob all packed up, I heard a low and steady "boooooom" from the western shore. Foolishly, I failed to check the Doppler before breaking my tent down. A pretty good storm was quickly closing in, and Natchez was about an hour downstream. I decided against setting my tent back up, and hopped in the kayak. About 10 minutes later, I watched as Natchez became hidden from view, with an absolute downpour approaching my location. It rained pretty darn hard for almost the entire paddle into the city. There was a brief break when I was still twenty minutes out or so, but the rain returned before I could make it. Once there, I spent 20-30 minutes under the deck of a casino, hoping it'd blow through. It started to lighten up just a tad, so I paddled a few hundred yards down to a boat launch and got my kayak out of the water. With the rain still coming down pretty good, I ran across the street into a small bar that happened to be open (at noon). I dried off inside and chatted with the bartender for a couple hours, charging up my watch and battery pack in the meantime. Natchez is the oldest established city on the entire Mississippi (1716), two years older than New Orleans, and I happened to stop at the oldest saloon on the entire Mississippi! The Under-The-Hill saloon was built even before Natchez, back when Under-The-Hill was a river port (and Natchez didn't even exist yet), and widely regarded by old time travelers as the rowdiest one on the whole river. The saloon floor was old planks that made it sound like you were in cowboy boots, and not 5 year old rubber sandals. The walls were covered with history, including photographs of the saloon from the 1800's, flintlock pistols, handmade and ancient looking knives, muskets, Natchez Indian arrowheads, steamboat models, maps, and everything else you can imagine. It was a pretty awesome place to happen into, and I'm definitely glad I sought refuge there. The bartender recommended a neighboring restaurant for lunch, where I had brisket gravy fries, a BBQ bacon cheeseburger...

Day 66: I slept straight until 6:50am this morning, waking up feeling well rested. I poked my head out of the tent to see a gorgeous sunrise, complimented by the first "ship" sighting of the trip! It even had one of the Captain Phillips style lifeboats tucked into the side. It was clearly a small one though, and I presume that this sort of ocean faring vessel will be commonplace in a few days or so. I started paddling a few minutes before 8am, under a partly cloudy sky (allowing me to charge my dead battery pack, saving my phone from the 19% it was at). Early on in the day, the winds were at about 10mph straight out of the south, not ideal for a days paddle consisting of south, horseshoe to the west, south, southwest, south, southwest, longggg stretch south. I passed an interesting forest on the Louisiana side of the river, with all of the trees growing in tight clusters and in a sort of haphazard set of rows (either very poorly planted rows or mere coincidence). I continued on, rounding a bend and seeing a pretty neat sight. The Grand Gulf Nuclear Station cooling tower, billowing steam like crazy. It loomed well above the treeline, despite being a mile, if not more, away from the river. As I paddled on, the southern wind intensified throughout the day, going from its 10mph to 10-15mph, then 15-20mph, wave size increasing from 1/2ft, to 1ft, to about 2ft. A decent sized storm passed by, going just north of me, and only seemed to escalate the rate at which that wind blew. At it's most intense point it easily became the strongest winds of the trip. I'd estimate that for around a half an hour it held between 30-40mph (I took the video just as this began, you can briefly see how much the trees are swaying, you can also see how quickly the wind spins my boat around). Even when riding the prime section of the river, in the fastest current, I'd stop or start going backwards if I stopped paddling. The waves got quite large through this section, requiring all electronics to go in a dry bag and the spray skirt to be thrown on. Even with the skirt, I was still submarining close to half of the kayak and had to sponge out about an inch of water out of the cockpit...

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