About one-third of the Mississippi River is located in Minnesota, so for us, getting to the Iowa border was a major accomplishment. We were oozing with happiness when we ran into an old man along the river and struck up a conversation. He told us, "You boys picked a good couple weeks to canoe. It hasn't rained here for three weeks straight. The corn's drier than a popcorn fart." Considering rain and wind were about the only things that could possibly wear down our spirits, our smiles widened even more.
We should have known that those smiles would soon fade. Later that day, a storm rolled in and we were forced to set up camp early. Our luck had turned, and unbeknownst to us, some of our best--but mostly our worst--days on the river were just ahead of us...
- Started at La Crosse, WI. Ended in the Quad Cities.
- Miles: 200
- Average: 28
- Points of Interest: McGreggor, Dabuque, Quad Cities
"That was the scariest moment of my life"
It happened near Dubuque, Iowa. Hopes were high in the morning as we woke up to our first ever Northern wind. For most of the day we were in high spirits as the wind graciously gave us a little extra push down the river, but things quickly took a turn for the worse. As we were in the middle of a lake and about three miles away from the lock and dam, the wind turned nasty and 15+ mph blasts started plowing waves into the back of our canoe. Maintaining control of the canoe required us to paddle with every ounce of strength that we could muster, as we were driven by the fear of capsizing and losing all of our gear, thus potentially ending our trip. About a half-mile away from the dam, the waves somehow got worse and water began to gather at our feet. To make things worse, a huge barge had somehow snuck up about two miles behind us. Desperate to get out the wide-open lake and away from the barge, we had no choice other than to continue for the lock and dam
Momentarily, we saw a silver lining. The doors of the lock were already open and we could paddle right into the lock--we didn't have to waste time pulling the signal cord to notify the lock operators. We approached the lock as waves still crashed over our heads, but a lock operator startled us with a yell: "Hey! You can't come in! That barge has the right-of-way!" It wasn't our proudest moment, but we paddled into the the lock anyway; turning the canoe around and going against the waves would have been impossible. The lock operators had no other choice than to close the doors behind us and quickly let us pass. Surprisingly, our supposed silver lining nearly led to our demise: because the lock doors had been open for so long, the waves had gathered in the lock and began reverberating off of the cement walls. The waves continued to grow, easily rising above our heads. As the water started to drain, another element of danger was added to this fiasco: a supernatural water funnel formed in the lock and began tossing our canoe around, making a capsize seem inevitable. All the while, one of the lock operators began reprimanding us from up above, seemingly oblivious to our battle with the water below.
We had experienced rain five out of the last six days. So much for Iowa being dry as a popcorn fart. To make things worse, we found out later that day that the Vikings had lost the game in the final seconds. Ugh.
Notes from Week 4
When we looked in the mirror at the motel, we realized how much weight we had lost; we definitely weren't eating enough food. We began spending a little bit more money on snacks and meals, which made us feel healthier and happier.
Wake up EARLY
We got in a routine this week of getting up about 2 hours before sunrise. Morning paddling is AMAZING--the water is generally smooth and the sun is kind. Get out there as early as possible.
Know your pace
We paddled down the river when the water was low, but as a general rule of thumb: with limited wind and no rain, you can go about 4 miles per hour. A normal day, meaning a southern wind between 5-10mph, you will go about 3 miles per hour. A hard day, meaning a strong southern wind over 10mph and/or rain, you will go about 2 - 2.5 miles per hour.
Watch out for wing dams!
Starting in Southern Minnesota, you will see wing dams along the banks of the river. Wing dams are mounds of rocks that jut out like a peninsula into the river. They are intended to direct water into the navigable channel where all of the boats operate. While they are usually visible from a distance when the water is low, they sometimes are completely covered so watch out for ripples in the water that they may create. Wing dams will also create small eddies that can really slow you down, so it's best to just paddle around them.
- If you need a break from sitting on your butt, try kneeling and paddling.
- A barge will take two hours to get through a lock. It's best to call the dams (their phone numbers are located in the Army Corps of Engineers mapbook) when you're about 30 minutes away so you can more effectively plan and know if you should stop for a break or keep going.
- Lock 14 has an auxiliary lock for smaller boats, but it is only open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.