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Down the Mississippi

The fog, thick, hid most of Artist’s Point along the shore of Lake Superior. I needed to waste about an hour of time, so I decided to take a hike along the point and listen to the waves from Superior crash into the solid granite for a while. I had just finished dropping off a letter that spelled the end of a several year friendship, and needed to walk it off. As I walked, slowly tall forms began to take shape in the fog. At first, I thought a group of people was out in the fog, but as I drew closer, I noticed that my group of people was a group of Inuksuit: a form of Inuit art. This type of sculpture consists of big rocks balanced precariously on top of each other with smaller wedges of rock working to hold the whole structure in balance. The tallest pillar in this display came up to my shoulder. I walked around them. The fog and the precariously balanced rock pillars made me think back to a trip this last summer I took with the recipient of the letter I had just sent.

My friend Wes and I had been planning for months to kayak down the Mississippi River and end in our hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. Originally, our plan was to start at Lake Itasca, the source of the river, but due to time constraints, we choose to start further down the river. And due to a further time constraint that I only found out about shortly before the trip, we needed to shorten the trip further, so on the car ride up to the drop off point, we moved the start point further down the Mississippi to give us 15 days to go 560 miles. Or 37 miles per day.

Physically, we both knew it would be tough, but both of us being in good shape figured we could handle the stress it would cause our bodies. We never considered the mental stress it would cause or the stress it would inflict on our friendship, something that we later discovered when pushed slightly would easily fall out of balance, like the striking Inuksuit that I walked among.

I had first met Wes at a sporting goods store where I worked. He purchased a kayak from us, and then several years later he applied for a job. I hired him simply for his passion of kayaking and knowledge of gear. We worked together, slowly, getting to know each other, but we didn’t become good friends until he decided to build a wooden kayak. I had built several canoes, and had a West Greenland kayak half finished in my shop when he mentioned this to me. I had always wanted to build a wooden kayak, so I told him he could build it in my shop. Over the next couple of months, building his kayak we became good friends and hatched the Mississippi River plan, a dream of his since he started kayaking. In our plan, I would build a kayak also. We finished our kayaks; Wes just putting finishing touches on his the day before we left to drive to our put-in.

Near Brainerd, MN the sunset provides a nice end to the day after a long paddle on the upper Mississippi River.
Near Brainerd, MN the sunset provides a nice end to the day after a long paddle on the upper Mississippi River.

On the first day of the trip, we woke to a slightly misty morning, and happily squirmed into our kayaks pushing away from the muddy sand launch. The river was much different than I expected, it wasn’t as majestic as the part of river I grew up on. Its muddy banks were lined with run down houses, and in places, it was only a foot deep, and there were riffles and small drops. At the most, the river stretched 50 feet wide, sometimes much more narrow, and it twisted and turned like a rattlesnake in overdrive. Then during the next couple of days, the river slowly changed from a twisty mud hole with only piles of logs to get out on to a straighter rocky banked river. Eagles perched thickly in the trees, and it wasn’t unusual to see twenty deer browsing the shoreline in a day. We paddled big miles, including a 50 mile day and spoke of lofty ideas:

“I don’t really have a purpose for this trip,” I said. “You don’t have to have a purpose for everything. Sometimes, you do it just because it’s there.”

“Yes, but by giving something a purpose, doesn’t it have greater meaning?” Wes asked.

“No, sometimes, you can do things just because they are fun,” I said. “What is your purpose for this trip?”

“I’m trying to decide if I want to marry my girlfriend,” he said. He had carried the engagement ring with him for the whole trip. “What would you say if a reporter asked you why you decided to take this trip?”

“I would say that the Mississippi River is the heart of America, and it helped build the U.S. Without it, the U.S. wouldn’t be the same nation, and by following the same path that Native Americans, the early explorers, loggers, steamboat captains, and everyone who helped make this country the way it is, I would come to know the U.S. through their eyes, and then by understanding the past, I could come to know myself better. And besides, paddling Huck Finn’s river is the childhood dream of everyone who read his adventures. What more of a reason would you need than that?”

It was this conversation, which lasted much longer than my summary of it, that gave the first push at our friendship. For some reason, his trying to convince me that life was better with purpose, and my insistence that purpose isn’t needed for everything left us at odds that would only grow deeper. Slowly, over the rest of the trip, the Mississippi became grander and wider and bigger and that was reflected in a growing rift between us. We began to paddle at much greater distances apart from each other and only carried on minimal conversation, much of which was strained.

It cumulated the foggy morning that I was reminded of while walking in the fog and among the Inuksuit along Lake Superior. On that foggy morning, Wes and I had our last fall out of the trip. It started over a simple disagreement over navigation, but cumulated in a shouting match that cut through the fog. For ten minutes, we argued back and forth and finally split up. He quit and got a ride home from Winona, which was only a few miles downriver from where we had our argument. I went on alone for the next four days and finished in Dubuque.

Wes paddling into the Twin Cities.  The half-way point of the trip.
Wes paddling into the Twin Cities. The half-way point of the trip.

During those four days, paddling alone I thought about Wes and our falling out in the fog, and I concluded that a few things had lead to it. By the time, I reached Dubuque, I was very angry, but in an email, I apologized to him. Then over a few emails, we continued the same arguments we had on the Mississippi River. It was as if the trip, although physically over continued mentally for me and from his emails I sensed that it was continuing for him. I wanted to believe that I was 100% right in my sense of what happened and it seemed that he did also.

Finally, the morning I took that walk along the shore of Lake Superior I finished my last letter to him. I dropped the letter in the mail, and in my mind, I was finished with the Mississippi and our friendship. Then I went to waste an hour along the lake. It was finally over, I thought, and not a second to soon. Then the fog reminded me of our trip and our lost friendship. As I walked along the Inuksuit, my mind wouldn’t let it go. But as I looked in awe at the sculpture, I realized that when there was a big storm, these fragile but beautiful sculptures would be washed away, like Wes’ and my friendship was washed away during that foggy morning. The artist had to expect this, because there could be no other outcome from building rock art this close to the shore of the lake. These sculptures would be wiped out and their pieces would come to rest on the granite bedrock of the point. At some point, the artist could come back and rebuild the Inuksuit, and like that, friendship can be rebuilt. But how I failed our friendship was by concentrating on the storm and trying to recall its fury, instead of slowly and carefully rebalancing the large rocks with small concessions that become the points of balance, the small rocks, in all our friendships.

Inuksuit on Artist's Point, Grand Marais, MN.
Inuksuit on Artist

On the final day of the Mississippi River trip, I landed on a beach in Dubuque. The first thing I did was to reach down into the sand. I felt the grit under my fingernails. I held a fist full of sand up and let the grains filter down to the ground, and then I flung the rest in a sweeping arc that spread out across the ground in front of me. Like friendship, when together sand can hold a great deal of weight, but unlike sand and the heavy rocks of the Inuksuit that come to rest close to where they fall in a storm, friendship can only last if you put work into it and move past the stormy moments, otherwise it’s just swept away like a single grain of sand in the current created by a storm. By being stubborn, I allowed the current created by our stormy argument to sweep away our friendship and take it down the Mississippi to its end.

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  • I really enjoyed your piece. Thank you for sharing. Friendships can be tough to maintain…

  • Thanks, Eric.

  • Well written. Comes from the heart. Very obvious. I’m sorry to hear of your pain.

    Friendships are two way so don’t beat yourself up.

    Hey, question for you. I’m looking to do a 4-5 day canoe trip with 5 guys. We want to just get out, have some fun, get away. Drink, laugh, not kill ourselves. My cabin is north of Grand Rapids. Not sure where you launched but any leg fit for us?

    • It’s so long ago that I don’t remember the specific sections very well. I remember enjoying the St. Cloud area a lot.

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