America's heart

In the summer of 2010, Bill Sparrow paddled his kayak down the entire length of the Mississippi River. Laura, his wife, handled many of the logistics. Many days and nights, Bill was all alone, and would camp on the banks in the evenings. On weekends, when Laura could get free from her job as a teacher and high school forensics coach, she would meet Bill along the way, finding him put-out spots, stocking up on food, and carting him to the relative comforts of budget motels.

Along the way, as they spent their respective days on water and land, the Sparrows accidentally discovered something they hadn’t been searching for: their country.

Michigan Today asked them to share their story, which they’ve done—in duet form—below. You can also see photos of their journey here.

Bill: At my 2010 retirement reception, a group of friends asked, “Why don’t you take a cruise now that you and Laura have got some time together?”

Laura: I heard, “Why don’t you take a cruise to exotic places and dine each evening at the Captain’s table?”

Bill: But I heard, “Why don’t you paddle a kayak down the 2,350 mile length of the Mississippi river, starting in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, and ending in the Gulf of Mexico?”

I had kayaked long distance before, including through the Great Lakes, so this seemed perfectly sensible. After several months of planning, we launched the trip at the river’s source, using a small single-seat kayak. Some stretches of the young river, particularly through the rushes, were barely wider than the kayak, and I rarely saw another person on the water. The paddling on this section wasn’t very difficult, but I really did have the feeling that I was on my own, with little margin for error. These were the headwaters of the river, full of wildlife and spectacular views, almost unchanged from the earliest days.

Laura: As soon as Bill started paddling, I started driving. His job was to get the kayak down the entire Mississippi, and my job was to expedite that trip by exploring ahead of him along the river banks. And when I was with him, I’d pull him off the river at night, then return him to launch at sunrise.

One of the first things I learned, though, was that—even with my maps and GPS—I needed to talk to nearly everyone I met, just to find my way. Signs faded or fell down; logging roads grew up into forests; old public landings became private; and detours sent me into the next county. Luckily, fishermen and canoeists, rangers and local police, home-owners and passers-by all seemed to know and love the river. They told us what to expect as far ahead as they could and wished us well, and I was struck again and again by their kindness to strangers.

Bill: As the Mississippi grew larger, so did the traffic on it. We saw the incredible power of the river, and—beginning with the locks and dams in Minneapolis—the massive infrastructure projects designed to make it one of the major commercial arteries in the US. The scale of the human engineering was awesome. Countless barges carried agricultural and industrial cargo to and from the Gulf of Mexico and ports along the way. Powerful tugs shoved tons of weight effortlessly. Trains rumbled constantly up the river banks.

But even the relatively minor flooding in the summer of 2010 showed that the Mississippi’s might trumped man’s efforts to control it. Dams had to be opened to let the water flow, while locks were closed to remove heavy debris and repair the machinery. Barge trains took refuge, with their tugs pushing the barges against the shore—often for hours and sometimes even for days—until the river became safe to use again. When it did, commerce flowed again, and the river resumed its role as the country’s primary artery.

Laura: We had reached the Middle Mississippi when the floodwaters began to rise. I’d gotten pretty good at finding landings, but now more and more of them were underwater. There was no way to rely strictly on technology. Eventually, I learned to phone the county sheriffs in Kentucky and Missouri, to ask whether any ramps were still usable. Local folks also offered advice and sometimes their own landing sites. Down in Cape Girardeau, I waited at a flooded park with an old man who surveyed the rising waters with me; as he left, his last words were, “I’ll pray for you both to have a safe trip through all of this.” It felt as though I was connecting with people who would all be my friends if I stayed along the river with them.

Bill: From St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico, the sheer size of the river—often over a mile wide—meant that I went days without talking with anyone on the water except by marine radio. The river here is navigable without the use of locks and dams, and as a result, not only does the traffic continue to increase, but so also does the activity at the large ports like St. Louis, Memphis, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. The paddling challenge here is to stay out of the way of man’s machinery; the kayak was so small that I couldn’t be seen by the pilots of barge trains and the even larger ocean freighters that began to appear at Baton Rouge. Pleasure boats had long since disappeared, and the life of the river was industry and transportation.

Laura: By the time we reached the Deep South, the weather seemed like the deep tropics. Temperatures stayed around 100, day after day, and people said it was the hottest summer in a decade. It wasn’t getting any easier to find landing places, either; the water had gone down only a little, and most of the shoreline was either inaccessible or industrial. Searching for a ramp of any kind became a full-time job that involved wheedling big corporations and talking to every sheriff or fireman I could find. But driving for miles atop the levee in St. John the Baptist Parish, for example, did get me to an abandoned ferry landing the local officers helped me find.

Finding a place to land in New Orleans proved to be the toughest challenge of the trip for me, though. Three days of searching got me nowhere. Out of time, I ended up walking the shore and talking to everyone I met. Finally, someone told me to go across the levee along the upper end of city and ask the folks who owned cottages that backed right up to the river—and that brought me to Amy’s cottage, one of the best landing spots of our entire trip.

When the kayak pulled up the next afternoon, it was coming in to the exact latitude and longitude I’d provided. But it was also coming in to the only place on the whole river where a woman stood on the shore, waving, with a cat and a dancing goat. Of all the people we met along the river, Amy is perhaps our most vivid memory.

* * *

Each of us had a very different trip. Bill’s taught him about the beauty and power of the river, as well as its crucial role in keeping this country’s industry and commerce on the move. Laura’s taught her about the kindness of Americans, and their willingness to help strangers along the way. For us both, it was a discovery that traveling the Mississippi River really is like touching America’s heart.

Plus: See photos of the Sparrows expedition down the Mississippi.

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