So, I am 57 years old and one would have thought by now that I would have established some kind of routine in my life.
One would have thought wrong.
But being on a homemade raft on the Mississippi River forces even an Old Dog to learn a few new tricks.
My mornings now have a routine. It frightens me a bit that I have grown accustomed to knowing that each morning I have to:
- Make sure both motors start.
- Make sure all of my navigational tools, communications equipment and digital maps are fully charged and in working condition.
- Re-trace my planned route for the day. I typically do this about a dozen times as I am pretty sure the first 11 times I calculated something wrong.
- If I know I will be traveling through a lock and dam, make sure all acrylic windows are removed, and that the detachable screen windows on the back five windows are removed.
- Take a bungee cord and make sure that the port and starboard screen doors are open, and that the front screen door is open, as well.
- Say a prayer to God to give me wisdom, courage, bravery and to avoid moments of sheer panic and terror. And, if sheer panic and terror must be had that I have the wisdom, the courage and the bravery to confront it.
- Heat water for my coffee and sit back for 15 minutes and simply be calm.
I am not a creature of habit. I force myself to be diligent to these tasks.
I’ve been in a growing number of circumstances, some through my own fault, others simply because nature is as nature is, where having this routine allowed me to escape dicey situations.
Throughout the day, I feel like a bobblehead doll attempting to make sense of the changing situation outside my cabin.
Amidst the glorious scenery, the abundant wildlife and the winding river currents, I have to keep my eye out for tows and barges and more importantly — pleasure boats!
When I first came up with the idea for this trip, everyone warned me that tows and barges could kill me.
Truth be told, I believe them.
So much that when I see tows in front of me or behind me, I get on the radio and ask their captain for advice as to which side of these monsters they would prefer I be.
I’ve turned my raft around and gone backward a mile because a channel was so narrow and the weather conditions so harrowing that I felt it was safer to find some backwater or deep water outside the navigation channel to hide.
Hiding from a tow pushing or pulling 15 barges is nothing to be ashamed of.
The alternative is being hidden in a mud embankment if one decides to wrestle with these workhouses of the river.
The more difficult encounters are with pleasure craft, specifically, those that ignore or forget the stated rule that they Own Their Wake.
This means if their actions result in wake conditions that create harm to other craft they are, in fact, liable for those actions.
I am, to be blunt, more frightened by the wake of an approaching 40-foot or larger cruiser than I am of a tow pushing or pulling a barge.
I can plan to get out of the way of tows.
The speeding pleasure boats, I can neither predict their path nor their decision-making paradigm that far too often swamps the cabin of my raft with their wake and has (on more occasions than I want to publicly admit) created a new vocabulary I intend to publish when this trip is done.
The wind, the rain, the waves, the wake and the unpredictability of nearly every mile of the river excites, thrills, bemuses, delights, frightens and at times exhausts me.
After any day on the river when I pull in and tie up for the night, I end with a prayer of thanks to the God I prayed to in the morning.
I kiss my St. Christopher medal on the front door of the raft. A medal given to me by a friend and board member who didn’t say it out loud, but I know wanted to tell me that St. Christopher is the Patron Saint of idiots on rafts on the Mississippi River.
There is no question I need a Patron Saint.
I then tie up, turn off all the equipment that assisted me in getting there and make sure that I have indeed arrived at the right location.
As soon as I know the raft is where it is going to be for the night, I grab a power cord and my little sump pump, crawl on my stomach and pull the spigot cap off the starboard pontoon to pump water.
Small fissures allow water into the aching 50-plus-year-old pontoons. The more waves and miles, the more water.
Some days it’s a few gallons, other days it is as much as 20 gallons.
Just in the starboard pontoon.
There’s usually half that much in the port-side pontoon.
Taken together, 30 gallons of water is 240 pounds. Roughly the same as another human being my size.
I don’t need another human being my size sitting on the back of my raft.
Once that task is completed and I’ve had something to eat, I usually sit down to reflect on the day.
I reply to emails, texts, phone calls and reach out to home, to my wife, my kids and, if my dog wasn’t mad at me, I would reach out to her, as well.
Once I know the raft won’t float away in my sleep and my work is done, I get ready for bed.
I’ve had two inflatable mattresses die on me. The first, a slow death, brought on by small nails protruding into the cabin.
The second exploded at 2 in the morning. Yes, as a child I was a bed wetter. Yes, at 57 when your mattress inexplicably explodes, you might hearken back to the days when you were a child.
I finally got a cot. At times my cot and sleeping bag and pillows feel like I am at the Four Seasons … but more often than not like I am sleeping on a raft down by the river.
Eventually I get up and put on a big orange hunting coat I bought somewhere along the way and stuff myself and the coat back into the sleeping bag to try to ward off the chill of the night.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I am 57 and have begun to accumulate the ravages of my advancing age.
I am grateful for most of them. The wrinkles. The thinning hair and the gray beard. The creaky knees and the achy hips and the back that screams, “You know you are sleeping on a raft down by the river!” in the morning when I wake up.
The one I am least grateful for is the one that forces me to wake up and contemplate the fact that I have to go to the bathroom — again — and the bathroom I have doesn’t have a door or a light or heat.
The one I have to use is dark, the only light is the moon, it’s cold, and there are animals outside waiting to eat me.
I am indeed looking for Hope on the River!
Erich Mische of St. Paul is executive director of the nonprofit Spare Key. He’s piloting a small pontoon raft, the “S.S. Hail Mary,” from St. Paul 1,700 miles down the Mississippi to raise money for and awareness of Spare Key, which helps with housing and housing-related assistance for people facing a medical crisis. He’s been writing a weekly column for the Pioneer Press on his trip.