The End. (Part I)

A few months and change after our final day of paddling, and I've finally got the last leg of our expedition written out for all of you. The first month after had a strange mental fog around it, as I'm sure you could have guessed, and the following time was spent trying to make sure rent payments were on time and jobs were secured. Thank all of you so much for your patience and support throughout all of this. I'll reiterate at the end, but this was one of the all time highs of my life. I know the others will agree, and all of you made that possible for us.

I did write most of the end of our journey as soon as we got back -- here is that writing. I'll jump back in at present-day in a moment.

Reporting in from New Orleans, Louisiana, home, in a wonderful state of mind. The journey is over, the welcome parties are done, and the work of getting back to life as it was is back on. There's plenty of trip to relate since our last post from Vicksburg, and I am SO excited to be home on an actual computer to be able to type it all out. Updating from a cell phone was getting a little tedious. So, without further ado, our final installment...

Vicksburg continued to treat us very well as we stayed an extra day before doing the final leg of the expedition. It was a day mainly full of work, scrambling to get our call with the Sidney Daily News done, as well as a supply run, photo uploads, blog post, and correspondence before going out to see a little of Vicksburg. We were lucky enough to be visited by my cousin, Dr. Nicholas Crossland, and had access to his wheels for a trip out to the Civil War National Military Park in the heart of town. It's a beautiful location, well curated and full of the rich but somber history of that time. Our home state of Ohio has a great deal of monuments on that field, opting for many small, specific monuments to its participating soldiers rather than one large monument for the state. My particular favorite in the park is Illinois' memorial rotunda, offering both a vantage point for a wide view of a hilly section as well as an acoustically interesting marble structure inside.

That night, we went out for dinner with Layne and enjoyed a good meal and lovely sunset from the rooftop restaurant "10 South" before sort-of crashing Layne's 30th high school reunion. Folks seemed to warm up to us rather quickly and we had a great time. I believe there was a bit of tension when Shea bumped into the gentleman whom he was impersonating after Layne lifted the nametag, but it all worked out for the best. I did get a lot of confused stares to start with, though, as "Rip," my alias for the night, is reputedly about a foot and a half taller than myself and generally wears a lot more tie-dye. Just before the end of the night, we got to talking with a gentleman named Rodney who seemed to know a great deal about the river south of us. He warned (or rather, recommended) us of the alligators in the Black River, taking advantage of the warmer, slower moving water. That's just about where we ended up shooting for the following day.

The next morning, we got back on the road (River). It would maybe have been reluctantly, had Layne not brought out both of his kayaks and allowed he and Nick to join us to float an Armada for the afternoon. We paddled a happy (and all too short) section just after Vicksburg before we unfortunately had to part ways. Nick stayed on, however, and we made it to our goal for the day before camping in the shadow of a nuclear power plant that evening. He even got to ride out some of the tallest waves we've gotten on the entire trip, and was fortunate enough to help us bail out some of the most water we've had in the canoe. Very fun stuff.

Monday was grueling in the heat, despite relatively short mileage, but coming into Natchez by water before the sun set was well worth it. Natchez was known as the "Pearl of the World," and the name holds up from that vantage point. Beautiful houses sit up on the bluff-like area of the city, looking down at you. The houses do appear to have a certain quality of being built on blood and the backs of others, but they are very aesthetically pleasing, nonetheless. There was once a great deal of money in Natchez, and it shows. 

We pulled the boat up in the formerly-and-also-now rowdy part of town known as Natchez-under-the-hill. In fact, we brought our postcards and work into the Under the Hill Saloon, which I'd run into before after the  boat crash the last time around. The place was just as friendly and memorable as before, and we were lucky enough to spend time with some locals of great character (Hey Chase!). One gentleman, Randy Laird, is a local guide and let us into the know as to as much of the history of Natchez as he could. I'm very excited about the prospect of getting back there to check out more of that aspect of the city. Not having a car continued to make visits to Native American sites and other places of historical significance very difficult.

The people of Natchez were good to us, as anticipated, and even got us a room at the Natchez Grand Hotel, likely to the dismay of employees and patrons of the aforementioned establishment. However, this development occurred after I had already headed back to the boat, and I woke up alone in a field at seven in the morning while Forrest and Shea slept in an air conditioned room at the top of the hill. Fortunately, they left me a message riddled with giggles that led me to them. Unfortunately, they did not leave me a room key and I, looking very much the upstanding citizen with my oil slicked hair, sweat-stiffened clothes, ruined "shoes", and bindle-bag, spent the morning in the very well-manicured lobby of the hotel. I did not blend in particularly well, but they did let me stay.

We were all in good spirits, though, by the time we all reconvened. It was decided that we'd see a bit more of this city before leaving, since we'd worked so hard to get a little ahead of schedule. A good thing we did, too -- Natchez is no slouch when it comes to good food. The owner of "Biscuits & Blues," Peter, even chatted us up and subsequently gave us a ride around town to see some of the sites before getting us back to the canoe. We filled up on water outside the Under the Hill, then got going. It was late, but we've gotten used to pulling out miles when we have to.

We made it to a hidden strip of sand and foliage further down the river, torn with hog-sign and snake-holes. It was perfect. Not long after discovering all of this, we heard the hogs close by. They make a very particular sound, and not one you'd care to hear often. Forrest immediately grabbed his hatchet and was off, Shea borrowing mine and tearing off after him. I grumpily cooked ramen until they returned, half soaked in bayou-water, half in sweat, grinning. They'd found the group of maybe nine hogs idling not far away, and had cornered a small one, nearly getting it for our dinner. But, hogs are even a bit quicker than one might think, and it narrowly escaped their hungry hands. Still, a good time for the fellas. 

The night was not so friendly, and I woke up with enough bug bites to resemble a smallpox victim. Still, the day was a good one, and it found us paddling into Morganza, Louisiana that night, our first Louisiana stop. However, it was immediately apparent we were in a new state, as usual. The change in dialect, not to mention the addition of sno-balls for sale, made it clear we were in the home stretch. We ran up on a levee and walked into town, grabbed some food at "Not Yo Mama's" (the fellas tried boudin for the first time), and zombie-walked our way back to the boat. 

Unfortunately, the night was not kind to Forrest this time. The troubles with his eyes vis-a-vis contact lenses and poor hygienic conditions that he had dreaded the entire trip finally struck. A frightening episode involving some bloody discharge from his tear ducts made for a fearful night and rough following day. Yet, he managed to get through it cleanly and remove the sty in his eye. The rest of the trip would be in glasses, though. A not-so-good development, since in the South, you need windshield wipers for your glasses due to the steam heat.

Finally, after a brutal day, Baton Rouge. Our biggest port yet, and the first with ocean liners moored on its banks. Suddenly, our mammoth twenty-foot aluminum canoe felt like a tin can bobbing in the surf. A series of wake-waves slammed us pretty well just as we rounded the bend into the city and nearly swamped us. We took it a little slower after that, inching our way past enormous ships until we crept into the overgrown old tow yards south of the city to hide our craft. We once again marched out of the swampy growth and emerged into a town that looked just a little too nice for us at the present moment. Luckily, we were once again rescued by Doctor Nick Crossland, scooped up by him and his white Cadillac and spirited away for the gracious gift of a tears-of-joy-inducing steak dinner at his home. 

After one of the more restful nights in recent memory (for yours truly, at least), we set out on the last day before New Orleans. We were pushing hard to make it as many miles as possible, to make our entry to the Crescent City a pleasant one, but that may have been a mistake -- the fatigue and stresses of the trip finally began catching up with us. What started as cramps started become debilitating muscle seizures, and Forrest got the worst of it. We believe it was a general loss of salts that started the trouble, but after he downed a ton of sodium, a potassium imbalance absolutely wrecked him. It was a genuinely worrying couple hours, but he powered through it to the best of his ability when short periods of better health occurred. Luckily, Shea had been keeping up on his vitamins and had minimal cramping, so we got where we needed to go. Folks, when you're in the sun like that, make sure you're getting the nutrition you need, especially water and salts.

There was one final hiccup that evening before camp, though, that should probably not go unmentioned. That being just before we made landfall on the levee, with the sun setting in a violet sky. We had just rounded a bend and were attempting to stick to the inside to get on what we thought would be dry land (it wasn't). Already tired from the crossing, we were happy to let two towboats pass in quick succession before we attempted to slip between them and a far-off but quickly approaching third. Halfway into that final crossing, we realized that the water in the narrow stretch of river was not just turbulent as usual, but ricocheting and forming into a giant wall of waves that stretched the width of the River. It developed faster than you'd imagine, and we had no choice but to plunge headfirst into it, with a heavy boat. The initial waves went alright, taking minimal water, but it became too much after a few of them. The swells hit about eight feet at their highest, and came on rapidly, first raising our bow way up, then thumping us down into the valley, filling our boat like a bucket. This happened over and over, til we were over halfway full of water. We just barely managed to ride out that grouping, winning a small reprieve before the next, bailing as fast as possible. It was just enough to keep us afloat, and we limped to shore in time to avoid the oncoming craft. After bailing a bit more, we dragged Calypso onto shore, took a pull of whiskey, pointed fingers briefly, then high fived, and ate cold food before camping on the levee.

Now we're back to the present. I still remember that night vividly. After laughing it off, wide-eyed, at first, we wandered around in the dark separately for a while before bedding down. I think we were more affected than we cared to admit at the time. The beef jerky that Grace Schoessow had provided (plus the fine bourbon Scott Schoessow had left with us) was about the most comforting thing in the world at that point while we called loved ones. I, for one, thought I'd save this information for after we finished successfully. 

My memory is slightly more hazy after that. We broke camp with the Schoessows, Kremers, and Selsors inbound to meet us partway through the day for a final resupply. This was less of a full resupply and more of a "please take all of our stuff we no longer need so we can finally make it to New Orleans" stop. Forrest was still in rough shape, but gritting through it like the stubborn animal he is. We did make one additional stop during the day, cutting through some trees to the levee of a small town. The fellas went in search of a grocery while I stayed with Calypso. Shea's exit from the boat, singing the Indiana Jones theme robustly and subsequently falling into the vile, stagnant backwash, was particularly entertaining. 

Seeing the support crew was revitalizing, as was the cold water they brought. Grace showed off the flags she'd had printed for us, and Forrest got the potassium pills he needed. We were back on the boat in high spirits in no time at all. 

---- BREAK --- Where did we take a stop and sleep before New Orleans?

Our arrival into New Orleans was arduous, but interesting. The sky was working out whether it wanted to rain or be a delightfully sunny day as we rolled past massive ship after massive ship and docks and enormous facilities doing god-knows-what. It was one of those days that often felt dark even when the sun was out. Yet, the closer we got to the city, the better that got. We rounded the last long winding bend and started seeing bridges that I was familiar with. One by one, we curled along with the river under them. Finally, buildings began to appear, and New Orleans was in sight.

Passing under the Huey P. Long Bridge was when it really kicked in. The sun was shining, the water was finally calm, and the city was very clearly in sight. We had just one more bridge to go, and plenty of time to meet our party at the landing in Algiers. So, when we ran into two nice gentlemen and their dog fishing on the side of the river, we barely thought twice about stopping to chat them up a bit. Turns out they had done the same trip years ago in the 2000s, and had found a place down here on the river shortly after. If we hadn't had places to be, it would have been lovely to stop in and have a drink with them. However, stopping at all turned out to mean near-complete calamity and disaster.

It became apparent as we neared the Crescent City Connection bridge that we were racing a storm to Algiers Point, and us not quite fast enough to reach our destination before it. We were maybe a mile or two from our final destination when it overtook us. It was beautiful at first, actually, leaving brilliant gashes in the sky to our port side, wind subtly picking up at first, then becoming gusty, kicking the waves up. The wind began to buffet us, soft at first, then as an invisible wall of force. It whipped hats and helmets off, threw gear, and even nearly took our paddles. We fought hard to narrowly avoid being dashed into a large dock just before the bridge, then took cover from the vast maelstrom behind a small copse of bushes and trees that acted as a break for the wind and waves. 

An argument ensued. What do you do when the water you're on has even tug and tow boats taking their time, pulling off to the side? Apparently, throw up your hands, strap on your life vests, and cry "Once more into the breach." I believe I told Forrest that I "would die for his idiot pride, but I'm not happy about it". 

It was even harder for the last half mile. We interrupted a couple boats shifting cargo and were rewarded with an irritated voice blaring over a loudspeaker for it. Fortunately, the ferry was just starting the other way and we didn't have to contend with it, but we did get a crowd-worth of incredulous looks from the passengers on the bottom deck. And that's when we started hearing the shouts and cries of joy from the rails of the ferry station. The wind subsided slightly, and over it we heard our friends and families, far more people than we'd ever expected, cheering us on, sprinting back and forth, whooping and hugging each other. I know all of us wanted to stop right then to cheer back, but the fight wasn't over quite yet. We ground it out all the way to the Point, where a group of the most beautiful smiling faces I've ever seen were dancing and drinking and cheering as we sharply rounded the bend and ran aground. I don't think I understood the phrase "a sight for sore eyes" any better than in that moment.

This is where I'll unfortunately have to take a break. I'm traveling now, but will finish this up over the weekend and when I return home. There's quite a few photos from the Schoessows, Selsors, Kremers, Rosses, and myriad others that I don't have with me now and would like to add to the final installment. Thanks so much for reading and for your support -- see you for the bitter(sweet but overall truly transcendent and wonderful) end.

-- A