Editor’s note: Paddlers from Arkansas, Missouri and across the United States took part in the annual Great River Rumble canoe and kayak trip. This year’s route covered about 100 miles on the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers July 28-Aug. 4 from Keosauqua, Iowa to Hannibal, Mo. Flip Putthoff, Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette outdoors reporter, was one of the 175 paddlers. Here are excerpts from a journal he kept.
Saturday, July 28: Relaxing by my tent beside the Des Moines River at Keosauqua, Iowa, eager to start our journey tomorrow. The Des Moines River is high, full and fast. The locals tell us reservoirs far upstream have been releasing big amounts of flood water for 10 weeks. Bring on the fast current.
•July 29: Keosauqua, Iowa to Bonaparte, Iowa, 12.5 miles.
•July 30: Bonaparte to Farmington, Iowa, six miles.
•July 31. Farmington to St. Francisville, Mo., 17.5 miles.
•Aug. 1 St. Francisville to Warsaw, Ill., 15.5 miles.
•Aug. 2: Warsaw to Canton, Mo., 16.2 miles.
•Aug. 3: Canton to Quincy, Ill., 15.2 miles.
•Aug. 4: Quincy to Hannibal, Mo., 18.7 miles.
Source: Great River Rumble.
Keosauqua is a cute, neatly kept river town, and they’ve welcomed us with open arms. It’s Saturday night, and they’re throwing a street dance and party for our group and the townspeople. We can hear the band tuning up at our camp in the city’s riverfront park.
To get this rumble started, we all gathered in Hannibal, Mo., where our trip will end next week. Comfy air-conditioned buses chauffeured us to Keosauqua during a pleasant two-hour ride. A giant canoe trailer furnished and staffed by the Wenonah canoe company in Minnesota hauled our more than 100 boats to Hannibal.
What’s this Great River Rumble all about? It’s a week-long trip that usually starts on a tributary of the Mississippi River and ends on the Mississippi in the upper Midwest.
So where do 175 people sleep each night? Most nights we stay in a town’s riverfront park, but sometimes away from town at a state or county park. We sleep in our tents, but it’s not really camping. We don’t make fires or cook.
If we’re at a riverfront park, we eat at the restaurants or taverns in town that are a short walk away. Sometimes the volunteer fire department or a church serves us meals as a fundraiser. Those are nice because we all get to eat together.
If camp is out in the boons, breakfast and dinner are catered. Lunch is on your own, so most people bring a sandwich, tuna or whatever in their boat.
All our camping and personal gear is shuttled downstream in two rental trucks, kind of like a circus moving from town to town. We only carry in our boats what we need for the day, like lunch, water and a magnum-sized water gun for cool, skin-soaking water fights that break out on hot afternoons.
The band is cranking up, and it’s time for the party. Can’t wait to start paddling tomorrow. Next stop, Bonaparte, Iowa, 12.5 miles downstream.
July 29: We rumblers must have done a rain dance at the street party last night. Rain spattered as we broke camp this morning and then on the river part of the day.
Here in Bonaparte, the Des Moines River is big, nearly as wide as the Arkansas River at Fort Smith, and it’s really moving. Today the current carried us along at 5 mph without even paddling. Swirls, boils and small whirlpools pocked the slick water from bank to bank. A gentle headwind was welcome to slow us down.
One neat thing about the rumble is to hear all the different accents in our group. Paddlers hail from across the nation, from Maine to Florida to California and most states in between, including Arkansas.
Our Razorback flotilla numbers four this year. Nancy Bullock of Rogers and her friend Nancy Moore of Beaver Lake are here, better known as “The Nancys” by their fellow rumblers. Tony Pavelka of Fairfield Bay and yours truly round out the Arkansas navy.
Most paddlers are middle age to senior citizens, with an equal mix of men and women. Dave, from San Antonio, Texas, is our senior paddler at age 88. He’s here with his daughter, Kim, from Hawaii. Ninety percent of the rumblers paddle touring-class kayaks designed for traveling long distances. Canoes are mostly light-weight Kevlar types.
The Des Moines River is middle-America scenic and easy to navigate. Forested banks that almost drip with green make for a pleasant journey. Water quality is a big issue in every state, especially in agricultural Iowa with herbicides and fertilizer applied to crops. It’s good to see the river has a helpful riparian zone, with lots of trees and vegetation to filter runoff that enters the river.
Tonight we have a lovely park for camping and a great band playing at the band shell. An uncle and three of his nephews make up this talented local group.
July 30: Our six-mile jaunt downriver to Farmington was like a sprint, thanks to the fast and full river. We’re usually on the water by 8:30, but we launched late and finished early, drifting into Farmington about 11 a.m. Plenty of time to relax and enjoy the town.
A big highlight in Farmington was two young boys, Anthony and Owen, both true entrepreneurs about 10 years old. Each sported a hand-written sign that said, “Rent my bike,” taped to the handlebars as they pedaled and visited around our camp in the park.
The walk was about four blocks to a convenience store to buy ice, so lots of rumblers rented their little bikes to expedite the ice run. I rented Anthony’s bike and while I was gone, he made an extra dollar helping my next-door camp neighbor blow up an air mattress.
Next morning they were back to help haul stuff to the rental truck.
We always have a group safety meeting before shoving off in the morning, and we invited the boys to the gathering. They were greeted with thunderous applause and each boy was presented a souvenir Great River Rumble shirt and cap.
One of the gals asked the boys how much they made. Owen grinned and proudly said, “Forty dollars.”
The next Sam Walton and Bill Gates? Could be.
July 31. Downstream from Farmington, the Des Moines River forms the border between Iowa and far northeast Missouri. It’s that little piece of northeast Missouri that looks like someone chewed a bite out of it.
Our trip from Farmington to St. Francisville, Mo., was a speedy 17.5 miles in the fast current. We’ve had the river to ourselves all week, except for a couple of fishing boats. Catfish is king on the Des Moines.
Weather is getting hotter and paddlers broke out the water guns today. These are no piddly pea shooters. They’re the 44 magnums of water guns that can knock a hat off a head. If you don’t want to get wet, people won’t shoot you, mostly.
Getting 100 boats out of the water at a narrow single-lane boat ramp like the one here in St. Francisville is no easy chore, but shows the spirit of volunteerism that is the Great River Rumble. Everyone helps everyone else carry their canoe or kayak up the ramp and into the grassy or gravel lot where they’re stored for the night.
Every person who runs the trip is a volunteer, including the trip leaders and road crew who move this paddling parade from town to town every day. No one is paid.
Our armada includes some fine musicians. In the evening, all one has to do is strum a G-chord and a music jam breaks out. In no time, people pull up their camp chairs, tap their toes and sing along. Tuesday night in St. Francisville was one to remember, with all kinds of singing, dancing and adults not acting their age.
Normally we wrap it up by 10 p.m. so people can sleep. But tonight we kept it going until (gasp!) 10:30!
It’s an early wake-up every morning, about 5:30 or 6 a.m. That’s so we can break camp, eat a bite and get our boats ready and launched by 8:30-ish.
Fun and safety tie for Rule No. 1 on the rumble. The flotilla heads downriver as a group. There’s a lead canoe and a sweep. All paddlers stay between the lead and the sweep, though the sweep might be one-half mile or more behind the lead.
Life jackets are worn and buckled. Two or three power boats accompany us downriver to help as needed. A handful of guys and gals on the trip are trained in river rescue, wilderness first aid, or work as EMTs or paramedics back home.
Aug. 1: It’s always a magic moment when we flow into the Mississippi, the “Great River” that the rumble is named for. We hit the Mississippi at high noon after our last swim break on a Des Moines River sandbar.
Where the Des Moines joins the Mississippi, we looked at three states — Iowa to the north, Missouri to the south and Illinois on the far side of the Mississippi. Here the Mississippi was smooth as tile on this calm and sunny afternoon. And big, a half-mile wide or more.
We turned our boats south for three more easy miles to our camp at Warsaw, Ill.
Aug. 2-3: Paddling down the Mississippi is like traveling along a long, slow-moving lake. Locks and dams keep the river deep enough for navigation by big tow boats and barges we see every day on the Mississippi. There’s an easy current, maybe 2 or 3 mph.
This trip we went through two locks, one at Canton, Mo., and another downstream from Quincy, Ill. For first-time rumblers, locking through is big deal, but it’s a piece of cake.
Huge iron gates on the lock swing open like the giant doors of a castle. All 100 kayaks and canoes enter the lock. The gates swing shut, then the water gradually drops anywhere from a foot to six feet or more.
Gates open and we paddle out, back on our merry way.
The Mississippi can be smooth as glass, or a froth of white-capped waves when a strong headwind blows from the south. There’s the shipping channel where the tows and barges travel. They’re called tows, even though they push the barges.
Then there’s the backwater. One moment we might be crossing the main channel among the smoke stacks and bustle of industry. The next we turn down a Mississippi River slough and it’s like we’re deep in the Amazon.
Exploring new waterways and visiting the towns make a fine trip. The smaller the town, the bigger the welcome. No welcome was more welcome by us than at little La Grange, Mo.
La Grange was only a lunch stop and not an overnight. All details of the rumble are arranged months in advance, so the town knew we were coming. When we pulled up on their sandy river beach at mid-morning, the mayor, city council and a host of volunteers were on shore grilling hamburgers and hot dogs for us, with chips and ice-cold water.
Every bite was savored after eating tortillas, tuna and warm water for lunch all week. No cost for the feast, but paddlers could put some folding money in a donation jar to help the La Grange Boy Scouts buy a new equipment trailer.
When the last ‘dog was gone, the mayor gave us a heartfelt thanks for contributing $750.
Aug. 4: Our last day on the river, from Quincy, Ill., to Hannibal, was the toughest. The day was long, 18.7 miles, with a steady 10-15 mph headwind. Plus it was hot, in the low 90s.
The day showed that the Great River Rumble isn’t really for beginner paddlers. Most people on the trip have lots of miles under their hulls. Rex Klein of Chicago, the trip’s enthusiastic leader, tells people, “If you can paddle 10 miles without getting out of your boat, you can do the rumble.”
At Hannibal, most rumblers have motel rooms reserved. A hot shower and air conditioning awaits. Then there’s a festive farewell banquet in the evening. We put on clean clothes and enjoy a sumptuous meal together one last time.
Some folks are hard to recognize without sunglasses and a floppy river hat.
Then it’s home on Sunday. The drive passes with good tunes and fond memories of another Great River Rumble.
Flip Putthoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sports on 08/28/2018