Editor’s note: Paddlers from Arkansas, Missouri and across the United States covered 100 miles of the Mississippi River on the annual Great River Rumble canoe and kayak trip July 31- Aug. 7. This year’s route covered 100 miles of the Mississippi River in Iowa and Illinois, basically around the nose of western Iowa starting north of Dubuque and ending at LeClaire.
Flip Putthoff, outdoors reporter at the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was among the 220 paddlers. Here are excerpts from a journal he kept along the way.
Lounging in a camp chair by my tent beside the mighty Mississippi River at Mud Lake County Park out in the country north of Dubuque, Iowa. Despite the name, this is one lovely park with big shade trees and lots of room for our record turnout of 220 paddlers.
Folks come from all over to join this fabulous river trip. We’ve got paddlers from Florida, California, Texas and beyond. Most hail from the upper Midwest states of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois.
Our Arkansas flotilla is four paddlers strong this year. Nancy Bullock of Rogers and her pal Nancy Moore of Beaver Lake, better known on the rumble as “The Nancys,” are back this year. So is Tony Pavelka of Fairfield Bay and yours truly.
We’re all eager to hit the Mississippi tomorrow, partly because the rumble was canceled last year. That could account for the record turnout this year. That and the fact that this 2021 trip is the last Great River Rumble, the final time this expedition will head downriver. After working nearly year-round to put this expedition together for 25 years, the core leaders are ready for a rest.
In 2015, after putting on the trip for 20 years, the group got together and asked, “How many more years do we want to do this?” Trip leader Rex Klein of Chicago said they agreed on five more trips. This year is the fifth.
Everyone who helps out on the rumble is a volunteer. No one is paid. They work all year to get this trip downriver. All we have to do is show up and have fun.
To get this party started, we all met at our take-out point at LeClaire, Iowa. Comfy charter buses shuttled us upstream to the start point at Mud Lake Park. Our boats follow on a giant trailer that holds some 150-200 canoes and kayaks, courtesy of the Wenonah canoe company and Current Designs kayaks of Minnesota. The rumble couldn’t happen without their help.
We’ll get on the river tomorrow, but first, a few answers to FAQs about the Great River Rumble.
• Where do you all sleep at night? Most nights we stay in a town’s riverfront park. Sometimes, like tonight, we’re out in the boons at a state or county park. Everyone tent camps, but it’s not really camping. We don’t make fires or cook.
• How do you feed 220 paddlers? If we’re in a town, we enjoy fine dining at the taverns or restaurants that are an easy stroll from camp. Out at the parks, dinners and breakfasts are catered. Sometimes a volunteer fire department, civic club or church ladies fix our meals as a fundraiser. These are always the best feasts of the trip. We eat like royalty during our week on the river.
We’re on our own for lunch. Most of us carry a sandwich and drinks in our boats, just what we need for the day. All our camping gear is transported in rental trucks to the next stop by our hard-working road crew. Kind of like the Bad Company song, “Movin’ on from town to town.”
All arrangements for camping, food, porta-potties and a thousand other details are made by volunteers months in advance. A modest entry fee from each paddler funds the trip.
• Is the trip always on the Mississippi River? Most years it starts on a tributary of the Mississippi and heads down that waterway for a day or three before we join the Mississippi. The trip always ends on the Mississippi.
Stars are twinkling and my sleeping bag is calling. Ready for a good sleep and the start of a fun trip in the morning.
We’re on the water, paddling down a beautiful narrow slough of lily pads and the big yellow blossoms of American lotus. We’re paddling 16 miles today to Massey Marina Park on the Iowa side of the Mississippi.
The morning is cool with a nice tailwind from the north. Big white pelicans are everywhere, in the air and on logs and sandbars.
We reach the big water and find the mile-wide Mississippi smooth as a kitchen floor. Paddling is a breeze. Our flotilla is about 90% kayaks and 10% canoes. Canoes are mostly fast Kevlar models popular on waters up north.
The pace is brisk because we have to cover so many miles in the day. The river is low so there’s little current, about 1 mph. Most days we’re on the water at 8:30 a.m. and off at 2 or 3 p.m. We usually take three breaks.
On this final Great River Rumble, we’ll go through three locks and dams. The first one is just up ahead, or is it? The Mississippi plays its little tricks. At first glance that lock and dam might appear close, but it’s actually 4 or 5 miles away.
At the lock, trip leader Rex Klein is in radio contact with the lockmaster. The big steel gates are open and all 200 or so boats move into the lock. The gates close and the water level in the locks drops slowly, maybe 5 feet, maybe 12. Locking through takes about 20 minutes, then the big gates swing open and we all paddle out the other side.
There’s lots of Sunday afternoon boat traffic on the Mississippi now. Ski boats, cabin cruisers and personal watercraft make for some rough water.
It’s festive landing when we get to our camp at Massey Marina Park. There’s a band at the marina and lots of rumblers mosey that way, ready for a cold drink and a dance.
We rise and shine for a 17-mile paddle to Bellevue, Iowa, fortified by a breakfast feast catered by the marina staff. Scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, hash browns, sausage, bacon, coffee and milk. Catered meals are delicious and reasonably priced.
The treat for me today is to paddle with my friend J.B. Livengood of Illinois in his fast Kevlar tandem canoe. I’ve put my kayak on a trailer that the road crew moves to the next stop while we’re on the water.
It’s been a rumble tradition for J.B. and me to paddle together one day of the trip. We visit all day, and it’s a great opportunity for me to shoot lots of pictures. Slacker me clicking away with the camera in the bow while J.B. keeps us moving in the stern.
Another perfect day of smooth water and cool temperatures, about 72 degrees to start. We’re off and paddling. Squadrons of pelicans fly in formation like Canada geese, only without the honking. Bald eagles bolt occasionally from shoreline trees.
One glance and it’s obvious the Great River Rumble is the epitome of safety. Everyone wears their life jacket, buckled or zipped. There’s a lead boat at the front of the pack and a sweep boat at the back. Everyone stays between the lead and the sweep, though the sweep might be a mile behind the lead boat. Both stay in radio contact.
Two or three power boats go down the Mississippi with us, carrying extra water and ready to assist paddlers as needed. Four paddlers on the rumble are trained in water rescue and wilderness first aid.
We lock through our second lock and dam, and we’re at Bellevue. Talk about a welcome. It’s almost a mile from the river to our camp in the beautiful city park. Guys in antique farm tractors pulling wagons are at the take-out to greet us and give us rides to camp. All afternoon and evening they take rumblers downtown to eat, to the grocery store or to some of the bars that have music. Hospitality abounds on the rumble. The smaller the town, the bigger the welcome.
The staff at the Catholic school has opened its showers for us. At stops with no showers, there’s opportunity for a most unique bathing experience — the rumble shower.
This home-built masterpiece is a free-standing shower with wood platform to stand while getting squeaky clean. The whole contraption hooks to a cold-water spigot. There’s no hot water in the rumble shower and no enclosure. Rumblers soap down as best they can in their swim trunks under the sometimes ice-cold spray. Truth be told, a rumble shower is paradise on a hot afternoon.
We’re on the water with Bellevue behind us, ready for our longest day of the trip — 19 miles to Savanna, Ill. Calm water again makes for a pleasant paddling journey.
Our breaks are mostly on bright sandbars with lots of room for 200 boats and good water for swimming. Up to our necks in the cool Mississippi River, a look around at our large group brings a big smile.
We’re mostly middle age to senior citizens, with an equal number of men and women. It’s always good to see young people on the trip. By that we mean people younger than 40. One paddler, Betty, has brought her daughter and granddaughter on the trip. There are some fathers and sons, a few grandfathers or grandmothers with their grandkids. Minimum age to join the rumble is 14.
The most amazing paddler on the trip is Dave Kobe of San Antonio, Texas. Dave is 91 years young and has paddled every mile of every rumble for years, this one included. Dave glides down the Mississippi in his lightweight solo canoe.
Our breaks raise the No. 1 question most people back home ask about this trip. How do 220 people go to the bathroom on the river?
Pretty simple. There’s plenty of woods or tall grass on our sandbar breaks for folks who gotta go. Men usually mosey one way, maybe looking for the men’s tree. Women wander off the other way. After a couple days on the river this gets to be no big deal, even for the new people.
No locks today, and we’re in camp at Savanna, Ill., by midafternoon. It’s a lovely piece of city property, not a park but roomy and nice. A volunteer coordinator, always someone on the trip, is in charge of each overnight stop.
They make contact with the city, usually the winter before the rumble, to arrange camping. Sometimes they’ll alert local restaurants that 200 hungry people are coming to town. The Great River Rumble flotilla is a welcome economic boost, particularly in the little towns.
We’re all in our zone now for the last half of the trip. Paddling skills are honed, and we’re used to covering the miles. Our distances are short the next three days, 9 to 11 miles, but a 15 mph headwind has reared its mighty head. We’re not frazzled by the 2-foot tall whitecaps lapping at our gunwales.
The last half of the trip passes so fast, and, before we know it, it’s Friday and our last night in camp. Some professional grade musicians are on the rumble this year, and we circle around to jam one last time. There’s Bill, a top-flight harmonica player and his brother, Dan, on mandolin. There’s Dawn on the ukulele with her angelic singing voice and big repertoire of tunes. A couple of mighty fine guitar pickers round out the group.
We’re pretty good for a rag tag bunch who just happen to be together on a river trip. Rumblers seem to enjoy listening and singing along, but not long into the night. Most everyone is in bed by 10 p.m.
Reality starts to set in, for me at least, that this is the last time I’ll see many of these people. About half the paddlers come on the Great River Rumble every year and deep friendships are made.
At our take-out in LeClaire, most have motel rooms booked for the night where air conditioning and a shower await. There’s a farewell banquet that evening where we give a fitting toast to this last trip. Volunteers who have worked so hard for so many years are recognized, smiling as they bask in applause and standing ovations. There are final farewells, some emotional. In the morning we’ll drive home to our own little worlds and bask in the glow of another magnificent adventure.
To the Great River Rumble, it’s been a blast. And now, good bye.