The 2007 Mississippi River Challenge: Paddling in the Wake of Tragedy

TRIP LOG: Submitted by Rashi Mckinney, August 28, 2007

We are paddling away from the bank into the light mist hanging above the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. Trees cover both sides of the gorge down to the water and the muted calls of the birds filter through the woods. Almost hypnotized by the rhythmic dipping of paddles in the water this early in the morning I look to shore to break the spell. A son and father are fishing from the bank and a couple, getting some morning exercise in the woods, stop to watch the nearly two hundred canoes and kayaks cruising this stretch of the River below Fort Snelling. Although I’ve paddled this stretch of the Mississippi several times, recent events have made this morning even more poignant.

From the 2005 Mississippi River Challenge:
The Minneapolis skyline comes into view as the morning mist burns off.

 

The last week of July found my wife and I finalizing our preparations for the fourth annual Mississippi River Challenge. It’s a big fund raiser for Friends of the Mississippi River, a local non-profit group dedicated to preserving this resource, protecting the surrounding watersheds and encouraging responsible development along it’s banks. It’s a group I am proud to belong to and this is an event I look forward to all year long. For more information check out www.fmr.org. We were hunting for pledges and finding someone to watch the dog for the weekend while we spent two days paddling forty-four miles down the Mississippi. The plan is to put in below Coon Rapids Dam on Saturday morning, spend the night in Historic Fort Snelling after paddling the Minneapolis stretch of the river and then pull out at Grey Cloud Island in Hastings on the far side of St. Paul on Sunday afternoon. Our conversations were dominated by recollections of past River Challenges: the 20 mph headwind on the first day last year and the excitement of going through the dam and locks in a canoe. Going through the locks (we go through three on the first leg) are a favorite of many paddlers. These locks are built to accommodate massive barges and tugboats; going through in a canoe or kayak makes one feel a lot like a bathtub toy. Three days later the I-35 W bridge collapsed. Many were killed, dozens wounded and the river was now a crime scene.


The Minneapolis I-35W Bridge Collapse site. Photo courtesy Z.J.

The event organizers at FMR scrambled. With a national disaster crumbled across the middle of the first leg of the River Challenge, which was supposed to begin in three days, what do we do? Cancel? Change the course? Many of the participating paddlers offered their views. I also had mixed feelings. My wife did not feel right spending the weekend “celebrating” the river in the wake of such a massive tragedy. At this point in time everyone was still in shock and recovery efforts were just beginning. The thought of several people missing and their bodies still in the water was enough to completely quench her enthusiasm for a two day outing on the river. While I understood her viewpoint, I felt differently. For me it brought more focus to one of the core goals of the Friends of the Mississippi: responsible development along it’s banks. Without doubt, many other paddlers had many other views. One thing was certain, the River Challenge was not going to be the same.

I was not resentful of the effects that the bridge collapse was going to have on my weekend, but I was disappointed. The I-35 W bridge is located on the eastern edge of downtown Minneapolis. As you passed underneath it you entered a gorge (the only one on the Mississippi) that could make you easily forget you were in the midst of a thriving metropolis. Not only is the view of downtown unique from the water but you also get to pass through the dams and locks here. Now, the only thing moving on this stretch of river were the rescue boats. Everything else was prohibited: no barges, no pleasure boats and certainly not a flotilla of canoes and kayaks. The day before the scheduled start of the challenge, event organizers received Coast Guard approval to be on the river downstream of Hidden Falls Park, several miles downstream of the collapsed bridge.

Instead of putting in at Coon Rapids Dam we would put in at Fort Snelling State Park. In effect, we would still get to do the second leg of the challenge. Eliminated were the paddlers who had planned on participating in only the first day and many others who weren’t comfortable being on the river in light of what had just happened upstream. There were still a large number of paddlers and volunteers who decided to participate. On Saturday night many of us camped out in Historic Fort Snelling. It is the only night of the year this is allowed and one of the highlight of the event. After dinner and a minute of silence for the victims of the bridge collapse we got to enjoying the night with great music and Summit beer (one of the sponsors). The next morning we pushed off into the mist and started on the second leg.


The 2007 Mississippi River Challenge, Saint Paul. Photo courtesy Z.J.

 


A river as ancient as the Mississippi is sure to contain many secrets and reveal them occasionally to the careful obsever. This was highlighted during our lunch break at Pig’s Eye Island. Pig’s Eye Island is located downstream of downtown St. Paul. It is heavily wooded and uninhabited. I have heard that many years ago it was used as a landfill. There is only a strip of mud to pull up the canoes so a barge is brought in to serve lunch from and station some port-a-pottys. Everyone grabs their lunch and finds a log or patch of sand to sit down and enjoy it on. While we were eating a Coast Guard boat motored up and tied up to the barge. We have had Coast Guard escorts in the past but I was surprised to see them today. I reckoned every available boat would be helping with the recovery efforts upstream. As people finished their lunches they pushed off in their canoes and continued the trek downstream. Me and my friend Tim, whose partner also did not want to paddle, looked upstream and saw one of our friends talking to one of the Coast Guardsman and looking at something on the bank. We decided to investigate. As we paddled back up to that stretch of beach the Coast Guardsman walked back to his boat tied up at the barge. We jumped out of the canoe and asked what was going on. Most of the paddlers were back on the river now. Our friend Zach, walked us over about ten feet and pointed at something in the mud. Staring back at me was a human skull, face up, half buried in the mud. Whoever it was had been there some time. The bone was clean and stained brown from years of river water and mud. A blade of grass reached for sun from one of the eye-sockets. A few teeth still clung to the left part of the jaw. It was surreal.

The Army Corps of Engineers had lowered the water level of the river a foot to help with the recovery efforts at the bridge and a long rainless summer had also contributed to a lower water level. Otherwise we probably would not have found the remains. In years past we had beached our canoes in the exact same spot. The rest of the day was, perhaps, not quite as eventful but still very satisfying. We saw bald eagles soaring above the river and fish jumping beside the canoe. The camaraderie was not diminished, even though our numbers were, as we paddled past the mixed nature and commercial/industrial development stretching along the river.



The 2007 Mississippi River Challenge. Photo courtesy Z.J.

 

Over the next few days the news was, understandably, dominated by the bridge collapse. It was Wednesday before I spotted a small article in the Star Tribune about the remains found on Pig’s Eye Island. It didn’t have much to say; only that they were found, no details surrounding the discovery were known and that they were trying to determine if the remains were human. Anybody who has lived through a Halloween knows what a human skull looks like. There is no question in my mind what it was, only who it belonged to. I hope its discovery brings closure to someone.

I expect next year’s River Challenge will include a unique view of the construction of a new bridge spanning this mighty river. Who knows what other mysteries or wonders it may reveal? As for me, I am already looking forward to next years River Challenge and the opportunity to take to the water with a group of likeminded paddlers to experience the natural and cultural heritage of this river that runs through the heart of America.

 

Copyright © 2007
Rashi Mckinney


From the 2005 Mississippi River Challenge:
Paddling past downtown Saint Paul early on the second day of the Mississippi River Challenge. 

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