In preparation for our upcoming Mississippi Float Trip, we have chosen to speak with a select group of individuals who have successfully paddled down the entire length of North America’s mightiest river. A general badass, I was thoroughly impressed with Buck Nelson and know you will be too. This post is a fairly quick read and, if you have time, you may listen to the audio as well. Enjoy.
His website is called Buck Track, and after talking with him, I became thoroughly convinced he could run down an actual buck and break its neck with his bare hands. Looking online, there have been few people we’ve found who have actually paddled down the entire length of the Mississippi River. For most people, the Mississippi River is “that thing those backwoods mofos from the Dark Ages used go down to hunt bears and shit. I mean didn’t Napoleon or someone explore it? I think it might have been Jean Baptist de la Salle – which of course means ‘of the Salle.'” The Mississippi is iconic, a known entity, so much a part of our American culture, we accept it as we would the seasons, partisan bickering, and a new pair of shoes bought by J Lo. For many of us, a missed question on a geography midterm or a drunken rendition of Tina and Ike’s Proud Mary is the closest we’ll ever come to actually experiencing it. We have said it so many times: “the Mississippi, the Mississippi River, biggest river in the United States, explored by La Salle – all lands drained by the River, I learned about that in a book one time… I am in Illinois, it is 1983. I am a young man – a young, young man of 6. My teacher pulls down a strappy overhead map and it is a map of the United States. On it she points to THE River with a long pen. She has long fingers. She is beautiful.” Oh that memory. Long gone. The Mississippi River – a phantom, a mental construct, nothing but a cognitive placeholder in my mind. Nothing more than that till I die. That may have been true for me at one time, but for Phillip and me, THE River has become very, very real.
I am a man, a man now of 31 years. I am going to paddle down this fuckin’ thing. Holy shit! I’m actually going to paddle down a map! No, no, you can’t paddle down a map. It’s not Ms. Hemmingson with her long fingers anymore, buddy, damn she had nice legs. Hey! Focus! You need to get ready. You’re actually goin’ down this thing and are making a movie about it. You need to be prepared. For Phil and me, the Mississippi River has stopped being a neat mark on our cortical highways. The fantasy, the passing fancy, the idea of actually going down it in our Sea Eagle kayaks is upon us. In the summer of 2009, we’re paddling down it, and we need to talk to someone who has already paddled down it.
Real man, is an understatement. A smokejumper for 20 years, this man had seen his share of adventure… and danger. One thing is to read about smokejumping, ah yes, isn’t that that thing they did in that movie with Richard Gere or something? NO! It’s real! Buck knows.
When 11Visions makes enough money, Buck, I want you to take me smokejumping. Of course it’d be a simulation, but what do you think, viewers??? Wouldn’t that be a badass story to cover?
Buck tells it best on his site, but one can gather that paddling down the Mississippi was something he was going to be able to handle. You would think then that he would have been a bit cavalier about his preparations, perhaps even being a little cocky – I mean, come on, if you’ve jumped into a fire (can’t always get next to one), rope-landed from a tree, hacked down limbs with an axe, wielded a chainsaw, and are one of only 400 people in the world who can do this job, you’d call the Mississippi a piece of cake, right?
In fact, Buck’s first piece of advice to us was…
“Pay attention. Always.” More on this later, but this, he says, will save your life. As we conducted this interview, I found his answers of real use. The only people we had been talking to up to this point about our upcoming trip had been family members and well-meaning, but freaking annoying friends who said things like “you’ll die,” “you’ll drown,” “there are 5-foot waves,” “currents!” “bears!” and “lions!” These are the sampe people that answered that geography question, “TRUE – Napoleon Bonaparte discovered the Mississippi,” but like I said, they meant well.
Buck was not one of those Mississippi “adventurers” who had gone down in a houseboat pulling into riverside bar and grills every hour and a half, slamming cocktails and playing grabass with the waitresses. He went down in a canoe and camped on the riverbanks. Real man. So I asked him…
“Can anybody do this?”
“I think if somebody who is genuinely interested, with a little bit of preparation and by applying a little bit of common sense, I think an average person can do it. I think it’s the type of thing a person never regrets so I would say, go for it.”
“During 9/11, most of us were in the ‘real world’ living our lives. You happened to be out on a boat during the attacks. How did being removed from the world affect your experience of that event differently than us?”
“I happened to be listening to National Public Radio, and it was a local program, and they were talking about some local dance troupe who was going to be giving a performance. They broke in and said a plane had struck the second tower of the World Trade Center, and then they went right back to talking about a dance troupe, and I thought, ‘What in the world is going on?’ I was out there by myself and I had no one to talk to about it. About the only way it changed my trip directly was I was going by The Rock Island Armory (they manufacture munitions) and the Coast Guard came out and told me to stop in case I was a terrorist.”
“What about your canoe?”
I don’t claim to be any expert on canoes.
It’s your standard 16-foot Alumacraft canoe. It looked good enough to me so that’s what I went with.”
“How long did this trip take you?”
“I think 67 days.”
“I’m very curious: If we have to go to the bathroom, what do we have to do?”
I think everyone handles it their own way, but when I was heading down the river, if there was no one around, I just peed over the edge.”
“What about #2?”
Land on shore, go into the bushes.
“Did you ever let yourself just drift, maybe falling asleep going down the bank?”
“Nope. I think that’s one thing people kind of dream about: getting out in the current, just kicking back and taking a snooze. I think people tend to be afraid of the wrong things to a certain degree. That would be really dangerous. The current in a lot of places is really fast and even if it doesn’t seem fast when you’re flowing down with the river where everything is moving the same speed, if you came upon a buoy or something, you could hit it violently. Or say you came to a wing dam, or
probably more dangerous than anything is a tugboat coming around the corner. So you do have to pay attention. Things can go from hunky-dory to ugly fast.”
“What is the scariest thing that happened to you?”
“One night I went to sleep like normal. I was probably three feet above the level of the River and tied my boat off. And I woke up and I heard water splashing and I thought, “Huh, a tugboat came by during the night and waves are lapping up towards my tent,” and I started falling asleep again and I thought, ‘Man, that water sounds so close.’ I unzipped the door of the tent and water was lapping right up against my tent. The river had risen several feet in maybe four hours, and part of my tent was in the river. I was thinking, ‘Is my canoe still there?’ I jumped out of my tent, yanked the stakes out of the sand and found a couple items floating in the shallows, threw them in the boat and drug it further up on the bank. It was kind of a spooky feeling to have something so dramatic happen so quickly at night.”
“What is essential to bring?”
“Absolutely a life jacket. A sleeping pad, good rain gear, sun hat, at least one long sleeve shirt, long pants to protect yourself from the sun and the cold, an insulating layer, sunscreen, and sunglasses. You will spend a lot of weeks baking out in the sun. Also, insect repellent and a reasonable amount of food and water to get you from point to point.”
“What kind of people did you meet?”
“I met a lot of people down on the river fishing, a lot of people down at the river to see the sunrise or sunset, and people on the big paddle wheel boats from time to time. I just met two other guys in a canoe doing the whole River. That was fun to be able to talk to somebody and compare notes. A cross section of people.”
“What shouldn’t people be scared of?”
“I think people overrate the danger of the waves. If you’re not paying attention and you let a big wave hit you sideways it can easily swamp you for sure. But I just paid attention the whoooooole time, and I didn’t get too close to the boats and I didn’t get too close to the shore where the waves build up higher, and it wasn’t a serious problem. People told me that there was gonna be six-foot waves that would swamp me for sure. That turned out to be a myth.”
“What was the crappiest day you had – a day where you went ‘ah man I just want to go home?”
“The last night on the River I spent at Port Ives, a place where largely fishing boats and house boats gather, and the owner had told people what I had done, and a whole bunch of people where all excited and inviting me over for dinner, and it was really neat. I felt kind of like a celebrity and some guy said, ‘You know what, tomorrow we’ll give you a ride up to New Orleans.’ And the next morning they gave me a ride partway to Venice and said, ‘You know what, we don’t have room for your boat,’ so I was stuck in Venice. That was just a lousy feeling because I hadn’t asked them for their help, but they had insisted, and I was stuck – that really bummed me out. But the way things happen… I was just sitting there and these other guys come along and say, ‘What’s up? You know what, I’ll give you a ride.’ So my problems were immediately solved.”
“Can you paddle at night?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it. One evening it was foggy, and I couldn’t see, and it was really creepy because all of a sudden I could hear water swirling violently, and it was a buoy with water swirling around it. I thought, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna get to shore and I’m gonna stay there until the fog clears.’ Paddling at night is asking for trouble, and there’s enough hours in the day for the mileage you’d be covering.”
“Is the water polluted?”
“I talked to a tugboat captain
who had run into Jaques Cousteau twenty years ago. He was doing a special on the River and said the Mississippi, for a major river running through a populated area, was one of the cleanest rivers in the western world. I wouldn’t scoop up a glass of water and drink it, although that same tugboat pilot said he’d grown up doing exactly that. The River is a lot cleaner than people think, so you can, and I did, swim in the River many times.”
“Do we have any chance of hooking up with girls on the River?” (Yeah, I asked him this!)
“Again, I think you make your own luck. And if you want to make that happen you probably can.” (chuckle)
“You seem to subscribe to the philosophy that the Mississippi is a big, very complex, potentially dangerous system, but if you’re paying attention and you don’t push your luck and you’re not doing stupid things, there is no need to fear it. Would you agree with that?”
“I would agree with it completely. There’s a little risk the whole time; you don’t need to take extra risk, and if you’re smart about it, it’s not a very risky trip. It’s a fairly safe trip if you play your cards wisely.”
“On that line, what should I tell my mom who’s freaking out about this?”
“I’d tell her the main reason she’s uncomfortable is she doesn’t know enough, and people tend to fear the unknown. A lot of people have done the trip safely and if you are prepared you’ll make it in fine shape.”
“What new adventure are you on to now?”
“I’d like to do the Pacific Crest Trail. I’ve got some irons in the fire for the summer – I wanna do some float trips, some hunting, and fishing, those types of things.”
“Buck, I appreciate your time. I certainly learned a lot. I can think of three specific things I was going to do on the river, and now I’ve totally changed my mind.”
“Great. I hope you guys do it.”
Well crap! Now, we’ve got to do it. I’d feel like a complete tool if Buck found out we bailed our Mississippi trip which will begin from Lake Itasca this May. Stay tuned by signing up for our newsletter on the right hand side of this screen
Buck was indeed the man. After I hung up the phone with him, I felt instantly confident. There is a real confidence that can be gleaned by talking to people who have actually done something as opposed to people who haven’t. Friends, family, Romans, countrymen, I love you, but please read this interview. This is a man who has done it. He is a safety-minded individual who still believes complex systems like a giant river can be confronted if you prepare and keep your eyes peeled. And that is what 11 Visions is all about – walking through that door with our eyes wide open. Not being afraid of the danger but burning it up with the power of our attention. Thank you, Buck. We will pay attention. And we invite you, dear readers, to come with us in May where we’ll be pushing 2553 miles towards New Orleans. Let’s hope we don’t run into those douchebags at Port Ives.
I am a man, a man who has talked to a master – a master in the sense that he has accomplished something I wish to accomplish. I am thinking. I am thinking about my family, my fears and doubts. I know I can do this if I, if we, keep our eyes open and PAY ATTENTION!
You can find out more about Buck’s adventures at bucktrack.com.