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8/3/2010

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"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things
that you didn't do than by the ones you did do.
So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor.
Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

— Mark Twain

Two things I've always wanted to do; Drive the Trans-Canada and Alaskan highways, and travel the entire length of the Mississippi River by boat.

I did the Trans-Canada/Alaskan Highway trip three years ago, and now it's time to take a river trip.

From Minneapolis, Minn., to Albany, Ga., it is 2,107 miles by water. This is roughly the same distance as Albany to Billings, Mont., by highway.

Traveling from Minneapolis to Albany by water requires coming down the Mississippi, up the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, down the Tombigbee, across the Intracoastal Waterway and up the Appalachicola and Flint Rivers.

It's 2,107 miles by auto, about a three-day trip. The same distance in a 16-foot aluminum boat with a 25-horsepower engine turned out to be an 18-day trip, and probably should not be taken by the sane of mind.

The Mississippi River might not be my first love, but it ranks high in the top 10. I spent almost 14 years hunting and fishing on the river and shared some wonderful experiences with my sons. I often wondered what it would be like to travel the entire length of the Mississippi River and wanted to do it while I lived there, but didn't have the funds or time off to do it all at one time.

In 1978, my son (16 at the time) and I launched our 14-foot aluminum boat into the Mississippi River at New Orleans and traveled 447 miles upriver to Greenville, Miss., where we lived at the time.

It was a great trip, not only to see the scenery and experience a long trip by river, but a memorable addition to that I-did-this-one-time list everyone has.

My plan the next year was to travel from Minneapolis to Greenville and complete the entire length of the river.

Before I could do it, a career change led me away from Greenville. For the next 30 years, I pursued a shopping center management path and the addictive hobby of tournament bass fishing.

The years and the memories of fishing and duck hunting on the Mississippi River really never left me and a couple years ago, I bought a duck boat. When I started hunting some of my old haunts along the river, I realized I still had a dream I really wanted to fulfill. Time was running out on my being able to complete a trip of this nature.

I wish I could turn the calender back 30 years, but I can't, so I've got to do the next best thing — ignore my age and physical limitations and realize my dream before that rocking chair claims me.

For the past year I've been working on my boat and gathering information on what it requires to travel down the river in a small boat.

The bible for river travel is the Quimby Cruising Guide. I used it and the internet to plan fuel and overnite stops. I finally came to the conclusion that the lower Mississippi from St. Louis southward is just not small-boat-friendly simply because of gas availability.

From St. Louis to New Orleans, it's 1,041 miles and gas is available at only two places — Memphis and Greenville. It was possible that I could have gotten around this by arranging for someone to bring gas to a pre-arranged spot and carried camping gear for overnite stops.

In talking to people about this trip, several mentioned that most river travelers are now using the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers traveling north and south because marinas are much more frequent on this route.

I did some quick research and determined that I could actually travel from Minneapolis to Albany by river. It will require using the Intracoastal Waterway to travel from Mobile, Ala., to Apalachicola and should have minimal exposure to open water in the gulf until I turned north up the Apalachicola River.

This would extend my travel time by at least a week but the trip was doable and the more I thought about it, the more appealing this route became. That will still leave 417 miles of the Mississippi River, from Cairo, Ill. to Greenville, that I haven't traveled but hey, us old folks always need something to look forward to and that's a good project for 2011.

When you approach locks, they ask you the name of your boat, so I had to come up with one for mine. Most of my family friends thought "Dumarse" was the perfect choice. If you tell people you're planning a trip like this, you tend to get to get two reactions. Most people think you're crazy for doing it but a few say "wish I could go along."

So, hop in, and let's take a river trip.

Travel to Minneapolis

One of my closest friends, Scott Gatlin needed a break from running a bank and agreed to drive to Minneapolis with me and bring my truck and trailer back. He arrives at my house Sunday morning, June 6th, at 10:30 a.m. and we begin the 1,400-mile trip to Minneapolis/St.Paul.

We stop at Phil's Barbeque in Eufaula for lunch, for what will be our last BBQ for awhile. Late afternoon we stop for gas in middle Tennessee, and I do my usual walk-around inspection of the boat when our first crisis arrives — the hydraulic jack plate/motor trim plate has broken.

Apparently, it was not designed for trailering without an engine brace. I look closely and determine I'm not going to be able to run the engine unless I can get this unit fixed or get it off the boat and run without power trim.

As we travel north, we discuss our options but can't come up with a firm plan. We stop overnight in Paducah, Ky., and I look for boat dealers in the phone book. I find three, with Sportsman's Edge located just down the road from the motel.

Most marine dealers in the summer are extremely busy and I fully expected them to tell me "they couldn't even look at it for a week." My back-up plan was to borrow the necessary tools and see if Scott and I could fix it.

At 7:30 a.m., we are waiting for the marina to open. A young guy, Adam Butterbaugh, came out to meet us and I explained our predicament. He went back inside and came out with Larry Bailey, the service manager.

I was flabbergasted to hear them say, "Back your boat over here and we'll get started."

Later, Mark the owner came out and we told him about our trip. Two hours later, we paid a very reasonable charge for their work (I insisted on making a little extra donation to buy Adam's and Larry's lunch), and we left with two T-shirts and three new friends.

We progress northward through Illinois with corn fields stretching as far as the eye can see on either side of the highway, noticing the stalks getting shorter the further north we go.

When we cross the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities area, I tell Scott to slow down so I can take a picture from the top of the bridge. I'll shoot the bottom sometime next week as I come downriver. We begin to encounter heavy rain, so we stop in Waterloo, Iowa for the night.

Next: Day One on the water