Wild and crazy week for river adventurers

Alex Ross relaxes on Independence Day after a wild and crazy week on the Mississippi River. Ross and his two companions have passed the halfway point of their journey from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Shea Selsor

Shea Selsor, Forrest Schoessow and Alex Ross prepare to launch the Calypso into the flooded Mississippi after their portage. Photo by Jill Selsor

Alex Ross jumps off a tower as Shea Selsor watches from below. Photo by Forrest Schoessow

Shea Selsor, Dave Selsor and Alex Ross paddle down Main Street in flooded Grafton, Illinois. Photo by Forrest Schoessow

CAPE GIRADEAU, Mo. — It’s been a wild and crazy week on the Mississippi River as the three adventurers passed the halfway point of their journey from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’re at about 1,275 miles now,” said Forrest Schoessow, 25, of Sidney, during his Sunday morning interview. “We’ve passed all the locks and dams, so the Mississippi River is wild and untamed. It doesn’t slow down at all.”

The Mississippi River, he said, has met up with the Missouri River.

“Everything is 30 feet higher than the flood stage,” said Schoessow. “Everything is underwater.”

Schoessow, Shea Selsor, 25, of Piqua, and Alex Ross, 26, of Sidney, were concerned last week when they heard that portions of the river was closed by the U.S. Coast Guard because of high water and debris in the water.

“We haven’t been able to stop in the towns because they are under water. It makes it a lot more difficult to steer the canoe,” said Schoessow. “The river is moving extremely fast but that means we’re getting places quicker.”

Schoessow said they are now in levee country.

“The flood this year has been the worst one of the past decade,” said Schoessow. “The Coast Guard shut down 75 miles of the river, which surrounded St. Louis. There was high water and dangerous debris in it.”

Parts of barges were knocked off by the rushing waters, said Schoessow. Trees were also knocked down and are rushing down the river.

They had landed their canoe on an island which was surrounded by industrial barges.

“So we were going to be stuck in St. Louis,” said Schoessow. “We had the canoe camouflaged. I spent four hours talking to the Section Command Senior Chief of the Coast Guard trying to find away around St. Louis.

“He had almost decided to get us through it with a Coast Guard escort. But then he decided it was too dangerous in the river.

“So we had to make a decision — wait it out, which might be a week — or portage around the town.”

Luckily, he said Selsor’s parents, Dave and Jill Selsor, decided to pay the adventurers a visit in St. Louis.

“They rented us a U-Haul truck and we put the canoe in it,” said Schoessow. “We were able to portage around St. Louis.

“I had first thought we didn’t need any supplies since my dad and Todd visited us last week. But with all these flooded waters, I don’t know what we would have done without them.”

The flooded waters have added challenges to the trip.

“It was a huge pain,” he said. “All of the towns are literally under water. There’s so much extreme flooding.”

Their Fourth of July holiday was spent in the small town of Grand Tower, Missouri, population 650 people.

“We could see that it was all underwater,” said Schoessow. “But we decided to walk up to see if we could find any people. We encountered a car. (The driver) pointed to a field and told us everyone was there.”

“We weren’t going to stop there,” said Ross. “But we decided to set up camp and walked up past the levee. There was nothing there and then we saw 100 cars pull up. They were getting ready for the fireworks.”

“As we walked up, the National Anthem began playing and people holding flags began riding in on horseback,” said Schoessow. “Then the fireworks started. They were celebrating Independence Day and were also holding a community benefit to help a family whose sons, ages 8 and 10 years old, were killed. They were sledding down a hill and they were struck by a truck.

“We met the man was was organizing the benefit. He organizes benefit fries and he was preparing catfish. All of his family — about 25 people — were there helping him.

“Carl Clover, who organized it, lives in the hills. He and his family evacuated 73 families and their belongings in seven days to save them during the flooding.

“This was the Independence Day we wanted to have.”

“It was wonderful, small-town America,” said Ross.

The trio, said Schoessow, celebrated the Fourth of July’s freedom and liberty by having a day free from paddling.

“We floated down the river,” said Schoessow. “We floated about 30 miles with no paddling. We also did a lot of swimming. We listened to a lot of speeches and Native American speeches. I understand the speeches a lot more now after traveling down the Mississippi River.”

A highlight of the week was their overnight stay in Hannibal, Missouri, the hometown of Samuel Clemens, who is also known as Mark Twain.

“Neil Maune had invited us to the town,” said Schoessow. “He met us when we arrived in town. We had paddled 65 miles that day and we were exhausted. He and his son, John, who is the honorary Tom Sawyer of the town, greeted us.

“John had to pass test and talk to panels as part of a competition to become Tom Sawyer. He’s Tom for the whole year and he’s the ambassador of the town. He helps at town functions and visits other towns. He really knows the history of the town.”

The trio was introduced to Capt. Steve, who is the captain of the “Mark Twain” riverboat.

“We got to stay there overnight,” said Schoessow. “The next day, the curator of the museum and Samuel Clemens’s childhood home opened both of them up and showed us around. It was pretty fantastic.”

Ross said Maune organized the sightseeing trip, which included a visit to “Lover’s Leap,” which overlooks the eastern part of Hannibal.

“There was a fellow who didn’t want his girlfriend to get over to him,” said Ross. “He broke the levee, which flooded the other side. He’s serving several life sentences.

“There was also a plaque there with the names of three boys who disappeared while they were on an adventure.”

Ross said Hannibal is well-preserved in honor of its hometown hero.

“John, the official Tom Sawyer, knew exactly how many footsteps it is from the center of town to the lighthouse,” Ross said.

Ross said they also met with Dale Saunders, the 80-year-old man who is trying to canoe the river by himself. A film crew is documenting the trip.

“When we started the week, we met up with him and his crew,” Ross said. “He was concerned about getting around St. Louis. He has to do the whole river or it doesn’t count.”

Ross said they should be out of Missouri within the next few days. Then they’ll be in Cairo, Illinois.

“That’s the southern tip of Missouri,” said Ross. “The Ohio River empties into the Mississippi River there. So all the rain and flooding that you’ve been experiencing in Ohio, we’re about to get it.

“I’m looking forward to any bit of water that pushes us along. This will be like getting a gift from home.”

They were also interviewed by the Hannibal Courier about their trip.

The absence of the locks and dams on the river, said Schoessow, means it’s important for the towns to have water-control systems in place to prevent flooding.

“One town had their giant flood walls up so we couldn’t paddle into town,” said Schoessow. “They have 20-foot walls that surround the town. There are levies everywhere to protect the crops and towns.”

With the removal of their cold-weather supplies and the rising river, the travelers have been able to make good time on the river.

“We have more food and water on board, so we don’t have to stop as much,” said Schoessow. “The canoe is lighter and moving faster. We hope the current keeps up. We’ve been going about 60 miles a day. Our goal now is 75 miles a day since we’re now in the lower part of the river.”

Because of the flooding, the trio hasn’t been able to plant any trees or conquer any islands in the names of their supporters. They have been sending out correspondence and Ross has been able to do some sketching.

“We got out of the canoe at one spot to maybe plant some trees. We tapped the ground and found we were standing on railroad tracks. We have maps but with so much flooding, it’s hard to tell where we are,” said Schoessow.

Schoessow later provided the following comments via email:

“This week, we hit our halfway point and have now paddled over 1,275 miles. We are currently about 50 miles north of Cairo, Illinois where the Mississippi River meets the Ohio River. We have roughly 1,000 miles to go still and the climate is changing dramatically. The days are shorter and the temperature is rising along with the humidity. Fog is becoming more of a problem as we navigate the narrow turns of the river section and avoid barge traffic.

“The towns here are rich in Civil War and river history. Now that we are south of the locks and dams, the water levels are no longer regulated by the Army Corps of Engineers. Because of this, we are now seeing towns with unique fortifications to hold back the river in times of flooding.

“Many of these communities have invested in elaborate levee and dike networks (soil, sand, or stone embankments to prevent the overflow of the river) or floodwalls and floodgates. With high floodwalls and gates in place, these towns look like impressive river fortresses from a distance. Towns that are unable to afford the substantial costs of constructing these walls are unfortunately under water at the moment.”

Schoessow also had some thoughts about the river towns they visited.

“It was very clear to us that the Maune family is very proud of their town’s history, and are determined to help Hannibal become a prosperous river town once again. After Neil told us about the town’s past and present, we asked him about its future. He was optimistic, but expressed concern about the town’s singular focus on Mark Twain history. Every year, Mark Twain’s legacy becomes less relevant to contemporary society, he cautioned. He told us that Hannibal needs to reinvent itself and explore its other fine qualities before public interest wanes away.

“A fun Mark Twain quote about Hannibal: ‘Hannibal has had a hard time of it ever since I can recollect, and I was “raised” there. First, it had me for a citizen, but I was too young then to really hurt the place.’

“Many of these small river towns were built and once thrived on the button-making industry. Countless tons of mussels and river clams were caught in the Mississippi in order to make mother-of-pearl buttons from their shells. Industrial runoff and acidic waste decimated the populations of these bivalves (which require basic waters >7 ph to grow their calcium carbonate shells) during the height of manufacturing expansion on the Mississippi River. Their populations are recovering along many stretches of the river today due to environmental regulations.

“We attempted to outrun a storm on our way to Grafton, Illinois, where the Shea’s parents, Dave and Jill Selsor, were waiting for us. We failed to outrun the storm and had to take shelter with a kind family on the shores of Illinois. Their land had been flooded for three weeks and had become an island. They were so happy to talk with people after so long, and gave us shelter.

“Good thing too! The storm brought a deluge and shot lightning out everywhere above us. It also produced a tornado which knocked out trees and power as it headed south. We saw a giant thunderhead drop down to the ground, swirling and decided to paddle hard to the first structure we could find.

“In Grafton, Illinois, we were very excited to see Shea’s parents. There was extreme flooding with many buildings underwater. We paddled down the main road leading into the town, which was largely underwater. Folks were kayaking and canoeing around the town to get to work.

“The Selsors drove out from Piqua to check up on our health and well-being. Dave Selsor paddled 20 miles with the crew and through the Mel Price Lock and Dam — a massive structure which was flooded, despite being much larger than many of the other locks we have passed through.

“After the lock and dam, we reached the point where the Mississippi River meets its roaring cousin, the Missouri River, which begins in Montana at Yellowstone Park. I was reminded of the words of famed French explorer, Father Pierre Francois de Charlevoix, who led the first French expedition down the Mississippi River.

“In 1721, he wrote of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, ‘I believe this is the finest confluence in the world. The two rivers are much the same breadth, each about half a league; but the Missouri is by far the most rapid, and seems to enter the Mississippi like a conqueror, through which it carries its white waters to the opposite shore without mixing them, afterwards, it gives its color to the Mississippi which it never loses again but carries quite down to the sea …’ “

Concluding, Schoessow said:

“I am proud to be from this great land, and I am very grateful for the kindness we have repeatedly been met with on this expedition. It gives me great faith in humanity and the American people. It is important to pay it forward.

“There is no better way to give thanks and appreciation for your country than to spend some time in her forests, get to know her streams, and watch carefully over her lands.

Ross also emailed some additional notes:

“Note on Asian carp: we have learned a few things about this destructive invasive species along the course of the river. Facts like, ‘smelly, but delicious,’ or, ‘terrified of any splashing or noise nearby.’ The latter factoid was discovered in the field, where a startled fish jumped over Calypso’s bow and slimed the face of an equally startled Shea Selsor.

“The barges are really having to work to get upstream in these fast flood conditions, so they’re kicking up a ton of wake. Those waves look a mile high when you’re as low down to the water as we are. We’re giving the tugs a much wider berth than we did before.

“The river has become quite squirrelly and swirly at this point, and we haven’t even hit the Ohio. While we’re very much looking forward to the speed it will add for us, we’re also a bit wary of what effect it will have on the way the water moves.”

Selsor had the following observations in his email:

“I was hit in the face by a fish this week.”

“It’s getting hot.”

“I want mom to know that I am wearing my lifejacket when things get hairy. I know she’s worried about that.”

“I love my parents. They helped us out so much in a difficult time, and we can’t thank them enough. They are the best.”

“The main channel is powerful, and we like to paddle in the side-streams to maintain a balance of speed and control. We are chooching on down this river very well.”

The trip can be followed on their website, http://mrexpedition.squarespace.com and on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/m.r.s.expedition. The Sidney Daily News has also linked up with the expedition’s Facebook account on its site, https://www.facebook.com/SidneyDailyNews.

Reach the writer at 937-538-4822; follow her on Twitter @MelSpeicherSDN. Follow the SDN on Facebook, www.facebook.com/SidneyDailyNews.