VICKSBURG, Miss. — The state and the river’s name now match for the three adventurers from Shelby County, Ohio.
Forrest Schoessow, 25, of Sidney, Shea Selsor, 25, of Piqua, and Alex Ross, 26, of Sidney, landed in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Saturday after traveling for another week on the Mississippi River.
They paddled 320 miles in five days since their last report a week ago. They have 340 miles until they reach New Orleans and a total of 437 miles let to go before they reach the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The total journey is 2,340 miles and began on May 20 in Minnesota. They have paddled close to 1,600 miles thus far. The trio started the week in Memphis, Tennessee.
“It getting surreal,” said Selsor Sunday morning during their weekly phone call. “We’ve been in the water so long. We started in Minnesota and we’ve seen so many changes in the river.
“It seems so long ago that we started and in another week we’ll be in the Gulf,” he said. “It’s bittersweet. We’ll soon be back in the rat race.”
The trio had two days this week were they paddled 80 miles toward journey’s end. On a third day they topped 70 miles.
The week, the three agree, has been the most painful week of the trip.
“The south’s heat hasn’t been kind,” said Ross. “Our most difficult day was Thursday. That was our first 80-mile day. We kept overshooting any campgrounds. There was flood water everywhere — it was 20-plus feet above flood level. It was so flooded here that we couldn’t find any place to sleep. We had considered putting our hammocks in some trees on the bank.”
The trio paddled up a channel and found a campsite. But there was a downside to the site.
“It was covered with fire ants,” said Ross.
“There are fire ants everywhere,” concurred Schoessow. “If you make them angry, they’ll make you pay for it.”
Selsor said because they wanted to get some mileage on the river, they sometimes passed by campsites and continued paddling.
“Then it took us four hours looking for a site. There was no dry land to be found. So it was 10:30 at night, we had no lights and we found a flooded boat ramp,” said Selsor.
The group followed a gravel path where they were able to find a campsite, which was full of hogs, fire ants and snakes.
“They were looking for dry land too,” said Selsor.
Schoessow said the week has been very interesting and “gruelling to say the least.”
“I’ve decided I will take snow and ice over the steaming heat of the South any day of the week,” he said. “We made a lot of progress this week. We have a lot of miles under our belts and it’s taken a lot of work to get there.”
One interesting part of the trip last week was when they encountered a huge whirlpool. Schoessow said they had traveled through whirlpools during their journey, but none as big as this one.
“Right before Vicksburg, we hit the largest whirlpool,” said Schoessow. “It crossed over the rocks and dams. “At it’s opening, it was 15 feet across. It was kind of terrifying.
“We had seen so many and you have to paddle hard to get through them. This one, I stopped paddling in shock. Shea was yelling at us to keep paddling. It spun us around.”
Schoessow said the people on the river told them if they had looked in the middle of the whirlpool, which is where they were, they could have seen to bottom of the Mississippi River.
“It’s 150 feet deep there,” said Schoessow. “If we had gotten sucked into it, the whirlpool would have pumped us out 6 to 7 miles down the river. I have never seen a water vortex like that before.”
Selsor and Ross said the kindness of the people they have met has been overwhelming.
“We’ve had a lot of nice stops with folks who took us in and were very hospitable,” said Ross. “We met Mike and Virginia Hutson just north of Greenville.”
Mike Hutson, said Schoessow,is an avid outdoorsman and conversationalist. He works with the Army Corps of Engineers to help create new vegetation and increase aquatic life on the Mississippi River.
“He has one of the best bird dogs in the South,” said Schoessow. “He has a lot of pride in his dog. Grady is a black lab who’s about 1 1/2 years old. Mike has trained him that at a whistle Grady will sprint out over the logs into the Mississippi River. He will swim against the current as Mike threw a bird decoy into the river.”
The dog, he said, will swim back to the bank. If he approaches a little whirlpool, Hutson will blow his whistle once and the dog will change directions and swim around the whirlpool. Another whistle cue will see the dog drop the decoy in his mouth and go get the new one that Hutson has thrown into the river.
“He had four decoys in the river at once,” said Schoessow. “He collected all of them.”
The week began, said Schoessow, in Shelby County, Tennessee. They made their base at Meeman-Shelby Park.
“The rangers were very kind to let us camp there,” said Schoessow. “They told us about the history of the area. We were lucky to have access to the park and the campsite otherwise we would have been stuck in the middle of Memphis.
“I enjoyed being in Shelby County but in a different state,” he said.
When they arrived in Vicksburg, Mississippi, they were met by a “River Angel.”
“Layne Logue is a wonderful human being,” said Ross. “He offered to take us in for the night. He is a member of River Angels who help take care of paddlers doing what we’re doing. Shea’s mom got his phone number off Facebook and he met us at the boat dock after an 80-mile day.
“He was happy to meet us and provided us with dinner. He let us borrow his car the next day so we could restock for the trip.”
“There have been a lot of fantastic people that have been helping us out,” said Selsor.
One of the people they met was Don, who was working for the Park Service.
“He gave us food that night and water,” said Selsor. “Then the next morning he brought us breakfast.”
The history of Vicksburg, said Schoessow, is interesting because the city is a river fortress.
“It was impossible to take the city during the Civil War because of the cliffs and bluffs. If you look out, you can see 100 miles around the river delta.
During the Civil War, Gen. Grant came in the back way to Vicksburg to take siege on the city.
“For 47 days, he starved the city,” said Schoessow. “Then the Union had complete control of the Mississippi River.”
They were able to “conquer” two islands in the names of their trip supporters.
“One was an unnamed island just north of Memphis,” said Schoessow. “We named it ‘Valentine Island’ for Phil and Susie Valentine of Sidney.
“The second island was a nice sandy island that had pelicans every where. They didn’t seem to mind us being on the island. We named it ‘Blue Jay Island’ for B.J. Garrett.”
The island is just north of the Ajax Bar, said Schoessow.
Schoessow said they have seen a lot of Least Terns, which is the animal they represented in Tennessee.
“This is the only part of the U.S. they are found,” said Schoessow. “They are an incredible bird. It can move like a helicopter and it hovers and dives. It’s also a very vocal bird which helps break up the day. We’ve been able to see a beautiful part of nature.”
While in Mississippi, they will be representing the Bayou Darter. This fish species is only found in Western Mississippi’s fast-flowing, shallow tributaries and feeds upon insects and their larvae. The main threat to these endangered fish is human-caused habitat loss and destruction. Erosion, dredging, mining, and petroleum exploration are the primary causes of this specie’s extinction threat.
In Louisiana, the honored species will be the Smalltooth Sawfish.
“It’s a prehistoric looking fish,” said Schoessow. It has saws all over it.”
These are truly amazing creatures. There are few critters like this left in the world today. They are so amazing that I have to include a photograph for you. I attached it to this email. It’s a photo from the archives of the University of Florida.
The sawfish (like sharks and rays) belongs to a class of fish called elasmobranchs, whose skeletons are made of cartilage. Sawfish are actually a type of highly-evolved ray with a shark-like body, and gill slits on their underside. Sawfish get their name from their “saws” — long, flat snouts edged with pairs of teeth that look like a chainsaw. They use these saws to locate, stun, and kill prey in murky waters. Their diet includes mostly fish but also some crustaceans.
Small tooth sawfish commonly reach 18 feet in length, and may grow to 25 feet! Little is known about the life history of these animals, but they may live up to 25-30 years, maturing after about 10 years. Like many elasmobranchs, smalltooth sawfish are ovoviviparous, which means that the mother gives birth to live young that are able to swim immediately.
It has been estimated that over 95 percent of the small tooth sawfish population has died off. These fish are extremely vulnerable to extinction because they are easily tangled in nets, habitat destruction and low rate of population growth, said Schoessow. The single worst factor contributing to the destruction of this species is being caught as bycatch in various fisheries, especially in gill nets.
As their journey continues, Ross said they have themselves in a good position to finish in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We denied ourselves some stops this week,” said Ross. “We denied ourselves some good times. Layne and my cousin, Nick Crossland of Baton Rouge, paddled a lot of the day with us today. Nick helped us get our final resupply and did errands with us. We were done about 2 a.m. Sunday morning.
“We slept in for the first time (Sunday morning),” he said. “We were kinda freaking out when we woke up. But we felt confident after everything we did yesterday. We did our notes and letters on Saturday instead of Sunday.”
The paddlers, said Schoessow, will be out of Mississippi on Sunday (July 20) and then they will be on their final leg of their journey in Louisiana.
“When we got into (the state of) Mississippi, we crossed over the line and stopped on the high ground at a bat ramp. We were welcomed in the proper Mississippi way — there were a lot of people fishing in the middle of nowhere. There wre armadillos and rattlesnakes.”
While they were setting up camp, trucks full of rowdy people flew by their campsite.
“They stopped and said something to us, which we couldn’t understand. They said it slower and said they were ‘getting their pistols out and were going to have some fun.’
“They had a small arsenol and started shooting up the place,” said Schoessow.
The trio has now entered “gator country.” While they haven’t seen any yet, one of the fishermen showed them a picture of a 13-foot one he got last year.
Armadillos have also been found running around the river area.
They have also entered the swamps of the Mississippi River. The local fishermen they have met have shared stories about the history on the river.
“There’s a tiny island deep inside the swamp,” said Schoessow. “It’s called the Barn Island and two sorcorers lived there. They would make crazy stuff back in the day. They made creative things. The things they made were prized by the local people but they were afraid to go out there.
“We did hear strange sounds coming from the island, so who knows what’s going on there,” he said.
On a personal note, Schoessow, said his sister, Teague, is doing well after surgery on Friday.
“I was running around, climbing trees and trying to find high spots trying to get my cellphone to work. The surgery went well but they had to take out a couple more organs. But she has back up organs in there. There will be another surgery down the road. She’s not in any danger now.”
Schoessow said they expect a welcome committee when they arrive in New Orleans. Family and friends from Ohio and multiple states will be there.
“We’re hoping to reach New Orleans on July 25,” said Schoessow. “We’ll have a celebration with our friends and family and a decent meal.
“This is so big — we’re so excited. New Orleands is like the Land of Oz. It’s a fabled city and we’re so excited to get there.”
On Sunday, July 26, they plan to get back onto the river and paddle their final 95 miles of their journey. On Monday, July 27, they plan to reach the Gulf of Mexico.
“Then we’ll go back to New Orleans for a grand celebration,” said Schoessow. “We have friends coming who will help Shea and I get our equipment back to Ohio.
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.
Photo by Shea Selsor
Photo by Shea Selsor
Photo by Forrest Schoessow
Photo by Forrest Schoessow
Photo by Alex Ross