The Mississippi River, 40 Years Later

Sep 8, 2015 | Agriculture, Groundwater, Uncategorized

Denny Caneff (left) and Rolf Hagberg on September 3, 1975, on a sea wall in the South Pass of the Mississippi, where the river enters the Gulf of Mexico.

Last week (September 3) marked the 40th anniversary of the completion of a canoe trip down the length of the entire Mississippi, from the source at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico. (That’s right: the river does not end at New Orleans.)

It’s a part of my history that not a lot of people know about because, in retrospect, it doesn’t seem like a very serious accomplishment. I mentioned the anniversary on Facebook, where a friend (a real one, not just that kind of friend) commented on Facebook that my current work was made for me.

I told her I’ve always been a river rat, and I can’t explain how or why. The thrill I had horsing around as a kid on a big river (the Mississippi) and a little river (the Vermillion) in my home river town of Hastings, Minnesota, is the same thrill I got, as an old kid, just yesterday, cooling off in the swift, bracing current of the Sugar River.

The anniversary of course has prompted reflection and introspection, about myself and my life, and about the river. Explaining myself is not why I want to write about this trip. Instead, the anniversary has prompted lots of thoughts about that Old Friend Change.

How has the river changed? asked one commentator on my good friend John Sullivan’s “Mississippi River Paddlers” Facebook page. I said, without much thought, that the river has improved in many ways. She was incredulous.

My canoeing partner Rolf Hagberg and I never, ever, swam in the Mississippi River, for 110 days. He and both grew up near the river (St. Paul, Hastings). We went to college at St. Cloud State University (Minnesota). We knew the river well enough to know you didn’t go in it. In fact, we were shocked to see how many people in Illinois and Iowa recreated in the river.

One day in my foolish youth I swam in the Mississippi downstream from a 3M Co. chemical plant, where my dad worked. When my mother picked me up to take me home from our day on the banks of the river, she remarked that I smelled like my father. Only years later did I realize I’d picked up in the river the taint of the chemicals 3M’s factory was dumping in it – the same chemicals that also permeated my dad’s clothing in his 35 years or working there. (You know the smell: Scotch tape.)

They just can’t, and don’t, do that anymore. Wastewater treatment is a huge success, for the Mississippi and all around the country. We can thank a federal law, the 1973 Clean Water Act, and the states that enforced it in the ensuing decades, for making our waters much cleaner. Perfectly clean, no, but vastly improved. It’s hard to imagine getting a Clean Water Act passed now. Clean air and water may have been the climate change equivalent back then, but legislators actually believed the science about water pollution then, and voted for water.

Two other big changes that strike me as I think about this 40-year time span is the kindness of strangers, and means of communications. Rolf and I traveled the river as journalist and photographer, and we used that pretext to walk our way into all kinds of things we had no business doing. But who could turn down a couple of scruffy college kids with a notebook and a camera – at least in that day? These days, I doubt the Corps of Engineers, a towboat pilot, a logging camp, an ocean-going cargo ship, and a deep sea fishing camp would be as unquestioningly open to inquiring young journalists now as what we experienced in 1975. John Sullivan catalogs “river angels” on his Facebook page. Clearly there are good and generous souls offering aid and succor to river travelers. But anyone with anything to “protect” from spies or terrorists or whatever threat, real or imagined, would never let you walk into their space without permission from six layers up in their organization.

I marvel at current Mississippi River travelers’ impromptu requests for a good campsite on the river for that night – from their Facebook accounts. We had none of our modern communications devices 40 years ago. This is not to crow about being tougher and wilier than thou. Rather it is to express my amusement at how we sent back dispatches for publication in Minnesota newspapers: Rolf would shoot rolls of film, not knowing what he really had on film. I would hand-write newspaper articles in a spiral notebook. This would all get shipped by mail to our college’s PR office, who typed (with a typewriter) my stories, and developed and printed the black and white pictures for newspaper use. (No one printed in color in those days.) We did 11 articles, all told, plus a small self-published book and a state-of-the-art (for the time) audio-visual show of the trip. Both those items are lost to time.

We’ll commemorate the trip with friends and family on September 12 in the Twin Cities. We’ll paddle about 13 miles out of the 2,300 we did in 1975. We’ll eat commemorative chocolate revel bars, the same sweet sustenance my mother would send down the river to us that whole summer, by general delivery.

Scores of people now make that same voyage every year, some even traveling upstream. It’s an accomplishment. For us then, and for anyone plying the river now, I can say that the Mississippi’s enduring current always flows in your veins.