Advice for a solo kayak trip down the Mississippi
September 10, 2012 5:10 PM   Subscribe

My 24-year-old brother is planning to kayak down the Mississippi River by himself over the next two months. I haven't been able to talk him out of it. What can I do, or have him do, to make this safer?

He plans to leave in ten days and finish a little before Thanksgiving. He bought a kayak earlier this year and has been kayaking in a lake, but I don't know if he's done much river kayaking. He's a Boy Scout and he's done a lot of camping.

He is a relatively calm, steady kind of guy who's in great health. I'm most concerned about the solo aspect of the trip, but I'm also pretty worried about him being on the river with bigger ships and him getting injured while camping overnight.

I think that this is a Bad Idea, and I'd like him to not do it, but I'll settle for any advice you have on how to make this endeavor safer.
posted by punchtothehead to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (39 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Is he sensible enough to pack it in when the going gets dangerous?

Will he have a cell phone?

Does he have the skills to know when he's in over his head on the water?

I don't think you have anything to worry about in terms of him being "injured" while camping overnight, assuming he knows enough to steer clear of bears. The kayaking part I'm less sure of, because I'm not an experienced kayaker. But camping in and of itself isn't inherently dangerous, and if he's a former scout he probably knows more about it than most.
posted by Sara C. at 5:19 PM on September 10, 2012

Best answer: This guy did it in a canoe. Haven't read the complete link, so for all I know the thing gets dashed to pieces by a ship and he takes a six month break. But he seems to have survived, at least.

Reading this might set your mind at ease a bit, or at least give you informed ammo for a discussion with him beyond, "this scares me!" It also might be good for him to read, in order to get a sense of the pitfalls he should be prepared for.
posted by Sara C. at 5:21 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was going to suggest have him watch Into the Wild, but that may have the reverse effect as the one intended and set him off on an even bigger adventure. Perhaps get him a Spot Tracker instead for your peace of mind.
posted by juiceanddoom at 5:24 PM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is not completely uncommon. He'll want to bring maps, but surely he's got them already. He could bring pepper spray if he's worried about the camping aspect. Of course you worry because it's your brother, but he'll probably be safe and it sounds like a fantastic adventure.
posted by Houstonian at 5:25 PM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have a friend who did this in the spring of 2011. I haven't read all of it, but his blog is Banks of the Basin, and y'all might find some useful details in there. Look at the entries around April 2011.

This is the kind of adventure I'd love to have. I'd probably laugh at you if you tried to convince me not to go with imagined horrors and unfounded panic. However, I'd react pretty well to discussing my preparations and backup plans. Given your description of your brother as calm and steady, and how little you seem to know about his actual plans, I'd aim for a friendly conversation to find out more about this venture.

One last thought - a friend once pointed out to me that the rewards of risk are skewed for stuff like this. The person taking the risk on is the one who gets the experiential reward. Their friends and family also have fear and worry, but don't get the payoff, so its in their interest to discourage it.
posted by Metasyntactic at 5:28 PM on September 10, 2012 [19 favorites]

He's 24 - he's not a kid (unless he's a very young, sheltered 24). Camping is quite safe, even stealth camping (i.e. outside of officially designated campgrounds). Thousands of touring cyclists do it every year.

I don't have any experience with kayaking on a big river like the Mississippi, but it is big--as long as he keeps an eye out for barges and other large boats he should be fine. Big boats stick to navigation channels, whereas small craft, especially canoes and kayaks, usually stick close to the shore. He should read up on navigating the Mississippi in a small boat. (Most of what I know comes from Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, which he might want to read, not so much for navigation tips as for historical context.)

On preview: a Spot Tracker would be nice, though I suspect on most of the river cell phone coverage is decent. If he has an iPhone or an iPad with him, he could set up Find My iPhone/iPad and give you the password, so you could track him that way.
posted by brianogilvie at 5:29 PM on September 10, 2012

Seconding the recommendation for the Spot Tracker, lots of my friends use them for mountaineering trips. Beyond that, you just have to trust in his abilities :)
posted by jpeacock at 5:36 PM on September 10, 2012

Spot tracker or the like seems like a good idea. Tell him to include the adventure on his resume - I know a few HR types who look at/for things like this when they're hiring.
posted by backwards guitar at 5:41 PM on September 10, 2012

Considering the extent of the current drought, water levels on the Mississippi River are at such historical lows that a lot of the big craft, the barges and such, are basically beached because there isn't enough depth of water for them to navigate the river. So for someone kayaking or canoeing the river this year, there is actually a LOT less water traffic than there usually is, and therefore it's probably much safer with much less large craft to watch out for.
posted by easily confused at 5:43 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why don't you encourage him to blog the adventure? That way you'll get regular posts and a little peace of mind.

I'm thinking it would be pretty difficult to find any long, unoccupied stretches of the river anymore, and frankly I'd be more worried about the heavily populated areas than the lightly populated ones. Early settlements needed to be pretty close together (a day's paddle, maybe) and I don't think that has changed substantially.

River barge traffic moves slowly, but stops long.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:56 PM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

My favorite boating book is River Safety: A Floater's Guide. It's out of print now but available used at Amazon. I've been kayaking for 12 or 13 years, and this is the most useful book I've found. Perhaps he'd find it useful to look through before he leaves.
posted by not that girl at 5:57 PM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Buy him a comfortable life jacket and make him promise to always wear it.

Strongly recommend that he take a basic boating safety course offered by the United States Power Squadrons, or the Coast Guard Auxiliary before he goes. The Mississippi is a major shipping lane--he should be aware of all the rules of the road and have basic knowledge of how to navigate, and what to do in emergency situations.

Make sure he's carrying the all the appropriate safety gear, including a handheld VHF radio. Have him agree to a standard routine for when he will check in with you via cell phone, and what to do if he isn't heard from.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:59 PM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Adventure to the non-adventurous seems non-logical, scary, and dangerous. To the adventurer it is the exact opposite. Adventure does not mean unsafe. I'm sure your brother has a deep understanding of the risk involved, and strategies to mitigate them. The problem seems to be one of perception and communication rather than safety. If you explain your discomfort to your brother I'm sure he can reassure on some level. Whether you can actually "get it" is questionable. Trust him, wish him well and get spot tracker and all will be well with him. Your fears are not his fears. Have you looked at what might lie behind these fears. Sometimes our fears for others are about our own fear of the unknown. I'm not saying this is true in your case but you might consider looking at this. Sometimes this is more scary than canoeing the Mississippi.
posted by Xurando at 6:03 PM on September 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

I just want to say here that several years ago a good friend of mine (and several of her friends) floated down the Mississippi on a raft made of old Pepsi barrels (it was a performance art piece). It took them five months and they spent a month and a half being detained by the Coast Guard who mistook them for "a band of gypsy thieves" which was apparently also at large on the river at the time on a different raft. Most of the people on her raft dropped out at some point on the journey, but many of them made it and nobody got hurt.

That said, there is a lot of good safety advice in this thread. He should wear a life jacket, and he should have a radio and a phone and should check in daily with someone else (like you) so that if he disappears people have some idea of where to look. He should have a plan for getting off the river for a while if there's a storm or the like. He should have some experience kayaking, and he should have good maps of the area and should be in compliance with all the regulations (which he should do plenty of research about beforehand). He would probably do well to take a Wilderness First Aid course so that if he gets a minor injury he can patch himself up and keep going.

The solo aspect of the journey is a bit risky, but many people, myself included, would say that there are benefits to doing a solo trip that make it sometimes worth the risk. There are opportunities for experience, growth, and self-discovery on solo adventures that are simply not possible with a partner.

There is risk involved, but if he does it right then it's a calculated risk and one that your brother, as an adult of sound mind, is entitled to take. You are allowed to be uncomfortable with his choice, and you are allowed to voice your discomfort and make suggestions for how he might do it more safely, but remember that it's his choice and what may seem foolish to you may not seem that way to him, and that this is a reasonable disagreement.

He will, in all likelihood, be totally fine and have a great time and learn a few things about himself. People do riskier stuff all the time.
posted by Scientist at 6:17 PM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Assuming he's pretty fit and that his camping skills are still up to snuff, it sounds like a pretty cool thing for a guy his age to do. I agree that a blog about it would not only give you frequent peace of mind (without him having to "check in" with you) but also provide him with an opportunity to chronicle the trip and explore his feelings about what he's accomplishing.

I've had some slightly hairy river canoeing experiences but a kayak feels, to me at least, somewhat more secure and stable.

One great thing about his choice of rivers is that it's not complete wilderness--there's towns with hospitals and other services along the way. He's not going into Deliverance country for the most part.
posted by padraigin at 6:23 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know someone who did this from the Yukon down to the Gulf of Mexico. One thing to consider is the huge food logistics he'll need, and the giant amounts of oils and fats needed to maintain muscle tone over such a long trip.

(I can dig out this guy's contact deets if you wish; memail me)
posted by scruss at 6:37 PM on September 10, 2012

I'm an experienced backwoods camper and canoeist - most people have hit on the "this will be safer than you think" aspect.

While I don't really have general advice, could you please post/share a link to a blog if he goes through with this? I'd love to read/follow/live vicariously!
posted by iftheaccidentwill at 6:38 PM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

One thing to consider is the huge food logistics he'll need, and the giant amounts of oils and fats needed to maintain muscle tone over such a long trip.

This is another bonus for his choice of the Mississippi and the numerous towns and cities along the way--he can easily plan his trip to be able to stock up on provisions regularly and not have to worry about getting stuck with no food for long stretches. If he's wise about making sure there are well-stocked grocery stores at the proper intervals, he's golden in terms of food, and if he packs a water purifier he's pretty much golden in the nourishment department.

I assume if he's planning to leave in two weeks he's already well past this part of the planning, but even if he isn't, sitting down for a couple hours with the internet and maybe a phone to doublecheck and make sure all the places he plans to hit actually exist where Google Maps say they do is not a huge deal.
posted by padraigin at 6:46 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You can make your worrying productive by making him a well-stocked first aid kit. In addition to the suggestions of radio (solar or crank radio I think would be the thing for this purpose) and the spot tracker, perhaps something like solar flashlight, flares, and/or a rescue whistle? And a spare battery for his cell phone?
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:02 PM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Get him a SPOT device. The better ones allow for (limited) texting and updates. Make sure it's registered - Search and Rescue hates unregistered SPOT devices.

They sell them on Amazon and at REI. If he doesn't have a HAM/VHF/UHF radio, this is almost better. the delorme inReach system is also OK, but people I have spoken to really dislike the customer support and reliability compared to Spot.

This is an excellent adventure for him. I know you think it's madness, but it's a perfectly reasonable thing.

I wish I was going with....
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:19 PM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: People do riskier stuff all the time.

A little late to the thread here, but that was my exact reaction, too.

I'll just add that there's few things more fun to watch than to see someone come up to one of the giant Army Corps of Engineers lock facilities in a kayak and pull the rope for service. Anyone, large or small, can do it--they'll open the huge gates and go through the whole process for anyone. It's kind of inspirational, in a way.

The COE website (this one is for the St Paul district, there are others) has lots of info to explore.
posted by gimonca at 7:32 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Make sure he has a really good, really comfortable PFD. There are some super-comfortable ones out there that aren't a big deal to wear all day. If this were my brother, the number one thing I would care about was that he understood that if you're on the water by yourself, you wear a PFD all the time, no matter what. Most everything else is survivable. A nice PFD can cost $150 or more, so this would be a great gift.
posted by mercredi at 7:34 PM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Friends used to take a motorboat with a smallish cabin down the Mississippi (from Chicago, via various rivers in Illinois) to New Orleans for Jazz Fest every year. One of their biggest issues was finding a spot to actually get to shore. Obviously that's a bigger problem for a motorboat than a kayak, but there are still large stretches of the river where the "shore" is either cement or some kind of wetlands where you can't comfortably camp, or private property that might even be fenced off. I suggest that he verify that getting to shore is physically possible in the places where thinks he'll need to.

I wonder if, now that Isaac has passed through, the river traffic is starting to move again? If so, there might be more traffic than usual due to all the backed up traffic finally getting released.

I wish I knew of a place to check this out, because it seems like having an up-to-date idea of river traffic would be a useful thing.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:36 PM on September 10, 2012

Best answer: having an up-to-date idea of river traffic would be a useful thing

Why yes, it would!

US Army Corps of Engineers Lock Performance Monitoring System to the rescue.
posted by gimonca at 7:48 PM on September 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Talking to my husband, who is bigger on this stuff than I am, he agrees that it's a pretty easy trip, but he does question whether your brother can really do it in the time allotted (what, eight weeks?) given that he's not an experienced river kayaker. But perhaps he's done enough lake kayaking that he's confident in his speed.

Mr. Padraigin also agrees that it's such a populated river that worries about finding campgrounds or supplies should not be a problem, but he might worry about weather if he's not getting down south fast enough--the middle of the Midwest can get chilly quickly given his timeframe. So he should probably make sure to check out average temperatures and pack clothing accordingly (perhaps a wet or dry suit even?).

And he's jealous because I won't let him do something like that now that we have kids and all, and wonders where your brother plans to start and finish?
posted by padraigin at 8:00 PM on September 10, 2012

Best answer: Don't get a spot tracker. Get a proper 406 personal locator beacon. It uses a more extensive set of military satellites vs the commercial network which spot uses which may delay the sending of the sos. A proper PLB emergency message is also sent to either the state police or coast guard. The spot is sent to their own private emergency response center, of which there are stories of a delayed response. More info here. I like the find fast because it fits in my pfd better(its thinner then the ARC model). Make sure he registers it.

It sounds like a fun trip. I wish I had the time to do it.
posted by ihadapony at 8:15 PM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

This sounds fun! But doing it solo without wearing a PFD (Coast Guard only requires you have it in the boat where it will likely do you no good) is inexcusably foolhardy. It may be helpful to sell the life jacket not just as a safety thing but as a convenient thing to clip a PLB, radio, etc. on to.

Seconding making sure he knows the rules that govern Mississippi river boat traffic.

More good advice here including a packing list.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:29 PM on September 10, 2012

I understand your worry. People take greater risks every day, but those people are not your brother -- and the risks of a solo journey like this are very, very real.

From your question, it isn't clear to me whether your brother is experienced enough for eight weeks alone on the Mississippi. It is foolish to embark on a trip like this unless he has experience with river kayaking and with multi-day journeys on the water. Day trips on a lake are not adequate preparation for kayaking a major river for weeks on end -- particularly with his ambitious timeline.

For any trip he takes, the above advice regarding logistics and safety is good. I'd also insist he get a thorough physical exam before he leaves on his journey even if he seems in top health. He should tell his doctor about his plans so the exam can address any issues that might crop up as a result of prolonged or extreme activity.
posted by commander biscuit at 9:41 PM on September 10, 2012

For comparison, Eric Sevareid (the war correspondent and later CBS news commentator) famously canoed with a friend from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay in Canada, as a teenager, in 1930.
posted by gimonca at 9:55 PM on September 10, 2012

For any trip he takes, the above advice regarding logistics and safety is good. I'd also insist he get a thorough physical exam before he leaves on his journey even if he seems in top health. He should tell his doctor about his plans so the exam can address any issues that might crop up as a result of prolonged or extreme activity.

He's a grown man, the OP is going to sound irrational "insisting" on anything.
posted by fshgrl at 11:05 PM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Has he taken any kayaking safety courses?

This is KEY.

- What kind of kayak does he have? River or Ocean??

We kayaked our lake in our ocean kayaks all the damn time. On the Delaware River, we rented RIVER KAYAKS, because that was appropriate and safer.


I know everyone here says this is safe, but I owned an expedition ocean-type kayak and did trips with it. I would not do what he is planning without a class in river kayaking safety or with the wrong type of kayak.
posted by jbenben at 12:55 AM on September 11, 2012

My now-husband took a two-month cycling trip through the Western US a few years ago. I was terrified at first, but as he kept up his regular emails and text messages, I relaxed. Hearing about the friends he made, the camping spots he was staying at and how generally safe the roads were, I felt much better about his adventure.

So this is just to say that, from a loved one's perspective, it's totally normal to be scared, and not unreasonable to expect him to keep in frequent contact.
posted by third word on a random page at 2:51 AM on September 11, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who managed to answer the question and provide some concrete suggestions. I'll pass those ideas on to him and the rest of my family.

I'm not sure if he plans to blog the whole thing, but I'll encourage it - thanks for the idea!

He's starting in Wisconsin and planning to finish in New Orleans. I think the plan is, no matter what, to come home for Thanksgiving, so he'll get off the river a week before that and make his way home.

Thanks again; I really appreciate the advice.
posted by punchtothehead at 5:36 AM on September 11, 2012

Okay I thought this was a horrible idea but there aren't even class 3 rapids on the mississippi, apparently. Class 2's don't require foreknowledge of the route and dangerous things like traps and holes or whatever won't be present. Has he practiced rolling? A basic course in hydrodynamics or whatever it's called (reading the flow of water for navigation purposes) might be helpful too, and part of a river kayaking safety course
posted by MangyCarface at 6:41 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd be more afraid of the commercial traffic. There some BIG boats on the Mississippi. I imagine he'll be well lighted but that would be my only concern.
posted by small_ruminant at 7:48 AM on September 11, 2012

Make sure he understands sun protection. If this is his first time being on the water all-day over many days, it can come as a shock. Sunscreen won't cut it, and it is really easy to forget that the sun reflects up off the water. I sunburned the inside of my nose once, not cool.

Also, the time he plans for the trip sounds too short. But the trip overall sounds awesome, and I wish him smooth floating.
posted by BeeDo at 9:45 AM on September 11, 2012

Mind sound wacky but any way to put an alert to the coast guard as far as "hey my brother plans on doing this on this date. In case something happens, I just wanted to let you know he's out there." Better than him be missing. Also can he bring some sort of nautical GPS or pinging device so he can communicate? I know it's a lot for a kayak but still.
posted by stormpooper at 10:01 AM on September 11, 2012

Best answer: To re-iterate ihadapony the 406 EPIRB / ELT / PLB type locators are what I would rely on in an emergency - they are more expensive up front than the Spot line of devices, but use an inherently more robust technology that the military relies on. For example, the Spot uses a weaker commercial signal and the Spot devices do NOT have a 121.5 MHz homing signal that all 406s devices have - and this system is what the US Coast Guard to hone in on the exact location* of the device once they get close. Many Coast Guard vessels also are able to use 406 MHz band to track down the beacon from as far away as a 100 miles.

The EPIRB devices are much bigger because they are designed for marine use and would be attached to the boat, while you generally carry a PLB, which are built pretty tough and are waterproof, and many float. I would get a PLB, and attach it to my PFD.

Many 406 devices now offer a subscription service for regular tracking of the device (the Spot's main selling point) as well for your peace of mind. If it was my sibling I would offer to pay or help out in some fashion.

*like the sat signal things can still get in the way. It's not for a coal miner.
posted by zenon at 10:33 AM on September 11, 2012

Response by poster: Unhappy update: a half a week into the trip, he left his camp site and went into town for some groceries. When he returned, everything was stolen. So the adventure is over, for now.
posted by punchtothehead at 10:22 AM on October 2, 2012

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