Friends and colleagues have warned that venturing the Mississippi River is not a ride you want to do. Contrary to the lulling appeal of sailing the “Old Man,” traversing the Mississippi is one of temperamental weather, combative boat traffic, surprisingly currents, stretches of drab and lifeless scenery, seemingly limitless flotsam and almost life-threatening pollution. Although not off of my personal “bucket list” it has been bumped to my “maybe” file.
One adventurer who already faced his mortality was Bill Ayars, who sought to take his teenage daughters down the legendary river via a pair of Sea-Doo GTXs. The ride itself has been documented by Ayars himself who wrote My Journey Down the Big Muddy. Ayars reached out to The Watercraft Journal and was kind enough to share a couple excerpts from his book, which we have included below (as well as links to how you can purchase a copy of his book).
The idea for a jet-skiing trip down the Mississippi River came while poison dripped slowly into my arm.
I was 50 years old and recently diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells. Every third Friday for five months, I sat in the hospital in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, for eight hours undergoing chemotherapy.
Toward the end of treatments, in December 2006, I started thinking about taking an adventure. I wanted something to look forward to, something to celebrate my survival. I wanted my teenage daughters, Jennifer and Jackie, to come with me.
Seven months later, my oldest daughter, Jennifer, and I were flying down the Mississippi River having fun, each on our own jet ski. It was the first day of our 1,700-mile jet-skiing trip from St. Paul, Minnesota, to New Orleans, and we were full of energy. As far as I knew, no other woman or girl had jet skied the Mississippi.
We had left St. Paul, Minnesota, earlier that morning from beautiful Hidden Falls Regional Park, just below the first lock and dam on the river at mile marker 844. Our destination that day was Alma, Wisconsin, 95 miles away.
We were all a little nervous at the start, uncertain of what lie ahead. It didn’t help that a woman we met the night before warned us of whirlpools that she claimed could pull entire boats under.
We later learned they’re called wing dams – and they do not “eat” boats. Still, the next seven days would be full of uncertainty, scary moments, and challenges. But triumphs and fun, too.
There were locks and dams about every 25 miles. We often had to wait for long periods, sometimes hours, to be let through. We’d pass the time by studying our maps or just lying back on the jet skis and resting.
The 27 locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi, as we learned, were built to control the water levels and tame a series of rapids on the upper Mississippi from St. Paul to St. Louis, Missouri.
Over this 600-mile stretch, the water fell more than 400 feet, often through boulders, rapids or small water fall systems. Entering a lock was sort of like getting into an empty bathtub. Once inside, water poured in to “raise” you up to the next portion of the river.
“Dad, I don’t know what to do!”
About halfway through our trip, a storm hit. The rain and wind stirred up the river something fierce. The waves were huge and washed over the front of our jet skis.
At one point, Jennifer stood up and a wave crashed into her, almost knocking her off her jet ski. She screamed to get my attention but I couldn’t hear her. When she finally caught up to me, she glared.
“I could have died behind you. I could have died!” she screamed. This was not the start I anticipated. New Orleans was still a long way.
To read more about Bill Ayars’ adventure, go to http://www.thebigmuddybook.com/ to purchase his book, “My Journey Down the Big Muddy.’’ Ten dollars from each purchase price goes to The Emerald Jenny Foundation, which provides online resources to families struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. Also, check out photos and chapter excerpts on http://www.facebook.com/thebigmuddybook and follow us on Twitter @thebigmuddybook