MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Water from Ohio has helped the three adventurers traveling on the Mississippi River get closer to their goal of paddling to the Gulf of Mexico.
Forrest Schoessow, 25, of Sidney, Shea Selsor, 25, of Piqua, and Alex Ross, 26, of Sidney, have 745 miles to paddle to reach 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 Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
“We 650 miles to go to reach New Orleans,” said Ross Sunday morning during their weekly phone call to the Sidney Daily News. “For the next two weeks and for last week, we have to do a lot more mileage to reach our goal.”
“Where the Missouri River met the Mississippi River was nothing compared to when the Ohio River joined it,” said Schoessow. “It was raging and sped us up so much. Water from home was mingling with the Mississippi River. All the water from Sidney, Piqua, Troy and the Miami Valley is now reaching us and that feels downright grand! The Ohio River is a very important river for this country. It provides drinking water for more than three million people and over 25 million people (almost 10 percent of the U.S. population) live in the Ohio River Basin!”
The water, said Selsor, has been fantastic.
“The water is moving very well and we’ve been getting great mileage every day. “We have to continue to have good miles, which then allows us to get our nonpaddling work done. It’s been a great week.”
Ross said the trio hit their first 70-mile day during the week.
“We’ve been doing 60 to 70 miles a day,” said Ross. “We need to keep that up for the rest of the trip. We have two full days off left before we get off schedule.”
The trio did their 71 mile day when they paddled into New Madrid.
“It was a beautiful day,” said Ross. “We met some friendly fisherman when we landed.”
While camped there, they decided to unpack all their stuff and let it dry out.
“We began the week with it storming,” said Schoessow. “All of our stuff got wet. We’d gall asleep wet and we’d wake up wet.”
With a sunny day on their side, they unloaded all their books and tents and put them on the riverbank to dry.
“Shea had walked to get supplies,” said Ross. “Forrest was recharging all our electrical devices. Then a torrential downpour hit us. The wind picked up and it lasted for a half hour to an hour.”
The blowing wind picked up their tents, books and other supplies on the riverbank and the items blew into the river and away from the campsite towards town.
“Forrest came flying over the levee singing Wagner’s ‘Ride of he Valkyries’ in the rain. We started grabbing everything,” said Ross. “Shea was across town so he couldn’t help. It was a pretty wacky night.”
“It was like — boom — the wind changes and it’s pouring down,” said Schoessow. “The wind speed was causing things to blow into the river. We were running around trying to catch the tents. All of our belongings got drenched.”
Because the tents were wet, the trio had no shelter for the night.
“We were hiding under a bridge,” said Schoessow. “That was pretty demoralizing. But then my mom, (Grace Schoessow) came and brought some sunshine with her.”
Ross said they dried out their possessions as best they could before resuming their journey the next day.
“There is some mold growing on some things, which is unfortunate,” said Ross. “We’ll be doing maintenance on our things when we get to our next stop.”
New Madrid, said Ross, suffered earthquakes in 1811 or 1812 and are still the mot powerful earthquakes to hit the eastern U.S. in recorded history. The shock was so strong that the Mississippi River flowed backwards for 10 hours.
The waters of the Mississippi River are flowing strong and hard, they said.
“We’ve seen a lot of incredible water,” said Ross. “The Ohio River joined us as well as other tributaries. The speed has really kicked in with so much water.”
Flooding is evident throughout their travels during the week. They’ve encountered fields completing under water and cities cut off because of the flooding.
“The flooding is tremendous,” said Ross.
At the tip of Illinois, they stopped at Cairo, a town which has become victim to hard economic times.
“I would encourage everyone to look at the history of Cairo,” said Ross. “The city is 180 degrees no of what it used to be. They’ve had all kinds of flooding.
“We were paddling where a levee should have been and we realized we were following a road instead,” said Ross. “A lot of the buildings in Cairo have been abandoned or destroyed. It has a population of around 2,000 people.
It was once a very important river town, even plays a major role in Huck Finn, but is now a shade of what it once was. It’s falling apart at the seams. The people there, though, were very good to us. Even just walking by, people would offer us water, food. I think it’s important to remember not to judge the hearts of the people of a community by the condition of their buildings or streets. We explored the city a while, and were eventually given a ride back by some folks who ran a church there. Thank goodness — my watershoes were not made for hiking.”
They were also humbled by a woman they didn’t know.
“We are looking pretty scraggly,” said Ross. “There was a woman who thought we were homeless. She brought us sandwiches and that was very kind. It was very strange to be given a handout because the person thought we had no where to go.”
While they aren’t doing any fishing while paddling, they did have a fish join them for part of their journey.
“We were paddling to Caruthersville and it was a simple day,” said Ross. “We did a 50-mile day. While we were paddling, a fish jumped into the canoe. It was the same kind that had hit Shea in the face earlier in the trip.
“We think it was startled by the paddles and jumped in with us. Luckily it jumped back into the river. I’m not sure how we would have gotten it out otherwise.”
Schoessow’s mother met up with the trio at Osceola, Arkansas.
“It had been a long, hot day,” said Ross. “Everything was underwater. We had tried all day to met up with her.”
They had unloaded their canoe once and had to reload it so they could meet up with Osceola’s mom.
“It was an unexpected, wonderful surprise,” said Schoessow of his mom’s visit. “She had a 11-hour drive to come out to visit us. It ended up being 12 hours because of the flooding and we couldn’t meet up with her like we planned.
“We had landed in a town named Tomato,” said Schoessow. “It was surrounded by water because the levee had broken and she couldn’t get to the river. We had to repack the canoe and paddle another 20miles to get to another site.
“She brought us some things we needed,” said Schoessow. “She brought smiles and fresh conversation. We’re getting used to the physical aspect of the trip. We’re getting used to being wet in the morning, being bitten by insects and being dry by night. It’s a mental battle right now, of getting back into the canoe every day.
“Seeing fresh faces has been helpful in making things easier,” he said.
She also tried her hand at paddling and traveled with them around 36 miles in the canoe.
“I think she could have done 50 miles,” said Schoessow. “But we wanted to stop before we got to Memphis because it’s hard to hide the canoe and supplies in a big city.”
And it was a learning 36 miles for Mrs. Schoessow.
“She told me, ‘Now I get it. I understand how difficult this is,’” said Schoessow.
In an email from the river adventurers, Grace Schoessow said, “The river is both beautiful and powerful, but it is no match for the drive and determination of these young men. On this river quest, they are experiencing the people and lands that make this country great. They are also facing grueling physical challenges and risks to their safety that are daunting and require complete focus.
“Joining them for 37 miles was a thrilling adventure for me. Now I have specific reasons to worry! But I then remind myself that the risks of being out in nature’s playground are far outweighted by the worth of the experience,” she said. Especially as a mother, it is heart-warming to witness the genuine kindness and curiosity of the local people that Forrest, Shea, and Alex encounter. They envoke a child-like wonder that is infectious.”
They have been able to work on postcards for their supporters of the trip. They also planted 13 trees in honor of their supporters. They planted maple, pawpaws and cedar trees, along with a buckeye tree in Shelby County, Tennessee.
“We wanted to plant these trees as living monuments to some of our supporters and also help encourage the natural development of a balanced ecosystem. Trees want not and give us much. An average-sized tree produces enough oxygen in one year to keep a family of four breathing fresh air. Trees also provide homes, shelter and food for local wildlife such as birds, squirrels, and bugs. Forests and groves of trees provide food and cover for larger mammals, such as foxes and deer,” said Schoessow.
“It was great having another ground crew from Ohio,” said Selsor. “We were able to resupply and we received the trees from Ohio. It’s been amazing to have people come down with food and supplies and to have access to a car.
“It was nice not having to walk or hitchhike to a store,” he said. “The support and following we’ve received from people is great. They have a lot invested in this story from Ohio. It’s been fantastic with each visit (from home).”
While they knew they wouldn’t have access to a lot of things while traveling, Selsor said he misses his family and friends in Ohio, but the thing he misses most is his car.
“At lot of times, the towns aren’t close to the river. Up north, the towns were on the river. Here, the grocery stories are several miles away,” said Selsor.
“We have encountered a lot of helpful people. The kindness of the people is overwhelming,” he said. “We have begun the transition into the south so there’s been a lot of changes coming a long. The river has been pretty consistent since we got out of the locks.”
And the further south they go, they are experiencing more humidity and hotter temperatures.
“It’s been hot,” said Schoessow. “We’ve had 100 degree days so we’re all trying to get used to the heat. Each mile we go south, it gets hotter and more humid. I drank 11 liters of water yesterday (Saturday). We three grown men, we’ve had to carry a lot of water with us. One gallon of water weighs 8 pounds and we’re carrying 15 gallons of water with us.”
The river, said Schoessow, is no longer going just north and south. It’s taking them on all types of twists and turns.
“We’ll be going south for one mile and an hour later we’ll be going north,” said Schoessow. “Then an hour later we’ll be going east. The turns are huge and take an hour to get through. It’s been difficult to see the barges that are coming around the bend.”
As they’ve traveled down the river, the size of the barges began as two containers in width. After the passed the Ohio River, the barges have grown to being five containers wide and seven containers long.
“One container is six times the size of a semi-trailer,” said Schoessow. ‘They’re giants.”
Ross said the history of the river is amazing. Only one Naval battle was fought on the river during the Civil War.
“It was on Island No. 18 that were was a battle during the Civil War,” said Schoessow. “The area had flooded and the Union soldiers had cut down trees to make rafts. They had cannons on them.
“They were able to take an island by surprise that was held by Confederate soldiers. They took control of the island and the river for the rest of the war,” he said.
The rigors of the trip, said Schoessow, are taking a toll on the three men.
“We have been very lucky to have injury-free so far,” said Schoessow, who sounds weary during the phone call. “We have had jokes among ourselves that if we ‘accidentally drop a rock on our left we don’t have to paddle anymore.’
“The worst is sitting all the time,” said Schoessow. “We keep trying to figure out different ways to sit in the canoe for 12 hours a day. I wake up in the morning and my hands are curled up into fists like I’m still paddling. I’m only 25 years old and it’s hard to unclench them. I now understand what people who have arthritis go through.”
One aspect of the trip has been a disappointment for Schoessow. During the first few weeks of travel, one piece of equipment, which was used to gather information about the river, broke.
“That was a huge setback,” said Schoessow. “It had gone through quality control and was a registered piece of equipment. I’ve been using other traditional, old-school equipment to gather data, but that won’t be able to be used by people in studies.
“This won’t be up to the standards required for other people,” he said. “I had talked to the people who made the instrument in Yellow Springs, Ohio, had it would take $500-600 to repair it. So I’m doing the best that I can.”
Schoessow said he tests the river in the morning and at night. He looks for basic indicators on how the water is doing.
“If there are no muscles and clams in the water, that means it’s acidic. That’s an indicator that an indicator that an industry is using something acidic. The further south we go, the water quality gets worse and there’s more trash in the river.
“We’re not seeing as much wildlife and we’re seeing more barges. It’s what we had expected, I’m sad to say,” he said.
In Tennessee, their critter is the Least Tern, which is a long-distance migratory bird that hunts in shallow waters. It has very long pointed wings for hovering over prey and diving agility. This bird species is suffering from habitat loss caused by dams, reservoirs, dredging, and human-caused reshaping of river systems.
In Arkansas it is the Ozark Hellbender, which which is a type of giant salamander that can grow to over two feet long. Hellbender populations in Missouri and Arkansas have declined by over 80% over the past couple decades due to habitat loss. An increase in land development and human populations has led to more pollutants entering their ecosystems.
“The Ozark Hellbender is an indicator on how the fresh water ecosystem is working,” said Schoessow. “Scientists have found a correlation between the male Hellbender and the human male not being able to reproduce. Poor water quality, which has mercury and lead in it, has been discovered to be the reason for this. The Ozark Hellbender is a delicate creature and shows what the ecosystem is like around here.”
Schoessow said he is thankful his mom was able to come visit them this week.
“I’m grateful she took time out of her busy schedule to visit us,” said Schoessow. “She brought things that we needed and was also a fresh trooper for the crew. It makes me excited for the rest of the trip.”
Schoessow is sending out a special message to his sister, Teague, who will be undergoing surgery Friday.
“She’s my kid sister. I wish as her big brother that I could take all the strength I have and give it to her,” said Schoessow. “I just want her to know that I’m thinking about her. She is only 23 years old and has been battling ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, a surgical error, and the risk of cancer for most of her adult life. I truly wish I could give all my strength to her. I look up to my sister — her strength and courage in the face of extreme hardship always inspires me to persevere. Please keep Teague in your thoughts and prayers this Friday.”
Ross said he is excited for the next two weeks of the trip, as he knows they will then be in New Orleans. He has a home there and welcomes being there overnight.
“There will be a contingent from Ohio in New Orleans,” said Ross. “That will really be fun. We’ll get to stay the night, but then it will be back on the water the next day as we’ll only be 90 miles from the Gulf after that.”
Schoessow also wanted to remind everyone in Shelby and Miami counties that the Great Miami River Cleanup will be held Friday, July 17, and Saturday, July 18. It will go from Sidney to Piqua and pick up trash in the river.
“Come out, enjoy the sun and help cleanup the environment,” said Schoessow. “Jeff Lange coordinates it from Sidney to Piqua on July 18. He’s been one of our supporters of the trip.”
“The protecting our waterways (POWW) river clean up is responsible for clearing the section of the great Miami river from Sidney to Piqua. POWW is one of the many sectional teams that converge for the clean sweep of the great Miami river which annually removes over 30 tons of garbage from our hometown river,” said Selsor. “POWW is a non-profit organized by Jeff Lange and runs the most fun section of the clean sweep of GMR. The MRSE crew cannot advocate enough the importance of organizations like POWW bringing communities together to take pride in local rivers. If you have been following along and enjoying our adventures we strongly urge you to volunteer this Saturday and get in a canoe yourself.”
For more information on volunteering from Sidney to Piqua contact Jeff Lange at http://www.protectingourwaterways.org for information on volunteering at other sections of the river please visit http://www.greatmiamirivercleanup.org.
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.