Messing With the River

Paddlers Joe Royer and Kevin Adams on the recreational river.


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A good swimmer can cross the Mississippi River in 20 minutes at low water. An expert kayaker can make it from one end of Mud Island to the other in 15 minutes. A pair of paddlers in a canoe can do it in 25 minutes. And if you're game but inexperienced, the river can scare the fool out of you or even kill you.

The majority of Memphians, of course, never do anything more than look at the river. And the minority who actually get in it somehow or other probably owe a debt of thanks to Joe Royer, founder of the Outdoors Inc. Canoe & Kayak Race.

Royer has the evangelical itch. He will talk your ears off about the wonders of paddling a kayak or canoe on the river whether you are a newbie or a hardcore. His vision, money, and determination turned a personal hobby into a celebrated annual event that lets thousands of people safely paddle the river under the supervision of the Coast Guard.

But after 30 years, Royer has met his match. Neither the weather nor the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) has cooperated, so Royer says he's "permanently" ending the canoe race. Thunderstorms sank it last year, and projected near-record flooding that turns trees on Greenbelt Park into low-water strainers has forced cancellation of this year's scheduled May 7th event. The RDC has declined to rebuild a ramp at the north end of Mud Island that Royer says would have enabled him to move the race to June when the river is lower.

I think the race will be back, possibly in a year or two, probably on a smaller scale, and in summer at low water. Royer acknowledged the possibility when I talked to him this week.

"If the ramp were rebuilt, I would love to do it," he said.

He went out of his way to say he doesn't want to demonize the RDC, which has spent its time and treasure on other projects, including Beale Street Landing and another boat ramp at the north end of Mud Island used primarily by fishermen.

The RDC made the right call. Ramps are expensive to build and maintain, and fishermen outnumber paddlers. Determined paddlers will find a way to access the river directly or via the Wolf River or the harbor — and take the risks. Just over a year ago, a Memphis man, Grant Somes, drowned when his canoe capsized.

I admire extreme athletes like Royer, bravado and all.

"Afraid of the Mississippi River? Not the thousands of Memphians who participated in the race," he said.

He notes that people swim to Alcatraz and windsurf under the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, I say, people jump from it, too. There is a difference between fear and respect.

Kevin Adams is the CEO of CB Richard Ellis, a commercial real estate firm. In March, he spent 15 days by himself, paddling a 14-foot kayak from Memphis to New Orleans.

Adams, 50, is a former college athlete who swam across the Mississippi River 25 years ago. His latest challenge involved a year of planning and training.

"There is a learning curve as you actually experience the river," he said. "You have to be very focused. There is no time to relax. You are always looking for stuff way out in front of you. The river humbles you and makes you respect how relentless it is. I expected the trip would take me 21 days, and it took me 15 because the current was so much greater."

He camped at night and carried all of his food and water, along with a DeLorme GPS with a SPOT satellite communicator and a cellphone that didn't work much. He wore a life vest constantly.

He never spilled, but he had some close calls and pumped out a lot of water when the wind was strong enough to produce whitecaps that pushed him back upriver.

"On one of the clear days when the river was like glass, I was out in the middle listening to Johnny Cash when I saw a ripple that became an eruption of whitewater eight feet long, with a black fin," he said. "As it got bigger, I thought it was a whale or shark coming to eat me. It turned out to be a big buoy 10 feet across and 20 feet tall that had been tied down but submerged."

He's pulling for the eventual revival of the Canoe & Kayak Race. That makes two of us. Don't give up, Joe.

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