This story is featured in the August 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine which can be purchased here.
Words: Joe Glickman
Photos: Keith Benoist
On my first trip to Natchez, historian Andre Farish Jr., told me, "Folks around here fear two things: the wrath of God and the Mississippi River." Pausing for effect, he added, "Most people occasionally tempt the former—but never the latter."
Okay, while he may not have had a degree in history, Farish is the co-owner of the Under-the-Hill Saloon, the Natchez, Miss., watering hole where Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant went on one of his biggest benders of the war, or so the story goes. According to Farish, nobody much cared that Grant was a Yankee. In the lean war years, a customer was a customer.
For the last decade, this smoky joint has also served as the headquarters for the Phatwater Challenge, a 42-mile race that finishes at the boat ramp below the bar. As race director Keith Benoist says, "the Phatwater Challenge was born somewhere between the cap and the bottom of a bottle."
That first race in 2002 featured 11 hearty souls. Last October, 165 paddlers toed the line, with the top male and female competitors vying for $1,000 (with another grand on the table for breaking the course record). Though racing the mighty river may be the draw, Benoist is the reason so many racers return each year. Now 56, the strapping, silver-haired Benoist played linebacker at Delta State University before dropping out to join the Marines. After three years in the Second Force Recon, he worked as an elk-hunting guide in Idaho, and wound up in Durango, Colo., where he got hooked on whitewater kayaking. He returned to Natchez in 2001 when a high school buddy-turned-surgeon repaired a knee he'd injured during a run-in with poachers in Zimbabwe. That's when the twice-divorced wanderer found the love of his life, a sporty gal named Melissa Morrison. She's the other co-owner of the storied saloon.
As I learned on my first visit in 2009, Natchez may be a small, sleepy river town, but it has a long and vibrant history—one in which the past and present blur in a most curious way. As the oldest settlement on a river that stretches 2,320 miles from Minnesota to the Gulf, it's seen a lot of action, like the fateful attack waged by the Natchez, Chickasaw and Yasous tribes against the French in 1729, and the subsequent fighting between the French, English and Spanish to control the bustling port town.
But what gave the town its true character is the crop that divided the country so profoundly. Each fall when the rich alluvial soil on the flat Louisiana side erupted in white, the local plantation owners loaded the cotton bounty onto steamboats at the Natchez-Under-the Hill landing and shipped it downriver to New Orleans or upriver to St. Louis. Slavery made cotton profitable, and the planters grew fat on the fruits of human bondage. By 1861, the dawn of the Civil War, Natchez boasted more than 500 millionaires, more than any city in America except New York. And many traces of that Victorian past still remain, as Grant's campaign to control the Mississippi spared Natchez the fate of Vicksburg.
Sometimes you need a reason to travel off the beaten path. The rich history of Natchez was good enough. But really, it was the chance to race down the river that has captured my imagination since my mother read me The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn back when Elvis still had his figure. I first entered the race in 2009 and now it feels like an annual tradition. The first two years, I paddled a single surfski, finishing at the front of the field. That may sound impressive, but my competitors included two stocky lads wearing capes and masks like pro wrestlers and one white-haired fellow in camo attire who smoked a cigarette in his boat as we lined up for the start. This summer I hooked up with Eric Mims, a 34-year-old woodworker from Hermitage, Tenn. Mims and I had taken turns beating each other down the Mississippi and, as he quipped, paddling together meant that we didn't have to race each other. Better yet, we'd have a shot at the course record of 3 hours and 41 minutes set in 2009 by the husband-and-wife team of Patrick and DeAnne Hemmens.
On Friday, Eric and I sat in the boat together for the first time; the following morning, we lined up at the start with 150 other boaters. I was amused by the manly man in a kilt, but I paid special attention to Team Hemmens, first across the line the past two years. Because the Hemmens have logged more hours together than migratory birds, Eric and I agreed that we'd start cautiously, find a rhythm and see if we could break away an hour or two into the race.
At least, that was the plan. But when the gun sounded, Eric tore at the water from the front seat like a rodeo bull exploding out of the chute. Struggling to match his frantic pace, we hammered for 15 minutes: "See any sign of 'em?" he finally asked breathlessly.
I glanced behind but saw nothing that resembled two competitive Californians.
While the water was as flat as the Louisiana Delta, every so often we'd hit a muddy, counterclockwise boil that had our 24-foot skiff slithering like a car tire on black ice. We were consistently clocking between 10 and 12 mph and, though we also were eager not to get caught, we had to stay focused to finding the best line on this wide, meandering river rife with shallows and sandbars.
At the halfway point, setting the course record seemed a distinct possibility. But the headwind grew stronger, and by hour three we knew the mark would stand. We finished just shy of four hours—seven minutes ahead of Team Hemmens and 10 minutes up on the first soloist, six-time Olympic sprint kayaker Philippe Boccara.
It's an odd feeling paddling near your pain threshold for almost four hours. Time slows over the last half of the race as muscular fatigue, numb legs, a sore ass and dehydration compromise your balance and wear at your resolve. That's where having a stalwart partner made such a difference; I knew Eric felt as bad as I did, but as long as he kept grinding, so would I.
As we inched up the boat ramp, Janis Joplin blasted from the speakers outside the bar. Serenaded by the blues, we changed into dry clothes and even more slowly ambled to the bar, where we sat outside for the rest of the day, chatting and watching the big river roll by. Having someone to share the victory with made it that much more satisfying. We tempted the river's wrath and I was already sore, and knew that I'd be sore for days. But, according to Benoist, I looked as happy as a possum eating a persimmon.