By Katie McKy

There are times when the water flowing out of Lake Itasca, the Mississippi River’s headwaters in northern Minnesota, isn’t enough to float a 14.5’ Current Design Whistler. That was not Ellen McDonah’s problem. McDonah, a retired teacher and practicing artist from Galesville, Wisconsin, began her journey to the Gulf on May 25th, when rainfall totals nearly doubled the April, May, and June averages. Downriver, lock doors were opened to ease the upriver flooding, disaster was declared, and the National Guard dispatched. However, in northern Minnesota, McDonah waited at a campsite, a week-long wait she’d repeat on a sandbar downriver. She waited that first week, in part, because she knew she might not find another high and dry campsite downriver.

“Nearly all campsites were underwater. The water was four feet up the tree trunks.”

However, like many kayakers, McDonah felt the tug of that roiling current, as she would later prove when she ran over one of the massive dams on the upper Mississippi.

“At Muscatine, Iowa, I ran the dam’s spillway instead of going through the lock. I had started to go down the river’s main channel and saw an alternate channel. I saw some people sitting beside a canoe outside their house, so I asked, ‘Where does this channel go?’ The man said, ‘This leads to the spillway. You can run it if you want.’ He had that canoe, so I figured he knew what he was talking about. It was a blast. It was like doing Class II rapids for three miles. I like where I can feel the stress in the hull. That’s exciting for sure. Nothing like it. Love it!”

However, McDonah doesn’t celebrate all whitewater. When water is churned white by river tows some 200 feet long and pushing barges up to 300 feet long, producing a string of steel longer than an aircraft carrier and powered by 10,000 horses, she is wary.

“I carry a mirror and I’m always checking for barges behind me. If I see one, I quick get out of the channel. My hand starts shaking when I see one, but being outside of my comfort zone is thrilling for me too.”

Once, the thrills nearly capsized her.

“One time, I took a narrow outside bend and a barge was coming up the river. There was heavy riprap and no bank, but I thought, ‘No problem. He can just slip by and I’ll deal with the whitewater.’ That’s what I did, but two more barges were right behind him, adding whitewater to whitewater, so I felt like I was paddling in a washing machine for 30 minutes. When I got out of there, I said, ‘Well, I won’t be doing that again.’ You learn what you can and can’t do. I like whitewater, but not that much. You learn to switch from outer to inner banks.”

One night was challenging too. A thunderstorm’s howling wind flattened her tent and McDonah flattened herself further to lessen the likelihood of being struck by the lightning hissing, crackling, and booming around her.

Photo by Ryan Johnson | Entering the big open water near Genoa, WI

“I was watching this lightning storm and thinking, ‘Wow, someone’s in a real storm.’ Then it was on top of me and it flattened my tent. I laid as flat as I could, but I wasn’t scared. I just thought, ‘Well, this is the way it was.’ It was a unique experience and spiritual to feel that power, to not be inside and protected by walls.”

McDonah is documenting her journey by Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ellen.mcdonah.3), but also by sketchbook.

“I have some pencils, some water soluble graphite sticks, Conté Crayons, a sketchbook, and some heavy paper that’s textured, so it holds up a little better. My supplies had to be small because you can’t carry much in a kayak. Even then, I’ve downsized a couple times now and recently sent still more stuff home in Memphis. I’m pretty barebones now. I’ve been getting the addresses of the people who’ve helped me along the way and I’m going to send them artwork. I’m going to create paintings from this experience. There is so much out there, the colors and the light and how light affects the water. This is a three-year project to me.”

Seeing the entirety of the river through her artist’s eyes has surprised her.

The river is much more beautiful than I imagined and especially down south. I was aware of how the Mississippi looks in Wisconsin, but I had a limited view of what it looks like in the South. I have a relationship with the lower river now and it’s a beautiful, living thing, much more beautiful than I imagined in every way. It’s huge and even the trees are huge. To think a little kayak can take you through all these different experiences is phenomenal. I’m just so glad I started it and am doing it. It’ll be life-changing as an artist and a female. Don’t worry about someone is going to think. Forget about the horror stories. It’s nowhere near as bad as people think it is. It’s doable.”

The do-ability has been helped along by the generosity of river people, who have fed her and housed her here and there.
“I’ve learned that once you share your dream with other people, they want to know what they can do to help you achieve your dream. It might not be their dream and they might think it’s crazy, but they still want to help. I ask them, ‘What can I do to pay you back for you kindness?’ and they say, ‘Just get to the Gulf.’ So, they share my dream.”
South of Vicksburg now, McDonah keeps paddling this shared dream.