Followed by his pet mallard, John Lawrence Jolley stepped out of a battered aluminum canoe adorned with a cow’s skull, wearing a stained suit with black work books, a wool beret over a baseball cap, and designer women’s sunglasses. He grabbed a hard-shell suitcase from the canoe, rolled a smoke and began talking. He’d been camping on the river for the past three months and had a lot to say about the devastating impact of the dams on the Mississippi. He was still speaking when I headed up the boat ramp to the Under-the-Hill Saloon, race headquarters for the 12th Annual Phatwater Challenge.

This was 9:30 AM on Friday, the day before the 42-mile race down the Mississippi that starts in Grand Gulf, a supply point for Grant’s army during the siege of Vicksburg, and finishes in sleepy Natchez.  Back before the Civil War, when cotton was king, Natchez boasted over 500 millionaires, more than any city in America except New York.

As I walked up to the registration table, a shaggy dude emerged from the Mark Twain Guest House above the saloon. Pointing to his checkered PJ’s, he asked: “Can a man in his pajamas get a Bloody Mary at this hour?” A good ole boy sipping coffee in a rocker outside the bar drawled, “You can’t get a drink at this hour without ’em.”

Spoiler alert: He downed five.

Waiting for the fog to burn off on Saturday morning, race director Keith Benoist reminisced about his first Phatwater in 2007.  In the field of 11 was Peggy Pierrepont, a TV producer from New York who came to Natchez after brain surgery to find a place where she wouldn’t know anyone. “She said she was from New Yawk and wasn’t used to waiting, so off she went before the start.” Chuckling, he said: “We found her skinny-dipping three miles down the river.”

Right, the race: 150 paddlers in everything from stubby plastic kayaks with plastic coolers to a hand-crafted cedar-stripped war canoe to sleek carbon surf skis. When the gun finally sounded, Mike Herbert, the three-time Olympian from Herbert, Arkansas, took off like a scalded dog. Tan as leather and 186 pounds of sculpted muscle, Herbert, who sounds a bit like Dolly Parton and is renowned in paddling circles for putting a 725-pound black bear on its ass in a rasslin’ contest, led the field until Erik Borgnes, a 48-year-old physician from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, caught him two hours into the grind. With a 4th, 3rd and, (last year), a 2nd, Borgnes had prepared for the race with four five-hour paddles in the prior month. He won in a time of 4 hr and 11 minutes, 10 minutes clear of Herbert. Anita Allen of Florida won the women’s race.

When I staggered up the boat ramp, John Jolley was crouched outside the bar, head tipped back, singing in full throat. His dutiful duck, whose official name starts with “Dam Fluidification” and ends with “the fertilizer machine” was chillin’ in a five-gallon bucket by his side.