When Storms Explode and Barges Attack

“Death is natural and necessary but not just.  It is a random force of nature; survival is equally accidental.  Each loss is an occasion to remember that survival is a gift.”

-Harriet McBryde Johnson

Top 2 Highlights:

1. Arriving in Memphis– The hospitality and warmth our new-found friends extended to us was wonderful.  Dale and Merriam Sanders, Tom Graves, Papaw Richard Day and more made our stay incredibly special.  We were honored to sign the paddler Wall of Fame too!FDS_3398

2. Memphis Night Out– The Drifters were joined by all-star paddler Bill “One Gallon” Nedderman and Memphis resident Tom Graves for ribs at Rendezvous and music on Beale Street.bealestreet

Bottom 2 Lowlights:

1.  Weather Again: We had less than one hour of sunlight for Days 127-132.  Our journals recount the best part of our days being when the sun peeked out for a couple minutes.

2.  The Incident…  We had one of our lowest lows of the entire trip on Day 131.  Full details are relived below.

The Blog

This blog post was going to be titled “The Opportunists,” and we planned on telling you about how our current lifestyle presents certain challenges not faced in traditional life.  We were supposed to tell you all about how we find electrical outlets in random places (fish gutting stations, grocery stores, libraries, etc.), sleep in bizarre spots (next to bars, in backyards, etc.) and how our limitations have forced us to interact with people we otherwise might not have.

That was the plan until Day 131- then everything changed.

That day started as each of the previous four did- dreary and gray with headwinds pushing against us with every paddle-stroke.  Periodically we would see darker clouds with rain (which we would paddle through) and a few with lightning (which we would wait out on the shore).  As we kayaked into the afternoon we found ourselves separated- Joe elected to cross the channel while Nick stayed in the channel next to the bank (the channel is the area made deep enough for barges.  As the river winds, the channel shifts from left to right.  It’s the fastest place to paddle, but one must be vigilant for oncoming barges).

After we separated the wind and waves intensified.  Joe pushed through the waves to wait for Nick on a sandbar, and Nick decided the passing had become too treacherous and pulled over to the shore closest to him (a picture with their routes can be seen below).

Wearied from the onslaught of wind all day, Joe sat on the sandbar and endured the sand being whipped up.  Nick had a better spot, sitting on an incline across the channel.  At this point Joe texted Nick, “Running low on battery.  Let’s chill for a bit then reconnect on the water.  Thunderstorms and wind forecasted until midnight.”  Nick replied, “I’ll watch your movement… I could ferry across and meet you further down to camp if need be.”

As Joe turned off his phone, he looked south and saw the most menacing and ominous clouds of the day.  Nick had decent coverage, but Joe was on an exposed and barren sandbar, no place for a storm with lightning.  Thinking he’d see Nick at camp later on, he set out into the wind and waves to find better shelter, keeping within 20 feet of the shore.

As he paddled along the shore Joe saw a black curtain develop underneath the storm cloud.  200 yards after leaving his first sandbar landing the curtain reached the far bank of the river.  Then it hit him.

It felt like a concussion from an exploding bomb as the wind drove against Joe’s boat, driving him to shore.  It was joined by rain so thick that visibility dropped to 10 ft in any direction.  Shivering, cold and wet, Joe sat next to his boat waiting for the storm to end, grateful Nick didn’t have to deal with this too.

But Joe was wrong.  Nick saw Joe take off in a hurry and jumped in his boat too.  He couldn’t see the storm approaching from his perspective, so he hustled to cross the channel ahead of a barge coming upriver.

It wasn’t until he started into the channel that he too saw the storm.  The clouds had moved slowly that day, so he thought he could make the crossing in time.  Halfway into the channel, the worst place to get caught, Nick was hit.  His journal entry that night is the best way to relive his experience:

“There was no escape button, no way out.  Then the K.O. wave hit and I was flung into the water.  I was losing everything, the torture became real when I said to myself, can I do this?  There was no way for me to right the boat in those conditions, so I pulled myself up and sat on top of the over-turned kayak, but I wasn’t dead.”

As the visibility began to clear Nick saw the barge getting closer, and he’s still in the channel.  He realized he couldn’t make the sandbar so he resolved to avoid the upcoming barge by paddling back to the channelized shore.  He resumes:

“I paddled for my life.  I paddled with all my gear dragging in the water behind me.  For those 20 minutes I paddled harder than I ever have and gave everything to one task: to stay alive.  It showed no signs of slowing.  I knew I’d be crushed if I didn’t get out of the way.  With 10 feet to spare I cleared the barge- I never want to be that close to a barge again.  Somehow I went from nearly drowning in a rainstorm and thinking I might die to passing an oncoming barge dragging gear behind and having a boat full of water.”

Fortunately Nick escaped with his life and made his way to shore.  When he reached the riverbank he began tallying up what he lost- two bags of clothes, the main camera (with footage from that day and the previous day on it), a lens, the camera batteries, the Sachtler tripod and a hard-drive with the previous month’s footage on it (luckily we had a backup).

Shaken by the river, he pitched his tent right then and there on a slanted concrete slab and hoped Joe was alright (Joe left the sandbar for a second time after the storm passed and was camped inside some willows across the river). incendent map

(Diagram of the river and Joe and Nick’s routes)

The next morning Nick was still unnerved, but was back on the water headed to Memphis where they could resupply.  Most of the time our experience is peaceful and challenged by hours of paddling.  Then there are other times where the river transforms and the struggle becomes much larger than just making it to the next town.joenickmemphis

(One quick note on the footage from that day: Nick had some great shots on the lost camera but fortunately Joe captured part of the experience on the GoPro (for once it was unfogged).  Nick also did a personal address on his phone minutes after he reached shore, so stay tuned for the movie to see the full experience.)


  • The crew at the Economy Boat Store was unbelievable.  In addition to letting us complete our previous blog and fill our water bottles they also hooked us up with some groceries!  Thank you to Jodie Davenport, Mike, Kevin and Floyd.photo
  • Dale and Merriam Sanders let us stay with them at their beautiful home in Memphis and got the paddling community together to swap stories.  We can’t wait to see you again!
  • We had to spend almost an entire day collecting new camera gear for the expedition and Papaw Richard Day was patient enough to shuttle us around.  Thank you for the great conversation too!
  • We learned more about Memphis from Professor Graves than we could have ever found on our own.  Thanks for taking us to Gus’s, Rendezvous and Beale St. Tom!
  • Another round of care packages arrived just in time!  A huge thank you to Denise Weber, Elizabeth Niere and Cathy Caiazza. 

Gear Review:

  • By now you can tell we get wet.  Rain and river water find ways of covering  us which is why keeping our gear dry with Pelican cases s so important.  We keep our laptop and film gear in our cases and are thrilled we can depend on them.

What’s Next:

  • Only 660 miles to the Gulf now, which means we’ve paddled 3,100 miles!  We’re on our way down the Mississippi and should hit the Louisiana state line in the next week or so.  Our next blog post will be another video blog focusing on what it’s like from Nick’s perspective to film a movie while floating down the river.