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Today is September 29, 2022

The Pastor and the Photographer’s Great River Adventure

By Debbie Stringer

The Pastor and the Photographer’s Great River Adventure

Park Neff and John Keen paddle their decked canoes through a grassy marsh in the upper reaches of the Mississippi River. Photo courtesy of John Keen.

Avid canoeists Park Neff and John Keen have floated the entire length of the Mississippi River several times. Or so it seems.

For years Neff and Keen followed other paddlers’ source-to-sea Mississippi River trips through social media. And they’ve met many of them by volunteering as “river angels,” the name for people who offer meals, lodging or other assistance to paddling passersby.

Last summer, Neff, then 62, and Keen, 68, finally slipped their own boats into the river’s headwaters in Minnesota. From June 1 until Aug. 2, 2016, the two friends paddled from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico, a journey of some 2,400 miles powered by millions of paddle strokes and river currents.

With only five days off for rest, the men achieved their goal in 58 days by paddling 10 to 12 hours a day, on average.

“The longest day we had was paddling 82 miles, when we were coming in to Greenville,” Neff said.

“We paddled in after dark with headlamps on,” Keen said.

That night, both men slept in their own beds at home, instead of a tent on a sandbar. Two days later they were back on the river, continuing southward.

Neff, a pastor living in Arcola, and Keen, a professional photographer in Greenville, have long enjoyed canoeing and kayaking local waterways, including the Mississippi River. Paddling the river’s entire length seemed to be the next logical step for these experienced paddlers.

“The Mississippi River is the ultimate place to go canoeing,” Neff said.

So four years ago, he started planning his own source-to-sea Mississippi River adventure. Hoping for a paddling partner, Neff pitched the idea to Keen.

“Like Park, I had been thinking about that for a long time,” Keen said. He signed on only after assurance from wife Sharon that she wouldn’t mind managing their photography business alone for two months.

Neff’s wife, also named Sharon, was equally supportive, so the men began choosing gear for the trip, starting with canoes. They each purchased a 17-foot Sea Wind, a sleek, 63-pound canoe hand crafted by Kruger Canoes in Irons, Mich. The boat’s foot-controlled, flip-up rudder would prove invaluable in maneuvering through the river’s strong currents, eddies and churning waters.

“They’re specialty canoes, made with 10 layers of Kevlar,” Neff said. “They have the lines of a kayak but are considered a decked canoe. It’s made for a trip like this—made for comfort, speed and safety.”

Next, they chose bent-shaft paddles made of carbon fiber and weighing only 7.5 ounces. “They are unbelievably light, which makes a big difference when you’re paddling a million-and-a-half strokes,” Neff said.

Three years after Neff began planning the trip, the paddlers and their wives loaded up the boats and gear and drove north to a cabin near Lake Itasca in Minnesota. The next day, Neff and Keen’s grand adventure began with the launch of their canoes, each loaded with 160 pounds of gear and supplies.

They put in near a line of rocks marking the outflow of the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca.

“We backed our canoes up and touched the rocks, and then we started off,” Neff said. At this point, the great river looks more like a shallow creek, with crystal-clear waters and shores lined with evergreens.

At times the paddlers negotiated boulders and rocks in rapids so swift Neff compared it to a ride at Disney World.

In calmer waters, the men draped their legs over the sides of their boats while drifting and enjoying the scenery. “The first part of the trip, I think I almost dozed off paddling a few times,” Keen said.

“The beauty of the upper river, it was spectacular,” Neff said. “We saw eagles, swans, ducks and deer. That first week or two the scenery was unbelievable.”

Using two cameras and a cell phone, Keen photographed riverscapes, sunrises, sunsets and the people they met along the way. Neff kept a daily trip journal, often scribbling in the dark by the light of his headlamp. Both men posted progress reports, videos and photos on their Facebook page, Mission Mississippi River.

Neff handled navigation. Having downloaded maps to his GPS beforehand, he could pinpoint their location on the river in real time. That ability proved especially useful early in the trip when the paddlers found themselves drifting through disorienting mazes of marsh grass.

They intended to follow a time schedule in order to achieve their goal of reaching the gulf in 60 days. But there were delays. On 13 occasions the paddlers had to pull their boats and gear from the water, mount them on small carts and drag them around dams in the upper reaches of the river. The longest of these portages was 1.5 miles, due to a lock closure at Minneapolis.

Neff and Keen passed through 27 locks before reaching St. Louis, Mo. Canoes are allowed to enter the locks alone and with other small craft, but not with barges. Sometimes the men waited hours for barges to exit a lock before they could enter.

The weather didn’t always cooperate either. Dense fog and thunderstorms forced the paddlers off course or to the shore. In one of the lakes formed by a dam, Neff and Keen paddled more than 8 miles in sudden stormy conditions. They lost sight of each other amid wind-driven waves of up to 3 feet. “That was one of the few times I felt a little bit uneasy,” Keen said. “The bows of the canoes were going underwater. We were a long, long way out from shore, and we could barely see the dam in the distance.”

Both men always wore life jackets while paddling, knowing that storms, rough water, whirlpools or other river hazards could rise up at any time.

Yet they never capsized, or even came close. “We paddled through water like a washing machine, but in all of that we never took on any water or got swamped,” Keen said.

One morning, Neff suffered an “attack” from Asian carp. “I still have this image in my mind. Park looked like a Kung Fu fighter.... I bet 15 fish jumped over his boat,” Keen said, laughing at the memory.

“I mean at the same time! And none of them hit the boat,” Neff added.

Having built up “paddling muscles” from years of float trips, the men never felt sore after a day on the river, just fatiqued—too tired to prepare dinner on a small camp stove.

“I was so tired after paddling all day long and setting up camp that if I couldn’t just boil water, pour it in a pouch [of instant food], stir it up and eat it, I wouldn’t eat,” Neff said.

“We built one fire the entire trip,” Keen said.

Snacks and stops for meals at riverside eateries kept the paddlers fueled. “It got to where we would stop at a marina or restaurant and eat cheeseburgers and french fries or pizza—or anything just to get calories in,” Neff said.

Even so, the pounds fell off both men as their expedition unfolded. Neff lost 15 pounds and Keen 25 in the first month.

“River angels,” following the men’s progress on Facebook, offered meals, showers, lodging, re-supply runs and even laundry service. Neff and Keen gratefully accepted their hospitality and stayed overnight with more than a dozen kind strangers.

Throughout the trip the men stayed in contact with their wives, “the two Sharons.” In early July, they all enjoyed a weekend reunion in Hannibal, Mo. The women found their husbands to be bearded, tanned and trim—and happy.

During a stop in Memphis, Keen visited Dale Sanders, who in 2015, at age 80, became the oldest known person to canoe the entire length of the Mississippi River. Neff was able to surprise his father at his 90th birthday celebration. Neff himself was surprised later by a visit from daughter Jennifer at Vicksburg.

The July heat cranked up as the paddlers continued southward, but their main concern was the increase in river traffic. Throughout their journey they had encountered towboats, barges and high-powered pleasure boats without a major incident. They used a VHF marine radio to communicate with towboat captains and found most to be polite and professional. A few offered the paddlers cold drinks and good wishes.

But from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and beyond, they traveled through one of the largest port systems in the world. Huge freighters, tankers and cruise ships towered over their canoes, making passage unnerving in some areas. “The thing is they were so fast and quiet,” Neff said. He used an app to identify commercial craft in the areas they paddled.

The paddlers finally escaped the busy shipping channel near the river’s mouth, where it branches into three separate waterways before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. “Surprisingly, when we got to the end of the river, it was like paddling in molasses,” Neff said. “You really had to paddle hard to get in 40 miles. And we were pretty well able to paddle hard by the end of the trip.”

The paddlers’ Facebook page lit up with hundreds of congratulatory messages after they posted a “mission accomplished” photo on Aug. 2: Standing beside their boats on a shore south of Port Eads, La., Keen grins while Neff raises both arms in jubilation.

The men’s long journey ended well due to their extensive preparation, paddling experience and vigilance in remaining alert to their surroundings and river traffic.

They returned home to the Delta with thousands of photographs, good memories and muddy boats. Neff, who is also an artist, has since based several paintings on their river photos. Both men have shared their river experiences in presentations to civic and church groups and by exhibiting their art and photography.

The 58 days they spent together paddling the river were physically draining, and the nights hot and humid. Comforts like showers were few and far between. Still, their friendship survived the journey intact.

“We were friends before and we’re friends after,” Neff said. “It was a good experience.”

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