How do you cool off when the sun’s wrath is upon you, at degrees that are above 110 degrees? Short answer, you don’t. You adjust as best as you can, but inevitably you have to accept sweat as part of it all. And not just droplets here and there, but buckets of sweat covering your body. We aren’t averse to sweating. If anything, we’re all relatively comfortable with being dirty and sweaty (maybe we have some hygienic issues from time to time). A keener question during these hot days is how to maximize our efficiency.
For starters, paddling at sunrise and sunset is a given. We maximize our time at the coolest parts of the day, which means waking up before sunrise. Next, we wear light clothes, covering up as much skin as possible while allowing breathability. Hats and bandanas covering our heads are essential (unless of course you already have a mat of hair to protect your neck). Water chugging is common: two liters of water per person are consumed every three hours or so. Besides these easy practices, we are still in the process of figuring out the rest.
Earlier in the trip, we were beholden to mileage and a timetable, so we basically paddled all day, regardless of conditions. During the stretch from Minneapolis to St. Louis, we probably took too few breaks. After the final lock and dam in St. Louis, we had a huge increase in current, so we decided that to maximize our efficiency we would rest in the heat of the day. We then started stopping from noon to five and would take naps under trees, check email, play cards, and prepare dinner and next morning’s breakfast. Even with five-hour breaks, we were still making fifty miles a day from St. Louis to Cairo.
After spending a week or so taking these breaks, we started to notice that we were still hot and sweaty, just not getting anywhere. At least there’s a palpable breeze out on the river, even if you are baking in the sun. There’s still an ongoing debate on what’s more effective: continuing to paddle at the heat of the day at a lower rate or conserving our energy on the bank and paddling hard during cooler hours. I joke pretty often how we sweat more during breaks than on the river. I’m for shortening our breaks, and we are already shortening them a little. The current keeps slowing down every day, so we need more time on the river. I can imagine that as we near the Gulf with a timetable, our breaks will only shorten.
That being said, we’re still unsure of how to maximize efficiency, of how to cool down well. We haven’t kept a consistent pattern. And that also includes our food intake and how often we snack. Big meal at dinner? Maybe at lunch instead? Snacks every two hours? Oatmeal only for breakfast? Yet, I think that’s the way it has to be. We have to take each day as it comes, learn from it, and adjust for the next day. You can make plans but you have to be flexible. We’re on river time. We’re at its mercy.
To conclude, I have one break story from the other day. We were in Death Valley’s riparian equivalent. The breeze was on and off, especially off when you turned bends that blocked it. When we were in these breezeless stretches, the scorching sun turned us delirious. A tug in the distance was indecipherable; we could not make out how many barges it carried or even which direction it was going.
We finally found a place to pull off, with some overhanging trees on a sandbar. We docked and all sank into the water, fully clothed. After spending some time just wading in it, I stuck my hand in the sand and noticed an unusual coolness. I reached deeper and deeper and it only got cooler. We had stumbled onto ice-cold sand! A product of groundwater springs, perhaps. We all sat there for at least 30 minutes, playing in it, putting it on our shoulders and necks. Another reminder that the environment and the river have two faces: they can be destructive or they can give mercy. On this day, we experienced both.