A River Eulogy: Paddling to Heal
Updated: Apr 15, 2022
Upper Mississippi: 1340 miles + Lower Mississippi: 953 miles + Delta to Gulf: 13 miles = 2306 MILES PADDLED
The final push. Blue skies, stiff wind, even stiffer hands. I am repeating “calm waters never made a strong sailor” in my head over and over again. We pass the Head of Passes mile marker 0 without registering it was THE final marker since there wasn’t a 0 on it. We carry on. We’re too tired to go back for it and the current kicks up here. The ocean beckons anyway. Tall grass sprawls out in every direction and, for the first time, a horizon line feels within reach; the vegetation thinning out the way our hair thins in old age. Makes sense that the land might show some signs of wear with 2300+ miles of water draining into this delta. I imagine the stump at the end of the story “The Giving Tree” having given as much as she could for the little boy that she loved so much. The tall grass did the same: providing us some protection from the wind. The last gift she could give before we went for the sea.
Almost four million paddle strokes and 2306 miles behind us, we arrive. To the place that symbolizes both an end and a beginning. Giddy. Amazed. Proud. Somber. Relieved. We bathe in a wave of emotions as powerful as the ones that crash before us. How do you take it ALL in? And then how do you pull away? How do you celebrate your success while grieving the tragedy that you did it all to honor? My heart feels like it could burst trying to make room for it all. But I think the vast expanse before us sent a message of its own: Release.
Starting in August 2021, my father and I paddled the length of the Mississippi River, in a tandem canoe, as a way to commemorate the victims of Covid-19.
What started out as an idea to go on a week-long hiking trip to celebrate his 61st birthday evolved into a 100-day memorial ceremony down the world’s fourth-largest watershed and the United States’ economic and geological backbone. My father, Scott Armacost, a Navy veteran, and trumpet player, played the military funeral hymn “Taps” at sunset every night. I live-streamed the performance to our Instagram page so that anyone could participate in our moment of recognition. We invited our followers, friends, family, and strangers to share the names of anyone they knew who died due to Covid-19 so we could dedicate that night’s performance of “Taps” to them.
As we were planning for this journey, we were in the throes of the pandemic and still reeling from its unpredictable and divisive repercussions. For me, the thought of re-entering society was overwhelming. I, like many people, had lived a hermit-like existence for the last year, disconnected from community, and growing numb to the increasing number of fatalities splashed across the daily headlines. I was dominated by a feeling of helplessness. But the idea of doing a paddling trip, with my father no less, posed an opportunity for deep reflection that I was eager to immerse myself in before trying to regain some semblance of a “new normal.”
For some context, I was first introduced to canoeing as a teenager. Though completely against my will, my dad sent me away to a wilderness tripping summer camp in northern Minnesota. As a city kid who grew up doing theater and choir for extracurriculars, I had never challenged my body and mental fortitude the way I did on my first 10-day canoe trip in Wabakimi Provincial Park, nestled in southern Ontario. Why anyone would ever subject themselves to the bugs, the portages, and the paddling – I could not fathom. That’s what I thought at first anyway. But it didn’t take long for it all to click. The camaraderie that developed within the team, the satisfaction of a hard day’s work, and the peace, clarity, and empowerment I found in the wilderness promptly won me over. I went back for the next ten years. Growing up from an angsty teenager to a young adult, I learned that paddling would always give me the time and the space to recalibrate. I knew that our time on the Mississippi River would be no exception.
Albeit, a small gesture in the grand scheme of things, paddling the river and playing Taps every night felt like something we could DO. Something to acknowledge our collective and individual loss. Something for ourselves. Something for others. Something to bring us together. The Mississippi River became the physical backdrop for doing so: a waterway that divides the US in half, running north to south, from Minnesota to Louisiana, while draining the rest of the Mississippi River Valley watershed which spans over 32 states and 40% of the continental US into the Gulf of Mexico. What better place to reflect than a river that flows through the heart of our country, elegant and contradictory, juxtaposing division and unity in its natural state. A place where we could meet somewhere in-between.
In the coming weeks, I will be exploring and reflecting on that “somewhere in-between” in a blog series here! Grab your virtual paddles and join me as we drift back down the mighty Mississippi River and unpack her many faces and stages, navigating compromise and grief and restoration while reckoning with my father, the water, the barges, and all of the memorable characters along the way.