A lot has changed on the river since Mark Twain wrote “Life On the Mississippi” in the early 1880s. A lot, however, has remained the same.

The 2,000 mile stretch from St. Paul, Minn. to New Orleans still contains much of the wilderness Twain saw when he traveled upstream to chronicle the demise of the steamboat. Much of the urban growth along the river is hidden from view behind the levees built to protect it.

Channeling Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Windsor native Zach Gray decided to travel America’s most vital waterway in a canoe rather than a raft to envision what Huck and Tom might have encountered.

An unemployed teacher with some time on his hands, Gray’s stated reasons for the trip were simple.

“I really enjoy canoeing and I really like camping,” he said. “It was a good long trip.”

In all, Gray’s trip lasted 72 days, six of those spent not paddling because of bad weather. Gray, 28, and an Erskine Academy graduate, put his canoe in the river on Sept. 25 and took it out for good Dec. 6.

Gray’s transportation — a Discovery 174 Old Town Canoe, 17 feet, 4 inches in length and built for two — was purchased online.

“I flew into St. Paul and I looked on Craigslist,” he said. “I asked (the sellers) if they could pick me up at the airport and drop me off at the river and they did.”

Gray canoed the Kennebec River last fall from Waterville to Popham, but had attempted nothing like this. A former assistant swim coach at Colby College and history teacher at Penquis High School, Gray seized what might be a one-time opportunity.

“I’m looking to get back into education,” he said. “That’s partly why I took the trip. I thought I might never get another chance to.”

Along the way, Gray saw thousands of bird as well as assorted wildlife, visited the Fields of Dreams of movie fame in Dyersville, Iowa, Twain’s house in Hannibal, Mo., just missed the World Series parade in St. Louis, and spent a couple of days in New Orleans.

These stops, though, were exceptions.

“There are towns every 30 or so miles,” he said. “Generally it’s pretty remote.”

The river at some points is two-and-half miles wide, so Gray stayed pretty close to shore. There’s also plenty of boat traffic, mostly barges. Gray kept a journal and noted he saw 1,159 barges and went under 76 bridges. There are also 28 locks on the river to maintain water levels which vary from five to 38 feet.

“You pull the cord, a horn sounds and guys open the gate,” Gray said.

The locks are 110 feet wide and 600 to 1,200 feet long to accommodate the huge barges. But all boats have to go through them.

“The key is beating the barges,” Gray said. “Otherwise you have to wait.”

Gray ended up paddling eight to 10 hours a day, much of that against the prevailing wind which blows north in the fall. The longest stretch he paddled in one day was 54 miles.

“A lot of times it was stronger the current,” he said.

Gray carried all the food and water he needed in his spacious canoe. He ate a lot of Pop-Tarts, oatmeal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Hungry Man Soups. In his journal he noted he consumed 15 pounds of sunflower seeds.

Gray camped at ferry landings or campgrounds along the way. Showers were few and the river was not only cold but quite dirty.

“You can’t see your hand in the water,” he said.

He did manage to prevail on a few people for showers and noted he sneaked into four hot tubs.

Gray saw over 100 eagles in a stretch of the river in Iowa and visited Twain’s house in Hannibal, taking particular note of the replica white picket fence Tom Sawyer coaxed his friends into painting. He arrived in St. Louis a day after the parade celebrating the Cardinals in the World Series.

“I’m a huge Red Sox fan but I was rooting for the Cardinals,” he said.

He encountered a Scottish traveler after stopping on an island in the river because of high winds. They were stranded 31/2 days on the island and their tent kept blowing over, once almost dragging his new friends into the river. Once they got under way, it rained for 31 straight hours, which meant camping when wet.

“It was pretty cold,” Gray said. “It was late November.”

Gray’s layover allowed him to meet up with Ryan Emerson of North Carolina, a cannier who happened to be about two days behind him the whole way. They met the day before Thanksgiving and as it turned out, dinner for the special day landed in their laps.

“An Asian Carp jumped right into his canoe,” said Gray, who had limited success fishing for Catfish along the way. “We ended up having Asian Carp for Thanksgiving dinner.”

The new friends paddled the rest of the way to New Orleans where they met Ryan’s family and hung around The Big Easy for a couple of days. The Emerson’s agreed to take Gray’s canoe back to North Carolina and suggested another canoe trip.

“I plan to go in February,” Gray said.

Gray swam in high school and continues to compete for the Maine Masters team. He flew back to Boston in time for the New England Masters meet Dec. 9-11. Maine won the met and Gray swam in 19 events.

“I did OK in the distance events,” he said, noting his arms were quite strong. The shorter events were a problem since his legs had no kick from sitting in a canoe for more than two months.

“The biggest thing is I scored points for the team,” he said.

Gray said he’s considering a possible trip on the Missouri.

“I would probably do it in a different type of boat,” he said. “A kayak because it’s much faster.”

Gary Hawkins — 621-5638

[email protected]

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