Friday, August 13, 2010



Yesterday’s (i.e., Thursday, 8/12’s) Chicago Sun-Times contained the tale of young Will Lytle of Elgin, IL who successfully kayaked all 2,340 miles of the Mississippi this summer. He started at the Minnesota headwaters on June 13 and reached the Gulf of Mexico on August 5, his mother’s birthday.

This is a great story, and it attracted me because it sounds like something I would like to do. I don’t mean by this that I want to kayak or canoe the Mississippi because my talents at any kind of boating are sub-minimal and to say that I am not much of a camper ludicrously understates the case, but I like to explore different places, perhaps off the beaten path kinds of places, meet new people, and explore and experience things most people would find boring (“What? No shaking rooms with 3-D films? No explosions? No lines? No restaurants with unpronounceable names that feature prices that bear a strong inverse relationship with the size of the portions? What kind of fun can that be?”) but that a student of history and geography would find intriguing. And Mr. Lytle is to be congratulated first for conceiving of such an adventure and second for completing it. My hat is off to him.

But I do have a question. The Sun-Times reports

And he did it with six days to spare and no maps or bug spray to stave off mosquitoes that attacked him and his brother, Joe, 26, as they slept. His brother drove a support van and camped out with him.”

The lack of a map does not seem like much of a problem; one would think that paddling down a river would not require a map. Perhaps his brother would require a map if he were trying to stay on roads closest to the river, but it would not seem like Will would need a map to stay on the river; it’s big, it’s wide, and it was right in front of him, beneath him, behind him, and next to him throughout the journey.

It would seem though, that lack of bug spray might be a big problem, but a problem easily solvable. The Mighty Mississip’ is not exactly out in the middle of nowhere; it passes through populated, in some cases heavily populated, areas. If the Lytle Brothers discovered after shoving off from Minneapolis that they didn’t have any bug spray, why didn’t they go into town (whatever town) and buy a can? One imagines that in many Mississippi river towns there is a town center, or at least a neighborhood, walking distance from the water. And the Lytle brothers had a van if visiting the nearest Walgreen's required a drive. Why couldn’t they just buy from bug spray? And, if they felt the need, pick up a map while they were at it?

Perhaps there is a macho element to kayaking the Father of Waters without bug spray, just like Father Marquette and Louis Joliet (if those two intrepid travelers ever made it to the Mississippi; my French colonial history is wanting). Perhaps there are separate Guinness Book of World Records (Would that the Almighty have mercy on us and strike any remembrance of that abomination from the face of the earth, but that is another issue.) records for kayaking the Mississippi with and without bug spray.

In any case, I am mystified by the Lytle’s failure to purchase, or pack, bug spray. Their, and especially Will’s, accomplishment would have been in no way minimized by this easy precaution. And I suspect Will, his brother Joe, and their mother, would be much happier, and more comfortable, right now had they packed, or purchased, the deet.

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