Joey Cargol checked his bucket list in a big way when he paddled his canoe through 10 states for a roughly 2500 mile, 70-day adventure that started in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, the headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi to the river’s end and out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Growing up on the banks of the Mississippi, the river played a significant role in his life. As a boy, he often watched the tows and ships moving through the fast moving currents of muddy water. At night he could hear the horns and whistles of the boats moving the never ending supply of goods from around the world.
“I marveled at this great river, amazed at how it had begun from a stream small enough to be stepped over,” Cargol said.
The river never let go of him, led him to become a river pilot. He currently pilots large ocean-going ships in and out of the Port of New Orleans. His dream of seeing and canoeing the river in its entirety never left him.
As a lifelong Westbank resident the river has long weaved its way through his family. His parents and grandparents were from Gretna and his grandfather George A. Miller, was a ferry captain in Algiers and Belle Chasse. Cargol now resides in Timberlane with his wife Katherine Garrity Cargol and his four children Joey Jr. 10, Garrett 9, Patrick 7, and Nellie 3.
He planned his trip 30 years ago when he was roughly the age of his oldest son. Twenty years ago, he had purchased his now 73 year-old 1947 Peterborough handmade cedar strip canoe. Unfortunately, the time flew by and the years slipped away. He had hoped to complete the trip with his father Patrick M. Cargol Sr., who unfortunately passed away a few years ago. Last year, deciding to waste no more time he went to work planning the trip.
A few months before leaving, he stumbled upon a notebook he put together as a child. In it was the name and logo for the “Lil Injun That Could” and a loose plan to canoe the river. He threw away all of the plans he had made over the years and decided to make the trip just as he first dreamed it 30 years before.
“Believe me, it would’ve been a lot easier if I had used the plans I made as an adult over the plans I made as a child,” Cargol said.
He had to sacrifice the intended scientific expedition of performing a true and independent water study of the complete river system due to the expected difficulties of shipping and testing caused by Covid-19 shutdowns. He had also hoped to inspire others to get out despite social distancing and wearing masks and realize that you can still travel, explore, and get your hands dirty.
“Life is too short to waste even a single moment!”
The day he departed, Cargol reflected on the words of Mark Twain, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the things you did do. So throw off your bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.”
He had driven to Minnesota from Louisiana in a one-way moving truck loaded with his canoe and all his gear. The trip started off arduously enough, on May 31 he paddled the entirety of Lake Itasca, the lake that feeds the Mississippi River. At his campsite that night he discovered he was covered in ticks and that his container holding his potable water had ruptured. With hardly any sleep he departed the headwaters at 8:30am, June 1.
“There was very low water, mere inches most of the day. I felt like I was “Walking to New Orleans,” as Fats Domino would say. The river starts off around 10’ wide but narrows down to less than 3’. It was the exact width of my canoe, as I literally had to pull it through, it started much harder than I expected,” he said.
Within the first 72 hours, he found himself covered in ticks, leeches from head to toe, gnats, mosquitos, and, he had a pack of wolves chase a deer straight through his camp practically running into his tent.
“It was pitch black and I could see nothing. I could hear the wolves breathing mere inches from the side of my tent. I didn’t know if I should holler to try and scare them off or stay silent. My heart was beating so fast and loud I could hear and feel it. I couldn’t see a thing, but I could so perfectly hear every hair brush against my tent and I smelled them and their breath. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared.”
He said that although it didn’t last long, it felt like an eternity, but as quick as they came they were gone. Sleep didn’t come easy after that.
“Those first few days took its toll on my canoe as well. The second night, I camped in a swamp where the tent was practically floating. Timberwolves howled all night so I slept with a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other. Five more holes were punched in the canoe’s bottom and most of the varnish had worn off. That last stretch before reaching Bemidji was like a ball of razor blades and sharks teeth.”
“Water was pouring in everywhere, gushing through a hole in the hull. The canoe was in rough shape. With so many cracks and holes to patch, I decided to fiberglass her. Through it all God answered my prayers when I needed Him to,” he said.
“Bemidji is home to the mythical Paul Bunyan who “one day dropped a keg and it spilled out the Mississippi River.” Sounded true enough for me! With winds blowing 20 to 30 mph and seas 1-2’, he found himself trapped there. He decided to push across Lake Bemidji in dusk when the wind was at its lowest. Crossing Cass Lake wasn’t better and exhausted and miserable, he was somehow able to cross and was offered safe harbor on the other side of the lake by Chuck Savage whose family and friends exemplified “Minnesota Nice!”
He came across a true hero, Mickey Giovingo, a six-time deployed combat veteran who was severally wounded by an IED in Kurkuk, Iraq. The blast blew out all of his teeth and his hearing and caused other injuries. Mickey was paddling the river in a kayak he made himself to raise money for PAD, a group that gives service dogs to wounded vets. He is paying it back for the dog he received that helped save his life. “He is a hell of a good guy, oh and the best part, he’s from Arabi, Louisiana,” Cargol said.
The forecast called for no improvements in the weather. With the keel having been snapped twice on Cass Lake, and the fiberglass repairs busted and cracked, he limped into Becker’s Resort. Becker’s is a fishing camp that sits on the edge of Lake Winnibigosh the largest lake on the Mississippi River and one of the deadliest spots for recreational through-paddlers. They were kind enough to offer him a barn to repair his canoe in, outside of the elements.
The next morning offered a window of calm weather. As luck would have it he made it across as Tropical Depression Cristobal, the first tropical system to reach Minnesota in 200 years started to batter him. “I got as far as I could, but those dark clouds were fearsome and they were calling for hail.”
“Camping near Gambler’s Point, I had a run in with a bear and didn’t know it. That is until the next morning. I had slept soundly, but when I woke up I found my gear and bags moved all around, and there were bear prints in the mud. I packed up as fast as I could and got out of there.”
For the first time in days the wind was at his back and he made it to Grand Rapids, Minnesota. “June 10 was the second anniversary of my father’s passing and I spent a lot of the day thinking and conversing with him.”
That night he felt something wet on his feet. He pulled two fat over-gorged leeches off his feet. When he shook out his sleeping bag, he found two more. “You can’t imagine what it was like to fall asleep after that!”
“The upper river is like a ball of yarn,” Cargol said. “The river travels north, then east, even heading west a bit, but after nearly two weeks it finally made a turn to the south. The solitude of the river is one of its greatest assets. It’s weird because I paddled hard to achieve the next goal ahead of me, the next city, but actually couldn’t stand it when I arrived. Being one with nature is soul soothing. The longer you’re in it, the more the animals see you as one of them. The eagles stay on their branches, the ducks don’t fly off and the beavers stop swimming away. They just look at you curiously almost saying, “Ok, he’s been here long enough, we can trust him.”
For weeks the wind was ferocious. Unable to buck the wind and paddle around a point in the river, Cargol tried to pull his canoe from the bank, but he sank up to his waist in the soft mud. He ended up tying a rope around his waist to the canoe and swimming around the point. After going less than a couple hundred feet in nearly an hour, he decided to rig a sail to try and tack into the wind.
“If I couldn’t beat the wind, maybe I could use it. I was marginally effective at tacking, mostly slamming into the bank at 90 degree angles. At the end of the day, the last leg, I finally caught a tail wind. I guess that’s God’s way of telling me that I didn’t need to yell vulgarities into the wind.” “Language!” His mother Christine Cargol, told him. She said he needed to learn some southern slang, but Cargol responded that he is a sailor, and that comes with “some” entitlements.
After passing Crow Point, the wind blew straight into his face. He struggled as far as he could, but with the sun setting soon, and the wind not lying down he started looking for a campsite. Unfortunately, he was inside of Fort Ripley.
“When the sign says NO TRESPASSING, MILITARY TRAINING AREA, but the wind says you’re not going any further, you say a prayer, take your best shot and hope you aren’t taken prisoner. Right at dusk live-fire training exercises started and gunfire rained throughout the night. “I hoped at some point America would win and I could just get some sleep!”
Sometime around dark-thirty the loud thump of a helicopter’s rotors stopped and hovered over the river right next to his tent. With the wind whipping up the water against his tent, a blinding spotlight lit the night. Drats, there would be no more sleep for the foreseeable future!
*All photo’s credit of Joey Cargol
Part 2 of Joey Cargol’s story will come out Wednesday, August 26 at 9am.