Missed Part 2 of the Joey Cargol series (click here to read Part 2)

Joey Cargol had been told by many people along the river to watch for huge gyres and whirlpools. Towboat captains had warned of certain bends like Fountain Bluff, Victoria and Nebraska Bends, all famous for their treacherous passage and where even large boats had had trouble. As a pilot he had seen gyres many times looking down from the wheelhouse of a ship, but now in a 15’ wooden canoe all alone in the river, he was in a life and death struggle in the middle of one.

Despite his furious paddling, the whirlpool pulled his canoe into its clutches. “The sound of the water being sucked down grew louder, but all I could focus on was paddling away with everything I had.” As the sound grew closer, he dug deeper with his paddle and pulled harder. As he stabbed his paddle into the water and yanked back with all his might, the paddle lost all resistance, caught no water and almost flung out of his hands.

Losing his balance he fell to the deck of his canoe looking over the side and into an abyss of disappearing water. The canoe was violently flung over, listing and spinning across the river but away from the whirlpool. Somehow he managed to catch it on the beam of his canoe and skirt right over the top without falling in.

“If my bow had gone first, I would have surely plunged into its depths and may still be down there looking for Davy Jones’s locker. It shot me spinning off, unbalanced and completely discombobulated to my surroundings. I immediately regained my bearings and paddled out of the boiling cauldron as fast as possible and out of the way of the tows, which no doubt at this point had to be wondering what in the heck I was doing!’’ 

Luck had rarely been on his side, but thankfully it was that day! Once past the danger and able to stop and collect himself, Cargol realized he had gone through Fountain Bluff between two large tows, no doubt making a bad bend even worse. He was badly shaken. “I made sure to know where I was at all times after that. I did everything I could to not have a repeat of that.”

He was fast asleep that night when the BNSF railway decided to give him a wake up. “When that horn blew, I honestly believed I had set up my tent on the tracks and was soon about to be the flattest man on this earth or the next. Regardless, after the third or fourth train, and I swear they ran that train like the nations entire economy was dependent on it, I fell asleep.”

The next day he got underway less than rested. He reached Cape Girardeau and with the help of kind strangers was able to resupply with ice and water. Cape Girardeau is a beautiful river town with impressive murals painted along its flood wall telling its long amazing history. As he paddled out, he was getting closer to the confluence of the Ohio River and the current he longed for! Excitement propelled him!

“The morning of July 15 started off great as I packed up my campsite, rested and in good spirits. I should have known however, that finding my canoe on dry ground was a sign of things to come. The river had dropped another 8” overnight.”

When he reached Fort Defiance Park, he climbed up the bank and onto the observation tower, looked out where the two rivers met. He went to the confluence and climbed up expecting to see a turbulent mess of water as the two collided. It was not! He found it smooth, almost like glass. With a reason to be positive though, he was leaving another state behind. Illinois was gone and Kentucky lay ahead. The good vibes were very short-lived.

“Instead of gaining speed as the laws of physics would have suggested gaining another river, I lost 2 mph. I had waited 40 plus days for this moment, but the current just wasn’t there. Not gonna lie, after taking pictures at the confluence, the novelty of the moment wore off. The realization that this was all the current I was getting until I reached the Gulf of Mexico hit really hard. The two rivers normally flowing hard had widened out this stretch and was so low, it could barely fill its banks. After a brief pity party, I got back to paddling.”

James Bridge and Joey

He reached Hickman, Kentucky at sunset where the Bridges family found him on the banks and offered him a place to rest at the West Hickman Baptist Church. When their previous church building burned down, a volunteer group named Carpenters for Christ came in and rebuilt the church bigger and better. The congregants paid forward the kindness shown them by offering shelter to weary travelers. 

He got underway the next morning, showered, rested and resupplied.  

Though all signs were positive, Mother Nature was preparing to throw him another curve.

“No way to sugarcoat it, so I’m just gonna say it. This was the WORST day of my trip!”

He bucked the wind all day with gusts that just stopped him and blew him upriver. He was battling the wind when he reached New Madrid, Missouri. It was unrelenting, forcing him inside an island that runs a long bend. He didn’t want to go that way as it was longer, but the wind had other plans and kept pushing him. Finally he relented and took that path down the river.

“I finally succumbed to the wind and though still bucking the wind there too, I made it around the island. Surprise! The Army Corps of Engineers had built a dike across the river with a 4’ rocky waterfall on the other side. There was really no way to portage, so after assessing it, I decided that trying to run the waterfall was certain death. I was then forced to paddle back upstream and around the island where I had previously failed.”

It was excruciating for him, already beat before he even started that unrelenting trip back, wasting the rest of the daylight. He felt physically and mentally broken.

“I set up on a sandbar, the only place I could find and spent the night in a tornado warning with 30-40 mph winds. When I woke up the next day, my tent was shredded with an inch of sand blown into it. If I was ever going to quit this trip,” Cargol said, “this was the day!”

Kentucky was just a flash, and early the next morning he crossed into Tennessee. The morning was overcast and cool, but around noon the clouds lifted and the heat index was up to 110°. He met friends of a friend in Caruthersville who showed up with ice, water and a hamburger. Just down the river the sky turned black so it didn’t take much to convince him to stay the night.

He reached Arkansas on the 17th of July and that other great gyre, Nebraska Bend. “I met the tow Frank Johnson while he was coming out of the bend. Even pushing 15 barges, he was having a heck of a time. It wasn’t as bad on me as Fountain Bluff had been, but it was still bad!”

Justin Horton with the Mississippi County Sheriff’s Office and his son Wyatt had been following Cargol down the river on his Facebook page and went to check on him. “He had brought me a well-timed hamburger and we talked for a while. I should’ve stopped there for the night, but plunged ahead. Shortly after leaving in the midst of bad currents all around me, a huge lightning storm engulfed me. The rain was so thick I was unable to see anything or get to the bank and the lightning never stopped. I spent two hours lying on the floor of the canoe praying I didn’t get run over by a tow, zapped by lightning or sucked into a whirlpool. It was traumatizing.”

Joey and his family

Nature relented the next day. Below Nebraska Bend the current picked up and the skies cleared. “I felt like I was flying, though I was only going 6 mph.” He made a personal best that day going 65 miles, reaching Memphis, Tennessee where his wife and kids were anxiously waiting for him. He hadn’t seen his family in almost 50 days and took the day off to spend time with them.

On July 20, he got underway again leaving Tennessee and into Mississippi. He was in the south now, and the heat was cranking up. “The heat index stayed above 100 and I spent all day in it, day in and day out, with no shade and no breaks. I went through my water fast.” Running low on supplies Cargol found himself in dire straits.

Capt. Robert Deluca and the crew of the Capt. Gregory Smith

Salvation came in the form of a river closure. Victoria Bend had silted in and the Army Corps of Engineers closed the river to dredge it. The ACBL tow, Capt. Gregory Smith, was pushed into the bank waiting for the river to reopen. Its skipper, Capt. Robert Deluca and her crew invited him onboard and resupplied him with fresh fruit, water, ice and Gatorade.

“I was in a real jam. Those guys really saved me whether they know it or not. That is one of the least inhabited stretches of river, and there was no place to get supplies. I will never forget their kindness. In addition to stocking me up, they brought me into the galley for a hot lunch, a real treat on the river.”

The Dredge Hurley was dredging the channel when being so small, Cargol decided to try his luck and shoot the gap. With tows stacked on both sides of the river he shot through. Despite the massive current boils and whirlpools, he was propelled to 12 mph though that didn’t last but half a mile. He reached Greenville, Mississippi on the verge of a heat stroke. It was so hot every gas station in the city was out of ice. He got the biggest frozen slushy he could find and cooled off.

That night, rain pelted his tent, wind blew it in up under the rain fly, lightning lit up the sky. Didn’t take long for the tent to have at least an inch and a half of water in it. Too tired to care, he just rolled over and slept. The morning presented its own problems with a rainwater filled canoe that had settled on the shallow bottom and wasn’t budging. He spent 45 minutes pumping it out, with drenched gear to top it off.

“The heat and humidity was unrelenting and I knew I was getting closer to home.” He left Arkansas and crossed into Louisiana on July 24. “It was a very special moment for me, I love the great state of Louisiana!”

The official “Louisiana Welcoming Committee.”

Louisiana however, was not so welcoming. The outer most feeder bands from Hurricane Hanna ripped straight into him. First it was just wind, then the skies opened up and it poured buckets. Not easy at all, but he was able to paddle 53 hard-earned miles.

Chris Villere, a good friend of his has a camp just south of Vicksburg on the Louisiana side of the river where Cargol was hoping to spend the night. “I had motivation to get there to see my friend, but when I arrived he had set up a welcoming party to greet me.” His immediate family as well as cousins and friends had gathered to see him for the first time back in Louisiana.

“We cooked, drank, talked, laughed and had an all-around great time. You don’t realize how lonely you are till you aren’t anymore. I knew I had a ways to go to finish the dream, but it was starting to feel like home again.”

*All photo’s credit of Joey Cargol


Part 4 (last part) of Joey Cargol’s story will come out Wednesday, September 9 at 9am.