Published November 15, 2010, 07:00 AM

Paddle through it

765 strokes per mile. To pass the time during his paddle to the Gulf, Justin Staker did some math. He figured out how many strokes the 1,400-mile journey would take. So for two hours he counted them and determined he took 765 strokes per mile.

By: William Federbusch, The Republican Eagle

765 strokes per mile. To pass the time during his paddle to the Gulf, Justin Staker did some math. He figured out how many strokes the 1,400-mile journey would take. So for two hours he counted them and determined he took 765 strokes per mile.

After 45 days, he reached the Gulf of Mexico on Oct. 25. He calculated it took 1,071,000 strokes to reach his destination.

His story is as much about the people he encountered as the challenges he overcame, ranging from small nuisances such as bugs and heat to a major setback of unexpected fall floods and big, fat 12-to-14-foot alligators.

Staker's guiding principle and the name of his Facebook blog was "Paddle Through It." Although a trip down the Mississippi River may sound romantic, he dealt with many circumstances -- 20 mph headwinds the first day, a storm that destroyed his tent, fog that hindered his progress, unplanned scarcity of drinking water and just plain tiredness after paddling 8 to 10 hours each day.

President Calvin Coolidge once said: "PRESS ON - Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence."

Staker must have read that.

Planning and preparation were key to his success, however you can only plan so far.

Leaving Old Frontenac in late September was a thoughtful decision: mild weather, lower traffic on the river and a slender chance of flooding.

After paddling to a campground near Burlington Iowa, he had his trip stall. He was caught between two unexpected floods; one from the north with all the rain from Minnesota and Iowa and one a two-day paddle ahead of him in Hannibal, Mo.

"I could have probably proceeded, but with little margin for error, and being a solo paddler that is something I have learned you want to have as large as possible," he said.

In a matter of days his camp would be under water.

His had intended to complete this trip without any outside aid. However at the persistence of friends and family, he adjusted his expectations and accepted the assistance of his father, who drove down from Minnesota and provided a short portage around the flood.

The help gave Staker a chance to repair his kayak, which upon closer inspection had become a real safety concern.

After the portage, he resumed his journey, putting in just north of Alton, Ill., near U.S. Lock & Dam No. 25.

He faced another critical decision at Lock 26; the last lock on the Upper Mississippi is the preverbal "fork in the road."

"It's with some trepidation that I am going to put in here because the following day will probably be one of my hardest days of the entire trip paddling through St Louis. I have the option of going left down a narrow, walled shipping canal dealing with heavy tow traffic or go to the right and take the 'Chain of Rocks' route. There is a sign and tells all boaters to go left. ... However, I am a kayaker!" he wrote in his blog.

"This route actually can have some class 3-5 white water on it which does not work well with a fully loaded sea kayak. So my intentions are to paddle up to the rapids, then portage around the ... dangerous Chain of Rocks."

Portaging his loaded sea kayak is difficult at best, so when he got to this point, with the water higher than expected, there came a "defining moment" in the trip, portage or attempt to shoot the rapids.

With a deep breath, he chose to stay on the water and take his chances. He succeeded and as a reward soon saw the "Arch" rising over the city of St. Louis.

The Lower Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico becomes a different journey. No locks, a much wider and more powerful river, added commercial traffic and for the most part an unremarkable landscape. Lots of time to paddle and think.

"The challenges and the adventure I suppose are not over yet," he wrote.

The remainder of the trip was punctuated with a wonderful and generous diversity of people, weather ranging from beautiful day to and strong storms to fo. Along the way, he encountered many "supersized" barges -- seven wide by six long, 42 barges, a quarter of a mile long in one tow.

He paddled many days in solitude, so something as brief as a wave from a tow captain helped make the day.

The encounters he did have were with boaters and river people more than happy to share a lunch or dinner or warn him of perils ahead. The Coast Guard checked him out south of St. Louis. So impressed with his preparedness and knowledge, they radioed ahead to other units on the river.

South of Memphis, the Coast Guard again approached. They said they were informed to look out for this "squared away" kayaker.

Chuck, the manager of the marina at Mud Island in Memphis, commented he saw a lot of kayakers attempting this trip but hadn't seen someone so prepared. Chucked then warned him to be careful of black bears where he was camping.

"Last night it was cougars, tonight black bears, tomorrow night the boogey man," Staker wrote. "The sense of foreboding on this trip is sometimes a little over the top.:

Stroke by stroke in this unremarkable part of the river, Staker said he just enjoyed the moment, staying out of towboats' way and thinking about where to camp.

The solitude, the quiet and the sameness "let me get into my head."

Fast forward to last three days, perhaps the most harrowing and difficult, according to Staker. He planned to leave the Mississippi River just above Baton Rouge, La., and join the Atchafalaya River, which is the most direct route south to the Gulf.

Needing to go through a lock from the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya, he left before dawn knowing he had a 50-mile paddle to the next and only campground.

Shortly after leaving his camp he came upon the lock, only to encounter it closed for repair. An unaided portage was out of the question.

Now what, stopped dead in his tracks, he thought?

He saw four divers assembling to start lock repair. After a brief conversation and understanding Justin's dilemma, they quickly agreed to help him portage his weighed down sea kayak around the lock.

Now paddling the Atchafalaya, he has two more problem arises - a headwind and a current that is only 1 mile an hour compared to the 3 to 4 mph current on the Mississippi.

Doing some math, he realizes he has 40 miles to go and the sun sets at 6:30 p.m. He won't make camp before dark.

He was warned, adamantly, that this part of the river borders "private land." Don't even think for a moment about stopping or camping: The locals in this remote region do not take kindly to trespassers.

Couple this with alligators and snakes roaming the shoreline, there's no option of stopping - not even for a bathroom break.

Guiding principle No. 1 comes into play: "Paddle Here Through It".

So for the 12 hours straight, he paddled hard. Exhausted and barely able to see the river bank, he came upon the campground.

Befriended by a towboat crew, he joined them for pizza and beer.

With two days left, he launched early for another daylong paddle. After several hours, his spirits were buoyed upon see a large bed sheet draped over the riverbank: "GO STAK GO."

Two friends he met earlier on the trip had placed it there, knowing he would need encouragement.

His high spirits soon turned to high anxiety, however. What he saw next got his heart racing. On the riverbank 30 yards away was a 14-foot, 1,000-pound alligator slithering into the river.

He had been warned they can jump up to five feet in the air, and he sat four feet above the water.

So he proceeded as unobtrusively as he could. He passed without incident only to encounter several more alligators. He named the first one "Big Al."

With three hours left to paddle, he rounded a bend and heard someone yell "kayaker!"

In the distance he saw "The Yellow Camp" with several people waving him over. He paddled over to say hello.

A rather large family lives at the camp, only accessible by water with no phone, running water or electricity. However, the camp has a generator to power their satellite TV.

After visiting for a while, they invited Staker for dinner after which he thanked them and said he needed to get going to make his campground before dark.

"We have an extra room," they said.

Pondering the safety of situation, he accepted. After a good night's sleep, he thanked the family and left for the Gulf, his final day on the river.

So 1,400 miles from Frontenac at 3:50 p.m. Oct. 25, he completed his American Journey through the heartland, meeting his father in Morgan City, La.

With Wilson in hand, he "Paddled Through It".

Staker said the people on the river are what he will remember most. A subculture for sure, but they embody so much of the American spirit -- open, generous, hard working and always giving encouragement to press on.