Book Review: Floating Down the Country

 

Floating Down The Country by Matthew Mohlke

Floating Down The Country by Matthew Mohlke

There is a great deal of literature regarding the Mississippi River.  A great deal of it has to do with the historical significance of the river and its place in the narrative of our country as a whole, but there is also a great deal of writing in the genre of travel literature.  I’ve always been an avid reader of books like My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, and Hatchet by Gary Paulson, and in some ways I think this trip is the fulfillment of my childhood dream of wandering off into the wilderness never to return.

Since I’ve got alot of time on my hands this semester, I figured I would dive head first into the travel literature surrounding the Mississippi.  As it turns out, just about every schmuck who finds their way down the river in whatever craft they choose feels it necessary to write a book about it.  

The first book I was directed to was Floating Down The River by Matthew Mohlke, who canoed solo from Itaska to New Orleans in 1999.  The summary on the back of the book says in part, “On Constant lookout for love and free meals days of peaceful solitude were broken by bouts of chaotic experiences as I strove to reach a moral plateau, but couldn’t avoid trouble along the way.”  In reading this book, I had the persistent feeling that Mohlke was paddling down this river in response to some troubling experience he had shortly before embarking on his trip.  In his writing he constantly hints at some sort of personal trouble at work or at home, and spends a great deal of his trip attempting to resist the temptations of weed, liquor, and other narcotics.  It seems that every town he comes by, he has to fight some sort of internal battle to resist going to the bar, which he rarely wins.  After a night of drinking like a fish, he wakes up the next morning swearing off booze and promising to live a more pure lifestly, only to be smitten by the next bar he comes across.

While this hinted at but never mentioned struggle does get tiresome to read about, the book is well suited for adventures like Phil and myself, who are planning a similar trip.  Mohlke states at the beggining of the book that he has very little canoing experience, and as a result he pays great attention to the details of how he goes about paddling and the various obstacles that he encounters on the river.  The mental tricks, such as stroke pyramids (1-2-1-2-3-2-1-2-3-4-3-2-1…etc), are ones that I personally have found very helpful when paddling in the past, and his advice for avoiding things like wing dams, submerged walls of rock that the Army Corps of Engineers placed in the river to control its depth, provide insight to the challenges that Phil and I will be facing this coming summer.  Mohlke’s detailed approach to describing his experience going down the river provided a large amount of helpful information.

While the book was helpful, I have to say that as a whole this book was disappointment.  The end of the book really seemed as if Mohlke chickened out before completing the true goal of paddling the entire Mississippi.  He reaches the city limits of New Orleans, decides he has done enough and proceeds to throw all of his camping gear into the nearest dumpster he can find.  He then hitches a ride into town and proceeds to get completely blasted and spends the rest of the night thinking about how much of a failure he is.  And thats how the book ends.  No philosophical message, no uplifting conclusion to the positive narrative he had gone to such great lengths to provide, just Mohlke getting wasted and feeling sorry for himself.  

It really made me wonder what the hell Mohlke thought he was doing going down the river in the first place.  Did he really expect to magically become a brand new person after this trip, that the reason for life the universe and everything would magically appear to him the moment he hit the city limits of New Orleans?  Did he really think that he would become a whole new person without putting any effort into this change at all?  I felt like Mohlke expecting to become a new person without putting any effort into this change at all is the equivelant of lying down in a canoe at Lake Itaska, taking a 3-month long nap, and expecting to arrive at New Orleans without any effort on the part of the canoist.  

Just like getting to New Orleans, personal change doesn’t come overnight, and it doesn’t come easy.  Its something you have to consciously work at every day, and that is something Mohlke failed to grasp.  At New Orleans, Mohlke is the same person he was when he left Itaska because he made no conscious effort to change, he just expected the change to happen.  His inability to come to terms with this reality leaves the this book feeling empty and superficial, ending with the incredibly negative scene of Mohlke by himself in a bar drinking himself into a stupor, which I’m sure was what he was running away from in the first place.  Floating Down the Country leaves the reader with the distinct feeling that Mohlke viewed his time on the river as nothing but a waste of time, and it left me feeling deflated and depressed about the journey ahead of me, which is really not what I was looking for.  

So upon completion, in honor of Matthew Mohlke I downed two Vodka Cranberries and spent the whole night trash-talking his book, Floating Down The Country.  Douche.

I read this book as well, and I believe we are in no position to judge the outcome of Mohlke’s trip. Granted, it is apparent throughout the book that he is an alcoholic, as well as a troubled soul. He was also inexperienced and made the trip with women clouding his mind, but I feel that he provided some valuble insight to life on the river. For example, myself and Rich have both agreed to not stop in Natchez Mississippi. The events that took place there, are what triggered a long discussion about bringing a pistol or not. 

I feel he is not telling us all there is to tell, possibly even covering up an event that happened on the river. For example, he wrote vivid details as to the conditions of the boating traffic and turbulent waters between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. From nearly every report I have read, south of Baton Rouge is the most dangerous section of the river for recreation boaters (that’s us). The end seems suspicious to me because, he talks very positively about the river and the wonderful experience that it is, only to have it end abruptly just inside of the city limits of New Orleans and talk so bitterly about all he has experienced. . 

Could this be coicidence? I think not! Throughout the book he maintains his arrogance and disregards much valuble advice provided to him by wise old sea rats. To go down such an unforgiveing water way and not heed to atleast some experienced advice is down right reckless and irresponsible. I am left wondering if he may have realized the inherent dangers and pulled off the river at the soonest point possible.

Once we complete this trip and exit the river into the Gulf of Mexico, then and only then, will we be in a position to bash Mohlke and the decisions he made. It just may turn out that the section of river is tempting fate, but there is only one way to find out. 

Overall, I feel it has some valueble insight, it just has to be dug for. 

 

Fuck that.  I maintain my right to rail this guy out to the full extent of my ability.

 

“Come, come, you talk greasily; your lips grow foul”

  -Shakespeare

 

Incase that was too complex for you to understand, I shall now use Mark Twain to silence your squalid tongue by saying: “Shut up” 

“Kiss my ass”

-George Carlin

Why Can’t the two of you just get along? You both know this is going to end with one of you throwing me out a window, followed by the two of you going out for a beer while I needlessly suffer in a snowdrift. You’re both satanists!

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6 Responses to “Book Review: Floating Down the Country”

  1. matthew mohlke Says:

    hey..i really enjoyed your take on my book….thanks for your honesty……but everything you said was pretty much right on…..it’s ten years later now and i’ve had many other journeys..i’m still trying to figure it all out.maybe getting a tad closer now after paddling the miss for a second time(sober) and kayaking the parana and going down the amazon…..you must also be trying to discover something also if you are taking the time to paddle the big muddy…….i hope you the best in your adventure….just remember.everyone’s journey is different…..but sincerely….thanks for the insight…..

  2. huckleberryfinn09 Says:

    Wow, hi Matt. Phil and I are rather flabbergasted you found us. We would very much enjoy contacting you and hearing about your adventures first hand while we’re going down the river. We’ll drop you a line or give you a shout when we’re drifting past Fountain City.

  3. looking forward to seeing you…please feel free to contact me as in know how hard it can be to acquire supplies, find showers, internet, laundry ect….i’ll be watching for you…also…as a followup…i too felt guilty about some things in my book, like i’d screwed up a perfect trip….that’s why i paddled it again in 2002 in a kayak completely sober in only 68 days and went all the way out to mile zero at head of passes…10 miles downstream from venice and 3 days past new orleans…….

  4. huckleberryfinn09 Says:

    I must say that I have found a twisted sense of joy in seeing your post on our blog. I wish you could have heard the tone in Rich’s voice when he told me that you left a comment, it was a beautiful sound. I was skeptic at first, but having surfed your site we have decided to give you the benefit of the doubt. I will say that you are right, I know for myself I am on a quest to discover something that only an adventure can cure. I would be very curious to hear your thoughts after you had some time to reflect on your first trip down, it was well written and I felt like I was there with you. Many times you hinted at the purpose of such an endeavor, but you always came short of grasping whatever it was you were searching for. I hope you figured it all out, perhaps on one of your other adventures. If not, I hope your life has not been a paradox of sort. No offense intended. I am glad to hear that you are able to handle some criticism from two inexperienced voyageurs as ourselves, it speaks loudly of your character. I look forward to swapping a few stories and crossing out the blip of fountain city on our map. I do have one question however, how did you find out about our blog? I have a hard time finding it, just curious is all.
    Keep in touch
    -Phil

  5. […] Solo is written much differently than Mohlke’s book Floating Down The Country.  While Mohlke’s book was written more like a journal, taking notes of activities that […]

  6. Kari Johnston Says:

    It was the same weekend as 9/11. All air flights had been shut down and the wilderness was truly quiet. I heard an eagle’s wings as it flew overhead.

    I met Matt Molke that night on the shores of the Flambeau River. it was after midnight. I shot at him with my beebee gun as he stood by what can only be described as a mature fire.

    I later got a ride back upstream to my lonely campsite with two polite Wisconsin hunters. I could not start a campfire for the life of me so I slept alone in the dark Wisconsin wilderness.

    The next morning I walked down river to the little bar where I had left my canoe, paddled upstream to my campsite and got my supplies, then paddled back downstream as fast as possible to catch up with Matt.

    He was standing in his solo canoe, floating down the river, doing top-water bait fishing. He introduced himself in person and immediately took my fishing pole and rigged it accordingly. As we canoed over class-two rapids, I sat my pole aside and concentrated on not tipping over. He just continued fishing in his canoe, standing up as he went through the rapids. He was as fluid as the water.

    He slipped a corncob pipe into my tackle box without me knowing.

    I smoked sweet virginia tobacco in it by the campfire that evening. The earth shook out magic as he struggled through the thick forest collecting firewood. Each hard thumping impact reached me. I asked Matt why America was his favorite band. He said, “I’ve been to the desert on a horse with no name.” And I couldn’t help but laugh. I thought he might be referring to his time in the desert after his first Mississippi River trip when he made the decision to continue on. I think that is when the real responsiblilty of life my have hit him.

    Thank God Matt brought vodka and we drank it with powdered lemonaide.

    At 4 in the morning we headed to our separate tents and in the morning he restrung my fishing pole as I waded in the river near the campsite. A baby muskie did what looked like a shark attack to my toes in only inches of clear river water and later that day, Matt, the best fishing guide you could ever have, helped me catch a 43 inch muskie which we later revived and released into the wild.

    As we fished, paddled, and talked we compared stroke pyramids (1-2-1-2-3-2-1-2-3-4-3-2-1…etc) with the patting rythym I used to pat my baby boys butts so they would fall asleep quietly in their little cribs as infants. He seemed inthrawled by a mother who would do that and I believe he took mental notes and will use the technique if he ever chooses to have a family. My infants are now 20 and 23.

    We went through two class three rapids, one successfully. The second, Beaver Falls Dam, I followed Matt over. He had bothered to tie his fishing rod down, just in case… Unfortunately, the front of my canoe stuck on a rock, turned sideways, and filled up. I jumped out of my canoe and then floated under it and down the rapids feet first. Soon the canoe came barrelling after me but I was safe. Matt let me take his solo canoe (the one he had taken down the Mississippi) ahead to the boat dock. What a sweet ride! He cleaned up the river after me and got all of my gear back to shore.

    My point, nothing is for nothing. Matt grew from it all. I grew from his experience and my own. Nature elevates us.

    Happily married again and living in Phoenix… Kari Hi Matt!

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