Adventure, Interviews

Arriving in Memphis – Dave Cornthwaite’s Mississippi Paddle

First published in Sidetracked online adventure magazine 19 January 2012

“Board. Paddle. Bag’s on top. That’s it.” What a simple way to travel. 1,600 miles already stashed away under his belt and only the growing muscles in his arms revealed hints of the incredible adventure in process. The expression on his face was not to be expected for the man who undertook the challenge to paddle the entire reach of the Mississippi river. His face showed no sign of the weariness that must have existed in the monotony of the routine he had been following for the past 58 days. Instead, his mouth was etched in a crazy grin. He was on a high, but I guess no one in Memphis was surprised, it was Dave Cornthwaite after all, he was always on a high.

The start of his great Stand Up Paddle of the Mississippi had been a constant test of stubbornness. The first sixty miles involved battling through undergrowth, shallow waters, mild rapids, and narrow river’s. The weeks to come would see him pushing through Baton Rouge to the Gulf exhausted as he endured big storms and attempted to weave through the onslaught of traffic.

But this day was different to all the previous that had run their course and all that would follow. In an 82 day expedition this was the day that would swirl into focus whenever he reminisced on his great Stand up Paddle of the Mississippi. On the fourteenth of August 2011, he is floating twenty miles upstream of Memphis when an incredible sight materialises before him; a host of canoes, kayaks, stand up paddle boards, recreational motorboats and a news helicopter devour his line of sight. Each vessel is brimming with smiling people prepped to lead him in procession into their home town. These people are strangers there to play a small part in Dave’s epic tale, encouraging him to continue his voyage downstream with their smiles and their nods of admiration. But these strangers have also come for themselves because ironically it took a foreigner, an English man to show these locals what they had on their doorstep all along.

However, let us not be over sentimental, it was after all a party on water. An adrenaline filled kick up the behind to get Dave through the next leg of his journey. Hanging over the sides of the motor boats were the hung-over heads of the youth who had passed him the night before fresh faced and eager for a night on the beer. Beside them, lounging in the water were the grown ups, sober and alight with anticipation of the historic day ahead. The crowd that had assembled was a curious mix, one only found in the adventure world. It ranged from the 77 year old self employed businessman to the 14 year old child whose new hero is officially Dave Cornthwaite, bunking Batman off the top spot. A movement was bubbling, and Dave could feel it. The atmosphere was pumping, the excitement was tangible because no one knows how to have a good time quite like a 77 year old businessman. More importantly, It was the company after a long stint of isolation that made this moment worth celebrating.

The mighty river was bulging by this point, its rapid twists had morphed into thick winding strips, each loop stretching for up to five miles. Sand bars rose like private beaches on the inside banks, fitting for a day of 30 – 40 degree heat and just beyond the river sat a backdrop of cotton fields, dry farmland and miles of flat plains. This was the moment, the one that all adventures stubbornly chase. The hit that knocks them breathless and leaves them craving more. Dave knew it and he was revelling in it.

Every day he paddled between six to fifteen hours, then poured tirelessly over his videos, diaries, media engagements and lectures. It was not all lush pastures but a great deal of hard work. Days like this particular one were his reward, that extra chocolate digestive biscuit that your mother gives you when you prove yourself. The huge weaving path which the Mississippi river follows was a new part of the world for Dave to explore; “It would not be quite as fun if I knew where I was going, psychologically knowing that there are brand new scenes, people and experiences around every bend keeps up the incentive to paddle on.” In short, It was the grown-up version of a treasure hunt.

Dave Cornthwaite created this adventure on a sheet of paper that for a long time remained blank. Then one un-extraordinary day he sat down and faced it. He scribbled and sketched an idea on it and then on his own initiative he brought his creation to life. He built the expedition with his bare hands, then took a step back to watch the crowds flock towards it and watch as he lived out his dream. Credit has to be giving to the four organisations who worked together to make this day happen; the Wolf River Conservancy, Memphis Stand up Paddle Board Rentals, Ghost River Rentals and Outdoors Inc who since that day have continued to work together to improve the waterways in and around Memphis.

This fleeting moment in the life of Dave Cornthwaite made four organisations combine their efforts and rid a waterway of pollution, it made a crowd of locals realise their land and river’s potential and it made Dave Cornthwaite smile. Moments like these are the reason why adventurers do the amazing things that they do and why we, the ordinary folk read their stories in the hope that one day we will follow in their giant footsteps and embark on our own journey, even if it is only as far as our own backyard.


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