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Dog Paddling the Mighty Mississippi
From Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico—river life with a dog.
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Natalie paddles in the morning mist; Tischer curls up between Lucas’ legs;
Natalie paddles in the morning mist; Tischer curls up between Lucas’ legs;

Tischer’s travel plans were solidified the moment my feet hit the beach. She had gained more than 10 pounds, spending much of the previous 97 days lying in the sun behind wooden bars, taunted by squirrels on my parents’ deck instead of running, swimming and cuddling with me.

She had been staying with my family because there was no way she’d ever sit still in the back hatch of my sea kayak for 1,200 miles. My 2010 expedition on Lake Superior wasn’t meant for a canoe, and a medium-sized dog wasn’t meant for a sea kayak.

Still, she was jaded, and it showed my first night back when she snubbed me, opting to sleep on my brother’s bed instead of mine. I promised her that on the next big trip, she was coming with me.

The Mississippi River is barely as wide as a 16-foot canoe when it leaves Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. It was an especially shallow stream in early September 2013 when, for our first two days from the river’s source, I walked, dragged and lugged our heavily loaded canoe over beaver dams and through thick beds of wild rice. Tischer waded inquisitively between the banks, rock hopping and investigating long strands of vegetation curving gently in the soft current. As she explored, she only once looked up as she stood beside me midstream in only four inches of water, to see me sweating and exhausted.

Our goal was the Gulf of Mexico, 2,320 river miles downstream. Between here and there, we would paddle through a cross section of American culture. The river’s volume and use would increase; the distance between her steep, muddy banks would eventually widen; and the occasional bass-fishing boat would give way to barges the length of 5 football fields.

From the moment I started planning this trip, my main focus and concern was Tischer. Her experience would be different than mine. Life on the river was more likely to include long naps, big meals and lots of watching.

In the last of the fall warmth, Tischer eventually settled into the routine of being on the water. After two weeks of eating, sleeping and paddling outside, she began to adjust—or maybe she was just too exhausted to resist the program any longer.

She was my guard dog, instinctively spending her nights sleeping lightly, on alert for threats in the forests where our tent was tucked. Luckily, naptime came often during the many hours of paddling each day.

For the first 500 miles, the river, flanked by homes and docks, was frequently shallow and calm enough for her to wade alongside me. Below the Twin Cities, she found segments of uninhabited, vegetation-thick shoreline, and would run parallel to me, climbing over stumps or briefly swimming around thickets that extended into the river. After St. Louis, when the flow tripled, low water conditions presented miles-long sandbars, perfect for camping and unhindered running.

When hunter’s guns were silent and it wasn’t raining, her favorite spot in the boat was on top of the deck cover, which spanned the width of the bow. She rested here on her personal hammock, watching the changing landscape and feeling the rhythm of my paddle strokes. (She also took an accidental swim from this perch, flopping into the current as the result of an ill-placed paw at the 1,000-mile mark.)

She was normally calm and quiet, so when she started squirming or staring at me, I knew she needed a break from the boat. One time, in a hurry to get ashore, she launched off the bow seat toward the mud, punching a hole through the seat’s cane weave with her paw.

As reward for her tolerance and enthusiasm, whenever I ate out, so did she. At a riverside brewpub in Iowa, an unsympathetic server wouldn’t let me order a cheeseburger from the kid’s menu for her: “If you aren’t ordering it for your kid, then you can’t order it!” I begrudgingly relented and asked for a second burger special. Like the rest of the meals we shared—cheesy hash browns, egg sandwiches, pasta dinners—it was worth it, and it was our way of celebrating our effort together.

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