Michael Cherian reaches New Orleans with help from strangers, duct tape

NEW ORLEANS — During his 1,880-mile canoe trip to New Orleans this summer, Michael Cherian learned first-hand what it was like to be up the creek without a paddle.

In his case, however, the creek was the Mississippi River.

Cherian, rowing his customized canoe — dubbed “Steady Eddie,” in honor of his grandfather, the late Edward H. Burrows — to benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, reached his destination of New Orleans in September, but not before taking in a few more experiences once he finally reached the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

About 100 miles after reaching the Mississippi, Cherian noted that unlike the Ohio, the Mississippi is not separated by dams and locks that control water.

“The Mississippi is free-flowing from the confluence all the way down,” he sad. “On the Ohio, they use dikes and rock walls projecting into the water to control it and make it deeper in one area, so the boats can travel through and not get stuck.”

At this point on the trip, the Mississippi is about a half-mile to a mile wide, Cherian said.

“If you’re not paying attention, you can run into a half-mile dike in the river,” he said.

And on this particular day, Cherian — son of Dr. George and Lorraine Cherian — was not paying attention.

“One day, I was just daydreaming,” he said. “It was hot; I was sweating and had two three-gallon jugs of water. I just wasn’t paying attention.”
Once he heard the water rustling around his craft, he realized there was a dike ahead.

“So I tried to paddle really hard to get to the channel, and I hear, ‘Snap,’ and the oar is bent to the right,” Cherian said.

He leaped to rear of the canoe to grab a canoe paddle to reach the channel and avoid the dike. That didn’t work out, as he traveled over
two dikes and nearly a third before he realized that he was a little more than a mile away from where he needed to cross to reach the channel.
“So that night, I spent on a sand bar,” he said. “I guess it could have been worse. I was sitting there, with no phone reception, no radio, I haven’t seen anyone for 50 miles in either direction, and I’m stuck on a sandbar in the middle of nowhere without a paddle.”

With some rope and duct tape — “Don’t leave home without it,” he wrote on his blog — Cherian was able to at least make his broken oar a bit usable again, but still had to reach the channel. That meant traveling a mile from the sandbar — even with the broken oar — and then dragging the craft about two miles upstream to reach the current.

That two-mile trek took half the day, he said.

“It was some of the hottest weather so far,” Cherian said. “The air wasn’t moving, and it was still 105 degrees easy, and that’s without the heat index.”

That was the first time Cherian heard the sound “snap” during that week. The second “snap” came when a supporting piece on one of the canoe’s pontoons broke as he was trying to keep his craft from being overtaken by seven-foot waves as a fully-loaded tugboat with 35 barges was approaching from upstream.

“That scared me half to death,” Cherian said. “It was definitely the scariest moment of the trip, when I think back to it.”

On his blog, he wrote, “Now truthfully, I thought I was going to die. I thought if the firm support to this pontoon breaks off, I am going for a swim.  I am a very good swimmer but never tested my strength against seven-foot waves, current, eddies and undertow ... Thank God the other support did not break off, and the pontoon stayed mostly in place through the rest of it. The really weird thing was when I got out of it, there weren’t any waves.”

While Cherian said he preferred rowing the Mississippi River instead of the Ohio, it was this experience that made him understand the legend of the Mississippi.

“On the Ohio River, there’s people,” he said. “On the Mississippi, you very rarely find people. People on the Mississippi build high-up cabins. They realize that the Mississippi doesn’t fool around. It will reclaim the land; it will take it back.”

The people who are near the Mississippi treat it with reverence and in some cases, fear.

“Some people, they have never seen the river or never put a foot in it,” Cherian said. “They’ve never touched it or had anything to do with it. They all have had people live by the river, people work on the river, and have always heard of people dying on the river. A lot people don’t ever go on the river at all.

“I met a girl in Baton Rouge from south of New Orleans who said her mother used to threaten to leave her by the river,” he said. “That was the worst thing she could possibly say to her daughter.”

Cherian spent a few days in Memphis, Tenn. — “filled to the brim with barbecue places, and everyone says they have the best barbecue,” he said — for some much- needed repairs on his oar and the canoe by strangers before trying to reach to Baton Rouge in four days.

“I traveled 200 miles, and I’d get lazy, do 30 miles, or something would happen, and the river was slowing down,” he said. “Getting 50 miles a day was extremely difficult. I’d wake before the sun and get on the water, ready to go. As the sun was just coming up, I was rowing. And when sun was going down, I’d just be getting to shore and setting up the tent. I lived with the sun.”

Mere miles from his destination, Cherian sought one of the last public docks north of New Orleans, because he didn’t want to dock in the city’s commercial docks.

“Nobody uses the Mississippi; it’s a business, from Baton Rouge the whole way into the Gulf of Mexico, with shipping traffic and big ships.
“After Baton Rouge, I would see sea-going vessels, but they were definitely not looking for anyone like me. So I figured I’d stop at the last place I could about 20 river miles north.”

A river mile is the measure of distance in miles along a river from its mouth, beginning at zero and increasing further upstream.

Reunited with his family and the trip completed, Cherian, however, did not reach his $5,000 goal for the Fox Foundation.

When asked if that bothers him, he said, “It does and it kind of doesn’t. But I have other things to worry about right now. To me, it’s done.

“The beautiful thing about the Mississippi was, I always had somewhere to stay: My tent, there were always sandbars,” he said. “It was just quiet, no people. I was alone with my thoughts on the sandbar.
“The Mississippi was a wonderful trip,” Cherian said. “I definitely would do it again.”

You can still read about Cherian’s journey on his blog,
http://rowingforparkinsonsdisease.blogspot.com, where you can also learn how to donate to Team Fox for Parkinson’s Research.