Modern day Huck Finn is attempting record-breaking kayak trip down Arkansas, Mississippi rivers
Gene Davis is a man on a mission, one he feels compelled to complete to serve as a memorial to two of his children who died too young.
He recently spent two nights on the banks of the Mississippi River, just north of the Plaquemine Lock, while he made repairs to his “Huck Finn raft,” as he calls it.
Davis, 56, began what will eventually become about a 2,000-mile journey in April, leaving from near Boone, Colo., headed southeast on the Arkansas River until its junction with the Mississippi River, just south of Memphis, Tenn.
His website calls it “something that has never been done, a record-setting attempt, a solo kayak journey (from the) foot of the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf (of Mexico.)
“The driving passion” behind Davis’ death-defying mission is “in loving memory of those whose lives were cut short,Raven Marie Davis and Raider Gene Davis,” two of his four children.
Raider drowned at 22 about 13 years ago.
“It’s a pretty hazy – it’s not a clear memory,” Davis said. “I buried my head in the sand and pretended it wasn’t real.”
“In February of this year, I got the news that my daughter Raven had died,” he said later. “She was 36 and the mother of five. She went into the hospital complaining of flu symptoms and died the next morning.“
Feeling he was somehow responsible for their deaths, that there was something he could’ve done, could’ve said, that might have changed the outcomes, Davis decided on this memorial journey.
It’s turned into a much more challenging mission than he thought.
“After kayaking for about 10 years for fun, I thought I was an expert,” Davis said. “And for the first few days, it seemed like I was.”
“I started down the Arkansas from near its head and after a few days, I got to a point where it actually turns into a river and I found out really fast that I was not nearly as good as I thought I was,” he said.
“It’s not so easy as fully loaded as I was,” Davis said. “You only have a center of gravity that’s about the width of my head so your balance is incredibly precarious.”
Nevertheless, the adventurer made his way all to the Mississippi using just his kayak with no safety rigging, but quickly realized when he reached the Big Muddy he was going to need more stability.
“I’d been in places where when two barges past by, the wakes were 12 feet from trough to crest,” Davis said. “It’s scary as heck.”
“I made it all the way down the Arkansas with just the kayak in unmodified form,” he continued. “When you get to the Mississippi, though, this is a cat of a different feather altogether.”
“This river after just three miles tried to hand me my behind, so it was at that point I knew I had to do something different,” Davis said. “Pride be damned and the purists can argue with me all day, but safety comes first.”
So he spent half of a day scavenging the beach for materials to beef up his flimsy craft.
“I gathered up enough old rope, deadfall and driftwood and I built a Huck Finn raft,” Davis said. “It works, having all that debris strapped to my boat.”
“Samuel Clemens was right,” he continued. “You can just walk along the shore and pick up enough junk to go down the river with.”
Before he landed in Plaquemine, Davis had replaced the riff-raff debris with PVC pontoons filled with foam, but he still worries about his safety and pulls over every few hours to make sure nothing is leaking.
He has documented the sometimes harrowing trip in details – in journals, on maps – “daily records of everything,” including every town and port he’s passed, every campsite he’s used.
By necessity, Davis is traveling light. He has a tent, a cellphone, a laptop computer and a few supplies. He charges his electronics by solar power, but since hitting Louisiana, has only been able to keep his phone charged.
“I wake up in a fog bank every morning, then a gray sun rises and about the time it starts burning off the fog, the clouds roll in,” he said.
Davis’ trip will end in Venice, about 200 miles downriver from Plaquemine.
“I felt to do something in my children’s names that would be biblically difficult because all of my chances to do anything for them as a father were gone,” he said.
It’s been a journey of philosophical discoveries for the middle-aged man.
“If there’s anything you can do to make someone’s life a little easier, then it’s your duty to do all that you can to do it,” Davis said.
‘I’ve always been the guy who chased the money and pushed my family into the background and tried to be the fastest rat to win the race,” he said, adding he’s been working to improve the relationship he has with his two younger, surviving children.
“I’m going this to show them what I would do for them,” Davis said. “It’s not that I love the ones that are gone more, but they’re gone now. I can still do for the ones that are alive – I’m going to be a bigger part of the family.”
“If in doing this, I can inspire something in others then at least it will be more than a personal journal, a personal last gasp closer to do something for my late children,” he said.
Davis has invested all of his own money into the venture and is now making it on the kindness of strangers, either through individuals who has provided him with meals, money or material or through the gofundme account on his website, https://rokhamr.wixsite.com/website.