Illinois man kayaks down Miss. River solo

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 7, 2010

NATCHEZ — When a tan, young out-of-towner walked into the Under-the-Hill Saloon last Sunday with his jeans rolled up mid-calf, regulars might have been tempted to peek outside to check for Jim on a raft down at the docks.

Huck Finn would not have been too far from the truth.

Elgin, Ill., native William Lytle stopped in Natchez during a 2,350-mile trek to possibly become the youngest person to kayak down the Mississippi River solo.

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He completed his journey Thursday evening in the Atchafalaya River.

He spent the self-proclaimed best 50 days of his life cramped, dirty, sore as ever, sleep-deprived and alone.

Lytle said he is the youngest person to make the trip down the river as far as he has heard from others, although there is no way to be certain.

Local kayaker Adam Elliott put up Lytle and his brother Joe Sunday night.

“He has a lot of spirit, he’s pretty focused and dedicated to what he’s doing,” Allen said of Lytle.

Joe has been driving his car along his brother’s route to play his role as “leader of (Lytle’s) support crew.”

Allen said the average mileage most kayakers travel in a day down the Mississippi is 40 miles.

Lytle said longest length he kayaked was 102 miles from Greenville to Vicksburg.

The long stretch meant sitting down in his kayak for 14 straight hours, Lytle said. At another point he said he paddled for 26 straight hours.

As a result, Lytle said his body has gone through some bizarre transformations.

“I have a six-pack on my lower back,” he said.

Lytle said he also lost 15 pounds early into the trip, which came from leg muscles.

To keep things interesting on the water, Lytle said he rides the wakes of barges, eddies and dikes. He also whistles and makes up songs.

Having his brother keeping tabs on him ensures a safer trip.

If cell phone service is bad, they sometimes find each other by tying a tie-dye sheet to a landmark, or Joe turns on his car’s headlights.

“If I wasn’t doing this I would probably be doing something a lot more dangerous,” Lytle said.

For example, Lytle said he is often completely alone in his wilderness pursuits, such as hiking.

A student at Michigan Technical University majoring in wildlife ecology and management, Lytle took the trip to explore the unfamiliar southern wilderness.

“I wanted to do a big adventure, and I wanted it to be linear,” Lytle said.

He said traveling down the river was a satisfying goal because he could visualize what he accomplished.

“And I wanted to see the alligators and bayou,” Lytle said.

Lytle said after leaving Natchez and heading toward the Atchafalaya River he was warned he would see plenty of alligators, and several sets of red eyes that popped up on the water at night confirmed it.

What did he think about his first trip to the south?

“It’s very hot. But the people have been really hospitable,” Lytle said.

He also said he was surprised that 90 percent of the area he paddled through was “true wilderness.”

“It’s really beautiful and everything is green and blooming.”

It has been a rough ride, including record-high temperatures, possible hypothermia in Minnesota and a few fingers that are “probably broken.”

After completing his journey, Lytle knows what his immediate plans are.

“I could use a couple showers, and a lot of sleep. I’ve built a significant sleep debt,” Lytle said.

But as young man who lives off of extremes, Lytle enjoyed every bit of his adventure.

“It was probably the best six weeks of my life.”

Several gear sponsors, individuals, and Lytle’s local public library made his trip possible.

His Web site includes a list of sponsors and a journal of the trip, which is part of the summer-reading program the Gail Borden Pubic Library.