At home on the Mississippi|[4/15/05]

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 15, 2005

The mighty Mississippi River is known for its unpredictable currents and whirlpools, and both are luring Sam McLemore of Port Gibson to venture in the water in his 47-pound kayak.

“You’re not always in control out there, that’s kind of fun,” said McLemore, expected to join others Saturday in Riverfest’s first kayaking event. “People think I am crazy.”

McLemore’s whole experience with kayaking started in the summer of 2002. After graduating from Chamberlain-Hunt Academy in Port Gibson, he went to North Carolina to work for Nantahala Outdoor Center as a whitewater guide. He revels in the fact that he gets paid to paddle and be on someone’s vacation everyday.

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McLemore went through extensive training to be a guide on the Chattooga River in South Carolina due to its Class III and IV rapids.

“You could send just about anyone to any of the other rivers but they only send the best to the Chattooga,” McLemore said.

The classification of rapids is on a scale from I to VI, I being the easiest. A Class III rapid, according to American Whitewater Affiliation, is rapid with moderate and irregular waves, which may be difficult to avoid.

A Class IV rapid is for the advanced and has intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water.

“It’s a matter of inches,” McLemore said. “One miscalculation and you could get really messed up.”

He particularly remembers one of his trips. McLemore was guiding an elderly group from North Carolina.

“I was the last raft run down and I looked at the rapid of the Bull Sluice, which is a Class IV rapid, and everybody had run it, but a few of them came close to flipping,” he said. “It’s kind of funny. On the ride down to the river I was feeling something funny and I thought I’m probably going to flip today. I was just a little too far to the left and old people went swimming.”

McLemore has taken numerous trips up and down the Mississippi and also has competed in “Phat Water,” which is an endurance race for kayakers and canoers. The race starts at Grand Gulf in Port Gibson and finishes 45 miles downstream in Natchez at the Under the Hill Saloon.

The race included about 50 competitors from all over the Southeast. McLemore tied for third with fellow Port Gibsoner and friend Melvin McFatter, who will also compete Saturday.

McLemore said the Chattooga is “tiny” compared to the Mississippi, but is a lot faster and cleaner since it’s a wild and scenic river with no power lines or roads. There are few rivers that possess the special characteristics to qualify. The Mississippi is slower than the Chattooga, but “the power is awesome,” McLemore said.