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Conquering the mighty Mississippi

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

This is bucket-list stuff.

It doesn't define who you are or what you are, and it really doesn't matter to anyone else, but for guys like David Krantz, it's more than an itch or yearning -- more than a passion.

It just makes sense, like the first glimpse of sunrise after a long night or falling in love for the first time. You don't have the words for how or why it feels so good or tastes so sweet. You just know it does.

Krantz doesn't embrace life. He bear-hugs it.

That's why Krantz, at the age of 70, climbed into a 16-foot aluminum boat early last month and made a head-first dive into the Mississippi River, where he set out for a 2,107-mile journey from Minneapolis to Albany, criss-crossing his way with courage and cunning and the heart of a 16-year-old, weaving across the country.

He left the Mississippi River at Cairo, Ill., at the bottom of the state, where Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois meet as three rivers converge. He slipped over to the Ohio River for a while, then darted south on the Tennessee to the Tombigbee River, which took him down to Mobile Bay, where Krantz then tip-toed into the intercoastal waterway and hugged the coast to the Appalachicola River. There, he cut east and then north across Lake Seminole to meet the Flint River -- the final leg home, a 96-mile tight-as-a-glove stretch of brown water that was treacherous at times.

"Before I made the trip, about 80 percent of my friends told me I was crazy,'' Krantz said. "The other 20 percent wanted to go with me.''

His wife Peggy -- the love of his life for the past 30 years -- had her own point of view.

"She was convinced I would drown before I ever left Minneapolis,'' Krantz said.

Peggy knows her husband, knows all about the man who doesn't dream of watching Alaskan sunsets. He watches them.

Krantz had two bucket list ideas when he was younger: To travel the Alaska Highway, and to take a boat down the Mississippi. He and Peggy made the trip to Alaska a few years ago, a 13,404-mile, five-week journey in Peggy's Honda Accord from Albany to the heart of the Yukon and back again.

"It was absolutely beautiful,'' Peggy said. "You never got bored driving.''

The views were breathtaking. But so is Krantz's view of life.

"He's Daniel Boone,'' Peggy said. "That's what I call him. He's from Tennessee, and his mother used to say they were related to Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett. I believe her.''

Krantz was born and grew up in Eastern Tennessee, where he was never too far from a river. He calls himself a self-proclaimed "River Rat,'' and he says it with a smile and just a hint of pride.

He's got eyes as bright and piercing as a 21-year-old about to rush into life at full speed, and a beard as white as the caps of the Rockies. Seven decades of wisdom mingle with a steel-trap wit and a keener sense of what's important.

He knew the risk of the river trip, and also knew what it would mean to him to make it.

"This is something I wanted to do. I guess you could say it's a bucket list thing,'' he said with a big smile. "It was at the top of the list, one of those things I had to do.''

Krantz was working for the Neilson Company, and he lived in Greenville, Miss., for 14 years, right off the river. He had always wanted to make that trip, to discover the Mississippi River himself. So he planned a trip and when he was 37, Krantz and his son Mike, who was 16 at the time, made a run at the Mississippi, taking a boat from New Orleans to Greenville, a 450-mile journey. It was in Krantz's blood and he wanted to make the full run, to see all of the Mississippi. He started thinking about a longer trip.

"The next thing I knew I was in Georgia, overseeing malls in three states,'' said Krantz, who took a better and bigger job and moved to Albany.

Time passed all too quickly, and even after he retired in 2005, Krantz still had the Mississippi on his mind. In the past year, he started thinking more and more about the trip -- even at the age of 70.

"It's something I still wanted to do,'' Krantz said. "I thought, 'I'm too old to do it.' Then, I thought: 'Hell, no, I'm not too old.' "

He had already traveled from New Orleans to Greenville, and he found out quickly taking a trip all the way down the Mississippi might be impossible in his 16-foot boat because there weren't enough places to refuel along the way. So he got a little creative and started mapping out a river-run from the upper part of the Mississippi to Albany, his home for the past 30-plus years.

He had a close friend, Scott Gatlin, drive him to Minneapolis, where -- after some last-minute trepidation -- he slipped into the water on June 9 for the 18-day voyage of a lifetime.

There were storms brewing that day, tugging at Krantz with feelings of guilt, making him question himself.

"Just before I got started, I about talked myself out of it,'' Krantz said. "I was worrying the hell out of my family. They were scared I was going to drown. I had some guilty feelings, but then I thought: 'I'm not going to drown.' That wasn't my intention.''

Krantz not only made the trip, but he wrote about it in a daily journal that can be read on The Albany Herald's website every day, starting today. The journal has already appeared on ESPN.com, the sports giant website which Krantz has written for numerous times in the past. To give you an example of just how compelling a story Krantz's is, ESPN even prominently displayed his journal and photos as its main attraction on the outdoors portion of the web page for all 19 days.

Everyone from Mark Twain to the Doobie Brothers has written about the Mississippi River, but Krantz's journal puts you in the middle of the boat, floating and bobbing, and at times churning along the river that cuts through America's Heartland -- one man, one dream and a river of memories flowing through his journal.

"The best part,'' said Krantz, stopping and starting again. "The best part of it was the people I met. After the trip (and my journal was posted online) my son got an e-mail from someone, who said: 'There are wonderful people who live in real places.' I found that the whole trip.''

You'll meet those very people if you follow Krantz's journey through his journal, the heart of the heartland folks who embraced Krantz along the way as he left a legacy of friendships in his wake. There's something about a 70-year-old man in a tiny boat taking on one of the greatest forces of nature that touches all of us -- and it's clear in Krantz's entries that the ones he met along the way touched him.

"I was worried, but I'm very glad he did it,'' Peggy said. "He had a friend die of cancer a few years ago, and ever since that happened it's like you know you need to go ahead and live your life.''

Krantz has always been a "damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead'' guy. He spent several years as a competitive bass fisherman, making a name for himself. He qualified for the Redman All-American twice and finished second in the tournament -- one of the most prestigious bass fishing events each and every year.

"That's like qualifying for the U.S. Open as an amateur,'' said Krantz, who is also a renowned hunter. He has made several trips to Bolivia and Argentina to hunt doves, and is planning a trip to South America in a couple of weeks to go dove hunting with friends.

"He is kind of a Renaissance Man,'' Gatlin said. "He is one of the best fishermen in this part of the world, and one of the best duck hunters in this part of the world. And he is a writer and a seaman.''

But there is so much more to Krantz.

"Most people say they want to do stuff,'' Gatlin said. "He goes and does it. That's pretty unique."

Krantz and his wife have taken several trips from the Colorado Rockies to the Grand Canyon to the Pacific Northwest, discovering the outskirts of America, always finding new joys and new paths to explore. If there's not enough adventure

in your marriage just check with the Krantz's.

"I knew when I married him he was going to do the things he wanted to do,'' Peggy said. "He has always had a passion for fishing, boating, traveling -- a passion for life.''

Krantz has always been this way. He joked about the understanding he has with his wife.

"She told me, 'If this is one of those trips you just have to go on before you die, then go ahead and make the trip,' " Krantz recalled. "And that was eight trips ago.''

But this one was by far the most dangerous -- even for a man half his age.

There were perils along the way, none worse or as down-right scary as passing by St. Louis, where the waters raged and Krantz needed all his skills as a River Rat and the confidence of a riverboat gambler to survive.

The barges along the Mississippi are mammoth structures that made his 16-foot boat look like a tinkertoy, and when Krantz passed by St. Louis, what looked like an Armada of barrages lined the river, which was at its ugly worst. It was reaching a flood-level and the current was swift, dangerous and unforgiving.

"Going by St. Louis was (the scariest),'' Krantz said. "I got caught in a rough water situation. The river comes ripping down through there, and the barges were lined up. You had to run a gauntlet through the barges, and that current was ripping. You could see where piles of (lumber and wood) had been swept up under the barges, and the current could have swept me under them.

"The waves were this high,'' he added, standing and raising his hand over his head. "That was the scary part. They've allowed a dangerous situation to exist there. They should never allow those barges to line up like that. I had to fight it and get out in the middle of the river. That's all I could do. If I did this again, I would go another way. That was a scary situation.''

Krantz made it through. He picked up his son in St. Louis and Mike, now 49, made the trip with his dad as far as Pensacola.

A couple of days after Krantz went by St. Louis, authorities closed that stretch of the river to all small craft boats because of the flood-level and danger there.

It wasn't just the water and the unknown that had Krantz's friends and family concerned.

But Krantz wasn't without medical needs, either.

"I'm 70. I've got medications,'' he said with a smile. "I take a blood pressure pill every day, and I take a breathing treatment every day because of all those years of smoking. And I take a barbecue pill every day. It's a pill for my cholesterol, but I call it a barbecue pill, because I'm not going to give up barbecue.''

Krantz doesn't give up on much.

One of his joys is fishing on the Texas border on a lake that stretches into Mexico, and he plans to go back there, even though his last trip had a memorable twist.

"We were fishing and we heard machine guns in the distance,'' Krantz said. "We thought it was some kind of military thing. We found out later it was a couple of drug cartels firing machine guns at each other. We were uneasy about it. It was our last day, but one of the guys stayed and went over to that town and said there were dead bodies still in the street.''

It's Krantz's attitude, his grab-life-while-you-have-it-to-grab mindset, that makes him so special.

"It was something he was bound and determined to do,'' Gatlin said of the river trip. "He took a risk and it paid off. He's something else.''

Now that it's over, Krantz can't even really explain what it felt like to make the trip, but that's why he wrote the journal.

"I'm not a writer, I'm a storyteller,'' Krantz said. "I can't describe the trip in one sentence and what it meant to me. Overall, it was the wonderful people I met.

"I would hope it would inspire others to want to go out and travel and see the country. It's such a beautiful country.''

He may go back to the Mississippi one more time.

"There's one stretch of the Mississippi I haven't been on, from Greenville (Miss.) to Cairo, Ill.,'' he said. "I've thought about that.''

His mind is already looking ahead, even now, just a month after his river run trip.

"It all depends on how many birthdays He gives me,'' Krantz said.

Krantz then added with a bit of a gleam in his eye, cocking his head slightly: "You know Lewis and Clark made it on the Missouri River all the way to the Rocky Mountains. If I did that trip, I would start at the Rockies and go to St. Louis on the Missouri. I would need a bigger boat, and I'd need a bigger motor..."

Maybe, but he wouldn't need a bigger heart.