Armchair Traveler: No Dampness Required

By Kate Havelin

Lounging comfortably on the sofa, with a cat and a warm cup of tea by my side, I’m game for river adventure. Harold Speakman makes it easy for armchair travelers to explore the river without getting wet. Speakman’s elegant Mostly Mississippi: A Very Damp Adventure chronicles the canoe and houseboat journey he and his wife, Russell, made from Bemidji to New Orleans. Our River Readers Book Club will chat about Mostly Mississippi on Tuesday, February 10 7 PM at Ramsey County Library, Roseville. All are welcome to come, whether you’ve read the book or not.

First published in 1927 and republished in 2004 by the University of Minnesota Press, the book combines expected river adventures -- sunburned hands, mosquito swarms -- with fresh perspectives. Speakman describes portaging their canoe and 250 pounds of supplies with a borrowed horse cart; buying wild rice from the Palisade general store for 25 cents a pound; and seeing the newly built Ford Bridge and the “great plant” from which Ford cars “will soon be shipped down the river.”

Harold Speakman painting
of St. Paul Cathedral

Both Harold and Russell Speakman were artists; their drawings and paintings sweeten the travelogue. Some scenes, like this sketch of St. Paul's skyline, capture a moment in time. Some sections are timeless.  Speakman delicately describes the ups and downs of two people traveling in close quarters for months. “There arose a warm and rigorous conflict of ideas concerning the art of navigation. After a few miles of it, we agreed to call the battle off; and we went on, a little silent and crestfallen, because then, as so often in moments of best intention, we had not quite achieved as shining a goal as we had hoped.”

Russell Speakman

When their trip began, Russell was the sole experienced paddler. Harold didn’t know how to canoe or pitch a tent, but the recently married pair were hardy travelers, both game and resourceful. Their attitudes sustained them through rough weather and waters. Speakman describes “a most disgustingly bitter wind for early September.” I hold a steamy cup of tea while reading happily about relentless rains. “We shivered, we froze. We went to bed in everything but our shoes.”

They inadvertently shoot the rapids at Sauk Rapids. (Confession: Until I read this book, I never considered why Sauk had its name. Now, I’ll remember Sauk Rapid’s rocks and rushing waters.)

Harold Speakman

I love the gentle descriptions of familiar places now grown beyond what the Speakmans saw decades ago. “Monticello, Elk River, Anoka….Quiet villages, these, on a quiet, lovely stretch of river. Dayton too, the quietest village of all, hiding like a memory of New England among avenues of ancient trees…”

Russsell Speakman

Once the couple reached St. Paul, they bid farewell to their gaudy red canoe and moved into a tired and leaky houseboat that carried them south to the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1928, a year after Mostly Mississippi was published, Harold died tragically at age forty. He had fought in World War I in Italy, served as a peacekeeper in Montenegro, and wrote eight books including travelogues of Shanghai, Ireland, and Palestine. Russell Speakman continued working, painting murals in New York. She died in 1988.

Nearly a century after their journey, the Speakmans’ Mostly Mississippi: A Very Damp Adventure remains fresh and worth reading, fine entertainment for a winter evening.