A group of Mississippi Nailbenders had finished a jambalaya dinner and were listening to an outdoor gospel concert at a Mississippi River retreat when a scruffy-looking man emerged from the riverbank.
His name was Joey Cargol, 41, of Gretna, La., and he was on his way down the mighty river in a wooden canoe.
“I saw this bald-headed bearded guy talking to (retreat owner) Charlie Cole,” said Jack Honea of Pike County, a member of the Nailbenders.
Cole invited Cargol to speak to the crowd about his journey. Then the Nailbenders fed him a sumptuous meal and put him up for the night in a cabin.
Cargol was so impressed by the group that he spent the next day helping them remodel cabins at the Como Plantation Retreat north of St. Francisville, La.
Cargol said the meeting was a God thing.
Upriver in Kentucky he had met a similar group, Carpenters for Christ, who put him up for the night.
On the evening he approached Como Plantation, he had been planning to camp across the river, but an approaching storm prevented that.
“I was trying to get to a sandbar across the river but the wind kept pushing me down, pushing me down,” Cargol said in an interview Wednesday at the Enterprise-Journal.
He spotted a pavilion on the east bank and decided to camp there. The wind propelled him to shore, and when he climbed the bank he heard gospel music.
“I said, ‘I didn’t just stumble on the Nailbenders. The Lord brought me here.’ It was full circle,” said Cargol.
He plans to help the group out on future projects.
“All those guys were fantastic, the Nailbenders,” said Cargol said, who spoke Wednesday night at Gillsburg Baptist Church’s Blessing of the Hunt outdoor fish fry.
When he told the Nailbenders he had been saved at First Baptist Church in Belle Chasse, La., he found out that was one of the churches the Nailbenders had remodeled.
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Cargol is a pilot on ocean-going ships in the Mississippi River. He has traveled the world, lived overseas, run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and climbed the pyramids, among many other adventures.
Since boyhood he had wanted to canoe the Mississippi. At age 10 he had even drawn up a detailed itinerary of the trip.
Now married with four children ages 3 to 10, he finally got his chance this year.
Equipped with a 73-year-old wooden canoe, Cargol launched in the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., May 31, using the plans he had drawn up as a boy.
But things went bad from the get-go.
The river was so low he had to drag the boat 231⁄2 of the first 30 miles, punching three holes in the hull the first day.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Cargol said. “I’ve packed a moose up a vertical mile mountain, blew out my guts, had to have surgery. That was nothing compared to pulling that canoe 231⁄2 miles.”
His plastic 5-gallon water jug sprang a leak, leaving him without water.
“My kidneys shut down. I had to go to the emergency room,” he said. “I passed out several times, fell into the water. I almost drowned; covered in leeches. After that, me and the Lord had a good coming together.”
Cargol prayed for “water under my keel and water under my tongue.” Almost instantly, a huge rainstorm struck.
“I’ve said a million prayers in my life. I’ve never had a prayer answered within 30 seconds,” Cargol said.
He collected enough rainwater to keep on going, then found a farmhouse where he could replenish his water supplies.
“I realized my path was laid out before me,” he said.
“Every day I had trials and tribulations. Every time there was a way through.”
In hindsight, “God was preparing me for the trials and tribulations that would come ahead,” Cargol said.
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Stretches that were supposed to be smooth were full of rapids because of the low water. One night wolves surrounded his tent, knocking into it as they sniffed around.
Wakes from recreational boats and towboats were a constant hazard.
The old canoe sustained numerous cracks and punctures. Cargol patched them with epoxy, then stopped long enough to coat the vessel in fiberglass. It too wound up cracking.
He portaged around 10 dams, passed through 27 locks, battled relentless headwinds, negotiated rock weirs with raging currents.
“I came across one (weir) that was six feet wide, four feet deep, and it almost sucked me in,” he said. “By the grace of God I didn’t go down.”
At one point he got trapped under the front of a barge, but the captain spotted him and backed up.
Yet all along the way he was amazed at “how welcoming the people were up and down the Mississippi River,” he said. “There’s lots of river angels — people who help you out on the river.”
Tropical Storm Cristobal slammed him with 12 days of 20-knot winds. On one lake he was struggling to make progress in a windstorm when a trapper showed up and showed him a side canal.
Another time he had tied his canoe to a floating dock and camped on a bluff when a towboat wake swamped the canoe, strewing gear down the river. Cargol jumped in and gathered what he could.
He had envisioned paddling eight-hour days, making a cozy camp and recording his experiences in a journal. Instead he found himself paddling 14-hour days often without a chance to eat.
When he did eat, he sometimes lived off the land, dining on frogs, mussels, fish, snails and bugs.
He carried two tents, a $50 Coleman pop-up and an expensive expedition model. The latter was destroyed in a storm, while the pop-up proved reliable and snug.
He started out using a tent, sleeping bag and pad, but by the latter part of the trip simply lay down in the sand and slept without shelter or cover.
“I just got to that point, I was like a dog. I turned around three times and went to sleep,” Cargol quipped.
He broke two paddles and developed arthritis in his hands. But Cargol persevered until he reached buoys in the Gulf of Mexico on Aug, 8.
“I made it. I survived it. I wouldn’t change a thing,” Cargol said.
He’s already planning future trips, including a canoe voyage down the Atchafalaya River.
For more on his Mississippi River adventure, see the Facebook page Expedition H2020.