Rowing the Ohio and Mississippi for a Good Cause

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
14 November 2011
By Jack Kelly

Michael Cherian spent the summer rowing 1,888 miles from Pittsburgh to New Orleans to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation to fight Parkinson's disease.

Mr. Cherian, 29, a recent medical school grad, made the trip in a 17-foot Grumman canoe he modified with pontoons for extra stability, powered by 9-foot oars he made himself. He named his craft the Steady Eddie, in honor of his grandfather, who died of Parkinson's when Mr. Cherian was 13.

The West View resident began his journey May 29. He kept a journal, posting new entries from his cell phone.

When his trip ended Sept. 6, he had lost about 20 pounds -- thanks to all the exercise he got rowing Steady Eddie -- and had gained a new respect for his fellow human beings.

"I met all sorts of people -- people who are poor, people who are rich," Mr. Cherian said. "Generally, they'll try to help you out. I was not expecting to find the amount of kindness I received on my trip. I thought it was amazing."

Most days he'd row for 10 hours. He averaged 20-25 miles a day going down the Ohio, 40 miles a day on the Mississippi.

"The current is much faster on the Mississippi, two or three times faster," he said. "The Ohio is like a big lake, because there are locks and dams on the Ohio. There are no locks and dams on the [lower] Mississippi."

While traveling down the Ohio, Mr. Cherian would pull into one of the streams feeding into it and sleep in his canoe. Often, he had unwelcome visitors.

"Almost every night I got bothered by beavers," he recalled.

And then there was the Asian carp.

"I was rowing the other day minding my own business when a 2 1/2-foot fish comes flying out of the water and smacks me in the back," Mr. Cherian wrote on his blog July 25. "The fish bounces off my back, hits my outriggers and falls back into the water.

"Ever since I have started this trip I have been hearing about the hated invasive species, the Asian carp.

They jump out of the water when scared. Usually it is outboard motors that frighten them, but for some reason the fish got scared and decided to jump. They have been reported to have broken people's arms, knocked them out and in general just be a nuisance."

When Mr. Cherian got to the Mississippi, it was no longer practical to sleep in his canoe because of the swift current, "and on the Mississippi the barges are so much bigger and they go so slowly," creating a larger wake. So he'd pull up onto a sandbar and sleep there.

"The sandbars are absolutely beautiful," he said. "They're like the beaches you'd go to on vacation."

Mr. Cherian never spent a night in a motel. But whenever someone he met offered him a bed for the night, he'd eagerly accept.

"It happened often enough for me to appreciate it," he said. "People are kind. They are very good-hearted. A lot of people respected what I was doing, and tried to help out."

There was time for sightseeing, too. He visited the birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant and the Cardboard Boat Museum in New Richmond, Ohio; the Belle of Louisville steamboat; and the Superman Museum in Metropolis, Ill.; and viewed the world's largest Celtic cross in Golconda, Ill.

And there were picturesque little river towns such as Rabbit Hash, Ky., where most of the buildings date from the 1830s. The citizens of Rabbit Hash elect a four-legged animal as mayor. New friends Mr. Cherian made along the way took him for nights out in Louisville, Memphis and Baton Rouge.

There were two constant annoyances.

"There is no escaping the heat," he wrote near Louisville. "I drink three gallons of water a day, and still my urine is yellow. I've been waking up wet and going to sleep wet. I sweat so much that bugs are drowning on my body. I killed a hoard of gnats that way."

Insects were the other irritation.

"Woke up to find that my boat had been turned into a perch for hundreds if not thousands of mayflies," Mr. Cherian wrote Aug. 1. "They live in water most of their lives only to emerge and become weird-looking bugs that swarm and cover everything bright or reflective. Between them and all the other bugs that inhabit my boat, it's a wonder I have not gone insane."

The mosquitoes were the worst. "On the Mississippi, I generally had to go to bed before the sun went down because the farther down the river I got, the worse the mosquitoes got," he said.

Mr. Cherian reached the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi on Aug. 6.

"When it joins, the Ohio is dark blue-green and moving very slowly," he noted. "The Mississippi is a rushing, muddy torrent that doesn't mix completely for about a mile. You can clearly see the two rivers -- one blue and one brown -- running side by side."

He had two really scary moments on the trip.

"Two huge storm fronts collided right above my head, and I was stuck in the only stretch of river for the last 50 miles that had no hills and no trees," Mr. Cherian said about a lightning storm on the Ohio. "I was just a big lightning rod in my metal boat.

"I finally got to shore. Lightning is coming down all around me. I can barely hear anything over the ringing in my ears. Lightning is really loud when it is right next to you. Luckily for me, the worst part of the storm hit the opposite bank."

Another time, coming around a bend on the Mississippi 60 miles north of Memphis, Mr. Cherian met "the tugboat from hell."

As he entered the bend, the tugboat, which was pushing 35 heavily loaded barges upstream, was exiting it. A fully loaded barge creates about a 5-foot wake.

"Unlucky for me, there were barges all along the shore, so there was nowhere for the wake to be absorbed," he said. "It just kept bouncing back and feeding into the system, creating a quarter mile of 6- to 8-foot chop in all directions."

Then the back support for his left pontoon broke off.

"I thought I was going to die," he said. "Thank God the other support did not break off."

There was one last challenge at the very end of his trip.

"Approaching the town where I was supposed to take [the canoe] out, it became abundantly clear the boat ramp that was on my map was no longer there," he said. Half of it had been washed away in a recent flood.

So Mr. Cherian had to beach his canoe, unload it, take off the pontoons, and carry it up to the portion of the boat ramp that remained. Fortunately, his parents arrived with friends from New Orleans to help.

His journey is over, but his mission is not. He'd hoped to raise $10,000 for Parkinson's research, a neurological degenerative disease for which there is no cure, but is still about $4,000 short of his goal.

"Today there is really no more hope for a Parkinson's patient than my grandfather had 15 years ago," Mr. Cherian said. "It is the same treatment and the same prognosis."

The renewed faith in the American spirit he gained from the people he met during his journey makes him confident a cure can be found.

If you'd like to help, or to read more about Michael Cherian's voyage, visit

Jack Kelly: or 412-263-1476.