MISSOURI-MISSISSIPPI RIVER SYSTEM EXPEDITION BLOG ARCHIVE
MISSOURI-MISSISSIPPI RIVER SYSTEM EXPEDITION BLOG ARCHIVE (JUNE 2012-APRIL 2013)
The Countdown Begins (June 2, 2012)
One week from now I will be on the road to Montana to embark on the longest water-based expedition that I have ever undertaken: a 6100km (3800-mile), source to sea solo kayaking descent of the Missouri-Mississippi river system.
Counterbalancing the headshaking enormity of the challenge-at-hand will be the sheer joy of stumbling upon amazingly beautiful scenes like the one above. This image was taken just steps away from the Jefferson River near Silver Star, Montana during my river research trip in August 2011. Montana is now Rocky Mountain high on my expanding list of favourite U.S. states. I am looking forward to getting to know ol’ MT a little more intimately whilst floating atop the river that made Lewis and Clark famous all those years ago.
Testing Out the Yukon Yak (June 5, 2012)
I recently tested out a new inflatable boat – the “Yukon Yak,” manufactured by Colorado-based Alpacka Raft. The Yukon Yak is one in a line of pack rafts that Alpacka Raft produces. These boats are small, lightweight, compact and durable. They are designed to be carried into the backcountry for crossing lakes, coastal inlets, descending quick moving rivers – pretty much anywhere you might need a boat to cross a body of water. The average Alpacka raft packs down to the size of a two-person tent, which makes it easy to strap to the outside of a backpack and head off on an adventure. And at less than 5lbs, the Yukon Yak is super lightweight when compared to other inflatables in its size category (7.5’ long x 3’ wide).
One nice thing about the Alpacka rafts is that you don’t need a pump to inflate them. Instead, you use a bag constructed out of silicone-coated nylon. Not carrying a pump considerably reduces the weight and bulk of your kit.
So, how do you inflate a boat with a bag? Well, it’s actually very easy. Picture a large pillowcase with a threaded nozzle on one end. The nozzle threads into a valve on the boat. You open the end of the bag. The bag fills with air. You twist the open end of the bag shut and squeeze the air into the boat. You do that about twelve times and the boat is full. Pretty ingenious! It takes less than five minutes to inflate the boat.
Because it was my first time in a pack raft, and because I planned to strap my portage pack to the raft’s bow, I was concerned about the boat capsizing. I therefore decided to test the boat in a shallow bay rather than a deep river. Mitchell’s Bay, near Chatham, Ontario, suited my purpose perfectly.
I’m happy to report that no swimming was necessary on this test paddle. The boat was very stable and incredibly nimble. I could see how it would be a fun boat to paddle in whitewater. Even with a 50lb portage pack strapped on its bow, it handled the foot-high waves like a champion and I at no time felt unsafe in it. I sat and spun circles with very little paddling effort. It was very responsive, indeed! Its only drawback was the slow progress against a stiff headwind. It took a good deal of energy to muscle against the wind. Based on my past experience with inflatable boats, this lack of progress came as little surprise. This boat is not designed for speed on flatwater – it’s designed to get you across a body of water or down, or across, a swift-moving river.
Still, I was happy with the Yukon Yak’s performance and I look forward to using it in southern Montana for the first ten days of the upcoming Missouri-Mississippi river system expedition.
One purpose of this journey is to spread the message that self-propelled, zero-emissions travel is not only eco-friendly, but it is also highly rewarding and incredibly self-empowering. When we challenge ourselves mentally and physically using simple forms of self-powered transportation, our resolve and resiliency are both tested and hardened. We emerge from our journeys changed and invigorated. We take time to reflect on the lessons learned as we train our focus on the new path that lay before us. We learn that we are truly capable of achieving so much more than we believe. We discover that we possess a secret strength, an unlimited reserve that will see us through the toughest challenge. I encourage you to tap into your mighty reserve today and embrace adventure as you imagine it. If you can dream it, you can do it! Start planning your next adventure today!
Leg One of the Missouri-Mississippi River System Descent: The Proposed Route (June 5, 2012)
The Missouri River’s utmost source lies high in the Centennial Mountains of southern Montana. I hiked to the source in August of 2011. The alpine valleys were awash in a stunning array of wildflowers. When I hike into the same area later this month, there is a very good chance that these same valleys will be covered with snow. Luckily, I will still be able to find Brower’s Spring using GPS co-ordinates. Chances are slim that I’ll see the rock cairn that marks the spring. It will likely be buried under several feet of snow.
The ominous-sounding Hell Roaring Creek begins at the above-mentioned rock cairn, flows through the bottom of a deeply cut canyon and empties into the beautiful Centennial Valley. It is here that it joins Red Rock Creek and begins a journey west across the valley bottom.
The plan is to cover the first 7 miles of Hell Roaring Creek on foot, from the Missouri’s utmost source at Brower’s Spring (at an elevation of 9000 ft) to where Hell Roaring Creek passes under Red Rock Road. This junction is where I will start using the Yukon Yak.
The Yak will see use on the last mile of Hell Roaring Creek as it tumbles out of the mountains and into beautiful Centennial Valley. It will then float me down the full length of Red Rock Creek, across Upper and Lower Red Rock Lakes, down the Red Rock River, across the Lima Reservoir, down the remainder of the Red Rock River as it flows north and finally across the Clark Canyon Reservoir to the beginning of the Beaverhead River near the town of Dillon, Montana. It is here that I will switch to a sea kayak for the rest of the journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
The total distance from Brower’s Spring to the Clark Canyon Reservoir Dam is approximately 220km/135 miles. It is another 5880km/3665 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Action Stage Has Begun (June 10, 2012) Well, the planning stage has ended and the action stage has begun. It’s time to embark on another adventure. I leave today for the wilds of Montana, to search out the utmost source of the Missouri River and follow its winding path all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, a distance of 6100km (3800 miles).
Did I mention that I’m doing this journey in a kayak? Yes, a kayak. Am I crazy? Far from it. I’m just a regular guy following his dreams and passions. I simply enjoy challenging myself mentally and physically in healthy, self-propulsive, eco-friendly ways. Limits, like rules, are meant to be broken. We are all capable of achieving much more than we believe we can. I encourage you to push past your imagined limitations today.
The first challenge of this journey will be getting to Montana. I’ll be on the road for the next few days, rumbling along in my old pickup with the kayak strapped down in the back, taking in the sights and sounds of the American mid-west. Within a week I hope to be on the trail to the Missouri’s source, walking in beautiful alpine meadows surrounded by towering peaks. I’m hoping for sun but planning for snow. At an elevation of nearly 9000 feet, any type of weather is possible in southern Montana in mid-June!
At the Source of the Missouri-Mississippi River System (June 18, 2012)
I’m currently in the small town of West Yellowstone, Montana, located at the western gate to Yellowstone National Park. I’ve come here to replenish some supplies before launching my small inflatable boat on Hell Roaring Creek tomorrow morning. I’ll be far away from Internet service over the next week, so this will be my last update for awhile.
I hiked out to the source of the Missouri-Mississippi river system yesterday and although I was completely knackered by the end of the 15-mile hike (round trip), I’m happy to report that, despite several feet of snow still tightly packed on the gulley floor, I was able to fill a small vial with a sample from Brower’s Spring (elevation 8800 feet), the utmost source of North America’s longest river system.
The hike required six creek crossings (three in, three out), three of which were completed half-naked (from the waist down), a chilling experience in water that had been snow only minutes prior. Numb, bare feet on slimy rocks in rushing, thigh-high water only added to the challenge of kicking off this 3800-mile source to sea journey. Somehow it’s comforting to know that it’s all downhill from here. (I mean that in a positive sense!)
The next step will be to tackle the small creeks that flow into the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. These creeks are quick flowing at the moment and seem to be 2-3 feet deep. I figure it will take 8-9 days to paddle to Clark Canyon Reservoir where I will switch to the sea kayak. Two days after that I will reach the town of Dillon, Montana.
Today has been an extremely windy day, gusting and ceaseless. Wind will be a challenging factor on this entire expedition. Lake crossings on days like today will be true test of stamina, determination and sanity. There will be plenty of early morning paddling before the breeze kicks into high gear.
Upper and Lower Red Rock Lake (June 20-21, 2012)
At the generous and slightly silted-in mouth of Red Rock Creek, where it ends its journey westward and empties into Upper Red Rock Lake, I bid a temporary farewell to the many moose I had encountered in the creek’s willow thickets and, for the first time on the journey, set my sights upon a wonderfully wide panorama of towering peaks stretched high above the giant, mirrored surface of Upper Red Rock Lake.
Progress across the lake was slow in my small inflatable raft. The Yukon Yak, although nimble on the creek’s tight turns, was built for water white and swift, not glass smooth and docile. I pushed the boat’s bulk across the surface with great effort, each paddle stroke feeling heavier than the last, fighting off a strange feeling that the craft may indeed be sinking, which, of course, it was not. I’m glad to say that my watered down enthusiasm was buoyed by the fact that I was surrounded by an amazingly varied landscape that contrasted between beds of yellowy grass and the jagged northern face of the Centennial Mountains, their highest crests forming the unbroken line of the Continental Divide.
I camped that night at the Upper Red Rock Lake campground and was visited at sundown by Bill West, project leader at the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Bill, who, along with other refuge staff, namely Eric, Jim and Kyle, offered a tremendous amount of logistical assistance in the journey’s early stages, was there to lend me his GPS for the following day’s paddle. Not that I needed a GPS – I had my own, of course – but Bill, ever curious of the workings deep inside the Refuge, wanted a permanent record of my chosen route through the river marsh that connects Upper and Lower Red Rock Lake.
The next morning, with a group of camera-shy pelicans slowly circling on the lake’s smooth surface, I set off along the grassy shoreline in search of the lake’s narrow outlet and the channel that would connect me to the Lower Red Rock Lake.
Again, progress was slow, but surely as does water run downhill, I found the outlet. A wide channel lined long and abundant with knee-high green grass led me deeper into a maze of sloughs and ponds. At one point, needing relief of a bladderly kind, I happened upon a sizeable nest with four large eggs at its center. High above flew a bird, white and unidentifiable to my untrained eye. It circled and shrieked out a shrill call that made me wonder if the eggs at my feet were hers. Perhaps it was a gull. I’m not sure. Perhaps the nest had been abandoned by a goose or a crane. I took several photos and left the scene abruptly.
Back on the water, I stopped at a junction that, on my GPS, showed a narrow channel leading north and emptying into a large lake. This channel also appeared on my topographic map of the region. On this day, however, my chosen channel, one that would lead me quickly and uncomplicatedly to the lower lake, now only a short distance westward, was completely free of water with only a row of burgeoning cattails and chattering blackbirds calling the shallow trough home. Dismayed, I stuck with the main channel, its flow defined only by the slight, directional waving of the underwater vegetation, and continued south into a very large, shallow, motionless pond. Stubbornly, I propelled the reluctant boat across several mudflats until a wide channel revealed itself and I struck westward once more. Here, at eye level with grasses spiky and brown, my gaze sped onward to mile-high peaks and rolling, sage-covered hills alike. Here, in the middle of a perplexing and often maddening maze of channels and sloughs, I halted my progress and sat silently staring at a canvas of organic beauty. The landscape reigned simply and truthfully, naked to a judging world, unflinching and uncompromising, regal, proud and prudent.
“Look for the toilets.” Bill West had told me. And with squinting eyes against the blinding sun, I did just that. Sure enough, when I neared the campground on the lower lake’s west side, two blocky figures rose above the reeds and grasses like obelisks of relief, beckoning me with lids lifted in a grand salute and an odour of familiarity.
The 17-mile journey across two lakes and the lazy river marsh that connected them had taken eight hours to complete. Relief was mine, awarded with the friendly company of Refuge volunteer Jim, whose fascinating life story will be related to you at a later date, and a beautiful sunset worthy of a state as great as Montana.
Missouri-Mississippi River System Expedition Q&A (June 29, 2012) I’m opening the floor to questions about my kayaking journey down the Missouri-Mississippi river system. I’ll compile all the questions and post them, along with my replies. I’ll answer any questions that come my way. Ask away!
My journey started on June 17 at Brower’s Spring, the utmost source of the Missouri River, and I have paddled approximately 210km (130 miles) so far. My current position is at the Clark Canyon Reservoir, near the town of Dillon, Montana. My destination: the Gulf of Mexico.
The first question comes from Ron Dudley:
Q: What are the logistics for keeping you supplied with food and other expendable essentials? Are you alone or do you have support from others for such things? (two questions, I know – but they’re related).
A: I assume that the “other expendable essentials” that you refer to includes toilet paper. If that’s the case, I am carrying two rolls of one-ply and will be able to resupply in major centres along the river. Running out of toilet paper is among my highest concerns on this journey. I take extra precautions to ensure that my supply of TP is adequately topped up and within arm’s reach at all times. I’m currently seeking a toilet paper sponsor to help defray toiletry costs.
Carrying and resupplying food has been an issue in the early stages of the journey. Calculating how long it will take to travel a certain distance using human-powered methods of transportation can be a challenge in itself. A total of twelve days of food had to be taken into the area close to the source (east of Red Rock Lakes NWR). I estimated that it would take at least ten days to descend the various tributaries to the town of Dillon, approximately 300km (186 miles) from the source (water-based distance). I added two days of food for insurance in case of delays. Further down the Beaverhead, Jefferson, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, food will be resupplied at towns and cities, as needed. I can carry 12-14 days of food in the 16’ sea kayak. In terms of resupplying, I am operating alone without support. I carry a Katadyn ceramic water filtration system and have used it many times so far on the Red Rock River and the Lima Reservoir. Lake water filtered through a ceramic filter generally tastes as bad as you can imagine it would. I generally filter four litres (one gallon) of water per day. This filtering process takes approximately 30 minutes to complete. I usually have a good-sized crowd of mosquitoes motivating me to finish the filtering in the shortest time possible.
Day 15: The Adventure So Far (July 1, 2012)
Today is Day 15 of the Missouri-Mississippi River System Expedition. I am currently taking up a temporary residence at the KOA campground in Dillon, Montana. I arrived here on Thursday, June 28, so today (Sunday) is the fourth day of this hiatus. It is looking like I will return to the river on Tuesday. Dillon is located approximately 40 miles south of the Clark Canyon Reservoir and Dam. I arrived at the reservoir on Wednesday, June 27, having descended 220km (135 miles) from Brower’s Spring, the source of the Missouri River. The first 7 miles were done on foot and the remainder in a 7.5’ inflatable raft. Along the way I descended Hell Roaring Creek, Red Rock Creek, and Red Rock River and paddled across Upper and Lower Red Rock Lakes, the 15-mile long Lima Reservoir and the 5-mile long Clark Canyon Reservoir. I paddled around extremely tight bends on the narrow creeks, battled stiff crosswinds on the Lima Reservoir that continually blew me ashore and created foot-high waves that swamped the boat. I capsized in swift moving water when I was swept under some low hanging willows, portaged around low bridges, diversion dams, fallen trees and crept cautiously under dozens of barbed wire fences. It was quite an adventure just getting this far! I have seen skunks, owls, hawks, eagles, antelope, deer, snakes, beavers, muskrats and a grey wolf. My moose count currently stands at 22. While passing through the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, I saw a multitude of bird species including trumpeter swans, pelicans, blue herons, sandhill cranes, ducks, loons, grebes, geese and a myriad of shore birds. One of my favourite birds was the yellow-headed blackbird.
The next step is to exchange my 7.5’ inflatable raft for a 16’ sea kayak for the journey down the 82-mile long Beaverhead River, which starts on the downstream side of the Clark Canyon Dam, and the 85-mile long Jefferson River, which, along with the Madison and Gallatin Rivers, form the Missouri River near Three Forks, Montana. It will take about a week to paddle to Three Forks.
One logistical issue that remains is to get my pick-up truck back to the community of Monida, about 80 miles south of Dillon. The truck will be parked in Monida for the duration of the expedition. I will drive my truck to the Clark Canyon Dam, drop off the sea kayak and gear, then drive to Monida and hitchhike back to my camp at the dam. My inflatable boat will be shipped to Ontario where my sister Carrie will look after its sale. (Contact me if you’re interested in purchasing it. I purchased it new five weeks ago. No punctures. Gently used.)
Day 24: Leaving Twin Bridges, Montana (July 29, 2012)
I had a cheerful chat today with Twin Bridges resident and avid cyclist, Robert Klein. Robert, active, healthy and robust at 71, is also a well-disciplined flamenco guitarist and worldly traveller. He moved to Twin Bridges 11 years ago from California and has never looked back. His infectious enthusiasm perfectly illustrates the type of people I have been meeting on this journey, people with a lust for adventure and a love of the natural world.
I leave Twin Bridges today and begin a three-day paddle north-east to the town of Three Forks. Two miles north of Twin Bridges, the Beaverhead River joins the Big Hole River to form the Jefferson River. 87 miles downstream from this important confluence the Jefferson will join with the Gallatin and Madison Rivers to form the Missouri River near Three Forks. After having descended two creeks, two lakes, two reservoirs and two rivers, I’m looking forward to finally reaching the broad expanse of the Missouri.
Day 42 (July 28, 2012)
It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been paddling my way along the Missouri-Mississippi river system for more than 40 days now. But believe it I must. When I look back and think about all that has transpired over the last 42 days, when I break it down into palatable chunks of time (24 hour chunks), dozens of wonderful experiences reveal themselves, experiences half-forgotten behind the blur of a natural coping mechanism that helps make this whole business of adventuring more palatable. Progress never happens fully during times of reflection. Progress is driven by routine. And it is within that routine that the beauty of those wonderful experiences becomes blurred. This is not a bad thing, however. It is simply a way of moving forward without forgetting the past. Little by little, I am beginning to understand this perplexing paradox.
I have now come 800km (500 miles) from Brower’s Spring, the source of this great river system. I have covered each metre, each foot of that distance under my own power. I have portaged around countless obstacles manmade and otherwise, dealt with unruly wind and rain, succumbed to exhaustion at the end of long days, revelled in sheer elation when surrounded by swooping ospreys, been brought to tears by song lyrics that endlessly repeat themselves in my head, and have sat in silent awe staring at natural wonders that humble both my mind and the scope of this expedition. I have witnessed the untamed torrent of an ambitious mountain stream and have been lulled to sleep by the utter peace of a gently flowing river. I have drunk the waters of this great river system and have ingested its desire for motion. The Missouri now lives in me. Progress, no matter how subtle or profound, has become my daily routine, a willing and ongoing baptismal that sees me through the rigours of the day. Somewhere downstream lies an ocean, vastly divine beyond my comprehension. To it I descend, smilingly.
The river below Great Falls contains no less than five dams in the span of 20 river miles. These are fantastically large hydroelectric dams that produce a huge amount of electricity for the city of Great Falls. Although the river as we see it today has changed dramatically since the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, the remnants of rock, both in the exposed shelves over which water released from the dams now flows, as well as in the sheer canyon walls that tower above the river, are very much like what the Corps of Discovery would have seen all those years ago. Away from the flow, the incredibly arid landscape, dotted at times with sage brush and tall willows, has been worked and irrigated to produce thousands of acres of yellow wheat fields. It is past these fields, atop the gravel roads that bisect them, that I will pull my fully-loaded, 16’ sea kayak, balanced somewhat precariously on a pair of solid foam wheels, 26 miles from the Broadwater Bay boat ramp in downtown Great Falls to the remote and not-easily-accessed Widow Coulee boat ramp north of the city. I estimate that the portage will take two days to complete. If I’m bound to lose body weight at any time during this expedition, this will be where it happens. I feel strong and confident that it can, and will, be done. Captain Meriwether Lewis, who, along with the rest of the Corps of Discovery in June, 1805, had to deal with the same problem of how to bypass the five great falls. When informed that the route ahead would be difficult, Captain Lewis replied, “Good or bad, we must make the portage.”
On Tuesday of this past week, Wes Malchow, a new friend that I met in the small town of Cascade, south of Great Falls (he and his wife Kathy run the Missouri River RV Park in Cascade), offered to come to Great Falls and drive me to the five dams with the intent of finding the safest and shortest portage route around the dams. It soon became apparent that paddling between the dams was a near impossibility, given that access to the river is restricted in certain areas. Also, entering or exiting the river is greatly hindered given the steepness of the canyon walls and the lack of a proper portage route around each dam. To deal with this last issue, several members of the local paddling community offer vehicular shuttles to paddlers, dropping them off at the Carter Ferry bridge, 31 river miles downstream from the city’s center.
After several hours of surveying the possible portage options, Wes and I decided that the Coulee Widow put-in offered not only the safest route, bypassing the numerous rapids below Morony Dam (the last of the five dams), but also the most challenging route. We laughed about it then, driving over the gravel roads that parted a sea of yellow wheat fields that stretched to the horizon. And I have to admit, as ridiculous of an idea as it is – who would seriously consider doing a 26-mile manual portage in 90° heat around these five dams? – we are still laughing about it, if only because it will make for great book content and media stories. Media thrives on ideas of the mad. Starting tomorrow, local newspaper readers and newscast watchers will have their interest piqued by a certain Canadian adventurer who is not only slightly mad, but also damn determined.
Deciding the Best Route for the Portage, Lewis and Clark interpretive sign
Wes and I saw this sign at the end of a long afternoon of surveying portage options. Laughing as we stopped to read the sign (posted along the road to the Widow Coulee fishing access), Wes joked, “We should’ve read this first!”
Making Friends the Hard Way: A 26-Mile Portage Around Five Hydroelectric Dams in Montana (August 1-4, 2012)
With a hand-drawn map, a prayer and healthy dose of determination, I set off from Dick’s RV Park in Great Falls, Montana on August 1 to tackle a mammoth 26-mile portage around five hydroelectric dams that block downstream passage on the Missouri River below Great Falls. Each of these dams are huge and, with the exception of Black Eagle Dam, the first of the five, inaccessible to paddlers. For this reason, a portage route utilizing urban streets and rural roads had to be mapped out. Wes Malchow, who along with his wife, Kathy Jutras, manages the Missouri River RV Park in the small town of Cascade, 50 river miles from Great Falls, was nice enough to drive me to four of the five dams and search out portage route options on both sides of the river. After hours of driving and scouting the river, we decided that a 26-mile route from the Broadwater Bay boat ramp in downtown Great Falls to the Widow Coulee boat ramp, downstream of Morony Dam, the last of the five dams, was the safest route to take. It would also be the most challenging.
Dick’s RV Park is lovingly nestled between a busy highway and a busy airport and is bordered on the remaining sides by a (thankfully) abandoned railway and the muddy, yet quiet, Sun River. In true testament to its name, the Sun River was a dappled fluid diamond in the early morn as I drifted beneath the old iron rail bridge en route to the Sun’s confluence with the Missouri. Morning commuters zipped across cement spans as I paddled leisurely across the Missouri’s width and took out at the Broadwater Bay boat ramp. With the heat already on the rise and the aluminum kayak cart and solid rubber wheels securely in place, I set off across the parking lot in search of my destination, Widow Coulee.
Here’s a sure fire way to meet people: fill a 16’ foot sea kayak with gear and tow it on wheels through the city of your choice. I guarantee that people will come out in droves to ask you what the heck you’re up to. It also helps to have your picture on the front page of the local newspaper a few days before you disembark on your journey. I got no further than the boat ramp parking lot when retiree Fred Berry, who was launching his newly repaired boat for a test run, asked me if I was “the guy in the paper”. I replied, “Uh, perhaps…”, hoping that he hadn’t confused me with an aging rock star or a serial killer.
After crossing a few busy streets as polite motorists waited patiently, I started north on 5th Avenue and ran into Jim Langert. Jim, who had also read the story in the Great Falls Tribune, struck up conversation from the front seat of his car. I learned that Jim, whose right leg is amputated below the knee, had lost 125lbs over the last 18 months and that he works out regularly in a local swimming pool. He uses molded plastic devices that are specially designed to create resistance underwater. When attached to his arms and legs, he’s able to get a full body workout at the pool.
Only a few blocks later I was hailed down by Timothy, a friendly gentleman and fellow kayaker who, again, recognized me from the newspaper. Timothy, sporting a white “Pay It Forward” t-shirt, offered a wealth of paddling information about the section of the Missouri below the dams and where I could find assistance if I ran into trouble along the way. Further up 5th Avenue he tracked me down again, dropping off a photocopied map of the river section we had discussed.
Minutes later I was befriended by Kelly, a goateed Great Falls native who earns money collecting scrap metal. Having lived beside the Missouri his whole life, aside from stints driving transport trucks and working on fishing boats in Alaska, Kelly has always wanted to travel down the mighty river to its confluence with the Mississippi. I urged him to pursue his dream, reminding him that it’s never too late in life to embark on an adventure. Like Timothy, Kelly returned an hour later with several bags of rice, gifts from his elderly mother who had read about me in the newspaper. Fifteen minutes later, he returned again with a bag of chili mix and more rice, gifts from his sister this time.
Further down 5th I chatted with homeowner and retiree Don who was busy sprucing up the colourful garden that ringed his beautiful cedar sided home. Next it was a chat with potter Gary Doos and his grandsons, Trent and Tiny. Gary, a friend of Judy Erickson, who some of you may remember as the woman who ripped a hole in the crotch of her pants while offering to cook me dinner, had also read the article in the newspaper and nicely offered up his home as a place to stay next time I was in Great Falls.
A few blocks later I chatted with 5th Avenue resident Rob and his young son, Kade. Rob and some friends were excitedly gearing up for a week-long fishing trip on a nearby river and were eager to hear about my own journey. I was also joined for a short while by a 7th grader named Austin who was riding around the neighbourhood on his BMX bike. Austin was looking forward to a new year of school and loved telling me about some of the summertime adventures he and his family had partaken in, most of them water-based.
5th Avenue, for the most part, was a gentle, but taxing, uphill portage all the way to 37th Street. Temperatures had risen to 90°F by noon. In the heat, an unfortunate issue with both kayak wheels was most unwelcome. Short pieces of metal wire that I had been using to keep the wheels on the axle had become jammed in the plastic plugs that allowed the tires to rotate on the axle. A sweaty roadside repair was necessary. Within ten minutes I was up and running again.
At 37th Street I worked my way up a steep grade and followed 6th Avenue for a stretch before edging over to 7th for the remainder of the walk to the northern outskirts of town at 57th Street. I looked out over wheat and barley fields that stretched to the horizon. After towing the boat through residential neighbourhoods and meeting hordes of friendly folk, this new territory looked desolate and daunting. There was no shade, no people and no end to it. Save for a scurry of activity at Malmstrom Air Force Base to the west, and the endless rush of traffic along the highway, the bleak and foreboding landscape offered a sterile calm that left me feeling very tiny and a little ill.
A motorcyclist held up traffic at the highway intersection, which allowed me to cross without issue, and an army officer named Matt pulled over to offer me a lift. I politely refused, saying that I was doing the portage under my own power. “But thanks.” I added.
Trucks sped by, stacked high with hay bales. I sweated profusely as I worked up yet another moderate grade and turned to see the city of Great Falls fading away in the river valley below. I was visited roadside by Laura, a woman I had met weeks earlier on the Jefferson River, upstream from Three Forks. She had been leading a group of teens on a day-long canoe trip, part of a week-long summer camp for youth. Laura and her friend Joe wished me well on my journey and continued on theirs.
As the temperature neared the mid-90s, blackflies hounded me mercilessly, biting through my socks and T-shirt every few seconds and preying on any exposed skin. I was delirious from the heat, stopping every hundred feet to rest. My feet were blistered and swollen, painful with every footfall.
Four anonymous motorists stopped to offer me a ride but none were as comely as sweet Jordy, a transplanted Californian who now wrangles horses at a ranch in the nearby town of Belt. Dressed the part of a cowgirl and sporting a friendliness that could have only arisen here in Montana, as opposed to caustic Los Angeles, Jordy’s infectious energy and undaunted encouragement boosted my sagging mood and made my afternoon a brighter place.
I left the highway at its junction with Highwood Road and decided to make camp in a carpool parking area. My Cascade friends, Wes and Kathy, showed up at around 7pm, bringing with them two gallons of water, one cold and one frozen. I sat in the air-conditioned comfort of their vehicle and related the events of the day. Wes informed me that I had walked eight miles, five shy of my goal of thirteen, half the distance to Widow Coulee fishing access. It was now obvious that completing the portage would take more than two days. My feet were not happy with the news.
As rural residents began their morning commute into Great Falls, I began Day 2 of this 26-mile manual portage by towing my kayak in the opposite direction, away from town, deeper into a yellowed desert of wheat fields shorn of their bounty. It was harvest season, which meant that trucks hauling grain and convoys of combines were the norm on the narrow, shoulder-less roads. Green mile-marker signs made progress somewhat tolerable and helped me gauge the distance remaining to Widow Coulee, my final destination, the spot where I would be reunited with the Missouri River.
I was taking photos of Homestake Ranch, along picturesque Box Elder Creek, when up pulled local resident Ron LaMotte. A former facilitator for Outward Bound, an organization that helps get city folk into the great outdoors. Ron gave me a quick 10-minute lesson in safety and survival techniques. His delivery was engaging and professional; his advice enlightening and useful. Ron suggested that I look up his friend Terri Baker who owns a thrift shop in Fort Benton, a river town that I would pass through following the portage. (As it turned out, Ron alerted the Fort Benton newspaper and I was able to meet with his reporter friend Walleyne Flanagan for an interview while in Fort Benton.) When told of my kayak wheel dilemma, which had acted up again, the ever-resourceful Ron went to his mini-van and promptly emerged with two large cotter pins that were a perfect match for the axle.
The steep road out of Box Elder Creek seemed never-ending in the morning heat. My fragile fingers, which had been gripping the plastic carrying handle on the kayak’s bow for more than a day, had become blistered and sore; their skin and meat squeezed into a painful position that resembles the numbing whiteness that occurs from carrying plastic grocery bags heavy with food for long periods of time. Every hundred feet I would switch hands until the discomfort became too great. Then I would take a much-deserved break, drink water, curse and resume the torture. The smiles in the accompanying photos seem to mask my pain.
At the junction with Salem Road, I left the pavement behind and rolled the kayak over rocks and dirt for the first time during the expedition. Also at this junction was a sign that read “Widow Coulee 13 miles”. I had reached the portage’s halfway point.
A stiff wind blew across the fields of barley and wheat, shorn clean by crews of combines that raced up and down the rows on each side of the road. Grain trucks and their subsequent squalls of choking dust sped by me in both directions, dumping their payloads in silver granaries that dotted the horizon.
I managed a total of 10 miles before making camp on a roadside strip of dead, spiky grass. Friendly Kelly, whom I had met the day before on 5th Street in Great Falls, stopped by for a visit. He was on his way to Widow Coulee fishing access, having never been there before. I admired his desire to seek out new places. Perhaps one day he will embark on his own Missouri River journey and tell his story to me over bowls of chili and rice. But for now, I listened intently as he related the plotline of a new Jennifer Aniston movie that he had seen recently.
For the second consecutive night, Wes and Kathy sought me out and brought gallons of cold and frozen water as well as warm water, Epsom salts and a plastic tub in which to soak my feet. Oh, the relief! They also gave me some blister medication which helped to heal toes that had been crammed into cheap running shoes and pounded over jagged rocks that littered the rural roads. Roadside visits do not come much more thoughtful than those of these three new friends. They had all gone out of their way to help someone who only days before had been a stranger. From them we can certainly learn anew lessons of acceptance and selflessness. I am eternally grateful to be surrounded by folks as awesome as Wes, Kathy and Kelly.
My strategy on Day 2 had been to camp within two miles of Belt Creek, the most formidable obstacle of the portage. Belt Creek, or “Belt Crick” as it is known in these parts, begins many miles to the northeast, beyond the townsite of Belt, which lies on its banks, and empties into the Missouri about three miles below where I intended to cross it by bridge. From the fairly level prairie atop the creek draw, the distance by road to the bridge crossing far below was approximately ¾ of a mile. Climbing out of the creek would require a tremendous push, or pull in my case, up a steep gravel and dirt road that measured 1.2 miles to the level prairie on the far side. With 8.5 miles remaining in the portage, it quickly became obvious that Day 3 would require a humongous effort to finish at Widow Coulee by day’s end.
Just before I began the descent into the creek draw, I revisited an oddly placed site dedicated to the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805-06. These early American explorers had arrived at this same site after months of travelling up the Missouri with a dedicated crew of military men and intrepid souls. Not only had they had encountered the numerous “great falls” and countless rapids that lie upstream, but they also had to contend with how to get across the chasm that came to be called Belt Creek. While reading the interpretive signs and seeing artists’ renditions of the hardship that the Corps of Discovery had endured, I felt both a sense of inspiration and relief; inspiration from their relatable accomplishment and relief in the knowledge that our hardships differed greatly. I had roads and bridges to walk on and people to bring me ice water and foot baths at the end of long days!
The descent by road into Belt Creek was nothing more than a simple display of gravity. The kayak travelled downhill mainly by its own accord, needing no coaxing or convincing. The steep walls of the creek draw were laced with layers of grey and rust coloured rock, their rounded tops dotted with fragrant sagebrush. The creek itself, like many in this badlands area, was a shallow, meandering ribbon of clear water, its contents curiously having more volume upstream than down. The closer Belt Creek got to its confluence to the Missouri, the less water ran between its banks. Thirsty land and rapid evaporation are factors that create peculiarity in landscape such as this.
Once arriving at the bridge, I removed most of the gear from the kayak and hefted it in stages up the steep road. At a roadside spot I chose based on the fact that I was breathless, I piled the gear and returned to the boat for another shuttle. Thankfully, the lightened kayak climbed the hill easier than expected and I carried on over a stretch of easier grade, then positioned the boat in the roadside weeds and returned several hundred yards to the gear pile. Sweating and shouldering a multitude of waterproof bags, and grinning at the irony of carrying such gear in an area more arid than any through which I had travelled during this expedition, I continued on up the incline to its apex beside the aptly named Forder Farms. A lone brown stallion behind a wire fence stamped the dirt angrily and snorted at my presence, then whinnied and galloped out of sight, leaving me with a cloud of biting blackflies and a long walk back to the gear pile.
After sorely heaving a duffle bag full of gear to the kayak, which was now positioned halfway between the two gear piles, I decided to place the bag in the boat and pull the works up the hill to the farm. This idea lasted about three hundred feet until I nearly exhausted myself from the effort. I shouldered the bag and slowly waddled up the hill, well aware that my energy level was now waning.
With all the gear now at the top of the hill, minded only by an angry horse and hungry flies, I returned to the kayak only to discover that I had forgotten to switch on my SPOT satellite tracker while at the bridge below. I realized that if I turned it on now, there would be a gap in the tracking route. So I walked 20 minutes down to the bridge, switched on the device, said hi to a curious mule deer loitering in the sage, walked back to the kayak and pulled its reluctant bulk up to the gear pile. Winded, but relieved that I had overcome the obstacle that is Belt Creek, I packed the kayak and, in the words of Lewis and Clark, “proceeded on.”
The climb out of Belt Creek, a mere distance of 1.2 miles, had taken 4.5 hours to achieve. Owing to the fact that the portage had to be done in stages, I estimated that I had walked at least three times that distance. It was now 4pm and any progress that was to be made would be done with sore shoulders and ravaged feet. Even ascending the slightest inclines in the road felt like climbing mountain passes. Even more daunting was the fact that the road had taken a turn to the east to bypass a large wheat field. I felt as though I was being led further from the Missouri. Then, a sign appeared which read “FAS (fishing access site) 5.3 miles”. Widow Coulee, in fact, lay attainably near. This fact buoyed my spirits and I carried on for another hour until the pain in my feet drove me off the road. I set up camp in the shorn stubble of a wheat field and waited on Wes and Kathy’s arrival.
Watermelon, lemonade, ice water and another foot bath were served up in the rear of Wes and Kathy’s vehicle, a virtual ambulance during this damnable portage. We discussed their upcoming road trip to eastern Tennessee to visit Kathy’s mother as well as the goings-on at In Cahoots for Tea, a Great Falls tea shop owned by the couple. Before their hour-long drive back to Cascade, they drove down to Widow Coulee so Kathy could see the Missouri in its badlands setting. Along the way they saw several mule deer and a coyote and reported that I had exactly 3½ miles left to reach my destination, which meant that I had walked a meager, but hard-won, 5 miles on the day.
It bears noting that this campsite was atop a gentle rise upon which I could see for miles in any direction. This site marked the highest point of the portage. In the predawn darkness I could see the glow of Great Falls and the lights of the air force base that lay more than 10 miles away. There had also been an alarming stillness at night. There were no sounds, not even the stirring of insects or the rumbling of passing aircraft. Here, nature had been muted by pesticides and agriculture. Here, nothing flourished except our incessant need to feed a planet overpopulated with hairless monkeys possessing little foresight and an abundance of ignorance. Perhaps when our greed finally exceeds the stockpiles of grain, the sound of hunger will be heard in the night, coming across the plains in the wails and cries of children, descendants of gluttons, burdened by generations of ignorance and irresponsibility.
Day 4 began as a chilly affair. The temperature had dropped to 46°F during the night, necessitating a layering of clothes in the morning. Those layers were quickly shed as the day warmed. A desire warmer than the sun burned inside me to end this portage. Only 3.5 miles of road lay between the Missouri and me and I wanted to narrow that gap as soon as possible.
Excepting a few minor inclines that drew out groans and gritted teeth, the road to the river was mostly downhill, descending into a wide valley carved over eons by the river. From hundreds of feet up I could see the Missouri snaking its way north and I longed to be atop its surface in my little red kayak. Before the final descent to the river, I encountered a cattle guard embedded in the road. For those unfamiliar, the premise of the guard is to prevent cattle from crossing into adjoining property while allowing vehicles to proceed unhindered. Cattle guards were not designed, however, with kayak wheels in mind. The distance between the rails is too great and, as I learned after attempting to cross the guard on foot, will flatly stop anyone attempting to pull a boat on wheels over it. In my case, the sudden stop forced the kayak cart to collapse. I had to lift the boat off the cart, drag it off the guard and mount it back on the cart. I’ll also add that it was the first time I had ever encountered a cattle guard while portaging a kayak, but it wasn’t the last.
The final descent to the river came in the form of a steep 21% grade, hugely welcomed by my crippled fingers and ravaged feet. Gravity again lent its hand and the arid valley opened wide to accept a weary adventurer and his dusty kayak down to the river’s edge. But our journey was not complete until we made another cattle guard crossing. This time I stole from a large pile of cut weeds and placed the rotting vegetation between the rails in order to facilitate passage. My plan was hugely unsuccessful as the cart promptly collapsed again and the same procedure as before had to be followed; all this within sight of the boat ramp.
Finally, after 3½ days of self-inflicted torture, balanced only by an abundance of friendly support and encouragement from strangers and friends alike, the 26-mile portage was complete. I had successfully worked my way around five hydroelectric dams and I had done so completely under my own power.
After a last minute visit from a Wildlife and Fisheries officer that insisted on inspecting my life jacket, I slid the boat into the swift current, wedged my arse into the contoured seat and sighed heavily as a cooling breeze swept across the Missouri’s surface and gently caressed my sweaty face. I grinned and turned the camera on the towering walls of the surrounding badlands. I was home again. And I was happy.
Dead Willows and Lively Hospitatlity in North Dakota (September 3, 2012)
I’m currently enjoying a short 2-day hiatus at the Tobacco Garden Resort and Marina, a wonderful little oasis amid the arid landscape that surrounds Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota. Hospitality here at the resort comes dished in generous helpings. The curious and conversational resort staff have taken a sincere liking to the news of my river journey and have bent over backwards to offer some special North Dakotan treatment for this Canadian kayaker. The added bonus of camping beneath shade trees for the first time in several weeks has indeed been a treat.
All was not so charming Friday afternoon (Aug 31) as I fought my way through a huge, half-submerged dead willow thicket that, given low water levels, completely consumed the width of the lake, a full two miles at this point. It took me an hour to push, pull and curse my way through the morass, completely confined to my kayak and having to, at one stage, urinate in the cockpit of the boat. I’m not proud of that last fact, by the way. And before you cringe with thoughts of me soaking in my own pee while paddling, please know that minutes later the wind increased fourfold and proceeded to churn the lake into whitecaps. As foot-high waves crept over the bow and spilled into my lap, the cockpit cesspool became well-diluted and fully cleansed.
After a half-hour of struggling through wind and waves, I finally arrived at the western shoreline where I discovered yet another stretch of dead willows preventing me from reaching solid ground. Standing calf-deep in mud and stagnant water, I unloaded the boat and hauled my camping gear to the base of an eroded bluff where I was well sheltered from the howling wind.
Thus was my introduction to Lake Sakakawea, a body of water upon which, according to my paddling guidebook, many dreams of kayaking and canoeing the length of the Missouri have ended. Yes, it is one tough lake. But this seasoned adventurer has been through tribulations a-plenty over the years. With utmost respect to the lake, it will take much more than dead willows and wind to stop my journey.
The Challenge of Lake Sakakawea (September 10, 2012)
About the photo:
A rare calm moment on Lake Sakakawea, September 5. It seems like every time I take one of these POV photos I find some unseen thing lurking on the back of my head. You may remember that back in Townsend, Montana I had a piece of green river vegetation rooted in my hair. This time the unidentified stowaway is white. I have no idea what it was or how long it had been there. I hope it wasn’t a cocoon. *Cringe*
Today is Day 86 of the Missouri-Mississippi river system expedition. It is warm, sunny and strangely wind-free here at Lake Sakakawea State Park. I say “strangely” because, since leaving Tobacco Garden Marina and Resort on September 4, it has been constantly windy throughout the day, calming only in the evenings. And those evenings have been mighty cool with temperatures in the mid-40s. In fact, two evenings ago, there was a frost warning issued for counties east of Lake Sakakawea. Frost?! Hold on a minute. I’m not ready to deal with that just yet. What happened to daytime highs in the mid-90s? Oh yes, it’s September now. North America is inching into autumn as I inch along a river.
For the past few days, winds from the northwest have been blowing across the lake, producing swells and breaking waves over three feet high. Many times while paddling I could not see over these breakers. Paddling in these conditions was downright scary. Mix in the fact that there were dozens of open water crossings, including bays that were two miles wide, and you have situations that were just plain unsafe. I can honestly say that these were the most challenging conditions that I have ever paddled in. I was well beyond my comfort level and skill level. Sheer perseverance and luck got me here to Garrison Dam at the lake’s southern end. I am relieved to be here and have little interest in paddling this lake again.
Right now, I’m pretty sick of lake paddling. This is the tenth lake that I’ve descended since leaving the river’s source on June 17th. And it doesn’t warm my heart to know that there are still four more lakes to paddle before I reach the channelized portion of the lower Missouri River at mile 732. (I’m currently at river mile 1395, 1395 miles from the confluence with the Mississippi River.)
Lake Oahe (oh-wah-hay), the first of those four lakes, is a mighty 240 miles long, the longest of any lake I’ve encountered on this journey. According to The Complete Paddler, a Missouri River guidebook that I have with me, and what Carrie Formosa regularly uses as a reference for updates in my absence, Lake Oahe is “the most difficult obstacle in making a complete passage down the Missouri River.” So the worst is yet to come. Great.
Before I embark on my Lake Oahe odyssey, I have 76 miles of free-flowing river channel to enjoy. Water released from Garrison Dam is pumped from the bottom of Lake Sakakawea, so the water in the tailrace, the water exiting the dam, is a cool 52 degrees. Apparently this is done to help prevent algae from forming in the river and to aid the fish stock, which prefer cooler temperatures. I will be stopping in the town of Washburn (river mile 1355) to resupply food for the lake journey ahead. At river mile 1230 I will pass into South Dakota, the third state on this trip.
In case you were wondering, the three other lakes below Oahe are: Lake Sharpe (84 miles long), Lake Francis Case (107 miles long) and Lake Lewis and Clark (28 miles long). Lake Lewis and Clark is the last lake on the Missouri-Mississippi river system. Below this lake the channelized portion of the river begins (river mile 732). The next major body of water is the Gulf of Mexico, 1900 miles downstream.
Here is a list of the ten lakes/reservoirs, in order, that I’ve descended so far: Upper and Lower Red Rock Lakes, Lima Reservoir, Clark Canyon Reservoir, Canyon Ferry Lake, Toston Lake, Hauser Lake, Holter Lake, Fort Peck Lake and Lake Sakakawea. I’ll be a happier man when I add the final four to that list. Bloody lakes!
There is one more thing I should add about Lake Sakakawea. Its shoreline is exquisitely beautiful. Chalkstone bluffs topped with spiky grass rise vertically from sloped beaches lined decoratively with wavy sand and polished rock. Like a scene from the original Planet of the Apes film, collapsed columns of rock lie scattered doomsday-like at the water’s edge. As I rounded point after jagged point, I half-expected to see Charlton Heston on his knees in the sand, cursing his fellow man as a ruined Statue of Liberty loomed in the background. But I did not see ol’ Mr. Heston, nor any other humans along the shoreline of Lake Sakakawea. Nor did I see any other self-propelled adventurers. I saw only hardy anglers in warm jackets, bobbing in boats, bracing the wind and eyeing their lines for signs of hungry walleye. I was alone upon a lake too large for my broad mind to comprehend. I precariously rode waves and spit out the excess when it came rushing aboard my vessel and person. I tasted no sign of salt in the crystal clear waters of Lake Sakakawea, which means that my journey has not reached its end. Saltwater lies a few months distant, along the reedy coastline of a larger lake, a gulf into which all this water will someday pass.
The First Half Of Lake Oahe (September 21, 2012)
I wish I could say that this photo sums up my experiences on the first 120 miles of 240-mile long Lake Oahe in North and South Dakota. Unfortunately, it only summarizes about two hours out of six days that I’ve spent on the lake. I’ll get to those two hours in a moment. First, here’s a quick rundown on Day One.
Day One out of Bismarck, North Dakota was a fast-paced affair. The river moves swiftly here, and despite the fact that I spent the night camped beside Fast Freddie’s, a riverside bar on the Mandan side of the Missouri – noisy on a Friday night, I might add – and left in the morning having slept little, I made it 41 miles downstream, well into the lake and 1/6 of the way to the Oahe Dam. It was a great start! Tailwinds from the northwest and a good current certainly helped my progress.
After extracting the kayak from knee-deep mud along the shoreline, Day Two began with a helpful tailwind and a current that eventually melded with Oahe as the lake expanded in width. Then, things got interesting. (This is the point where the aforementioned “two hours” began.)
I arrived at river mile 1258 to discover that the lake had suddenly dried up, or so it appeared. To my left, the shoreline of mud extended a half-mile out into the lake. To my right, a huge, impenetrable thicket of dead willows, half-submerged in the murk, crowded in to meet the mud of the opposite shore. What was left in the middle was a bed of clay with 6 inches of water on it. Seagulls strolled around on the shallower bits. Beyond that, there was no more water, only earth. Two large hydro line towers loomed above the morass, their steel and concrete supports fully exposed atop the lakebed. To my right, beyond the trees, were two boat ramps and a campground. There was no activity among the parked RVs. The community of Beaver Creek lay 1.5 miles to the south, on the far side of the hydro towers. What was supposed to be an easy half-hour paddle with the tailwind had developed into a definite challenge with no foreseeable end.
Accessing the situation, I figured that I would pull the boat across the muck as far as I could and look for a channel of deeper water. Once out of the boat, I sank four inches in the mushy clay and plodded south, dragging the heavy kayak over the slick shallows. I came to a channel along the fringe of dead willows and climbed the tallest tree skeleton around to get a better view. I looked to my right, figuring that where there were boat ramps there must be a channel of water to launch boats into. My assumption was right. Beyond the willows lay open water! I slid back into the cockpit, mud covering everything inside the boat, and plunged into the thick maze of dead trees. I muscled through the thicket, branches snapping loudly and snagging on the kayak cart which was affixed to the stern deck. Minutes later I emerged into open water. What a relief! Unfortunately, my relief was short-lived.
As I crossed Beaver Creek Bay, the menacing tailwind doubled in speed and whitecaps suddenly arose around me. A thicket of willows separated me from the eastern shore and the shelter of Beaver Creek Campground. I was now stranded on the lake, bobbing dangerously among the rising waves. 20 minutes earlier the lake had been dry. Now it was everywhere in sight, animated and nasty.
I passed by homes along the shoreline, wondering if people were watching this foolish attempt to descend the lake in a tiny red plastic boat. I gained on the shore, nearly able to reach it through the trees, only to be turned back from safety by illusion. What had appeared to be a broad, sandy beach was simply the bleached trunks of more dead trees, layers deep, preventing me from reaching the shore.
Focussed and determined, as well as a little scared, I continued to paddle south, following a ridge of eroded bluffs. Confidently, I turned ‘round to peek at the mess from which I had just exited. What I saw then turned my confidence to panic. Stretched wide across the lake was a sky as black as night.
The rain came hard and cold, pelting my head and forcing me to wrench my coat’s hood over my wet dreadlocks. The fringe of dead willows parted and I bolted for shore as rain bounced off the bow of the kayak.
Cursing, I walked and scanned the shoreline for a suitable spot to pitch my tent. After ten minutes of digging up rocks and smoothing over the remaining sand, I prepped a spot just large enough to erect the tent. Cold fingers, wet and gritted with sand, chafed on every surface they came in contact with. Down came the rain. Up went the tent. In went the gear, followed by a cursing paddler, miserable, cold and wet through and through. “Happy birthday.” I said to myself. “Bet you didn’t wish for THIS!”
Days Three and Four were brighter affairs, with sun and songs a-plenty; me singing what lyrics I could remember by bands like Built to Spill, Superchunk and the ever-favourable NoMeansNo. Paddling clothes, cold and wet when I slid into them in the morning, dried crisp and comfortable in the afternoon sun. The waves and wind still provided a uniquely Oahe challenge, but I made good distance on those days, covering 26 and 18 miles respectively. Day Five, on the other hand, is memorable more for newly-found respect rather than distance achieved.
Day 5 I woke at 6am to the sound of waves on the shore. By the time I wetly launched into the surf at 9am, the lake was beginning to show a nasty face, one like the grimy grimace of a dark ages peasant, wrinkled and weathered hard.
I cursed and sweated and thrashed the lake with my paddle, making little progress against the onslaught of wind. Waves crashed over the bow time and again, drenching me. I crawled through the water painfully slow, agony and anger etched in my face.
When, after an hour of this madness, I could stand no more, I forced myself verbally to turn for shore and safety. And when the shore quickly arrived it was slickly lined with wet clay rounded into a two-foot drop-off. Waves pounded the boat as I ripped the sprayskirt from the cockpit coaming and attempted to haul the boat up the incline. I slipped and skated on the glistening clay, unable to find a foothold as the torrent of the rising waves bashed the kayak. In seconds the boat’s cockpit was filled with turbid water, making it even heavier. Bent at the waist, face to the clay, I screamed out profanities from a raging part of my soul. Hoarse and near tears, I somehow managed to haul the boat ashore and sought out shelter behind an old driftwood log.
Two hours later the wind had only intensified in strength. Walking on the beach in the wind was difficult. Paddling in it was a near impossibility. It was noon. The day was over. I had made two miles. Across the whitecaps I could still see where I had camped the night before. I decided to set up the tent in a partly sheltered spot beside an eroded bluff and wait out the wind. On this day I would relearn the lesson of patience that I have been relearning on each successive river adventure, starting with the Mississippi in 2001. The river has its own schedule. You don’t change it, you adapt to it. The river is in no rush to reach the ocean. It will wait in eddies and reservoirs, backwaters and oxbows until the time arrives for it to flow again. And if it doesn’t find the flow it needs, it makes its way heavenward where it will patiently wait until it returns to earth once more.
Day 6? Well, happily, the wind blew itself out. I rose at 4am and took to the water at 7 as the sky went all lipstick colours at sun-up. A gentle breeze rippled the surface. Then it left the lake alone completely for the remainder of the day. I rounded the rocky point at which I had eyed many times the day before; its spiky top signalled the spot where the lake makes a turn to the south. Had I been able to reach that point, only a mile distant the day prior, I could have ridden a mighty tailwind clear to the town of Mobridge, South Dakota. As it was, I had to wait a day for that to happen.
Now I sit inside a heated cabin at Bridge City Marina near the town of Mobridge. Out the darkened window I can see calm Oahe reflecting a waxing moon. In the morn I will take to its surface once more to respectively tackle the final 120 miles of its generous length. Wish me luck. I’m gonna need it.
Sunset over Lake Oahe, South Dakota Sept 18, 2012
The Other Work and the Work of Others (October 28, 2012)
I’ve been off the Missouri River since October 4, having left my kayak in the good hands of Jim Swenson at Swenson Bros. Marine in Chamberlain, South Dakota. Right now I feel like I’m on vacation from work. The extended downtime and heated indoor living has been a welcomed change from spending frigid nights sleeping in a tent. But, as much as the luxury of a warm bed and a warmer shower has been a nice change of pace, the truth of the matter is this: I am not on vacation. The truth is, I have simply stepped away from one type of work and stepped into another.
Paddling is but one passion among many for me. Self-propelled activities tend to top the list. Walking, bicycling and paddling help me maintain a healthy and positive outlook on life. I smile a lot when I’m moving forward under my own power. I enjoy the challenge and I enjoy the payoff: Progress.
There are other passions in my life, passions that are as equally challenging and as equally rewarding as propelling myself forward. Organizing fundraising events for charities in my hometown of Chatham, Ontario is one such passion. Raising the level of road-related safety awareness in the municipality of Chatham-Kent is another. Last year I discovered a way to marry these last two passions with self-propulsion and in doing so created another type of “work”. It is work that I don’t mind doing. It is not the 9-5 drudgery that I regrettably allowed to consume most of my “working life”. Instead, it is work filled with passion and vision. It is work that shares and welcomes ideas from creative and inspirational people. In fact, most of the time it doesn’t even seem like work. It feels more like life flowing easily, like a lifestyle, like a conscious decision to better my own life in hopes that it betters the lives of others.
Co-organizing the annual Jesse’s Memorial Walk for Children’s Safety is a good example of this marriage of ideas. The 7km walk, which took place on October 20, not only raised $3200 for the Chatham-Kent Children’s Safety Village but it also provided a means for people to be active. In a span of 90 minutes on an overcast autumn afternoon, 96 people walked a combined total of almost 700km, enjoying over 144 hours of exercise. They took time to remember and pay tribute to Jesse Nealey, a young man who was taken from them much too soon. They also raised money to help prevent such a tragedy from happening again. And they found solace and joy in the company of others and reaped the benefits of walking in fresh air on a crisp autumn day. This is the work I enjoy. This is the work I immerse myself in. It warms my heart and soul and allows me to share that warmth with others.
By the end of October I will be stepping back into the other work: adventuring. I’ll be back on the Missouri River, heading downstream toward the Mississippi River and onward to the Gulf of Mexico.
Honestly, I don’t miss paddling. I don’t miss waking to cold mornings bundled in layers of clothes inside an inadequate sleeping bag that has seen loftier days. Life is fairly easy right now. Life right now is mostly filled with Facebook updates, chatting online with friends, sifting through scads of photos and footage from the river and avoiding the task of compiling a list of cold weather paddling gear. The seasons have changed rapidly, too rapidly. A good portion of my mind still thinks it is July. I lounge in front of the computer screen clothed in a t-shirt and shorts, clinging to the thought of summer. Sunlight filters through the blinds and, from where I sit, the world looks and feels warm and comfy. But one glance to the lower right corner of my computer screen tells me it is October 28, 2012, and that alarms me. The outside reality is one clothed in layers, in puffy down jackets, in thick neoprene gloves, in warm winter caps and Gore-Tex shells. Words like “wool” and “winter” spike fear in my mind. It is a fear of something that I cannot control: the weather.
I am entering into the unexpected side of a journey that was supposed to reach its end by mid-November. It is now an end that lies far south of Chamberlain, South Dakota, an end that lies in places tropical not frozen. I do not blame anyone but myself for the delay. In fact, I don’t even blame myself for it. Days full of adventure and lovely meetings with curious individuals have been savoured immensely. I would not trade those moments for anything. I have woven my life with others along the river and I smile wholly and find warmth in the blanket of comfort produced by such interaction. Countless people have enhanced my journey enormously. To them I send hugs and happy thoughts.
I am 1650 miles (2650km) into this journey. The river is now split in two distinctive parts: the river before Chamberlain, and the river after Chamberlain. I have 2150 miles left to paddle until I reach the Gulf of Mexico. The distance, the paddling, the cold, the wind, the waves, the isolation; all of it is daunting. But since arriving in Chamberlain, South Dakota on October 4, my life has expanded and taken on new purpose, new passions. I am not the same man who stepped out of a kayak and onto the boat ramp at a small-town campground on a blustery day. I am fuller, happier, healthier and more eager to discover what lies ahead. I am in love with the idea of this journey. I am in love with every aspect, every nuance of this journey, from the generous warm hug of a beautiful friend to the icy cold sting of an unstoppable northwestern wind. I accept it all with the knowledge that each and every one of these experiences, these hardships and challenges, these joys and celebrations, greatly enhances my life and helps to mold the man I currently am.
I want to thank you all for being part of this journey. You make this expedition extra-special to me. Your encouragement and support helps me to push ahead when the path is narrow and foreboding. At journey’s end, the expedition’s success will not be mine alone, it will be ours.
Hugs and smiles,
Po-Po and the Wet Passport (November 6, 2012)
I’m currently soaking up some indoor warmth at the public library in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s a chilly 45 degrees outside right now, with the low tonight expected to be 31F. Frosty indeed!
I was pulled over last night by state troopers near Des Moines, Iowa. Apparently my ’86 Chevy pickup matched the description of a vehicle that had been involved in a hit and run. After being tailed for a
bout three minutes by the cruisers, on came the red and blue strobes and over to the shoulder I pulled. As I was rolling down my window, the interaction with the overly stern-voiced trooper went something like this:
Po-Po: Driver! Put both of your hands out the window where I can see them! Keep them there!!
Po-Po walks cautiously around the truck, peering in the windows with his torch while a super bright spotlight mounted on the cruiser warms the back of head through the rear windshield. Po-Po comes around to the driver’s side window.
Po-Po: Lower your arms!
I lower my arms.
Po-Po: Do you have a weapon?
Po-Po: Where are you coming from tonight?
Me: Chatham, Ontario.
Po-Po’s eyebrows lower and his forehead scrunches up. It was not the answer he was looking for. He asks the question again, angrily raising his voice this time.
Po-Po: Where are you coming from tonight?
Me: Chatham, Ontario.
Po-Po is clearly not impressed.
Po-Po: You’re driving north!
Po-Po: Where are you coming from tonight?
Me: Chatham, Ontario.
Angered by my response, Po-Po moves quickly away from the truck’s door.
Po-Po: Step out of the vehicle!
I step out of the vehicle and into the icy wind.
Po-Po: Do you have some ID?
Me: It’s in the vehicle.
Me: In that orange bag.
Po-Po shines his torch on the array of waterproof bags piled high on the truck’s seat.
Po-Po: Walk to the rear of the vehicle!
At the rear of the vehicle I am met by two officers who pepper me with questions. They explain that my truck matches the description of a vehicle involved in a hit and run. Po-Po searches through the orange bag, finds my wallet and extracts my driver’s license. He retreats to the cruiser to run a check on me. The other officers keep the questions coming. Their probing queries echo those asked 22 hours earlier during a 60-minute interrogation by customs agents at the U.S. border in Detroit. Outwardly I appear calm. Inside I’m steamed.
Angry Po-Po returns from the cruiser with my ID in hand. The three officers talk among themselves while I continue to shiver in the cold wind. I hear them say that the suspect’s name is Leroy Bolster and that he looks nothing like the dreadlocked guy standing in their spotlight. “Leroy,” I say to myself, “give yourself up so I don’t have to go through this again tonight!”
Po-Po hands back my license and I hop back into the truck’s warm interior. Before leaving the highway shoulder, I check my wallet to make sure that Po-Po hasn’t lifted a few dollars for his donut fund and discover that he had poorly fastened the lid of my plastic Nalgene bottle after he inspected its contents (plain tap water). I feel around in the cold puddle in the bag’s bottom and find the other thing I’m looking for: my Canadian passport. Its printed pages are soggy and smeared with ink. Still bathed in the glow of Po-Po’s spotIight, I shake my head, curse, and slowly merge into traffic.
Letting Go, Again (November 6, 2012)
Beneath a thick blanket of grey clouds the Missouri River silently winds its way south through the narrow impoundment of Lake Francis Case near Chamberlain, South Dakota.
Downtime here on the American plains has been a welcomed change of pace from busy hometown schedules and endless hours of interstate driving. The next two days will be filled with final gear preparations for the cold weather challenge that lies ahead. The kayak will be packed, repacked and packed again in an attempt to accommodate the added bulk of clothing needed to endure a winter on the plains. Somehow additional room must be made for food, water and a little certain something that I can’t live without: sanity.
Perhaps even more challenging than navigating through the endless morass of preparations is the necessary need to say goodbye to new friends I’ve met in Chamberlain. Long ago, during yet another river journey, I learned the importance of offering an open palm rather than closed fist. Back then I made the difficult decision to not cling to those around me but to let them go so that we could grow and be better people, people better prepared to smile in the face of adversity and to fill our futures and the futures of those around us with creative solutions and positive growth. Leaving Chamberlain will be difficult, but remembering the wonderful contribution that this little-town-beside-the-lake has made to this river journey will be anything but difficult.
Ready for the Re-Launch (November 8, 2012)
After a month of downtime, the Missouri-Missouri river system kayaking expedition is finally set to resume. Daytime temperatures here in Chamberlain have been mild as of late, but that is set to change as the weekend approaches. Temps in the teens have been forecast as a cold front moves through the area, bringing the inevitable signs that winter is just around the corner.
Cold weather clothing, including extra layers of fleece and down, has been packed in a watertight drybag and strapped to the rear deck of the kayak. I’ll be wearing a one-piece, waterproof Gore-Tex paddling suit from Kokatat to keep out the cold and wet as well as a comfy Kokatat fleece onesie under the suit. Thick neoprene paddling mitts from Mountain Equipment Co-op will keep my hands toasty and a rubber coated balaclava will keep my brain from freezing. Hopefully, all this clothing, as well as a new neoprene sprayskirt from Boreal Design, will make paddling in frigid conditions a wee bit more bearable.
A definite cold weather challenge awaits, but I’m happy to report that I am more than ready to face the challenge head-on. The expedition now enters a new phase, one surely filled with a host of risks and multitude of rewards. I can’t think of a place that I’d rather be right now.
In terms of paddling distances, Chamberlain, South Dakota is 968 miles from the Mississippi River confluence. Fort Randall Dam, which marks the end of Lake Francis Case, lies 88 miles downstream. I will then enter a 40-mile stretch of river that empties into 28-mile-long Lake Lewis and Clark, the last reservoir on the Missouri River. Gavins Point Dam, at the lake’s southern end, will mark the last major portage on the Missouri. After that, the only obstacle en route to the Gulf of Mexico will be the Chain of Rocks rapid on the Mississippi River above St. Louis. Thankfully, that rapid is easily portaged via a gravel parking lot.
By the way, I am wearing a FEAT Buff in this photo. Buff is a headwear company based in the UK and North America, and FEAT is an adventure talk series that takes place bi-annually in Vancouver, BC. I have been invited to talk about the Missouri-Mississippi river system expedition at one of their events in 2013. Check out what FEAT and Buff are up to!
The Last Lake (November 19, 2012)
I’m currently enjoying the heated interior of a room at the Cottonwood Motel beside Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, South Dakota. I’m also bloody relieved to be finished paddling Lewis and Clark Lake, the last of 14 lakes along the Missouri river system (including tributaries.) Of the 1800 miles that I’ve paddled so far, almost 1000 miles of it has been on lakes. River? What river? Missouri Lake would be a more appropriate title. At least it’s comforting to know that I’ll now have sustained current all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Challenging paddling conditions were frequent on every one of the 14 lakes along the river system, right up until the final paddle stroke yesterday. Whether it was navigating through a somewhat confusing maze of marshland or dealing with headwinds, crosswinds and a stiff breeze, my passage on Lewis and Clark Lake saw me paddling hard with sharp focus and clear determination to reach Fort Randall Dam in as little time as possible. Just the same, time was spared for a few smiles, because, after all, the scenery was pretty darn special too. :)
Yonder Comes the Current - Gavins Point Dam, South Dakota to St. Joseph, Missouri
Saturday, Nov. 24 – 25 miles paddled plus portage around Gavins Dam. A good day indeed. Steady current. Low water levels. Plenty of exposed sandbars. Camped on a sandy beach opposite 60 ft high bluffs. Beautiful. 55 river miles from Sioux City, the halfway point of this journey. 1900 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
Sunday, Nov. 25 – 44 miles paddled in 8 hours today. Cold and breezy. Wide river with many sandbars. Steady current. Saw several bald eagles. Now in channelized portion of river. Wing dams and tons of riprap to prevent erosion. Now 11 miles from Sioux City, Iowa. Goodbye South Dakota.
Monday, Nov. 26 – 18 miles paddled today. Spent half-day in Sioux City, Iowa. Had a great interview with reporter Lauren Mills from the Sioux City Journal. The story will be in Tuesday’s paper. Traffic, trains, industry. The river has taken on a new face: commercial use. Bitterly cold Monday night. My thermometer reads -10C/14F. High of 45F on Tuesday.
Tuesday, Nov. 27 – 35 miles paddled today against gusting headwind. Hard work. Moving through landscape of drab tans and browns, leafless trees and the dark faces of distant hills. -4C Tues night. Frosty!! Still smiling! 70 river miles from Omaha, Nebraska. Onward!
Wednesday, Nov. 28 – Day 131 - 33 miles paddled today. Headwinds again but sunny all day. Camped in an area of extensive riverbank construction at river mile 657. Forest cleared, riprap dumped, banks stabilized, side channels widened. High water mark from last year 15 feet up the surrounding trees, and those trees are high on the bank, 20 feet above the present river level. Amazing to think that this area was completely under water last year. Onward!
Thursday, Nov. 29 – 25 miles paddled today. Sunny. No wind. 50F. Passed the 2000 mile mark of this expedition – river mile 632. 1800 miles to go! Big thanks to duck hunter Mark Kuer for the lively morning chat and to Pat Mallette at the Driftwood Steakhouse near Blair, Nebraska for giving me water, pop and veggies, free of charge.
Friday, Nov. 30 – Sameness of the channelized river has become routine and somewhat boring. Struggling to stay positive. Cold and dampness irritating. Needing a break – heat, dryness. I’m now below Omaha, NB. Camped at river mile 608 on Iowa side. Highlights: saw a group of wild turkeys, more songbirds along the riverbank than upriver.
Saturday, Dec. 1 – Passing bridge construction in heavy fog was a daunting experience. Highlight: saw a refrigerator in a tree, a reminder of last year’s devastating flood. Camping with hooting owls, gnawing beavers and restless geese at river mile 572.
Sunday, Dec. 2 – 30 miles paddled today. Goodbye Iowa, hello Missouri. After fog lifted, sunny and mild temps in mid-50s. Big thanks to Nebraska City resident Harold Majors for the lift into town to get groceries. Onward!
Monday, Dec. 3 – 35 miles paddled today. Mild temps and gusting winds. Counted 26 bald eagles in four adjacent trees where I am camped at river mile 508, 58 miles upstream of St. Joseph, Missouri.
Tuesday, Dec. 4 – 33 miles paddled today. A generous helping of sun and mild temps in the 60s made kayaking more tolerable. At the boat ramp in Rulo, Nebraska, I met a most curious river character by the name of Rudy Fredrick, a man that has allegedly been beaten, shot, stabbed, hung and drowned, among other things, all within a stone’s throw of the Missouri River. He told me that while he was trapped underwater in the grip of a deadly whirlpool, a lack of oxygen had robbed him of quite a few brain cells, and that for many weeks after his ordeal he was unable to remember what the speed limits were on the roads around Rulo. Naturally, this resulted in several run-ins with the local authorities, who were always less than impressed with Rudy’s detailed account of his near-death experience. Even good excuses grow old quickly in this part of Nebraska. It’s also worth mentioning that I politely refused his offer of a Pepsi bottle filled with homemade wine. Some things are best left to the professionals with the most experience. It’s fuel for hell-raising, one could say.
Wednesday, Dec. 5 – An interesting day that began with a frosty morning in the mid-20s, followed by a 25-mile paddle downstream to St. Joesph, Missouri. I was welcomed at the French Bottoms boat ramp by the smiling faces of local paddling enthusiasts Emma Gossett and Derrick Boos, who offered to store my kayak for the duration of my stay in St. Joesph. Minutes later, reporters Alex Hassel from KQTV (ABC) and Bob Heater from KNPN (FOX) showed up at the ramp with TV cameras in hand, ready to document my arrival. Quite honestly, I had no clue that any of this was going to happen but I’m very happy that it did! Smiles all around!
I’ll be here in St. Joesph for a few days as I enjoy the luxury of a heated room and a bathtub full of hot water. Time to recharge the batteries before the push to St. Louis begins. I am currently at river mile 450, 450 miles from the confluence of the Mississippi River. I’m hoping to arrive in St. Louis by month’s end.
Big thanks to Bob Heater at KNPN (FOX) for the television coverage.
Jounral Entry - Day 181 (January 18, 2013)
Thursday, January 17, 2013 – Day 181 – 28 miles/RM 847
Tough day on the water. Sun and cloud mix. Mild around 40F. Frost in morning. River came up 20 horizontal feet on weedy sandbar. Weeds are wheat colour, dry and long dead. Trees are inundated. Icy wind came up, gusting strong from NE and took away the sun’s warmth. Crossed river at twin hydro towers with lines spanning high above. Saw two white-tailed deer, herons, heaps of ducks and a bald eagle in its nest in J, L and G Girvin Conservation Area. Lots of floating debris (trees, logs, branches), swirling in little bays, same as yesterday. Debris is dangerous, do not want the current to push me up on logs and capsize. Dodging logs while paddling. Always on the lookout for debris. It’s what is beneath the surface that scares me. “Tip of the iceberg”-type thinking. Very diligent along this stretch. Know when to paddle and when not to paddle. No mistakes. If you make one mistake you may not live to make another. Came through swirling, boiling masses of water, currents shifting left, then right and back again in seconds, jerking the boat 90 degrees in an instant. Trying to anticipate the abrupt change in direction, all the while staying upright, staying balanced. It’s all about balance. There is no way a person could outswim that current, moving along at 8-10 mph, racing by the riverbank. It messes with your mind. Fear is the mind killer. Somehow staying focused enough to ride through it, knowing, or at least hoping, that it is temporary and that I’ve seen the worst of it. Said in one word: frightening. Scariest bit of a big river I have ever been on. Brutal stuff. Left me shaking, fully alert and bug-eyed. In other words: alive! It’s worst on the outside bends. Racing water, noisily running over itself, constantly changing, me always trying to remember where roads and little towns are in reference to where I’m paddling, just in case I capsize and am separated from the boat, in case I have to hike through the woods to a road, find a way out, cold and wet and desperate to survive, stranded with no communications. Those thoughts go through my mind dozens of times a day, and have every day of this expedition. “What if…?”
Then calm. Passing new rusty red shoots on forest trees in the bayous and sloughs. Arcing riverbank redish-orange for miles as the sun lights it up. No houses or buildings or barges, just forest – a corridor of new growth despite the cruel weather, inching toward the inevitable spring.
Gunshots shake the still air. Duck hunters in johnboats in slack backwaters pulling triggers at 6am, 11am, 4pm. And everywhere vines, leafless wooden ropes snake across the forest floor, snagging my feet and causing me to trip time and again, cursing each time. Ropes dangling from skeleton trees, what will soon be a riot of green, crawling with insects now in mild temps. Yellow spray paint on rocks mark hunter access or perhaps a barge parking spot? Flagging tape perhaps signify the same? A household freezer among the driftwood, its lid broken free from duct-taped restraints. A television set rests on the muddy bank. Rusty barge cables and thick rope of blue and white, or yellow and white, frayed and dangling from trees. And plastic bottles of every size and colour strewn along the shore, garbage released by upstream hands.
Then a break on one of the only sandbars of the day. High water has covered the others. This one is free of snow, unlike the one yesterday, near New Madrid, where I paced between snow patches to work off a gut that was gaseous from too much rice and beans. This new sandbar is warm in the winter sun, but then, moments later, blasted cold by an icy wind. Ten minutes was all I could stand before I was back in the boat, paddling to create warmth.
Then a big bend, a hairpin affair, approaches. I duck in a back slough to avoid the outside edge of an island being rattled noisily with current, waves and barge wake. It is quiet in the backwater. A slow current suggests an outlet but a forest of rusty willow shoots says otherwise. Anglers fly by in a johnboat and wave. I wave back. They coast and cast, the splash of their sinkers visible in the afternoon gloom. Then a small channel appears. I slip through and into the river again. The current picks up and shoots me over noisy ledges of debris, straight into rafts of swirling logs and foam. I weave through the morass and into back currents, then out into faster, crazier water, well beyond my comfort level. Racing along, hating it. To the shore once more for a breather. Now near Caruthersville. Big industry, up a slough to my right, grows larger as I pass. Cranes, towers, barges, docks. Massive and unexpected. Then past a huge hangar-like building, a barge building shipyard. A newly painted red barge with white tie-down cleats sits tilted on launching rails. I think to myself, “So this is what they look like before rusting away.” The current races me past two workers at another facility. One man takes a photo. Buzzing by parked barges, eager to reach the campground in Caruthersville, now only a mile away. Then an angry stretch of confused boils and currents, jerking the boat to near collapse. “I want off this ride, now!” I shout. I look to my right and see a small sandy slope. It looks like an extension of a boat ramp at low water. I shoot out of the current, crossing the eddy line and, in relief, hear the hull of the boat hiss to a stop on the sand. My left leg is numb. I cannot move it. I sit until the feeling returns. Lead foot, spongy at best. I step into what looks like foam on sand but my foot sinks into 12 inches of water. I stumble and my leg threatens to snap. I gain my balance and chide myself aloud, “You better watch it! You’ll break that damn thing before the day’s done.”
I am at an old ferry landing. I decide to make camp. I’m spent and cannot carry on another mile to the campground. The details of finding a motel and storing the boat are too much for me at this point. I need shelter, food and heat. I go with what I know will work and erect my tent. By 6pm I am asleep. 14 hours later I awake, stiff and not at all refreshed. I’m hurting. I need a break.
Caruthersville, Missouri (January 20, 2013)
Big thanks to Ryan Hopgood for storing my kayak at his home during my stay here in Caruthersville, Missouri. I met Ryan yesterday at the local boat ramp, where he was enjoying his lunch in the sunshine, and he promptly offered to help in any way he could. When my 16’ sea kayak wouldn’t fit well in the back of Ryan’s truck, Jason Schrader and Daniele Berry, residents of nearby Hayti, Missouri, offered to move the boat in theirs. Thanks Jason and Daniele! New friendships were formed in the blink of an eye – such as it is on a river as grand as the Mississippi. :)
Memphis, Tennessee to Clarksdale, Mississippi (February 14-17, 2013)
Here’s a great shot of me passing under the Hernando Desoto Bridge in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Memphis photographer and paddler friend, John Henry. Check out more of John’s outstanding work at JohnHenryPhotography. Photo taken February 14. Copyright JohnHenryPhotography 2013
Feb 14 – 24 miles paddled today. Thanks to Memphis friends who came out to the Mud Island boat ramp to see me off. Sunny, clear sky, high in 60s. Decent current. Wonderful day for paddling. Saw four deer and plenty of waterfowl. Goodbye Tennessee, hello Mississippi, the 12th state of this journey. Great sandbar camp. Able to dry out sweaty paddling clothes before sundown. Yay!
Feb. 15 – Day 210 – Paddled 28 miles today. Mild, sunny. Stopped at castle-shaped casino in Tunica, MS to top up water bottles. Camped at lush green grass atop a high slope of riprap overlooking Mhoon Bend. Beautiful
Feb. 16 – Paddled 31 miles today. Overcast and cooler. Saw a few snowflakes in morning. Sun in afternoon, breezy. Scary situation with barge wake breaking over kayak bow and cockpit. Nearly capsized.
Feb. 17 – No miles paddled today. Tent-bound with stomach illness. Vomiting, diarrhea, no appetite, zero energy. If condition does not improve, may need to call for assistance and hike through the forest to road.
Another Illness, Another Recovery (February 19-23, 2013)
Part 1 – After two days of splashing the sandy banks of the Mississippi River with diarrhea, a solid bowel movement in the bottom of the procelain bowl was a gleeful sight this morning. Perhaps this is not exactly what you’d prefer to read in a Facebook status update, but let me asssure you that unexplained purges of bodily fluids certainly constitute as subject matter during a lengthy river expedition. Turn up your noses and avert your eyes if you will, but the proof, as they say, is in the pudding – proof that the challenges only end when the river does. Maybe. Just be glad that you don’t live downstream.
Part 2 – Dehydrated, weak and completely disappointed at having to deal with yet another illness, the second in three weeks, I made the decision yesterday to stash the kayak amid the riverside vines and hike out through the thick fringe of floodplain forest to the closest road.
Calls were made to Memphis friends Richard Sojourner and Dale Sanders, who were then able to contact John Ruskey, owner of Quapaw Canoe Company in nearby Clarksdale, Mississippi. Without hesitation, John offered vehicle assistance and lodging at his shop. Shortly thereafter, Ellis Coleman, a shuttle driver for Quapaw, arrived on the scene to find me standing atop the dusty levee road, head to toe in black fleece, windblown and bedraggled, baggage at my feet. Ellis, a talented blues guitarist with direct family lineage to some of the legendary blues greats from this area remarked, “From a distance, I thought you was a black fencepost.” I laughed and replied, “I felt like Robert Johnson standing at the crossroads.” Ellis smiled and astutely asked, “It was time to make a decision, was it?”
Part 3 – I’m now recovering comfortably at the Owl’s Roost, a two-bedroom apartment here at the Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The apartment is named for the owls that occasionally roost in the trees opposite the building’s west side. Today, from my roost inside the apartment, warm winter sunlight filters through the living room window, and although I do not see any owls in the trees, I can clearly see that the volume of the Sunflower River, its coffee-and-cream-coloured waters visibly swollen from last night’s raucous thunderstorm, has increased dramatically. Beside the Sunflower, on red wooden racks, is a fleet of overturned aluminum canoes, glowing silver in the afternoon sun. Next to the canoes is a ramshackle structure that functions as an open-walled workspace in the summer months. Roughly hewn beams and varnished tree trunks support rusty sheets of corrugated tin, vaulted steeply in an A-frame design. Bits of driftwood and old shoes dangle on strings from the beams as rusting antiques find new uses as tables upon which the creative Quapaw minds work their magic.
Here, in the birthplace of the Delta Blues, close to rivers muddy, mighty and ancient, John Ruskey, a humble man originally from the peaks of Colorado, has unhurriedly pursued his dreams as an artist, musician, river guide and master canoe builder. The Quapaw Canoe Company perfectly reflects who John is: a gentle soul extremely passionate about sharing the multitude of gifts that the local rivers have to offer. With mud in their veins and toes webbed by countless hours in the water, John and his team of Mighty Quapaws lend generous light on this little-known, but amply appreciated, paddlers’ mecca in the American South. Here, nature is their classroom, their teacher and their life. Here, they find themselves anew.
Today, John Ruskey and long-time friend “Muddy” Mike Clark, along with Quapaws Mark Peoples and Chris Staudinger, embarked on a 10-day canoe expedition around Big Island, a huge chunk of land bordered by the Mississippi, White and Arkansas rivers. They will be sharing their journey in real-time with schools in St. Louis, Missouri and Helena, Arkansas. Click the link below to read more about their Big Island adventure (“When A Friend Asks For Help…”).
Clarksdale’s own on-line source for off-beat happenings: www.DeltaBohemian.com.
Quapaw Canoe Company: www.Island63.com.
Well, the flu bug has passed and I’m feeling much better. Still here in Clarksdale, Mississippi, birthplace of the Blues. Getting back on the river Sunday morning.
I had a great interview yesterday with reporter Jesse Wright from the Clarksdale Press Register, the local newspaper. Big thanks to Jesse for his interest in the river journey. I’ll post a link to the story when it becomes available.
Today I’ll be giving a short talk at the Spring Initiative, an after-school program for Clarksdale students in grades 6-8.
Later today I’ll be attending a screening of some documentaries that were shot around Clarksdale. Barefoot Workshops organizes a documentary workshop for filmmakers each February. (A video gallery is available here. Check it out!)
This year, films from that workshop will be screened at the Shack Up Inn here in Clarksdale. Check out their unique selection of shack accommodations. My favourite is the Chicken Shack.
Check out Oxbow, a cool doc made at last year’s workshop. It examines a Clarksdale couple’s dream to open a restaurant in their hometown. Watch it on full screen.
Saturday, I’ll be doing a live Skype Q&A with the Grand River Kayak booth at the Outdoor Adventure Show in Toronto (10am-2pm EST). People will be able to ask me questions as a slideshow of river photos plays on a second screen. If you’ll be at the show on Saturday, stop by booth #438 and say “Hi”. The Q&A will be done live from inside an old blues bar here in Clarksdale.
Re-Launching on Sunday, February 24
I’m currently in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the birthplace of the Blues. I’ll be back on the river Sunday morning. I am 665 river miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Next stop will be Greenville, Mississippi, a five-day paddle from my current location. Barring any more setbacks (viruses be gone!), I plan to arrive at the Gulf mid-March.
The River's End (April 2, 2013)
Okay, it’s the day before Easter and I’m sitting on the grassy side of the levee overlooking the Mississippi River near Port Sulphur, Louisiana. A big dude and two young boys zip past on a four-wheeled ATV atop the gravelled levee road. They wave. I wave back. Minutes later they return, going the opposite direction. They wave. I wave back. I think no more of it. I’ve been seeing ATVs atop the levee for weeks.
Ten minutes later I hear another ATV approach. It’s the same dude. The boys are gone and an older gent wearing shades sits in their place. They cruise down the grassy slope and stop next to me.
“Hey man, wadder you up to?” says the big guy.
I’m admittedly nervous, thinking that I’ve trespassed on some coon hunter’s property and that the irate owner has come to shoo me off.
“Just stopped for a break.” I say, cautiously looking for a shotgun laying at arm’s reach somewhere between the ATV seats. “I’m kayaking down the river.”
“Kayakin’ down the rivva?” says the big guy, his head swivelling around like he’s searching for something. “Ware’s yer kayak?”
“Down there on the rocks.” I say pointing to the riverbank.
“Dang, boy!” says the big guy, turning off the ATV, “How long ya been out?”
Turns out there were no shotguns between the seats, no irate property owners and no unjustified beatings of emaciated paddlers from other countries. Instead, the big dude stuck out his thick hand and introduced himself.
“Cody Portie,” he said with a grand smile. “And this here’s my friend Joe Hebert.”
Cody reached in the back seat and brought out a white grocery bag.
“We thought y’all might be hungry, so me and my sister-in-law fixed up some food for ya,” he said, handing me the bag. “Hope ya don’t mind the leftovers. We had a big ol’ fish fry last night. Got some pop and drinking water in there as well.”
Cody, as I later found out, works for the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office. He is a sergeant in the Special Services Division. One of his duties is to present the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program to schoolchildren within the parish. He is hoping to branch out into motivational speaking. Cody lives in Marrero, Louisiana with his wife Jennifer and his six-year-old son Mason. A second child is on the way soon. He told me that it is his goal to meet three new people and do at least one good deed every day.
Cody invited me back to his father-in-law’s place – just over the levee – where the family had gathered for the Easter weekend. At first I hesitated, offering that “I should really try and make some miles today.” But then a little voice in my head, call it my “conscience”, if you will, quickly countered that lame excuse. The words “Say Yes More” sprang to mind. I looked Sergeant Cody straight in the eyes and said, “Thanks man, I’d love to join you guys!”
Surrounded by new friends, I was treated to cold drinks, barbequed veggies and generous conversation. I had a splendid time. I even got to try out the 100-foot zipline strung between the huge live oaks in the front yard. It was my first time on a zipline. Thanks to the encouraging words from Cody, Jennifer and Alley (Jennifer’s sister), my fears of pushing off from the pedestal and zipping high above the thick lawn were soundly dashed. (The video’s coming soon!)
On the way back to the levee, I explained to Cody that I had yet to secure a work boat to pick me up at the end of South Pass, where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Cody said he’d make a few phone calls and get back to me. Within 24 hours he had lined up a boat. And so, entered the one and only Earl Armstrong into our story.
“Mr. Earl”, as we respectfully dubbed him, is a retired river boat operator who can’t seem to stay away from either boats or rivers. Now in his late 60s, with tanned face and arms and sporting a cream-coloured cowboy hat and blue jeans, Earl exudes a humble and genuinely friendly confidence that washes over you in an instant.
Earl is a legend in this part of Louisiana. He was born and raised near Venice and has spent his life on the Mississippi. His passion for the delta runs as deep as his history. A few years back, after surveying the destruction of wetlands caused by Hurricane Katrina, Earl came up with a brilliant idea of how to allow silt that flowed from far upriver to naturally settle as islands, thereby shoring up a habitat for wildlife as well as a natural barrier against future storms. So impressed was the State of Louisiana that they named an island in the Gulf of Mexico after him.
Without me knowing, Cody arranged for Dale Sanders and Richard Sojourner to join him and Mason aboard Mr. Earl’s boat for the hour-long trip to the river’s end. (Dale and Richard are paddling friends from Memphis who had driven to Venice to pick me and my kayak up. They were overjoyed to find out that they would be on the river to see me finish my expedition.)
And so it was that the sound of an approaching boat and the encouraging words from my new friend Cody Portie (“Rod, my boy! You got this!”), found me at the end of South Pass with the Gulf of Mexico spread wide before me. The sheltering sky was gloomy grey but our collective mood was overly jubilant. The boat trailed behind me as I paddled toward open water.
After spending several minutes searching for a place to land, I settled the bow of the kayak on a sandy mudflat littered with rotting reeds. Mr. Earl nosed his boat ashore and we gathered like old friends to toast a victory that had been nine months and 3800 miles in the making. I couldn’t have dreamed a better way to celebrate it.
Big thanks to my brother Cody Portie for coordinating the boat pick up and for being so dang cool. Big thanks to Earl Armstrong for offering to help and for entertaining us with some great storytelling. Big thanks to Mason Portie for being an awesome young lad – confident, friendly, selfless, handsome and every bit capable of filling the shoes of his old man when the time comes. Big thanks to my adventuring brothers, Dale Sanders and Richard Sojourner, for driving seven hours to pick me up in Venice, and another seven hours back to Memphis. Your friendship means the world to me and your presence in my life continues to inspire me in ways too numerous to mention here. Thanks for being there every step of the way. You guys are awesome!