Snowpack Worries

It’s been snowing in Montana. A lot. A huge factor in the success, or even feasibility of my trip is the conditions on the river. Whether it is high or low, fast or slow, the amount of snow melting and flowing the 3000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico is the largest factor.

I haven’t been following the snow reports too religiously, only knowing that snowpack up until a week or two ago in the upper Missouri River basin was at 80 – 90 percent of annual average. This was good. Lower water levels mean a more manageable trip logistically. Boat ramps and landing areas are exposed, less muddy. Potential campsites are available and easily accessible, versus having to paddle through flooded fields, forests or mudflats on the side of the river. Alas, things have changed.

Some of the key drainage areas for the upper Missouri are now at 110 to 120 percent annual average. And it is relatively early in the year – there are 2.5 more months of potential snow still to come. The Army Corps of Engineers has apparently been preparing by releasing more water from the massive reservoirs further downstream to allow more water in and not have to release more so quickly, potentially causing downstream flooding.

How quickly the warmer Spring weather hits the area is a big factor as well. A slower thaw allows the water to be gradually passed downstream, whereas a quick warm up may overwhelm the system causing massive flooding, river closures and damage.

From here on out, I will certainly be monitoring the conditions of things, and consulting the faithful experts up and down the river for their thoughts, opinions and warnings. Fingers and toes will be crossed for a timely departure in May, but I’m now going to have to consider some type of backup plans. Yikes…

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Wilderness First Aid     

The prospect of spending 3+ months on the Missouri River, most of it on my own, prompted many thoughts; one of which was health and safety during the trip. I’ve had little to no first aid or medical training up to this point in my life, so I figured I should probably get some – at least the basics. After searching around a bit, I ran across a two-day Wilderness First Aid course offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School (www.nols.edu) through REI.

The course was held last weekend at the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, MO. I joined about 25 other outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom have had some pretty extensive experience in the outdoors and first aid/rescue in general. The class was a good mixture of lecture, demonstration and hands on scenarios. They did a great job of introducing a point, reinforcing it, then allowing the class to put it into practice – certainly the best way to learn anything, really. As an added bonus, one of the instructors is an EMT in rural Idaho. I got a chance to pick his brain a little bit on considerations specific to my situation on the Missouri River.

So what did I learn? The bulk of the course focused on the Patient Assessment System (PAS) – basically what are the first things that need to happen with an injured person in the wild. Finding out what a person’s injury is seems obvious, but it’s not always that easy. Then asking the right questions to get background or history with what might be going on with the patient, then making a plan to help them, and communicating to outside help if needed. We also got into specific scenarios on how to initially treat certain injuries, as well as avoiding some of the most common causes of injury in nature: wounds, burns, blisters, heat stroke, hypothermia, lightning, altitude sickness, anaphylaxis. I also learned I’d be well-served to pimp out my first aid kit a little bit better…

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Patient Assessment System (PAS) Triangle

I was viewing the lessons in this course through a bit of a different lens than some of the others in the class. Others spoke of leading youth groups on multiple days treks into the wilderness, or assisting with first aid at large camps or outings with family. My primary purpose of being there was to be able to provide first aid or (more preferably) prevention to injuries to myself during my trip. It was certainly reinforced how important a lifeline is as well – and for friends and family – yes, a potential rescue will be only a button away thanks to my handy Garmin InReach+.

I was exhausted after the two-day course. I rarely have the need to have my brain turned on in that capacity on the weekend, so going back to work Monday morning was a little rough, not feeling like I even had a weekend. But overall, I think it was certainly a valuable experience. If I have the chance to use anything I learned either during my trip or on any adventures that will follow, it will be more than worth the investment. I do recommend attending this or other NOLS courses.

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The Gear List

What to bring. A massive challenge is to pack the most basic essentials to survive on the river for 3+ months and still make it all fit in a kayak. This is an ever-evolving list, but here is where it stands 83 days out from the start of the trip:

paddling
boat
seat
rudder kit
paddle
back up paddle
PFD
portage cart
straps/bungees
foam blocks
bilge pump
bail sponge + cup
spray skirt
hatch cover
camping
tent
pillow
sleep pad
sleeping bag
sleeping bag liner
tent footpring/tarp
camp chair
hammock
dry bags/gear bags
deck bag
small dry bag
medium dry bag
large dry bag
cell phone case
backpack/stuff sack
food prep
camp stove
gas
lighter
matches
utensils
ziplocs
dishes
cup/mug
foil
olive oil?
salt/pepper/spices
food
TBD
hydration
5 gal tank
soft canteens
nalgene
life straw/bottle
collapsible bucket
clothing/footwear
Hoka sandal
flip flops
communication
cell phone
garmin inreach explorer+
camera/tech
waterproof camera
bluetooth speaker
rechargeable battery brick
13w solar panel
power cords
ipod?
tablet?
bluetooth keyboard
miscellaneous
PFD knife
leatherman
hunting knife
hatchet?
shovel
para cord
elastic para cord
rope
head light
flashlight
batteries
gorilla tape
epoxy/patch kit
fire starter
binoculars
sunglasses
needle/thread?
fishing gear, hooks, bait
whistle
hygiene
toothbrush/paste
first aid kit
multi-vitamins
towel
rag
soap
anti-bacterial
wet wipes (BD)
snus
solid waste bags
floss
A&D cream
tinactin
sunblock
bug spray
laundry detergent
moleskin/KT tape
essential oils/deep blue
books/maps
L&C journal
personal journal
pens/pencil
The Complete Paddler

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Planning a Descent

It’s hard to recall the exact moment I decided I was going to paddle the Missouri River. But suffice it to say, shortly after I made the decision (or maybe even before), I learned of this book.

Complete Paddler

https://www.amazon.com/Complete-Paddler-Guidebook-Paddling-Headwaters/dp/1560373253

Starting in 2002, over the course of three summer trips, Dave Miller completed a descent of the Missouri River, from Three Forks, MT to the Arch in St. Louis. He created what’s widely considered the Bible for Missouri River thru paddlers. It’s a book rich in all sorts of details: preparation for the trip, gear considerations, maps, routes, GPS coordinates, places to camp, historical references (heavy on Lewis & Clark), warnings, directions and all sorts of other practical information.

I quickly purchased the book and hungrily devoured it within a few days. I was even more convinced to do the trip, but also struck by the reality of how much prep would go into this trip. Initially thinking about the trip, I knew I would have to devote quite a bit of time on the following areas – in no particular order:

  • Professional plan: what to do about that pesky job on a 3+ month trip
  • Navigation: river maps, stops, resupply, meeting points, portages, etc.
  • Supplies: what to bring
  • Transportation: getting me, my boat and my stuff to the start
  • Paddlers: am I doing this solo or finding others to join me?
  • Trip budget: what am I going to spend?
  • Money coverage: financial obligations while I am gone
  • Re-entry: getting back to normal after the trip
  • Research/reading: learning as much as possible about the trip and related historical materials
  • Blog/social media: sharing the experience with the world
  • Emergency plan: what will I do when shit happens
  • Insurance: health care coverage in the absence of a job
  • Communication: staying in touch with others while on the river

There may be one or two big categories missing here, but I think I did a decent job of figuring out the big stuff right up front. The bulk of the prep for the last 18 months or so has generally fallen into each of these categories. Later on, I did decide to undertake this trip as a fundraiser for Missour River Relief, so that would have to be one additional area.

The center of all my planning is a massive Google spreadsheet with 8 tabs that generally correspond with the larger categories listed above. Two of my key tabs are my gear list and my itinerary. I will post the content of those in the coming days. I am also tracking potential sponsors for my trip, not so much for stuff for me, but for donations that we’ll eat, drink or raffle off at the kickoff barbeque/fundraiser in April.

Another obsession over the last couple months has been food dehydration. Surely deserving of its own post, I’ve run the food dehydrator almost nonstop since we got it, prepping meals, ingredients and snacks and stocking the deep freeze in preparation for the trip.

Lastly, the Missouri River Paddlers Facebook group is a very active community of 2,500+ people who have some connection or interest in the Missouri River. There’s an almost contact flow of questions, pictures, stories, experiences and resources that get posted and shared about the river. Norman Miller is the administrator of the site and has accumulated a great wealth of resources and materials about trip planning, maps, logistics, photos and stories from those who’ve paddled the river. Along with Dave Miller’s book, I was able to find almost all the information I needed for the trip.

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The Journey Starts on the Madison

The Missouri River starts where the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson rivers come together in Three Forks, Montana. Brower’s Spring (44°33’02″N 111°28’20″W) is considered the ultimate source of the Missouri River. That is basically considered the furthest point from which water flows which ultimately ends up in the Missouri River. It is 300 river miles upstream from Three Forks. Those who want to say they’ve paddled the entire Missouri from the ultimate source paddle from Brower’s Spring. Many others begin their journey where the Missouri actually starts, in Three Forks. I chose to start on the Madison River.

Why? I think it’s for a few reasons:

In fall of 2017, Sara and I had the chance to honeymoon in the western US, and explored Yellowstone for a few days. We did the obligatory photo op at Old Faithful and strolled along the paths near there where the geysers and boiling springs dumped into the Firehole River. As soon as I could, I dove into google maps and started tracing where that water goes. The Firehole River dumps into the Madison in Yellowstone a few miles to the west of Old Faithful. 100 miles down the Madison to Three Forks. So yeah, the same water that shoots into the sky from Old Faithful ends up passing in front of the Arch in St. Louis. Pretty awesome! While I cannot legally paddle the Firehole River or the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park, I can start at the park border on the Madison.

Another reason I chose to start on the Madison is because not many other people do. In talking to some experts on Missouri River expeditions, a few have started on the Madison but the great majority start at Three Forks, or further up the Jefferson. The more I researched the Madison, the more confident I became in my choice. It is a world class fishing river, very popular with fly fishermen. It has some fast-flowing water and some pretty challenging rapids – up to class V – but these areas are able to be portaged by a touring kayak unequipped to hit much whitewater.

The lower stretch of the Madison River is a popular place floaters like to go for leisurely summer days. There are some larger lakes on the upper Madison – Ennis Lake, Hebgen Lake and Earthquake lake, which was actually formed when a landslide triggered by a 7.5 earthquake in 1959 plugged up the Madison. Unfortunately, 28 people died in the disaster and there is a visitor center that I look forward to visiting. There are opportunities to camp and various spots along the river as well as a couple small towns to grab a bite or last minute supplies. I expect to take 6 or 7 days to descend the Madison to Three Forks, putting in at the head of Hebgen Lake just outside West Yellowstone – right around here (4°42’46.6″N 111°05’50.2″W).

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February Update

February in St. Louis usually means lots of time spent indoors, out of the cold, snow, ice and general bleakness of winter in the midwest. Last weekend was unseasonably warm and did afford the opportunity for a nice paddle on the Big River and Meramec, from Byrnseville down to Route 66 State Park. Yesterday the thermometer barely touched freezing, but I had the chance to explore the beautiful sandstone canyons and frozen waterfalls of Don Robinson State Park with some friends.

Preparation for the trip is ongoing. I am officially approved for a sabbatical from my job. After approaching my boss with the idea for the trip, it was run up the ladder to my VP, HR then eventually the CEO and consideration was tendered, approval was given. It took a week or two to work out the details but this past week I was able to make it official, as much as publishing a post on social media counts for offialdom. As Norm Miller commented on my post, I have to do it now.

I didn’t expect fundraising for Missouri River Relief to kick off this early in my prep, but I went ahead and added the fundraising option to my initial Facebook post and have generously recieved just over $400 in donations. I am very grateful to all those who’ve contributed.

The kickoff barbeque and paddle day on Sunday, April 28th is the next big task. The invites are out, but now to find sponsors for food, drink and raffles. I don’t think there will be any shortage of boats and boards for people to try out, but I do have a concern about having enough PFDs to go around. Plus the end of April in St. Louis is certainly a wild card weather-wise. We’ll at least have a pavillion for shelter if needed.

One of the biggest logistical puzzles to solve for the trip will be supplying my body with enough calories and nutrients to fuel about 6 days a week of 8 to 10 hours of paddling. Late last year, Sara encouraged me to look into food dehyration. She follows a few food dehyration subreddits and ordered me a fantastic book detailing methods, ideas and recipes. Since the new year, I’ve really gotten into it. It probably warrants a separate post to detail out all that I’ve made, but suffice it to say, I’ve been dehydrating something almost every day and have been assembling meals to freeze now, and consume somewhere along the Missouri River this summer.

Hopefully over the next 6 weeks or so, a key component to my trip’s success will be procured. My friend Shane of Timber Longboard Co. will be crafting me a new kayak. While he has made some amazingly beautiful and functional stand-up paddleboards, this kayak will be his first. I have little doubt the he will make a top-notch boat. I am hoping he will complete it with ample time for me to try it out, to get comfortable with it, and to ensure it will be able to get me down 2400 miles of big muddy water. There is however, a backup plan in place should things not go according to plan with the new boat.

Others have already asked me, and have made tentative plans to meet me at certain points on the river. I am grateful to those who will make the journey, whether that be to Montana, the Dakotas, Omaha or much closer to home. I am certain that seeing familiar faces along the way will lift my spirits and keep me going. I hope to polish up a rough itinerary in the next few weeks which I’ll share.

Work is very busy and will contunue to be until my departure in mid-May. I don’t think the reality has set in quite yet, for either myself or coworkers, in terms of roles and responsibilities when I am out. I put together a rough plan, but it will certainly need to be more detailed and I’ll need to prepare those who are assuming my responsibilites to be successful with me out.

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