After three weeks of getting back into my pre-expedition life, I wanted to get back on the water, just for a couple days: to reactivate the callouses on my hands, to wake up my paddling muscles once again and to see a new stretch of river. Originally, I had talked with friends about heading down to southern Missouri to the Current or Jack’s Fork Rivers for some paddle camping. As last weekend approached, a new opportunity presented itself.
A fellow river traveller, Mark Juras, was making his way down the Missouri River and was near mid-Missouri. He started his trip at the start of the Missouri River in Three Forks, Montana and was going all the way to the Gulf of Mexico – a true source to sea trip. He stopped in New Haven, MO where he met some friends of mine, including Shane from Paddle Stop New Haven and Timber Longboard Co. Shane paddled with him from New Haven to Washington, then gave me Mark’s contact info so I could help him out with anything as he neared St. Louis. Mark made it to Pelican Island in North St. Louis County last Saturday, then decided to take a day off Sunday as it rained pretty steadily for the first half of the day. He would be at the Arch on Monday. I asked him if it would be alright if I paddled with him for a few days and he obliged.
When I asked him what he needed, he responded with a pretty specific list of items. In addition to water and ice, he also requested “meat”. I responded to ask what kind of meat. “Pre-cooked chicken breasts or thighs, a cooked half rack of pork ribs, frozen Italian meatballs and Polish kielbasa sausage.” Very specific, this is a guy who knows what he wants, I thought. I was also impressed at how well he was obviously eating on his expedition.
On Monday, I loaded up my kayak with all the gear I needed, plus everything on Mark’s list and headed down to the Arch. I met him, and prepped my boat for departure, and he packed his coolers with the meat. Mark is using a rowing skull – a wooden boat he built from a kit himself. He sits facing upriver, then with a seat that slides forward and backwards, pulls two large oars to propel himself downriver. He uses rearview mirrors to see where he’s going and to spot approaching hazards or barges. His boat is also large enough to haul quite a bit of gear, including a couple coolers where he can store lots of meaty goodness.
I was not paddling the MOstar for this trip, she being stored out in New Haven for the time being, but my Missouri River backup plan boat – my Current Designs Nomad – nearly 19ft long. We loaded up and departed, into the thick of the Port of St. Louis. Within two miles, I had seen and passed more barges than I had on the entirety of the 2,456 miles of my trip down the Missouri. The Port of St. Louis is an extremely busy area and you have to constantly keep an eye out for barges and tugs moving in and out, parking and departing, loading, unloading. Many years ago, my friend Doug and I paddled my very unstable Wenonah racing canoe from Chain of Rocks to Jefferson Barracks Park, dodging barges and somehow not tipping the boat over in the barge-induced waves. I still don’t know how we managed that. Mark and I had a lot more experience under our belt and were comfortable in our respective boats so passed through South St. Louis and under the JB Bridge with little fanfare.
We passed the large Bussen Quarry at I-255 then Cliff Cave Park. Around 5pm, we started looking for a decent place to camp on the Illinois side of the river. We found a nice sandy spot under some shady trees and set up camp. I gathered wood to build a fire to keep the bugs away and to start some coals for dinner. I’d gotten a full rack of ribs versus Mark’s requested half rack, so he wrapped the whole rack in foil then dropped them on top of the coals to warm up. He cooked up some cabbage, onions and tomatos as a side and we ate very well that night. Mark’s cooking setup was amazing, he had nearly a full kitchen’s worth of ingredients, gear and spices. The dehydrated meals I survived on during my trip sounded pretty unappetizing in comparison to Mark’s setup. He even popped popcorn after dinner as we shared our experiences of traveling down the Missouri. With the sun setting, the aggressive mosquitos appeared so we retreated to our tents for the night.
From St. Louis to Cape Girardeau, MO, it’s around 128 miles. Mark had a plan to reach Cape by Wednesday. After paddling 30 miles Monday, Mark wanted to knock out at least 50 miles the next two days. We got on the water by 7:30am, again navigating a bit of barge traffic. Having spent a lot of time on the big rivers, I’ve had the chance to learn how barges navigate, where they need to stay within the river channel, and where it’s safe to be when they pass. Mark and I wanted to remain in the channel where the fast water is as long as possible when a barge approaches, moving off to the side into the slower water when it gets closer. A few times, we got the helpful blast of the barge’s air horn alerting us to their presence and to kindly get the hell out of the way.
Some of the barges kicked up some pretty big waves as they passed, but Mark and I had dealt with much worse on some of the bigger lakes further up the Missouri. I found myself looking forward to bobbing up and down and surfing down the backside of an approaching swell. We passed St. Genevieve, MO close to mid-day and continued on to Chester, IL. Mark was rowing with a purpose today and I paddled at nearly race pace to keep up. We stayed together quite a bit during the day, but occasionally he would move out ahead of me. When he stopped to rest, even being able to stand up in his boat to stretch (color be envious!), I was able to catch back up with him.
We pulled into the boat ramp at Chester, then walked to the nearby Landmark pub and grill. We had a refreshing afternoon beer and a bite of lunch before getting back on the water. We paddled for another couple hours before starting to look for a campsite. Just below Chester, we approached three gentlemen in canoes making their way down the river. We talked to Greg, one of the three from a group called Warrior Expeditions. This group outfits and supports veterans who want to paddle the entire Mississippi River. we visited with them for a bit and bade them good luck before continuing on. We once again had a pretty nice sandbar campsite that night after completing a long 57 mile day. Mark cooked up some pasta with the meatballs I had brought from St. Louis, another fantastic dinner.
We had a nice breeze through the night and nearly a full moon to provide some pretty amazing illumination at the river’s edge. We were up early once again and got onto the river as the morning mist was burning away.
We had a nice uneventful early morning, knocking out some miles and enjoying the wonderful scenery at a slightly slower pace than yesterday. Around mid-morning, we were suddenly in a barge traffic jam. For about an hour, we had to navigate probably eight barges moving up and down river. We attempted to remain in the main channel when possible, often having to move over to the side to let the big boys pass. It quieted down a bit as we got closer to Cape Girardeau, arriving around 2pm.
Mark packed up some dirty laundry and got a ride with some Department of Conservation workers to the laundromat and grocery store – he needed to top off his meat supply. I stuck around the boat ramp, keeping an eye on our boats and gear and relaxing in the shade of a pavilion. A friend of mine was driving the two hours from St. Louis after work to pick me up, so as I awaited my ride and Mark’s return, I encountered the characters of Cape Girardeau’s weekday boat ramp visitors.
Sally and Keith walked up and sat at the pavilion with me. They had a brown bag full of airplane bottles of booze. They were very friendly, but obviously under some distress. Sally was sick and on her way to the hospital. They stopped at this riverside spot to drink away some of her pain, as it’s where they got engaged years ago. Sally told me she’d put on 20 or 30 pounds of water weight in the past week, fearing her heart or kidneys were the problem. Several times through tears, she told me she was dying. I struggled to provide any kind of words of comfort to these people I’d known for five minutes. I’m no doctor, but drinking shots of hard liquor obviously isn’t a good idea in her state. So when she offered me one, I accepted, hoping that consuming slightly less booze would help her in some way. After a half hour of conversation, Sally and Keith, often in tears and attending to messages and phone calls from family and friends inquiring about her health, departed. Before they left and out of earshot of Sally, I told Keith that their next stop had better be the hospital. He nodded vaguely and they left.
Mark returned later in the day with clean clothes, groceries and some cold beers, getting a ride back from town from Giles. Giles, an older gentleman from Cape Girardeau, sat with us and shared many stories from his life, some inspiring, humorous and also heartbreaking. A kayaker drove up and unloaded his kayak. Ken introduced himself and his dog to us, asking us about our trips, then took off for a late afternoon paddle on the river. Mark decided to pack up his boat and row five more miles downstream to an island to camp. I bid him farewell and good luck on the rest of his journey. After he departed, another paddler came from down river and paused at the ramp. I met Danny, who was a very experienced paddler on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. In the small world of expedition paddling, we played the name game for a bit and found some mutual acquaintances. He told me in a few weeks when it cooled down, he planned to paddle upriver from Cape to St. Louis. Quite impressive.
Eventually, my friend Brett arrived and we loaded my boat and gear onto his jeep for the return journey to St. Louis. I’d scratched the expedition paddling itch and was happy to be heading back home. During my trip down the Missouri, I very much enjoyed the few days I paddled with others. It was a great opportunity to have good conversation and share the journey with someone versus the day to day slog of solitary adventuring. Although Mark was obviously comfortable travelling solo, as I was the first one to paddle with him on his trip, he did thank me for joining him and told me how welcome it was to have company for a couple days. I was a little surprised I didn’t even have the slightest urge to continue down the river with Mark and complete the full source to sea journey to the Gulf. That’s not for me, at least right now. Someday maybe. Well, stronger than maybe: most likely. Definitely.