Thanks to Don and Jan Stover, wonderful owners of Creekside Community Brew and Coffee House in Greenville, IL, podcaster extraordinaires, and publishers of the Owl Creek Gazette. They allowed me to publish another article about my adventures, this time about my three day trip with Mark Juras on the Mississippi River. Check it out on page 13, and stick around for the other great content in this issue of the Gazette!
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.
Just wanted to have a post to keep track of articles/news coverage during my trip. There should be a few more to add to this when it’s all said and done so I’ll post updates here. Once again, thank you all for your support and for following my journey!
The River Press – Fort Benton, Montana:
New Haven Independent News – New Haven, Missouri:
It’s hard to believe how quickly time has passed since my arrival at the Arch on Saturday. Time on the river seemed to really slow down. I was in awe of that my first week out on the river and that feeling didn’t change throughout the trip. Back in St. Louis, I luckily haven’t really been rushing around to do a bunch of stuff, see a lot of people or places. I’ve been able to relax for the most part, and really pick and choose where I spend my time. Sunday, I was able to do a bit of trip/gear cleanup then spend the rest of the day at a big Hash (running) event, where I most certainly did not run, just enjoyed some cold beers and reveled in the misery of friends running 12+ miles in 95 degree heat. Monday, I spent almost all day catching up on stuff around the house, more gear and boat cleaning, grass cutting and other little maintenance things. Then yesterday, I loaded the MOstar up on my car then drove out to the Paddle Stop New Haven. Shane, who built my kayak, just opened a pretty fantastic workshop and store. I’ll be storing my boat out there for the time being as there’s a ton more space.
Because PSNH is regularly running shuttles on the Missouri River, all I have to do when I want to paddle my boat is to get the pickup in St. Charles, then put in at New Haven or Hermann and paddle back. I also assisted Shane (more learning techniques than actually helping) in his building of a cedar strip canoe that will be raffled off around the MR340 to benefit Missouri River Relief. The rest of the week will be more cleanup, house maintenance stuff, catching up with friends and family, talking to some folks at work to lay out my return, then believe it or not, heading down to the Meramec River for a float trip this weekend. I’ve been guaranteed I won’t have to do a lot of paddling.
I had a few things that didn’t really fit in other posts that I wanted to share:
Early on during my trip, I had the pleasure of staying with Jim and Vicky Emanuel near Helena, MT. Jim completed the entire Missouri River, eventually going all the way to the Gulf last summer. He showed me his spare wooden paddle he took on the trip. All along the way, Jim had his river angels who helped him along the way sign his paddle. I thought about doing something similar, and decided the best option I had was for people to sign the inside of my rear hatch on my kayak. So here’s the end result. Just a bunch of amazing people, some names are known up and down the river as legendary helpers of paddlers, as well as some close friends and family who really helped me on my trip. This is not a completed work. Unfortunately, I didn’t get one of the most instrumental characters in making my trip a success – Norm Miller. Don’t worry Norm, I plan to hit the reunion next summer and we can get you added. (And apologies to Missouri River Relief’s Steve and Melanie – I just had a couple too many beers at Cooper’s and just forgot. I’ll make sure you sign it at some point.)
Another amazing keepsake from my trip – this one crafted with love and creativity by a good friend Susan. When I pulled into Sioux Passage Park in St. Louis County the night before my finish, Susan handed this to me. I was blown away at how so very cool this thing is, as well were all my friends. The image is based on a photo taken of me by either Peggy or my friend Dan when I was paddling out of Tobacco Gardens in North Dakota (I think). Missouri Man I suppose has become my nickname after a few news articles referred to me that way, I’ll take it.
My final reading on my Garmin InReach. The time and mileage refers to what we covered on the final day, then the odometer includes the total mileage incurred from the very start of my trip. I was surprised it is not too far off from the offical river mileage for what I paddled, 2,456 miles. There were several times where I forgot to turn off tracking at the end of the day so it included me walking around a bit, or even riding in a couple cars. It also doesn’t include portage miles. I had my wife Sara make one of those corny cardboard signs that people put in their pictures at the top of a mountain. I suppose the Missouri River is my Mount Everest (someone mentioned to me on the trip that more people have climbed Everest than have paddled the whole Missouri River).
Friday afternoon, I paddled into St. Charles and was sure to get a photo by the not so life-sized statue of Lewis and Clark and Lewis’ dog Seaman. One of the many L&C sites along the river, this one really meant a lot. I have walked (and run a marathon) by this statue many times, never really stopping to pause and really examine it. Having retraced part of the route of L&C’s 1804 – 1806 expedition, I have a very small sense of what they saw and the challenges they faced. Of course I had all the modern conveniences that made my trip much easier, but throughout my trip, I relished the chance to walk where they walked, climb hills thay they climbed, and paddle meandering river bends that they navigated so long ago.
Just thinking of yesterday’s experience brings back the tears to my eyes that were flowing so liberally when I hit the bricks under the arch. Fortunately, I have weeks to process, recover, review, decompress and readjust to “normal” life. But I felt I needed to capture some of the moments and feelings from the last day of my journey while they are still fresh.
I’d be remiss not to first thank each and every one of you, whether you waited in the 90 degree heat by the river yesterday, or gave me a shoutout on the web, followed my blog, or even just sent prayers or positive vibes my way. Seeing the shore packed with friends, family, coworkers, relative strangers was very emotional for me as I’m sure many of you saw. I’d venture to guess that few, if any Missouri River paddlers ever had that kind of reception. It’s unreal, the highest of highs, easily one of the best days of my life. THANK YOU ALL!!!
I was so happy to share the final 20 miles of my journey with some close friends.
What you’re seeing is a beautiful mix of people – some with years of experience on the rivers, some with none. One of the main objectives of doing this trip and being so active in writing about my experiences was to connect more people with the river. There is no better way to do this than to take a few folks out on the river who’ve never experienced it, help them navigate the experience and enjoy it, and also relive my first time through their eyes. We dealt with some fast water, swirly whirlpools, strongs winds, big waves, shooting the chain of rocks, passing barges/tour boats and many bridges – in other words, the full river experience. Everyone did great, and I was happy to have the company.
Once on shore, I was at a loss as to what to do. Luckily, cold beverages were placed in my calloused hands, my wife, nieces, nephews, mom, dad, sisters, brother, uncles, cousins started the longest round of hugs I’ve ever had in my life. People didn’t even seem to mind the sweat, river funk, and the overpowering Missouri Man beard essence as they embraced me. It was unreal. So many photos, I did a quick interview with Fox 2, and it barely registered with me that there was a Corvette car show going on right above our gathering. Eventually we pulled the boat up the arch stairs to just below the arch for some pretty cool photos.
To put into perspective just how incredibly diverse the gathering of people were yesterday: quite possibly a person who’s known me the longest in my life (family excluded) – my kindergarten teacher Susan Federspiel! Susan taught not only me, but each of my three siblings as well. She’d been following my journey and made the trip out to see my arrival. On the other end of the spectrum – I camped at the boat ramp in Klondike Park three nights ago and got to talking to an interesting character, Austin, who was fishing for catfish. I told him about my trip, then sat and enjoyed a few beers with him late into the night after some visiting friends had left. As I was hugging friends and family, there was Austin, having known me all of 3 days, coming to welcome me home. Indescribable.
When I pulled into Sioux Passage Park the night before my finish, I also had a pretty large group of people awaiting my arrival, as the park was also hosting that night’s run of the Hash. Of course some people where taking photos of me as I paddled onto the beach, but I thought later that night that I should have taken a quick photo of them standing on shore and waiting my arrival. I had a second chance to do it yesterday, and though you may have to zoom a little, you can see the crowd of people waiting on the levee cheering me in below the iconic arch.
I woke up this morning in my soft bed in my air-conditioned house, then got up and glanced out the back door. There lay the MOstar, sitting in the morning sun, ready and waiting to take me thousands of more miles if I were to demand it. Future adventures await, but now it’s time to clean up, reflect, share, love, pack back on a few (but not too many) pounds and try to take every moment from this trip with me as I move forward back into “normal” life.
There will certainly be more updates, recaps, stories and other fun stuff in this space. Thank you for continuing to follow my journey!
I’m currently up early after working late on my kayak with my friend Shane at Timber Longboard Co. at his amazing new workshop/world headquarters – Paddle Stop New Haven. There were no major issues with the boat, just a lot of sun damage that needed to be sanded out and re-touched with varnish. Shane wants my rig to look good for the masses as I paddle up to the Arch! In terms of blog posts continuity, for now I am skipping my experience from Omaha to Kansas City. I’ll circle back on that after the excitement of the next few days dies down. Today I will paddle with one of my previous MR340 partners from New Haven to Klondike Park with a stop in Washington, MO. Tomorrow I will paddle into St. Charles where the Festival of the Little Hills is happening, then continue on to Sioux Passage Park, where I’ll spend my final night camping with a group of friends. Then Saturday, some hearty souls will paddle the final 20ish miles or so with me to the Arch.
I set out from Kansas City last Saturday morning. My amazingly generous friends Dawn and Ken dropped me at Kaw Point, where there were 4 other paddlers getting their boats ready. I paddled the whole day with Anqi and James, then Kim and Al were in fast surfski kayaks, so they were ahead of us most of the day. It was great paddling the 74 miles from KC to Waverly, exchanging stories, life experiences and getting to know eachother. I knew Anqi only from Facebook and from seeing his paddling pursuits on various groups. However, we both did the 2017 MR340, him in a 10ft Pelican kayak, the kind you can get from Wal Mart for $150. To race 340 miles in a boat like that on the Missouri River, and to finish, you instantly achieve legendary status in mine and many others’ eyes. Anqi has only been into paddling for the last few years of his life and I am inspired by his boundless energy, eagerness to be on the river all the time, and just his general positive attitude and warm personality. If you get a chance, paddle with him.
I’m connected with James in the small-world, crazy coincidence-but not really in our connected world-kind of way. James is married to Tracie, who in her work for the Japanese Consulate of Kansas City, was instrumental in both my and my brother’s interview process and eventual selection into the JET Program – the Japanese Exchange and Teaching program that allowed both of us to teach English in Japan for three years earlier in our lives. Tracie has been pretty close to my brother since then, and I’ll see posts from her here and there. Probably a year ago, she posted that her husband was going to sign up for this crazy paddle race across Missouri – of course I chimed and and offered my services on any advice or recommendations. James and I had exchanged messages here and there but never met. When Anqi posted on the MR340 page that he was going to paddle the KC to Waverly stretch, I coordinated with him, then also invited James to join us. Little did I know that this would be James’ first time paddling on the Missouri River! He did great throughout the day, luckily making an adjustment to his foot pedals halfway through the day that provided much needed relief. I don’t know many people who would have the wherewithall to paddle 74 miles on their very first day on the big river. James – good luck in this year’s MR340, you’ll do great!
We pulled into Waverly around 6:30pm after averaging nearly 10 mph all day on a swiftly flowing river. There to meet us was James’ wife Tracie as well as Rob Kalthoff. Rob is one of the many river angels and legendary names that I learned as I was researching and planning my trip. I was told over and over by people that when I get close to Waverly, I’d be in great hands. Rob had previously sent me a very useful list of contacts/river angels up and down the whole river, which came in very handy on my trip. I finally had the chance to meet Rob on the boat ramp at Waverly as he pulled us in. He brought us a plate of award-winning fried chicken that his wife Connie had made, though she couldn’t be there to meet us. He also had a basket of fresh homegrown tomatoes and box of peaches, both of which were just about the juiciest things I’ve had the pleasure of having drip through my man-beard.
We hung out for about an hour, talking, eating, drinking, visiting, sharing stories, all as the sun went down over the river. I will cherish nights like these from my trip, sitting by the river with river people, talking and laughing like old friends. Eventually, I pitched my tent and turned in for the night.
The next day, it was pretty cloudy with some rain throughout the day, and I wanted to make it to Glasgow, MO, where I was told the campground was reclaimed from the flood aftermath and was open with water, showers and camping. I made the 68 miles and pulled into Glasgow around 6pm. I set up my tent on the edge of the bank, then made my way into town, where unfortunatley all the establishments were closed early on a Sunday. Not to worry, the local Casey’s gas station was open and serving their pretty darn good pizzas. I grabbed one, the the young clerk let me enjoy a cold beer and use their wifi while I waited in their lovely air-conditioned store.
Their were thunderstorms for a lot of the night, not quite strong enough to blow away my tent, but enough to ensure things were wet and muddy in the morning. I packed up and got on the river for what I expected to be a hot day. The plan was for about 56 miles to get to Cooper’s Landing. I passed through Lisbon Bottoms, an interesting series of bends and a little bit of rough water, taking reconaissance photos of some potential challenges and pitfalls to share with the MR340 paddling group. It was a hot day, upper 90s perhaps, but luckily there was a pretty good wind all day, which provided some relief and but wasn’t strong enough to kick up any substantial waves.
Pulling into Cooper’s Landing around 5:30, I met Rodney who has been doing a ton of work to get Cooper’s back into shape after the flood. Although the tradition at Cooper’s is to get an amazing Thai meal served out of a food truck, they unfortunately haven’t returned since the flood. Soon enough, a couple friends from the Columbia, MO chapter of the Hash showed up with some beers and Shakespeare’s pizza. Steve and Melanie also showed up. Steve is the Executive Director of Missouri River Relief, and Melanie plays a huge part in all that they do. Missouri River Relief is the organization I chose to raise money for leading up to and during my river journey. We had a wonderful evening of once again, eating, drinking, sharing stories and getting to know eachother, all the while enjoying an epic sunset from the docks of Cooper’s Landing. Sensing any kind of theme here? Storms once again rocked my tent all night, bending but not breaking my shelter.
I once again packed up early and got on the water, depite the sluggishness of one too many beers and an ill-advised nip of Fireball the night before. I met an interesting guy on a self-made houseboat who was travelling at a very low rate of speed down the river – eventually to make it to New Orleans. I stopped at Wilson’s Serenity Point under the bridge in Jefferson City and was given a tour by caretaker Tom. While still getting back into shape after the floods, WSP is names after Joe Wilson, who was a river legend and who did incredible work to turn this otherwise sandy, muddy riverside spot into a must-stop attraction on the river. Multiple races on the river use this spot as their start, their finish, or a key checkpoint. It is normally beautifully serene, green and shady relief from the river heat. Right now it is kind of a muddy mess, but with Tom and others’ help, it will soon once again be everything that Joe Wilson loved and worked so hard on.
I kept paddling from Jeff City, running into two canoeists camped on the river just below the Moreau River. Then in another internet-enabled interaction, I met a St. Louis hashing friend down by the river where he was working at the nearby National Guard armory.
I paddled on to Portland, MO, where I was welcomed by my former co-worker Pat. Pat retired back in May and has been enjoying life. He lives in nearby Washington, MO and has on multiple occasions, brought me warm breakfast sandwiches on my MR340 races. He took some great photos as he usually does. My brother Joe also drove out from Fenton me meet us, we stopped into Holzhauer’s for a burger and some beers. Great conversation and catching up ensued, and I was once again renewed in body and spirit, spending a great evening with good friends and family.
The next morning, I paddled the short 17 miles into Hermann, and had time to grab a coffee and a breakfast sandwich from a local shop. Pretty soon, my paddling partners arrived – pulling up in a 12 passenger van and boat trailer hauling 3 boats and a stand-up board. This is Paddle Stop New Haven’s new operation! Shane and his wife Stacy recently opened their amazing shop in New Haven, MO and have also started shuttling paddlers up the river to certain points between St. Charles and Hermann. Joining Shane were New Haven staples and river legends in their own right, Gary and Lance along with Jay. Gary and Lance paddled the first half of the Missouri River in 2015 and will finish the rest of the river next summer. They also own and blow glass at Astral Glass in New Haven, stop in when you’re out here! I know Jay from a few Missouri River Relief events, where we worked one rainy morning in north county, removing invasive honeysuckle from the banks of the upper River Des Peres.
We had a terrific paddle yesterday, doing the 16 easy miles from Hermann down to New Haven, where we met a reporter from the local paper who took some photos and did a quick interview with me. Another St. Louis hasher, Mike was also there with some cold beers. We eventually moved our gear and boats back to Shane’s shop where we got to work on my boat, not before a delicious pizza at Lancito’s.
I am currently sitting at Missouri River mile 81. I will count down the miles to 0 – where I will enter the Mississippi River and paddle 15 miles to the Arch. My trip is winding down. I have a lot of feelings, too many and too complex to describe in this space right now. I am going to savor every remaining moment, each mile and paddle stroke, every interaction with friends and family and just flat out enjoy the hell out of it.
I got this text from my wife as she was tracking my progress:
“Can you explain what’s going on with the border there?”
In talking with my parents who visited me in Sioux City and stopped for a night in Omaha on their way, they remarked that they stayed in a hotel that was near a neighborood that was west of the Missouri River, but a part of Iowa (Carter Lake).
How about the lower Mississippi – ever seen that mess?
Why, in the 1980s, did a group of 5 guys spend 4 months digging up a steamboat wreck from the 1850s in the middle of a cornfield?
What’s going on here? Well, here is your answer. (Thanks for sending this my way, Anna Wenger.)
Over thousands of years, rivers, especially ones that generally flow over flat, muddy ground, will shift channels. The river constantly cuts through dirt and mud to form a new channel, obeying the laws of gravity to find the most efficient path towards lower ground. Banks erode. A horseshoe bend develops, then over the years, the river cuts into the start of the horseshoe until it erodes the bank completely, cutting off the horseshoe bend from the main channel and forming a lake – often called a horseshoe or oxbow. Left unchecked, a river like the Missouri will meander all over the plain between its bluffs, cutting a new path with each high water or flood event.
Certain portions of the Missouri I’ve paddled are still free-running, natural states of the river. The Missouri River Breaks section in Montana is the most natural and closest to its original state, then a few stretches of river between some of the larger dams and lakes, and a 50 mile stretch below the last dam on the Missouri, Gavin’s Point. Sioux City, Iowa generally marks the beginning of the channelized lower portion of the River. From Sioux City all the way down to St. Louis, the Army Corps of Engineers works to maintain a navigable, stable, 6 to 9 ft deep channel for barges and other watercraft. They do this by reinforcing the banks of the river with wooden piers driven into the mud, tons of crushed rock piled on the banks to prevent erosion, or wing dikes also made of crushed rock that point out into the river and ensure a fast current and prevention of sediment settling that would cause shifting in the channel of the river.
In the 1950s and 60s, in addition to building the 13 dams on the Missouri, the ACE also worked on shortening the main channel of the river. Where there may have been a long, curvy bend in the river, they simply dug out the shortcut between the start and ends of the bend to eliminate the extra miles for boat traffic. In doing so, they shortened the total length of the river by 72 miles!
One other result of the shifting of river channels was its effect on the geography of state borders. In many cases, the river acts as the border between states. When state borders were originally drawn, the river was in its natural state, and thus, continued to shift until channelization and stabilization occured. The borders did not shift with them. So a farmer farming his land on the East side of the river in Missouri may tomorrow be farming land on the west side of the river, but still in Missouri.
Today I got the chance to tour the Steamboat Arabia museum in Kansas City. Similar to my story of the Steamboat Bertrand in Nebraska, the Steamboat Arabia wrecked just upstream from Kansas City in the 1850s, then was recovered from the middle of a farm field in the 1980s, under 50 feet of mud and sand and a half mile from the river.
River channelization and meaures to control the flow and natural tendencies of the river vary in their success. Recent years have seen 100 to 500 year floods occuring with shocking regularity. Engineers designing dams, levees, dikes and other control structures on the river based their calculations on data that was 50 to 100 ears old and prior to the extreme effects of climate change. It seems the more we try to control the river, the less control we really have. I am certainly of the belief that the river be allowed to retain or in some cases, revert to its natural state when feasible. I don’t advocate for the destruction of the dams on the river, or letting all floodplain farmland be once again consumed by the river. But seeing the rampant development that’s occuring on floodplains just in the St. Louis area is very scary. The Missouri River is alive, it is powerful. It may live in its man-made channel today, but it will not forever.
I am certainly new to the issues surrounding the river and a big reason for taking this journey was to learn more. I hope to continue to do so, and also to educate others around these issues.