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).


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.


Missouri River Relief

So Mark, what is this Missouri River Relief you talk about? What do they do? Why do you want to raise money for them? Why not pick another cause? What’s your experience with them?

I wouldn’t consider myself a life-long river rat. Sure, I filled sandbags in Bellefontaine Neighbors during the flood of ’93. I stared at the massive Mississippi and Missouri Rivers on outings as a kid, wondering where the rivers started and ended. I scrambled down into the pungent River Des Peres during my dad’s softball games at Wilmore Park. Like many St. Louisans, I went on the yearly southern Missouri ‘float’ trips. But in 2010, when I signed up for my first MR340 paddle race, I really began to see our local rivers differently. I got to spend hours on these massive rivers in a tiny boat, learning the currents, watching the eddies and whirlpools, seeing the wildlife on shore, flying above or jumping from the water in front of me…being in such a wide open space that I didn’t often get to experience growing up in a crowded city. I fell in love with being on the rivers and knew this would become a big part of my life. And not to keep these treasures to myself, but to share them with others, and to protect them so everyone who comes after me can experience what I have.

Enter Missouri River Relief:

Missouri River Relief is a community, volunteer and equipment-based not-for-profit organization dedicated to connecting people to the Missouri River through hands-on river clean-ups, education events and stewardship activities.

I heard about Missouri River Relief in 2010 as a first timer in the MR340. MRR is a huge sponsor of the race every year and provides boats, volunteers, safety resources and general river knowledge and expertise to the ever-growing race. I got to know the organization and various people involved in MRR over the past few years. I’ve continued to participate in the fun stuff – the races put on or sponsored by MRR, but I’ve also gotten out to their river cleanup days, as well as speaking & community events that MRR plays a big part in.

In addition to the above, MRR is very involved in education around the river. They train teachers on how they can integrate the Missouri River into their classrooms and lessons. They run a program that takes every single 4th grader in the Columbia, MO public school system out on the river for a half day – Amazing! They also partner with many other education focused community and conservation organizations and events.

Right there smack dab in the middle of that mission statement up there is what I most value about MRR: connecting people to the Missouri River. If I can undertake a massive adventure like this, but also bring more eyes to the river and Missouri River Relief more specifically, that’s a wonderful opportunity. Steve Schnarr, MRR’s Executive Director has been great in providing me information and resources and I look forward to MRR’s support throughout my trip.

I have a link on the right side of this page where you can make a donation to Missouri River Relief – anything you care to contribute is much appreciated. But also consider other ways you can get involved: come on out to a river cleanup day – they are really fun and a pretty awesome way to have an adventure on the river – and they are super kid-friendly. Consider paddling on the rivers – Race to the Dome, or if you’re more ambitious the big one – 340 miles from Kansas City to St. Charles. Or talk to me or other river rats – it’s not as hard as you think to get out and paddle for fun on our rivers. Or just feel free to follow me along on my trip to be a part of the experience. Thanks for reading!


PS – throw them a like on the Facebook or Instagram:

A Trip by the Numbers

mo river

From the edge of Yellowstone National Park to the foot of the St. Louis Gateway Arch:

  • States (7): Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri (Wyoming??? Illinois???)
  • Total miles: 2,450
    • Madison River: 100
    • Missouri River: 2,341
    • Mississippi River: 9
  • Number of dams: 15
  • Average depth: 10 to 20 ft, at least 6ft at low water
  • Average current speed: 1.2 to 3 miles per hour, zero mph on the lakes
  • 3 of 5 of America’s largest reservoirs: Lake Sakakawea, Lake Oahe, Fort Peck Lake
  • Total number of days from start to finish: 90 to 140


The Trip: The Why

There will be ample opportunity and time to explain the How of this trip. Planning, logistics, preparation: I can (and will) write for hours about what I’ve already done and what I will continue to do leading up to departure in May. What’s more difficult to put down on paper are the reasons I’ve chosen to do this trip.

As I’ve had the opportunity to try to explain what I am planning on doing to curious friends and family over the recent holidays, I have a decent grasp on what my motivations for this trip are. First and foremost is the adventure and the challenge. I’ve tested myself on the MR340 a handful of times. Every time I finish that race, I tell myself that’s the hardest thing I have ever done and will likely ever do. By undertaking the MR2450, I am changing that realization. I believe this will be the hardest thing I have ever done, and will ever do (until my next idea, I suppose…) The planning that I’ve done has already been challenging and very educational, as I’m certain the next few months will be. And when my loaded up car pulls out of the driveway in mid-May, it will be time to test my planning skills, my ability to deal with challenges that arise and my day-to-day capacity to just survive. Physically and mentally, it will be totally different from anything I’ve done before and I expect to learn much more about myself and the world in the process.

My secondary motivation is not quite as selfish. I’ve learned that many people who’ve previously undertaken a Missouri River descent trip have done so in an effort to raise money for various noble causes. The attention and publicity a long distance paddler will inevitably receive from not only friends and family, but from local media along the way and of course the ever-expanding reach of social media is a wonderful opportunity to do something great. I’ve decided to raise money for an amazing organization, Missouri River Relief. The first line of their mission statement is something that has been on the forefront of my mind since before my first experience on the river and will certainly remain a focal point in my life for the foreseeable future:

Missouri River Relief is a community, volunteer and equipment-based not-for-profit organization dedicated to connecting people to the Missouri River through hands-on river clean-ups, education events and stewardship activities.

Certainly, I plan to expand on what this organization does and what they mean to me, and why I’ve chosen them as the source of any fundraising I am fortunate enough to undertake.

In my personal and professional life, I feel like I am in an ideal spot to take this trip this year. My ever-patient and understanding wife is up for this adventure as well. She’s helped me plan, work through ideas, acted as my reality check and will be my virtual ground crew during the trip. She will travel to Montana to push my boat into the water and will be my eyes and ears back in base camp here in St. Louis during the trip. And she might even come meet me somewhere along the way. My employer will know about my plans soon enough. I’ve been a loyal and effective employee for 13+ years, and I am crossing my fingers that my proposal for a sabbatical will encounter understanding, flexibility and encouragement from them. To be continued…

Thanks for taking a moment to read and hope you’ll continue with me on this adventure.


The Trip

The Missouri River: from the confluence at the Mississippi River in North St. Louis County, 2,341 miles upstream to Three Forks, Montana. The Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin Rivers come together within a half mile of eachother and create a clear, cool, calm flowing river.

My experience on the Missouri began in Cousin Hugo’s Bar in early 2010. Until the time, the Missouri was there. It was something to look at from the bridge, or to look out at from the safety of a wooded bank or levee. In Cousin Hugo’s that night, I learned that a fellow runner in our local group was going to participate in the Missouri River 340, a 340 mile paddle race from Kansas City, MO to St. Charles, MO – taking place that July. Charlie’s first attept at the race at a time he was 68 years old*, had his loyal friend Dan worrying about him surviving the race, much less finishing. Dan suggested I join Charlie for the race. A few beers deep after that day’s run, I was in!

8+ years and 4 MR340 finishes later, I’ve come to love the Missouri River and have set my sights on something bigger: to paddle the entirety of the river (plus a little more). I want to put my name on the relatively short list of those who have done it. I want to explore the bends, the coves, the rapids, the portages, the windswept lakes of the unfamiliar upper Missouri. I want to approach Kansas City from the upstream side, then finish with the now familiar 340 miles to St. Charles. Then I’ll paddle 26 more miles to the Confluence, then 9 more miles to the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the finish line. Oh, and I am going to start the trip on the Madison River, 100 miles upstream from Three Forks where it flows out of Yellowstone Park, a couple miles from Old Faithful. 2,450 miles.

The plan is to start in mid-May 2019 and finish sometime in September.

I always thought the MR340 was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and likely the hardest thing I will ever do. I no longer think that. Over the next few months, I hope to provide a peek into the planning and preparation I am undertaking, the amazing people and groups that are already helping me towards my goal. Then during the trip, I plan to share experiences, images, video and my progress towards the finish. I’d be honored if you would join me.

*Charlie is planning on participating in the 2019 MR340, at age 76, paddling with his son and grandsons!