I’d heard about Asian carp jumping into boats on the Missouri River and knocking people out, or even causing small vessels to flip. But it was still a real surprise when a big, silver fish came flying out of the muddy water and landed, flopping, right at my feet in Junebug I, the multi-passenger canoe I was helping paddle.

That’ll dispel any lingering, early-morning sleepiness!

After dispatching the carp, our merry band rejoined the flotilla of 70-some kayaks and canoes heading down the waterway as part of PaddleMO, a five-day journey on North America’s longest river. Organized by Stream Teams United in conjunction with several partner organizations, the voyage focuses on the final 100 miles of the Missouri, from the German village of Hermann, Missouri, to the confluence with the Mississippi River north of St. Louis.

To be sure, PaddleMO is not your everyday float trip. For starters, it’s a paddle, not a float. The food is exceptional — no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for this group — and education and ecology are important parts of the itinerary. Plus, sharing a river adventure of this magnitude with like-minded folks from around the state and beyond is a genuinely exceptional experience.

Perhaps the most user-friendly and life-altering aspect of PaddleMO is that it offers participants a chance to step outside their comfort zone and try a new challenge within the supportive framework of an organized adventure. All the logistics are taken care of — you just need to paddle.

Five Days of Fun
Our PaddleMO journey last September began at the historic Hermann riverfront and ended at the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area, with camping, music and stories around the campfire capping off each day.

We paddled 22 miles from Hermann to New Haven on the first day. The second day began with a 10-mile paddle from New Haven to Washington, then 12 miles from Washington to Klondike Park near Augusta.

The third day was the longest at 28.5 miles. Nature talks at Weldon Spring, Howell Island and Johnson Island offered a chance to get out of our boats and stretch. The fourth day was shorter, at 17 miles, and again featured nature talks at stops along the river.

The fifth and final day was the shortest, at 10.5 miles, putting us at our take-out around noon. The Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area provides an eye-popping view of a great natural feature: the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, which forms the third largest watershed in the world.

Barb Ostmann celebrates at the take-out at Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area.

The author celebrates at the take-out at Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area.

As a bald eagle soared overhead and a few monarch butterflies flitted past on their seasonal migration to Mexico, I appreciated what an awesome experience it was to paddle through so much water and so much history.

Natural Beginnings
PaddleMO was launched in 2016 by Holly Neill, former executive director of Stream Teams United, and Rob Hunt, natural resource education coordinator for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The two patterned the event after Paddle Georgia, a well-known recreational paddling event.

Bill and Jody Miles, co-directors of Earth’s Classroom, an environmental learning center in Rosebud, Missouri, plan the educational component of the trip. They line up educators and researchers from DNR, Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), National Audubon Society and other organizations to give presentations on water quality, Native American history, ornithology, freshwater mussels and other topics.

From the beginning, locally sourced food and beverages have been a major part of the journey. Paddlers dine at area restaurants, wineries, breweries and coffee shops, in addition to catered sack lunches and campsite meals. Those who think they’ll lose a few pounds on this adventure soon discover it’s unlikely.

Breakfast buffet at Kate's Coffee in Augusta, Mo.

Breakfast buffet at Kate’s Coffee in Augusta, Mo.

The inaugural trip was capped at 50 paddlers; last year and this year, the limit is 100. Paddlers have ranged in age from 11 to 74. For some, it was the first time they had ever paddled a kayak or canoe — or been on the Missouri River. Others are experienced paddlers.

“Big Muddy” Mike Clark of Big Muddy Adventures steers the 450-pound Junebug I on the voyage. People can choose to paddle the entire trip in the 14-passenger vessel, or trade places in another canoe or kayak for a day for a change of pace. No matter what type of vessel you choose, the trip is sure to make memories.

To help preserve those memories, all participants receive a PaddleMO adventure journal complete with daily maps and landmarks and space to write their own observations. The spiral binding and water-resistant paper make the keepsake handy to use on the river.

Highlights and Treasures
The river excursion affects participants in various ways.

Sarah Wright-Aholt, a member of Missouri Stream Teams and part of the PaddleMO support crew for 2017, grew up in the river town of Washington. “I loved watching people fall in love with the river, and the state of Missouri, with each stroke of the paddle,” she said.

“People get so intimidated by the Missouri River, but this trip really showed how she is like a gentle giant. It meant a lot to see people understand why the river is so important, and how our resource of clean water is a treasure we need to protect.”

Brooke Widmar, operations manager for Stream Teams United and PaddleMO event coordinator, looked at the trip from both an organizational and a personal viewpoint. “I hadn’t explored many of the towns along the Missouri River, so getting to learn about them and researching all the local shops and restaurants was very interesting,” she said. “It’s such a fun event to plan.”

One of Widmar’s personal favorite moments came while chatting with paddlers at Kate’s Coffee in Augusta during breakfast on Sunday morning: “The church bells started chiming next door and one of the participants turned to me while pointing to the church and said, ‘It’s the little things that make this trip so unique.’ He was absolutely right. The trip blends outdoor adventure with place-based history and small-town charm.”

While some people counted miles or strokes, others counted birds and insects. Angie and Aaron Jungbluth of St. Charles are MDC volunteer naturalists and ardent birders. They heard or saw 57 different species of birds during the voyage. “It heightens our experience by listening and looking for the birds we share the river and its surroundings with,” said Angie. They also counted 10 different species of singing insects.

Rafting up for a nature talk by Jody Miles

Rafting up for a nature talk by Jody Miles

David Sprecker of Owensville joined up because his cousin’s wife invited him. Although he had several months to get in shape, he ended up waiting until the weekend before PaddleMO to climb in a canoe or kayak. The first two days of the trip, he paddled a canoe with his cousin. On the third and longest day, he found himself solo in a short, stubby kayak. To his surprise, he made it, not only that day, but for the rest of the excursion.

“The most amazing thing was what one can accomplish just by putting one oar in front of the other,” Sprecker said. “Although I can’t recall ever having done something just to be able to brag about it, I brag about paddling 100 miles down the Missouri every chance I get.”

Wright-Aholt waxes poetic about her home state. “Missouri is such a beautiful state, a hidden gem in fly-over country,” she said. “This trip lets us see a cross-section of Missouri. We soaked up the nature and the small towns, but also crossed into the urban center, seeing our human impact and uses.

This trip will change how you look at the Missouri River, the state of Missouri and the precious resource of water,” she continued. “Some trips relax, some challenge, some change a person. PaddleMO did all of that and more. I’ve told so many people to go on this adventure. It’s an experience that will always be a part of me.”

Asian carp and all.

PaddleMO 2018 will take place from September 19 to 23. Learn more at paddlemo.org or call Stream Teams United at 417-459-6526.

Author: Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is an American Canoe Association-certified kayak instructor who loves to paddle Missouri’s rivers and streams.