Life is hard. Our fast-paced, technologically advanced society places more expectations on individuals than ever before. In these times, I often find myself retreating to the wildest places of the world. There, the challenges to survive are real, the societal expectations nil and the rewards immeasurable.
A few years ago, this quest caused me to turn to my backyard: Missouri. I decided to canoe 1,000 miles down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers from Omaha to Memphis. And I did it in the winter.
The first question people asked when they heard about my journey was, “Why in the winter?!” The reality is that very few paddlers go out on the big rivers in the winter. It can be dangerous and miserable. As any Midwesterner knows, the winters here can be harsh. There are blizzards, ice storms and thunderstorms. In addition, on the rivers, there are high winds, ice flows and water that can induce hypothermia almost instantly. A fall into the middle of the Missouri River in this colder-than-a-deep-freezer weather is likely to result in death. All of this makes the place sound like the Arctic, but worse, because no one expects the Midwest to be like the Arctic.
Honestly, I was never much of a paddler before this trip. My shiny, new Wenonah canoe arrived at my home in Augusta, Missouri, three days before I was scheduled to depart from Omaha. But, what I lacked in paddling acumen I made up for with my willingness to suffer. Whether I’m on a multi-day skiing and climbing trip in the mountains or sewing a torn sail on the Pacific, I’ve always loved the hardships of big adventures.
So, why was I doing this in the winter? Because I had no clue how hard it would be.
The next question people had was, “Why are you doing this?” This was a tough question, and it challenged me in ways I never anticipated.
I spent six weeks getting from Omaha to Memphis. Most days were grueling labor, struggling against fierce headwinds, big waves, cold and storms. On the bleakest, most overcast and windiest days, a dark cloud hung over my spirit, zapping my will to continue amidst the discouraging conditions. I often asked the river, “What am I doing out here?” Several big storms forced me to seek shelter in the homes of friends and family for extended periods. Each time I had to do this, I felt a sense of defeat at the hands of an unforgiving and uncaring river. I love the waterway and the natural wilds of Missouri’s river country, and this made the setbacks all the more depressing.
I grew up near the banks of the Missouri River in rural St. Charles County. Winter and summer, I passed most of my free time wandering around in the woods and fields surrounding my family’s home. I tracked animals, climbed trees and caught fish to my heart’s content. I have early memories of sitting at boat ramps watching the river’s current. No matter the conditions or the direction of the bend, the river kept moving past the horizon and into the south. Along its course, I knew that the Missouri became the Mississippi, and the Mississippi crawled through a distant and mysterious world of swamps, deltas and seas.
As a kid and then a young adult, I spent countless hours reading about the early inhabitants of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, including the Osage and the first European explorers. The powwows at Cahokia, the stories of Lewis and Clark, and the art of George Caleb Bingham captured my imagination.
I had always wanted to find a way to connect with these cultures and adventurous spirits beyond holding a book in my hand or studying a painting. I wanted to move through and experience the landscape in a similar way. I came to believe there was no better opportunity than a canoe journey down two of the greatest rivers in the United States.
So why was I doing this? One word: passion.
I love the river, its ecosystem and its stories, and I love the sensation of moving across the water. But, I yearned for the journey to have meaning beyond those things. I found the answer to this search for meaning in a place I had never thought to look.
Autism affects several members of my family. The impact of autism on both the person on the spectrum and the people caring for him or her is immeasurable. Today, one in 68 children receives an autism diagnosis. This developmental disorder varies in severity, thus its description as a spectrum. Autism is characterized by a difficulty in social interaction and communication. On the severe end of the spectrum, people can be non-verbal. There is no cure for autism, and the cause is unknown.
In autism and my family, I found a mission for my journey beyond merely paddling on the river. As I made my way downriver, I would stop in river communities and discuss autism with anyone willing to brave the cold boat ramps. However, I had no idea just how much the voyage would challenge me, and how autism would become the inspiration for each mile I paddled.
The trip started off cold but easy. There was no wind on that first morning, and the water was smooth as glass. The beauty of the river, even on that grey day on the Great Plains, distracted me from my doubts toward the commitment I had made. The sight of bald eagles above and deer on shore reminded me of the adventure that I had set out to find.
This calm did not last. Within two hours, a large ice flow spewed into the Missouri from the west and Nebraska’s Platte River. The river no longer looked serene. A wall of white chunks of ice filled my view. The large pieces ground against each other with enough force to crush my canoe. They were a churning mass of destruction.
For several miles, I navigated within a sliver of ice-free water. Eventually, the ice melted, the first obstacle overcome.
The following days presented ever-harsher conditions. Winds gusted up to 50 mph, threatening to capsize me. Snowstorms and a whiteout washed over the river. Ice accumulated on the sides of the canoe, dragging it deeper into the depths where I imagined lethargic catfish lurked. In those first days, I nearly lost the boat — and possibly my life — to the terrifying trifecta of wind, waves and current.
The breaking point came three weeks later. I was spending up to 14 hours a day on the river. Every day was windy and cold, and every form of precipitation blew into my face as I plodded south. One evening, I pitched my tent in the dark of an overcast night sky. Near midnight, the sky unleashed its fury. Lightning danced across the river. Rain fell hour after hour. Wind tore at my cheap, Walmart tent. The temperature wavered just above freezing.
I roused from my restless sleep as several inches of water flooded into the shelter. The storm refused to abate as the night wore on. Soaked to the core, I became hypothermic. I shivered violently and waited for the sun to rise. The onion of my mind peeled layer by layer. The delirium brought on hallucinations. Soon, I was in a heated argument with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the dead actor. He criticized my every mistake, and we exchanged some harsh words. In anger, I packed up and paddled into the pitch-black of a swollen, storm-bound river.
Several hours later, after canoeing through massive driftwood piles, dodging bouys and dropping over submerged wing dikes, I collapsed onto the riprap of a lonely boat ramp. The river had torn me down. I had nothing left to give. I saw that if I fought nature, I might pay the ultimate price. The characters of Mark Twain’s novels, the voyageur mountain men, Lewis and Clark, and the boatmen who came before me knew this fact.
While I struggled to put one paddle stroke in front of another, a sphere of support grew on shore. The paddling and autism communities rallied behind the mission. They offered warm beds, steak dinners, hamburgers, beer and the vital encouragement that proved to be my fuel.
Even with all of this support, I still felt alone on the river. I wanted to quit. Amidst the struggles, however, I found a deeper inspiration. I began to see the parallels between my journey and the journey of those living with autism.
My passion had brought me to an unexpected place. The words passion and compassion come from the same Latin root: pati, to suffer. I felt a more profound sense of compassion for not only my family members on the spectrum but for everyone whose lives it affects. They also often feel alone in their journey.
The word compassion comes from compati: to suffer with. Nothing in life is easy. We all experience suffering in some form. It could be the challenges of school, the stress of a job interview, working on a team, building a loving relationship, raising a child with autism or living with autism. But, if we find a little more compassion for others, life has a way of becoming a lot more pleasant for all of us.
The next weeks brought blue skies, smoother water and friends to paddle with. Challenges remained, but I knew I would meet them with love, faith and perseverance. I had discovered the rhythm of the river.
Author: Joe Reidhead is an author, an adventurer and a native of Augusta, Missouri.