In a way, it’s like that restaurant where there are never any patrons. At first, you wonder what’s wrong with the place. Then, you just stop thinking about it, even when you pass by every single day.

This is an apt description of the way people think about (or don’t) the big rivers of our region, specifically the Missouri and the Mississippi. Many of us drive over them every single day, yet rarely do we see anyone out on the water in a canoe or kayak. Like the chairs in that empty restaurant, these rivers see little recreational use. And that’s both a puzzle and a shame, because with just a modest bit of knowledge and experience, especially when gained in the company of more seasoned paddlers, an entirely new world opens up to people looking for ways to experience the outdoors.

Best of all is that it’s right here at home, with access to the big rivers literally just minutes away for most of us.

“You can float for hours and never see another person,” said Bill Goetz of St. Louis, who likes to take his stand-up paddleboard out on the Missouri. “Even when you’re floating stretches of the river that go through Chesterfield or North County, you feel like you’re a thousand miles away.”

Goetz recalled his first trip on the Missouri River. It was a warm September day that took him from Sioux Passage County Park down to the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area, and the 8-mile stretch of river took barely two hours to float. Prior to that, his main experience had been on smaller lakes, plus a trip or two on the Meramec River where it flows through Valley Park and Kirkwood. Always, it seemed, constant paddling was necessary for progress.

“Before I got out there, floating on a big river like the Missouri or Mississippi seemed like kind of a scary thing,” said Goetz. “But the nervousness went away pretty quick, because in a lot of ways it just feels like you’re out on a lake. It’s remarkably calm on the surface, but then you get this bonus of the current pushing you along at 3 to 4 miles per hour, even without any paddling. It was great.”

“Big Muddy” Mike Clark is one of those who can’t get enough of the river, or of sharing its mystique with others. He’s constantly busy, taking people out as the founder of Big Muddy Adventures, the area’s leading outfitter for river expeditions.

Immediately before our interview for this article, Clark had finished a week on the river, paddling from St. Louis to Caruthersville, Mo., as part of an effort to celebrate and promote, a massive collection of guidance and information on floating the Mississippi River, including a mile-by-mile description of the river as it winds its way more than 1,100 miles from St. Louis to the Gulf.

“Think of those incredible places where people go to truly experience nature or to refresh their spirits — Yellowstone, the Tetons, etc. The river is like that,” said Clark. “Probably 70 percent of it is what I call ‘wild miles,’ where there is no infrastructure, and very few people. You get the sense of being in a wild, adventurous place. And instead of going out to escape the ‘real world’ back home, your job or family or whatever, the ‘real world’ is found right there on the river. It’s where a person is living elementally, relying day-to-day on instincts, skills and the things they’ve brought with them.”

Getting Started

Mike Clark of Big Muddy Adventures

Mike Clark of Big Muddy Adventures

So, how can a person who has never been out on the Missouri or Mississippi get started? Experienced paddlers agree that with proper preparation, being on the water can be as safe as any other outdoor activity, whether that’s mountain biking, bird-watching, hiking or whatever.

“There has been this myth that has existed for probably 100 years that if you go out on these rivers you’re going to die,” said Clark with a chuckle. “But that’s not true as long as you have the basic gear and knowledge. For somebody new, the best way to start is simply to go out with more experienced paddlers and learn from them.”

Clark’s Big Muddy Adventures offers day trips led by experienced guides as well as multi-day excursions that include camping on islands or the riverbank at night. Having access to their equipment and expertise is really an ideal way to learn what being on the river is like.

“I don’t recommend novice paddlers grab whatever boat they have and just go out alone and jump on the water,” said Clark. “It’s certainly different than the Ozark rivers. It’s got wing dikes and tugs and the like — objects and situations you don’t find in other settings.”

There are other groups that welcome new paddlers out on the water, too. These include the St. Louis Canoe & Kayak Club and the St. Louis Adventure Group. A challenge here is that participants typically need to bring their own boats to take part.

However, the Riverlands Paddle Fest offers a special opportunity to get out on the water and test a variety of canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. This takes place on Saturday, May 20, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Alton, Ill. You’ll be on calm waters and get tips and direction from experienced paddlers. All necessary gear is provided, and people of all experience levels and ages are welcome.

Also, the Alpine Shop offers monthly excursions with rental options available to those who don’t have their own boats. Perry Whitaker leads the store’s excursions, and when you ask him about it, you get the sense of the magic of the river and get an intimate glimpse of what brings him and others back to the water again and again.

“It’s so many things,” he said. “It’s the peacefulness of being on the water. It’s the history of the river. It’s nature, including the wildlife that is constantly present.”

Whitaker has seen foxes, bobcats and all sorts of birds, including an eagle that swooped down to snag a fish just a few feet in front of his boat. One of his favorite trips is paddling the Mississippi from St. Louis to Cape Girardeau, and he regularly takes Scout groups on this three-day, two-night float.

“You should see the way their eyes light up when they find an arrowhead on the riverbank,” Whitaker said. “Suddenly, the whole concept of the ‘Stone Age’ becomes much more real to them.”

Being out on the big rivers, the history and legendary characters who made their way up and down these waterways begins to seem a lot more relevant to these youngsters as well.

“They’ve heard about Lewis and Clark. They’ve read about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Now, they see firsthand what the big deal is. It comes alive in a way that’s different than just getting it from a book,” Whitaker said.

Mississippi River Trail
Another group promoting increased awareness and use of the area’s big rivers is the Mississippi River Water Trail Association. Established by the American Canoe Association, the group works with literally dozens of local, state and federal partners to showcase the Mississippi River as a paddling destination rich with cultural heritage, wildlife and history. Members provide support by advocating for more river access and by maintaining trail rest areas, primitive campsites and facilities to ensure quality recreational opportunities for paddlers.

“The thought of paddling a big river with a fair amount of river commerce is daunting,” said Larry Hassel, a member of the group. “However, one learns there are so many islands and backwater places to explore that the river becomes a huge paddling paradise, virtually limitless and offering so many opportunities.”

It’s this exploration, this sense of discovery that pulls Hassel and others back again and again, and drives the desire to introduce the river to others.

“There are many backwater adventures just around the next bend, and wildlife abounds. There are numerous bird sanctuaries and so many remote sections,” he said. “Honestly, you just don’t know what to expect. Each trip is an adventure and an exploration.”

When you drive out of St. Louis in any direction, you cross a river. They’re always present, but mostly overlooked and ignored. But because of their history and the undeniable influence as the defining nature feature of our region, we still can’t ignore their tug on our hearts.

“Being on the water forces us to recenter and refocus. We have no choice but to latch on to the paddle, to nature and what you see along the river,” said Clark. “In 15 years of guiding, I can say no one has ever come in feeling disappointed after a day on the water, even after heavy storms and difficult river conditions. They always want to go again.”

David Fiedler is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine