For all my life, I’d looked at the Mississippi and Missouri rivers sort of like how I looked at military bases. I knew they existed and understood they played an important role, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what that role was. Nor had I ever entered one of them.
Their immense size seemed impenetrable, not for human consumption, even though St. Louis’ drinking water comes from local rivers rather than, say, a giant Evian bottle. Paddling them must require a special license, right?
Turns out, it doesn’t. I’ve become more familiar with the rivers in recent years because of two canoe trips: the first a jaunt in 2017 from Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area along the Missouri River, east to its confluence with the Mississippi and then south to an island for an overnight stay. The second trip, last fall, was a lengthier foray: a three-day, two-night, 70-mile journey on the Missouri from Herrmann to St. Charles.
These trips have given me a better grasp and appreciation of the role these rivers play in our lives — and a thirst for more experiences in a canoe.
Both trips were offered by Big Muddy Adventures (BMA), a local tour company that offers guided paddles. And both were led by its founder, “Big Muddy” Mike Clark.
Clark, 60, got his start on the river two decades ago trying to educate people like myself, who didn’t understand how the big rivers silently trickled through their lives. He grew up taking annual summer vacations from his home in Chicago to the northern reaches of Minnesota and Wisconsin, where his family would canoe and camp. He always had a dream of paddling the entire Mississippi River, so in 2001, that’s what he did.
Along the way, Clark, a teacher at the time, set up a virtual schoolhouse — then a much more foreign concept — called “The Big Muddy Adventure” and shared curriculum using a satellite phone at $2 per minute. A year later, he did the same thing along the Missouri River.
One science activity Clark designed for second through fourth graders was called “Craftily Catching Crayfish”, in which he and his companions set traps when they camped each night and then in the morning reported how many crayfish they’d caught. Students would research the ecosystem of Clark’s surroundings and recommend what bait they should use. (Kids in Wisconsin suggested cheese.) He would then report on the success or lack thereof.
Clark also did water-quality testing along the way. In one instance, a group of sixth graders determined that the reason the pH value changed dramatically from one day to the next was because the paddlers had camped directly below a golf course.
“We weren’t trying to get kids to understand chemistry or anything like that. We were just trying to get them to think scientifically and do it in this remote way,” Clark said.
He “fell more in love” with the Mississippi, he said, and eventually decided that rather than just bring people to the rivers virtually, he wanted to do it literally, which led to the creation of BMA.
I, meanwhile, had spent little time on waterways of any size. As a kid, I played around on smaller rivers while attending a camp at Lake of the Ozarks and argued with other campers over which one of us was paddling wrong. As an adult, I did a few float trips and debated with friends over how much beer we needed. But that was about it.
So, when friends suggested the two trips on rivers much larger than I’d ever experienced, I was interested but unsure, perhaps a little uneasy, about whether it would be a good time.
Last fall, after loading up our gear at the BMA headquarters in south St. Louis City, we drove about 90 minutes west to the Hermann Wurst Haus. Bratwursts, sauerkraut, side of potato salad, red cabbage. I wouldn’t need to eat again until spring.
We dropped my extra weight and the weight of our dry bags, tents, clothing, food, and beverages into Stan the Man, a 29-foot fiberglass Voyageur canoe sturdy enough to hold me, Clark, two of my high school buddies, and one of their dads.
We entered the Missouri River alone, and that was largely the way it stayed for the next three days. It again felt to me a bit like we were trespassing. How could we have this portion of a 2,300-mile aquatic artery entirely to ourselves?
It wasn’t always this way.
In 1804, Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark led a US military expedition to survey land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest. Along with four dozen men, the two explorers traveled in a 10-ton keelboat and two dugout boats from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. One night they camped just across from Hermann on La Loutre (which means “otter” in French) Island.
That expedition ultimately led to the acquisition of territory in Oregon and California and increased commerce between Americans of European descent and Native American tribes along the river. (Sadly, it also led to the forced relocation of tribes from their land.)
Since then, governments have constructed dams and levees along the waterway to provide room for farming and development; a quarter of the agricultural land in the US is found in the Missouri River watershed, according to American Rivers, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring damaged rivers.
That construction and climate change have led to increased flooding in recent years, leading me to wonder what the natural world will look like one, two, or three decades from now. Will 100-year floods become annual events? Only now getting to know paddling, will it become something I did twice, or something I’m able to do more of throughout my life?
Back on the water, even with my clunky paddling skills, I was able to fall into a pleasant rhythm. Clark and my longtime friend, Joe Holstein, also a BMA guide, explained the various strokes; the J-stroke, for example, in which you move the paddle backwards and then curve at the end, helps correct a canoe’s tendency to turn.
Or whatever. My stroke improved over three days, but I’m still 5 feet, 7 inches tall and not quite a Winklevoss twin.
That first day, Clark made us a round of cocktails to help lubricate the rotator cuffs. I used to be a Jack and Coke guy but switched to clear liquors after deciding they were easier on my brain and gut. Still, I can now say without exaggeration that Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey mixed with cinnamon-flavored Coke (which I never knew existed) is probably the most delicious thing I’ve ever downed. Buzzing a bit, the bluffs, draped in fall colors, looked that much prettier.
Through my two trips with Clark, I’ve picked up that he has a way of making something that previously seemed out of reach — say, paddling a canoe on a major river — accessible. And his constant narration has a way of making the seemingly ordinary, extraordinary.
He made a box of Triscuit crackers and tins of kippers sound amazing, and it turned out the combination was damn good. Sure, food always tastes better when you’re camping, but Clark’s cooking was especially satisfying. The first night, we ate chili topped with biscuits; the second night, we had pork loin and Brussel sprouts. Clark reignited the campfire each morning for oats and strong coffee.
We camped on the New Haven riverfront the first evening. I typically sleep great when I’m in a tent, but on that night, I was woken up every hour or so by trains chugging through town, the conductor blowing his horn. Not only did it reminded me that the world doesn’t revolve around my sleeping patterns, but it ended up being a nice, memorable change of pace.
The second night, we camped at Howell Island Conservation Area, which we had all to ourselves. During our campfire cocktail hour, a searchlight shone upon us. It was from a tugboat slowly crawling down the river. To say it was moving like molasses would be generous, but apparently, that was the pace the captain needed to travel at in order to safely navigate a bend in the river.
And that was the only moving vessel we saw. Now aware of how cathartic it is to be alone on a giant river with just a few friends, I’d choose that experience any day over the crowded, beer-soaked scenes on our area’s smaller float trip rivers.
We kept a steady paddling rhythm during our days on the water, but post flood-stage, the river level remained high and the current did a lot of the work for us.
Amidst the exercise, we had plenty of time for conversation. Bird calls and woodpeckers mixed with talk of sports (who would win the World Series?); politics (who would win the Democratic primary?); and regulations concerning the river.
As we pulled into the St. Charles riverfront, I didn’t want the trip to end. Missouri may not have the 14,000-foot peaks of western states, but enjoyable outdoor recreation need not require reaching a high elevation. Being surrounded by a vast river can be just as awe-inspiring.
Author: Eric Berger is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.