Thursday, June 2, 2011

At the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers

After an 18 day trip I can proudly say "I came, I saw, I kicked that river's ass!" (well kinda, it actually owned me for about 550 of the 560 miles I traveled).

Coal train crossing the Missouri River

I passed under the very worn out looking bridge as the entire train was crossing, I sure was glad that bridge held up for another day!

Only single digits remaining!

A bittersweet day...

Well, I officially reached the end of trip. Eighteen days and 560 miles brought me to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and the end of a great time on the water. It was a pretty good day all around.

I awoke this morning to a very gray and overcast sky. Rain wasn't in the forecast but it was clear I would get rained on as I was taking down camp and eating breakfast. The city park in St. Charles, MO, that sits next to the Boathouse has a shelter close to where I planned to launch today so I decided to roll up the tent and drag my bags down there to keep dry. I had been in contact with Dan Hansen, my pickup in St. Louis and ride home to Nebraska, and he wouldn't be to the Columbia Bottoms boat ramp until after 3:30 p.m. Thus, I had most of the morning to kill.

As I was moving the last of my gear a woman approached me about my use of the shelter. Her quilting club uses the shelter every Thursday for their potluck and group meeting and she was hoping that I wasn't going to be taking all the tables. Since I expected that I would be on the river by 11:00 a.m. I said there wasn't going to be a problem. She left to go get her supplies and I sat down to read the USA Today that was donated to me by a businessman from Madison, WI, when I was eating dinner the night before at the brewpub.

I had nearly finished reading the news (nothing seems to have happened in the world since I left home) when she returned. We sat and chatted a long while about our lives. She came to St. Charles in the 1970s when the historic district was a run down and nearly abandoned area. She, her husband, and a group of friends set to work refurbishing buildings and opening businesses and trying to make a go of things. Over time the area became the gorgeous little artistic area I walked through the day before.

After she sold her businesses she turned to writing as a profession. She's written several books (sorry, I don't remember the titles and I'm so bad with names that hers has also left my brain!) about the food and culture of St. Charles and Missouri. She has also become active in the national quilting scene serving on the board of the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, KY. Oddly enough, she's also traveling to Lincoln this weekend for a quilter's event.

Since she was at the shelter and setting up for the potluck I trusted her to watch my bags while I walked to the historic district to buy a coffee. I also poked around a bit and took my time getting back to the river. When I arrived the other quilt club members were arriving with food for the potluck. My intended departure time was 11:00 a.m. but they convinced me to stay for lunch.

So, there I was eating some fine home cooking and serving as an honorary member of the local quilt club. I'm not sure which I enjoyed more; the conversation, the food, or the creative quilt designs each member stood up to display during the meal.

Unfortunately, I had to take my leave as my pickup was scheduled to arrive at the landing sometime after 3:30 p.m. and I still had 25 miles to paddle. My spirits were soaring pretty high at that point (after all, how often does a man get a potluck lunch on the river with the town's premier quilters?) and I settled into a pretty fast paddling pace. The seat and life jacket didn't sit too well today but I still made it down to Columbia Bottoms by 3:45 p.m. to see Dan Hansen waiting. He had just arrived when I pulled up. He offered me a celebratory beer (cold!) and then we loaded the gear and canoe and headed on our way. We did stop at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and I was pretty glad I made the decision to end where I did. The water is high, fast, and wide on the Mississippi right now and it looks like a good decision was made.

I'm now sitting in an air conditioned home in north St. Louis and I'll be heading home tomorrow. It took 18 days to get here and I'll be home in half a day. Quite contrast in travel modes, no wonder the automobile caught on like it did!

I've already had some nice emails of congratulations for which I'm grateful. All in all, it was a pretty good float trip and if St. Louis had been the original destination then I'd rate it as a 100% success. Aside from that one factor I couldn't have asked for a better ride than the one I've had the last 18 days. Looking back it now seems so easy (I'll ignore those first few days when I nearly quit) and I sure met a lot of great people along the way!



P.S. There's a nice little story about my trip posted on the Nebraska Wesleyan Univ. website ( I didn't know it was on there until I got an email about it today.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My last campsite

I cabled my canoe to the building so I could explore town without too many worries.

Historic St. Charles, MO

Display at the Boathouse educational center

The blue line represents the Missouri River. The photos and plaques are of towns and cities that participated in the Bicentennial reenactment. I was shocked to see I've only done the part to the right of the wood divider!


A day's worth of dried goo...

Funny, those pants were a lot cleaner and tighter when I left home!

The James Caird prior to the last full day of paddling

I held off choosing an official name for my boat until the end of the trip (I didn't want to jinx things!). If you're not familiar with the name reference I suggest you Google it. It's quite a story and I hope my gal lives up to her namesake.

It takes a team to do a solo trip!

Well, the last full day of my trip has arrived. Last night was buggy and humid so I dove in the tent and waited until the temperature to drop to a comfortable level. The low was in the 60s and actually quite nice sleeping weather.

Before bed a scouted where I would launch today. One thing that grinds on my mind when I'm working through each day is the small stuff. Where to land, where to camp, where to get water, where to charge electronics, where to launch. It may not seem like they are big deals but one's level of comfort depends on how well those little factors go. Fortunately, I've been pretty lucky in solving those necessities. Since the water has been so high I've had to rely exclusively on established boat launches. All in all, those have worked pretty well.

The launch this morning did go well and I got off without getting too gooed up with muck. I thought that the rising river was a bad thing as I was thinking only of safety during my paddling and camping. What I didn't factor in was that when the river falls it leaves a layer of thick muck over everything. Trying to land or launch in that's not fun as I found out when I pull over for lunch. I thought I had found a firm spot and took one sept out of the boat and sunk up to my knee. "Big Muddy" just doesn't do justice to describe this muck pit!

I floated down to St. Charles without too much fuss. The bluffs along the river were gorgeous and I was in awe at the mansions perched high over the river. I wasn't in any real hurry and actually thought I wasn't paddling much and the river had slowed as it widened as we approached St. Louis. Surprisingly, I quickly crossed under the Highway 340 bridge and could see the Ameristar Casino and the I-70 bridge ahead. I really hate those big bridges in this high water. The supports are dangerous with the water churning behind them and the driftwood piled up. The Ameristar sits into the river and my landing was just beyond and the entire stretch was filled with huge logs. I've only had my heart beating fast a few times on this trip and that landing was was one of them. To make matters worse, a barge was coming upstream and I had to negotiate around it. Fun, fun.

When I did land I found a nice sand bar right in front of the Boathouse & Nature Center. I've been communicating with Dan Hansen, a friend of Dale Benham's from work, about where to stay and a river pickup in St. Louis. Dan had spoken to Franky here at the Boathouse about me camping out back of the building and using their shower. With all the debris at the landing I chose the sandbar only to be stranded on an island surrounded by muck. I figured no problem, just get back in the boat and go down further to pull out. Turns out the waves created by that barge lashed the beach for a good 15 minutes preventing me from going anywhere. I heard they had a travel restriction on the barges due to the high water and the soaked levees. I just didn't understand until today how much force the waves from those boats produce!

When I did land I had to drag the canoe through a foot of goo for a good 20 feet, I unloaded and carried my gear to where I set up camp behind the Boathouse. The entire time a couple in an SUV sat with the engine running and the AC on watching me. One of my pet peeves in life is idiots that sit in their car while burning gas to keep cool (or warm). After 17 days of living on muscle power to propel me through life it kinda bugged me even more. Oh well, one gets that way when they hit a certain age.

I did set up camp fast because I wanted to take advantage of that shower before Franky and the maintenance staff left for the day. Of course, I kept smelling something that stunk like death and was thinking this would be a great night for sleeping. I looked over and saw a 5 pound carp basting in the fly encrusted sun. I now know why I carry a spare paddle, they make great scooper picker uppers!

After my shower in the maintenance guy's bathroom I took some photos of the replicas of the Lewis and Clark Expedition boats stored in the boathouse. I can't believe how big they were! I never understood how big of an undertaking their expedition was until I spent a few weeks on this river and saw their vessels. Wow, those were some tough guys to haul a 12,000 pound vessel up this river.

The rest of my day was touring the educational display at the Boathouse (where I dropped $60 on books) and then dinner at the brew pub in old town St. Charles. My dinner companion was a gal that works in "maps." She tries to convince city officials (including Lincoln, NE) of the value of having detailed maps of their city and private structures. She said her latest work was in Joplin, MO, providing 3 meter mapping assistance from flights over the city after the tornado. The cityscape from before is referenced to what it is now so workers can search for the missing as well as start the cleanup effort.

After dinner I walked the old St. Charles riverfront merchant district. This has got to be one of most beautiful old cities I've seen west of the Mississippi. There are shops and outdoor cafes and a very genteel feel to the place. I wish I had more time just to hang out and explore. Part of me wishes I had stayed at the bed and breakfast across from where I ate dinner. That would have put a nice cap on the trip.

As the last day winds down I'm thinking of all the people who've helped me on this trip. My thoughts go out to Chrish and Howard Gould who were so excited when I was planning that they sent a check to help with purchasing the boat to people like Doulg and Betty Gilg who rode along to the put in, Brian and Lora Vacca, Joe Wilson, Bruce Rogers and Kathy Carew, Dan Hansen (my ride home), the guys here at the maintenence shop at the Boathouse, and everyone along the way. The kind words of strangers on the river and people following me online have meant more than I can say. When I started this I thought I'd go off by myself on a float trip. What I didn't know is that to do so would take a group of people helping me every step of the way. That's probably my biggest take away message: "no man is an island" (wow, I should publish that, I know it's never been said before!)

So, thanks to all of you that have been so kind. I'll be on my way back to Lincoln in two days and life will be back to normal soon. I do intend to post a summary update about what I've learned. That will mostly be for my own benefit so I know what to pack and not pack for the next trip. And yes, there will be a next trip!