OAR-STRUCK ON THE MISSOURI
Struan Smith paddles the mighty Mo as it meanders from Montana to St Louis
ARIVER is like life. It is always changing. It can be fast or slow, high or low. It can be quiet or raging, shining or moody and dark. Perhaps it is this analogy that prompts David, a friend from school days, to invite me to join him in a tandem kayak on a journey down the Missouri River, one of the world’s longest rivers winding through the richest and most powerful nation on earth. I like the idea.
A great river such as the Missouri has importance and consequence for all who experience it. Three great rivers and, indeed lives, meet to form the Missouri: Jefferson, Gallatin and Madison. It is with a mix of humility, apprehension and exhilaration that we wave goodbye to friends, two long-in-the-tooth Australians setting out from the headwaters near Three Forks, Montana, for the confluence with the equally famous Mississippi at St Louis, Missouri. It will be a distance of 3735km.
No manner of map or guidebook could truly prepare us for what is to come. After a cursory drive along parts of the river the year before and some practice on three Australian rivers, we feel ready to take on Mighty Mo. But what lies around that bend? Is that bridge, ramp, lake or town really there? The Montana summer sky, aptly named Big Sky, hangs like a huge theatrical backdrop that could collapse and envelop us at any time.
Sometimes the morning mists drape the cottonwoods in melancholy; on other occasions the scorching summer sun beats to the rhythm of cicadas and our paddles. The woeful song of the mourning dove is our regular companion.
A sudden electrical storm finds us clinging to the bank or under a makeshift shelter, a stark reminder of the extremes of weather of which this land is capable. We always look over our shoulder to the north. It is hard to believe, in the heat of summer, that in winter this river is a solid sheet of ice.
The Missouri notorious for its tendency to meander like some lost, drunken soul, lurching, unheeding. Large chunks of soft soil or sand are grabbed and deposited where the river sees fit. We sometimes simply run out of water and are forced to get out and drag the kayak until we find the channel, which is a fairly common occurrence in Australian rivers, but surely not the Missouri.
The pelicans and Canada geese look on in amusement. Only the bluffs or canyons, such as the towering Gates of the Mountains or the White Cliffs near Virgelle, Montana, put up any resistance, at least until one day the river gradually wears them down.
Like a corpuscle in a main artery, we move on. The second day brings us to Canyon Ferry Lake, the first of the nine great lakes and dams. On the map these look like bulging varicose veins and a paddler’s nightmare when the south wind blows, which is nearly every day. The wash from numerous pleasure craft on the smaller lakes, such as Hauser and Holter, also requires watching.
I use the term smaller with caution. Some of these lakes, such as the remote Fort Peck, are more like inland seas. We look awestruck at the endless horizon and start to paddle our little craft. Wash is not a problem as we are alone. However, the lakes have no river current to help us along. Built at a time of (by today’s standards) devastating hardship and suffering, the dams holding back these lakes stand as a monument to ingenuity, vision and hoped-for prosperity, at least in the 1930s.
Sometimes the river simply shrugs off attempts to control it and, as in 1993, does what it has done for millenniums: floods the land. The current after the dams depends on the release of water by the engineers. We learn from a fisheries inspector near Williston, North Dakota, that some fish, such as pallid sturgeon, struggle in this environment. So much depends on the snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains, which has diminished in recent times.
Where the flow of the river stops at the lakes, marshes are formed that teem with mosquitoes, gnats and stinging flies. We sit in our tents eating cold baked beans as the insects try to batter down the doors. The mud, nicknamed gumbo, is so thick animals have become fatally bogged. We realise too this same mud is why the country is so fertile and productive.
Despite the remoteness of Montana and the Dakotas, civilisation clings to the banks. Day and night we hear the longlong-short-long lamenting whistle of huge diesel engines from the Burlington North railroad hauling long coal carriages to the many power plants along the river or stacked containers to the towns and cities. The power plants, coalfired and nuclear, draw cooling waters from the river and then return them.
As in Australia, we pass hundreds of thumping irrigation pumps using the waters to feed or drench the corn in the scorching sun. A river is life.
Perhaps the most astonishing attempt at controlling the river is the canalisation of the final 1100km from Ponca State Park, Nebraska, to St Louis. Logs rammed into the banks then sealed with countless rocks keep the river at a set width and depth so that barges can run up and down from Sioux City, Iowa, to St Louis, a massive undertaking.
We see very few barges and are told the traffic is dying out. The river rebels here and there as banks cave in and leave the logs and wing dams of rock stranded like small islands. How much can a river give before it takes away? We pass under the seemingly endless bridges that serve the many highways in this restless, motorised country. Traffic thumps overhead then fades as the current quietly moves us on until, once again, the only sound is our paddles, the cicadas or the wind in the cottonwoods.
The many Native American reservations along the banks remind us of another history shaped by the river. In a heritage museum in Bismarck, North Dakota, there is a large black-andwhite photograph of a signing ceremony. Severelooking men in 1950s suits stand around a table as one of them, seated, signs a document. On his right a Native American, immaculately dressed in a pinstriped suit, sobs uncontrollably into his hands. They are signing away their lands for a dam.
There are surprises. Apart from the natural beauty and hazards of the river, this journey is about people. At almost every ramp or landing where we disembark for lunch or a break or to camp, the driver of a car or pick-up will stop and look at the river. Is it high or low? Is it fast or slow? Is it there? Reassured, they drive off without getting out. Sometimes, like many we meet, we also find ourselves just sitting and staring at the waters.
Occasionally an old-timer will wander down and relate stories of how the river has changed. We meet damaged or troubled people who seek or find peace by the banks.
No matter where we arrive, someone offers us a helping hand. Nothing is too great a task. Do you need food? Want a beer? The store is miles away. Take my car and get some food. Have the car while you’re staying in town.
We have no trouble portaging the 10 dam walls we encounter.
We meet those who were the driving force behind the re-enactment of the extraordinary 1804 to 1806 Corps of Discovery Expedition up the Missouri under explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In St Charles, Missouri, we stay two nights in a replica of the 17m-long wooden keelboat that was used on the 2004 re-enactment expedition. Next to it are replicas of the two pirogues (river boats) used by the explorers.
Also in St Charles, we stumble on a Civil War re-enactment, one of 18 held throughout the year. We feel as if we are walking through the army camps of the time and watching an actual battle.
Finally, after 10 weeks and nearly two million paddle strokes, after triumphant moments, sore backs, pleasant surprises, insect bites, a few terse words in the mud, new friendships and some sleepless nights, our arrival at the confluence with the Mississippi on a perfect September day is unexpectedly quiet.
The concrete structure that marks the meeting of these great rivers is caked in mud from a recent flood. We paddle around the point and up on to the last muddy bank. There is one good friend there to meet us with a van. We hoist the kayak on to the roof, shake hands, look back and drive away.
Excellent adventure: The author and his friend David Seargeant adrift on the wide Missouri near Jefferson City