OAR-STRUCK ON THE MIS­SOURI

Struan Smith pad­dles the mighty Mo as it me­an­ders from Mon­tana to St Louis

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

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.

Pic­ture: Jim Low

Ex­cel­lent ad­ven­ture: The au­thor and his friend David Seargeant adrift on the wide Mis­souri near Jef­fer­son City

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