Floating With Smokey

(written without apologies to Steinbeck)

I don’t remember how I first heard it, but in the early Summer of 2009 I learned that the Missouri River was open water from Sioux City Iowa to its confluence with the Mississippi at St. Louis Missouri.  It had long been a fantasy to float a raft down the Mississippi, surely the Missouri could serve as well.  So I started making plans.  I had already scheduled a month off work for the Fall to go to Maine to see the Fall color change, so it was fairly easy to move things forward a couple of weeks and start planning to raft the Missouri instead.
As I started researching and hunting for a used raft, it slowly dawned on me that a raft would not do the trick, I needed a canoe or a small aluminum boat.  I started telling friends and family of my plans, some were incredulous, some were skeptical, and some were downright impressed.  A couple of months before the trip, I started getting a little scared, I thought maybe I should make other vacation plans, plans that were less extreme.  So I started getting maps of other areas and contemplating doing something other than throwing myself to the fates of a river.  But it was too late for that, too many people expected me to follow through, people were asking about my trip wondering if I was getting ready.  Not having the heart to tell them that I had chickened out, I hurriedly bought a canoe, thus locking myself into the trip.
While I did rush into buying a canoe, this does not mean that I did not research my purchase.  I ended up with a mid-range plastic canoe, a Mad River Adventure 14, a general purpose multi-use canoe.
I and a house mate took the canoe up to San Pablo Reservoir to test it out.  We enjoyed paddling around the reservoir, the canoe was stable and fairly easy to paddle and control.  After a few hours the wind came up and the water became choppy, we ended up tipping into the cold water.  With the wind and waves we were unable to right it or push it to shore.  We treaded water until the police came to rescue us.  Not a very noble beginning to an adventure.  But the police and rescue were very kind, while they warmed me up they also dragged my canoe to shore, loaded it on the van and tied it down.
With this mis-adventure in mind, I had to rethink things.  As I researched adding flotation to the canoe, I became aware of outriggers.  Basically an aluminum arm that sticks out each side of the canoe with a piece of styrofoam on it, this prevents the canoe from tipping.  Keeping the canoe upright was an even better idea than making it float better after being tipped.
I never really got a chance to acclimate Smokey to the canoe before it was time to head for the river.  We loaded the canoe on top of the van and drove like mad men (and dogs) to Missouri, spent a long holiday weekend with family, then it was the moment we had been building to.  Dad drove us up to Craig Missouri, where we entered the water at H.F. Thurneau access.  I unloaded the canoe, loaded it up, and tied the various ropes and gear to it.  Taking a deep breath, I grabbed Smokey up and threw her in the canoe and shoved off.  Like it or not, we were now committed to the river.

The first day on the river was a struggle, we only made 13 miles. I had heard horror stories of the barge traffic on the river. Knowing that the barges used the main channel on the outside of the curves, I cut the curves on the inside to avoid them. I was paddling the shortest distance from point A to point B, from inside curve to inside curve, ignoring the current. I paddled steadily for six hours and ended the day exhausted. I was wondering what I had gotten myself into, was the entire trip to be such a struggle? Smokey did not relax that first day, she stood stiff with her head between my knees. That first night we found a nice campsite along the river. There was quite a bit of mud, but I pitched camp and fell asleep early. During the night, it rained…and rained. Even though I was awake long before sunup, we stayed in the tent, and waited for the rain to quit. About 8 AM the rain slowed to a drizzle and we got up, made coffee and packed up camp. I loaded everything into the canoe, and when I tossed Smokey in, she scrambled around, spilling my coffee and leading to a caffeine free start to the day.
I took up where I had left off the previous day, paddling steadily, ignoring the flow of the river and working much harder than was necessary. Around 10 AM we were hailed by two fishermen in a bass boat. They pulled up wondering where we were going, impressed with our story, they gave me a coke and waved as they pushed away. The soda did much to brighten my spirits and I bit deep as I paddled, enjoying the trip for the first time. Around noon the sun came out briefly so I stopped along the bank and spread my gear out to dry. I made another cup of coffee before loading the canoe and pushing off for points downstream. It was while drinking this cup of coffee (and after having a few puffs), that I noticed that the current moved pretty quickly around the outside of the curves. So I let myself drift around the bends then I would paddle across the river and do it again. Smokey also ventured out from between my feet and climbed into the middle seat where she set stiffly and stared at me. We made 27 miles that day and ended the day refreshed and on a high note. We camped that night on the Missouri side of the river and a prettier campsite is rarely found.

Awoke the next morning to fog and a light drizzle. The river was calm and all was quiet. The good feelings of the previous evening carried over to the morning and I actually enjoyed the drizzle. Since all was wet, we simply tossed everything into the canoe wet, made coffee and set off. the morning was spent drifting through the fog and drizzle and may have been the high point of the trip. Around 11 we stopped to hang the tent and sleeping bag out to dry while we made coffee. A couple of boats stopped by while waiting for the tent to dry, it was here that I noticed that some people were curious about where we were coming from and some were interested in where we were going, but rarely was anyone interested in both. While we were taking our break I took the opportunity to redistribute the weight in the canoe. I moved weight forward, while it made the canoe more sluggish and harder to maneuver, it also brought the front down and made the wind less of a big deal to deal with.
Shortly after our mid morning stop we sighted our first barge. I noticed it far downstream and immediately moved to the off side of the river. I waited but the tug and barge appeared stopped. After a while I decided to cross the river and bypass the barge as much as possible. When I got about a third of the way across, I heard the tug power up and could see it churning water at the stern. I paddled back to shore and got out of the canoe allowing Smokey to nose around on shore. I noted that it was a small work barge and a Coast Guard tug as the pilot gave a blast on his horn and waved as they passed. After they had passed and I noted no waves of any note I told Smokey to jump in and we shoved off to paddle to the other side. The water was only slightly choppy until near the middle when the waves became two feet and were rolling in from two different directions. The canoe was leaning heavily as it rolled the waves, the outriggers were extended three feet on each side and while the canoe would not flip, we had it leaning and dropping at steep angles. I was digging deep with the paddles trying to keep the nose of the canoe where the waves were crashing together while moving downstream. As I went to dig with the paddle to bring the canoe around to meet the waves, the canoe rose and the paddle caught nothing but air. I nearly tumbled out of the canoe as the wave rolled through. After reassuming my seat the worst of the waves were over and another five or ten minutes found us continuing on our way. Smokey ventured out towards the front of the canoe, finally making herself comfortable.

Latter that day we passed through the city of St. Joseph. The river was narrow and fairly fast, there were also a couple of bridges to navigate. As we made our way through St. Joseph there were also a few work barges moving empty barges back and forth across the river. It was at this time that I realized I did not want to float through Kansas City, so I called Mike to see if he would pick me up in Atchison and drive me to the other side of KC. He agreed. We learned to avoid the mud when we stopped that night and found a rocky bank to tie up to and make camp.
With the rain and fog over, and with only 20 miles to get to Atchison, I decided to stay late in camp and let things dry. At 11, stuff was still wet so I tossed it into the canoe and headed downstream. We went slow, with only 15 miles to accomplish that day. We didn’t see many people along the river that day and made an early camp 6 miles above Atchison. We enjoyed a long evening and built a fire to help pass the time.
Before the trip, I had done research on where we would camp each night; this seemed important. Missouri has numerous conservation areas along the river to serve as flood mediators and I had carefully mapped each one using the Missouri DNR website. Once I was actually on the river I found that all of that work had been for naught, most of the river bank was empty of human occupation and the entire thing was open to camping. It was a very small percentage of the river banks that were actually occupied and we could pull up and camp anywhere that looked like it might be flat enough to set up the tent. I found that this was representative of my preparations, I had researched and prepared for things that in the end did not pan out to be real problems. Not knowing what the true problems would be on the river, I was prepared for all of the real problems and a goodly number of things that did not turn out to be problems at all.
Up early the following morning we floated halfway to Atchison and stopped to let things dry out and drink more coffee. We made it to Atchison shortly after 11 and tied up at a dock near downtown at Liberty park. The locals were very friendly and let me use their phone as Verizon did not have coverage. I also heard tales of Lewis and Clark’s time in the area, there was much local pride in that they had spent Independence day near this area and had stayed a few days to repair their gear and clean their guns. Mike arrived and we loaded the canoe back onto the van for the trip back to Columbia where we were going to spend the rest of the weekend. I found Atchison to be a friendly and inviting town.

When the weekend had passed, Dad drove me and the Smokester over to Sibley Missouri and dropped us back off at the river to continue our journey. The river had started to change below St. Joseph, below KC the changes were even more pronounced. Less curves meant more paddling, there were also dikes on the outside of the curves meaning I had to back paddle as I made each one to keep from being pushed over. In all the river was wider, straighter, and slower with the current broken around the edges by numerous dikes. We set off and made 20 miles that first half day, we saw no one on the river. It was the hottest day of the trip so far and I found if I set the tent up in the woods off the river that the dew was greatly reduced and our mid day dry out period could be lessened, but not eliminated.
One of the problems that I had foreseen was mosquitoes. I was expecting them to be out in droves, I was fearful that Smokey (who has no experience with mosquitoes) would be tormented by the blood suckers. To combat this I had bought a couple of bottles of military grade DEET. I expected the bugs to be a constant companion, but in the end they were not a problem. On the river itself, there were no mosquitoes. In retrospect I suppose that the combination of open water and wind kept them well outside the river banks. It was only when I set up camp above the banks in the woods that they were a problem, but even here they were not as bad as I had feared. So it became a trade off, camp on the river and wake to everything soaking wet from the dew, or camp amongst the trees and deal with the mosquitoes.
The next day was more of the same, hot and a current that demanded constant paddling. For a second day in a row we saw no one on the river. Daily a Corp of Engineers tug would push a barge either upstream or down. The tug captain was very kind and would cut his engine and idle past us not creating a huge wake and not disrupting our journey to a great degree. We made 23 miles that day and camped a bit early within view of Waverly.

That night I was awakened about midnight with a piercing headache, I laid there holding my head till I finally was relieved again with sleep about 4 AM. It was 8 before I got out of bed and I still felt head achey and generally run down. I popped a couple of ibuprofen and jumped into the river. I drifted slowly for a few hours while the ibuprofen slowly did their magic. Sometime after our morning break the wind picked up and blew steadily into our face. I don’t know how it did it, but whether we were pushing North, East, or South, the wind was always a head wind. Feeling like crap I paddled desultorily and did my best to make progress downstream. Around 3 the water got choppy, this made for a rough ride and made Smokey nervous making her pace the canoe adding to the steady rise and fall. It took us all day to make 20 miles and it was a relief to find a sandbar to end the day on. After a hearty dinner, I took a couple more ibuprofen and went to bed early.
The next morning I awoke at 4 AM feeling great. I had the canoe ready to push off as soon as it was light enough to feel safe. With the rising sun the wind returned, blowing harder than the previous day. Feeling good, I set the canoe into it and paddled away. After noon the water got choppy, much choppier than the previous day. I had to tack back and forth across the river to make progress, more than once I quit paddling to rest and found myself being pushed back upstream. If I rested too long the canoe would get side ways to the waves and they would sometimes come over the gunnels. So I was interspersing my paddling with periodic bailing of the water accumulating in the canoe. We took a long lunch and got back to it in the afternoon. We paddled until our usual stop time and slowly cruised the bank looking for a flat spot for the tent. The first few that we stopped and checked out were overrun with poison ivy, so we continued on. Shortly before dark we found a spot that wasn’t as flat as I would have like but seemed to be relatively free of poison ivy. Somehow we had made 29 miles that day. It had also been our longest day, in the water before sunup until after sundown. And while it had been a struggle to get down river, I had enjoyed it, it was a good sort of exhaustion that led me to sleep as soon as camp was pitched and dinner was finished.

We awoke to a beautiful day. The wind had died down, the overcast had lifted, the sky was populated with white fluffy clouds which bounded overhead, seemingly as happy with the day as I was. We took a break and just let the river slowly take us downstream toward our destination. We only made 21 miles that day, but we wanted nothing more. We stopped often and played on the banks and just generally enjoyed the break from the winds. This was the most Tom Sawyer like day of our trip, no worries, no hassles, just a serene float. We started running into fishermen again, they were friendly and would hail us wondering where we were going or where we had come from. That night we made camp on the prettiest sandbar that one could hope for pulling ourselves out of the river a good two hours early to enjoy the evening. Smokey was wound up from being cooped up and spent her evening running up and down the bank and rolling in the sand, she was effusive and the joy she radiated was contagious leading to a wonderful time on shore. Some locals came along in their bass boat and we shared some of my herb and some of their Busch Lite and told tall tales as the sun slowly arched its way down the Western sky. They told me of the Asian catfish that would jump out of the water and knock people out of their boats. I must have looked dubious because they loaded me and Smokey up and we criss crossed the river corralling some fish behind a wing dike. As we slowly idled through, catfish started jumping. They were two to two and a half feet long and jumped completely out of the water right next to the boat. I had to admit that my incredulousness was misplaced. We were dropped back off at camp and made a feast to finish off a beautiful day.
That night there was a competing cacophony of owls, cicadas, crickets, whippoorwills, and unidentified birds and insects that, along with the roil of the river, led to a peaceful–if occasionally interrupted–night’s rest. We awoke to a foggy morning with a bright clear sky.
Our plan was then to float 20 miles downstream and meet Mike the morning after in Glasgow so he could paddle with us the last 40 miles. But, as they say: “The best laid plans of mice and men…” When I got to within 12 miles of Glasgow I received an email that an aunt had died and that my ride needed to leave town to go the funeral, they wanted to meet me in Glasgow that afternoon to pull me and Smokey out of the water. This news placed a different perspective on our day, this was it, the final hours of our trip. We drifted, Smokey relaxed, me sort of melancholy and seeking to adjust to the news. The river had really lived up to all expectations. I wanted an adventure and the river supplied one. I wished to get off by myself and let the day to day pressures be left behind and the river responded to my wishes. Overall the trip had been all that I had wished for and then some. Smokey, a normally rambunctious two years old, had been everything one could hope for in a companion, she had been attentive and obedient to a tee.

We got down to Glasgow about 3 and called for our ride. While we waited, I emptied the canoe and carried the gear to the top of the bank. Dad arrived and we loaded up the canoe and carted it back to Columbia.
I got up the next morning and spent a few hours cleaning my gear and scrubbing the Missouri mud off the canoe. I sold the canoe before noon of that day, this brought the trip to an end.

More photos are here.

Note: This essay first appeared on my personal website, I moved it here while condensing and considating.


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