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From Source To Sea

Mark Kalch

A 7 hour ascent on snow shoes brought me to the first drops of water to feed the Missouri-Mississippi.  Any further over the mountain and my journey would take me in the opposite direction west and to the Pacific Ocean.  After an exhausting day on foot I was excited to soon get paddling.  I had a long way to go.

Through the mist and light snow fall I could just make out Norm and Kris waving a final goodbye as their 4 x 4 bumped away over the corrugated dirt road and back towards home.  Back to a dry, warm house, back to a soft comfortable bed.  Back to my tent, back to my therm-a-rest I would go.

The car disappeared over a final rise and with beanie pulled low over my ears, hands shoved deep in my down jacket pockets I did an about face to survey my surroundings.  My friends had graciously driven me the few hours from their home in Bozeman, Montana to the foothills surrounding Mount Jefferson  in the Centennial Mountains straddling the border between that state and Idaho.  I had made camp at the entrance to the ominously named Hell Roaring Canyon with permission from the land owner.  My tent was up, gear stowed and my near 17 foot bright yellow plastic kayak lay on a picnic table outside a wooden hut.  A smoky fire sputtered in and out of life close by.  Well, bloody heck, I thought to myself, I’m finally here. 

After 2 years of planning and a delayed start thanks to some pretty epic shoulder surgery I had come to the US to paddle the longest river in North America from source to sea.  From Brower’s Spring high in the mountains just a few miles from where I stood to the Gulf of Mexico the Missouri-Mississippi River flows some 3780 miles in length.  The river snakes across the country through 13 states, almost touching Canada before heading south to the gulf.  A daunting prospect for a lone paddler.  

The day following my friend’s departure I set off up the canyon to reach the spring, in my hand and at the ready a canister of bear spray.  I coupled this deterrent with calls of, “Here bear, here bear”, for a throat testing 12 hour day.  Never before in bear country, I was taking no chances. 

A 7 hour ascent on snow shoes brought me to the first drops of water to feed the Missouri-Mississippi.  Any further over the mountain and my journey would take me in the opposite direction west and to the Pacific Ocean.  After an exhausting day on foot I was excited to soon get paddling.  I had a long way to go. 

From Brower’s Spring, the water is known as Hell Roaring Creek, then Red Rock Creek, soon river, before it becomes the Beaverhead.  Joined by the Big Hole River, the waterway becomes the beautiful Jefferson.  At Three Forks the river meets the Galitin and the Madison to finally become the Missouri by name proper. 

7 Rivers 7 Continents

The 300 or so miles from the utmost source to this point entailed 2 weeks of difficult and seemingly never-ending paddling and dragging of kayak.  The small rivers often ran fast and deep, but just as often shallow and slow.  Ranchers siphon off the limited flow of water using small diversion dams and control livestock by stringing fences of barbed wire, electric wire and sheet iron across the river.  Setting up a dog leg turn on an 18 foot wide river in a near 17 foot long boat and coming face to face with a fence running at neck height while powering out of the corner is no fun at all.  For days on end I sat below the eroded river banks crumbling into the water.  Now and then a cow would stick it’s head over the edge to investigate.  As often beautiful as it was frustrating, days of sameness began to grate.

By the time the Jefferson forms just past the town of Twin Bridges, paddling is enjoyable once more.  Wide and fast it flows, banks lined by Cottonwoods, long green grass,  eagles soaring above and deer bounding away into the treeline.  Now this is paddling.The dammed upper Missouri covers almost 1500 miles and is pocked with a dozen lakes and dams.  Free flowing here and there but for the most part a slow haul across bodies of water ranging from a few miles long to more than 200.  

Easily the most challenging are the “Big 3”.  Fort Peck Lake stretching more than 130 miles in length, it’s shores dry and bleak cover a greater distance than the entire coast of California.  Lake Sakakawea, more than 150 miles long and 10 miles at its widest point, is less isolated than Peck, a muddy delta with multiple braids blocks access to open water for many miles.  Finally, the 230 mile long Lake Oahe appears.  Between 1 and 4 miles wide the lake has a reputation for being the most difficult to traverse on the entire river.  Being wind bound for 4 days or more is not uncommon.  I made the crossing in 8.5 days, losing just a day and a half to wind.  I paddled every lake and manually portaged every dam from a few hundred metres to a couple of miles or more, hauling my kayak up and over the huge concrete expanses holding up the river.  

Gavin’s Point Dam sits just a few miles above the town of Yankton, South Dakota.  Here, my journey reached a significant milestone.  Below the dam, the Missouri would finally, after more than 1800 miles, run free till its waters reached the Gulf of Mexico.

By the time the Jefferson forms just past the town of Twin Bridges, paddling is enjoyable once more.  Wide and fast it flows, banks lined by Cottonwoods, long green grass,  eagles soaring above and deer bounding away into the treeline.  Now this is paddling.

7 Rivers 7 Continents

In Natchez I was assured that now would be a good time to cease swimming each day as I had in the river.  Upstream the previous week they had pulled out 2 15 foot alligators.  Much less aggressive than crocodiles, I still had no desire to put them to the test.

In a couple of weeks and 700 miles I would reach St. Louis, Missouri where the river meets with the Mississippi and heads south to the ocean.  Days in my kayak lasted from 7am to 7pm.  12 hours sat on my backside, not stopping to eat or relieve myself.  My cadence became so rhythmic I could time myself to arrive at specific mile markers down to a minute or two over an entire day.  Some feat!

Long days on the water and perfect isolated campsites on sand bars, punctuated by the odd muddy one or stealth camping in an urban park, was all I knew for weeks.  I stopped in towns whose waterfronts were accessible to me but avoided major centres cities.  No place to leave a kayak and gear alone and expect it to be there on your return

Downriver from St. Louis barges ply the river and park on its banks in their hundreds.  Slow moving, river hogs whose size grant them right of way on every occasion.   Their loads of grain and gravel destined for further up river.  Old river towns created by a long past transport boom slipped by.  New Madrid and Caruthersville, once important stops now boast a viewing platform and a handful of loading docks for grain silos providing a tenuous link to the past.

Below Memphis and after a few days spent with new friends,  I stopped into the towns of Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez all in the state of Mississippi.  In Natchez I was assured that now would be a good time to cease swimming each day as I had in the river.  Upstream the previous week they had pulled out 2 15 foot alligators.  Much less aggressive than crocodiles, I still had no desire to put them to the test.  

With a little under 300 miles to the gulf, the river began its final transformation.  Flow often became non-existent, sand bars disappeared, replaced with thick scrub down to the water’s edge and levee banks appeared.  Perhaps most difficult was the major increase in boat traffic.  As far up river as Baton Rouge, ocean going tankers ply their trade.  Natural gas, petrol, diesel, oil, grain and cement fill their enormous holds.  Hailing from China, Hong Kong, Eastern Europe, Panama and other far flung places these ships lay anchored in huge numbers along the river.  At rest they presented formidable obstacles, under steam they were a nightmare.  Their speed was unreal and difficult to gauge.  Crossing the now sometimes mile wide river was fraught with danger.  Not only these giants lay in my path but many more barges and towboats along with speedy crew boats.  From every corner and every hundred metres a boat would play chicken with me, cut across my bow or speed from behind.  Throw in headwinds and sudden rain storms reducing visibility to less than 10 metres and this final run to the coast was not the finale I had hoped for.  

Outside New Orleans I narrowly avoided being machine gunned by a US Navy ship for straying too close while avoiding a tanker bearing down on me.  Instead of compliance I let fly with a tirade of expletives.  After 3700 miles I was just not in the mood.  Perhaps unwise, the look of surprise on the crew’s faces was worth it.

The last town on river with access by road is Venice, Louisiana, a mash-up of busy ports and marinas.  Here, I slept little the night before what I hoped would be my final day on river.  From Venice to mile marker 0 is 10 or so miles.  Not open ocean but rather the Head of Passes.  It is at the mouth of the South Pass where the Gulf of Mexico lay, a further  14 miles of paddling.  I needed to kayak some 20 plus miles to the gulf and if unlucky, 20 miles back upstream.  A prospect I did not relish.

Still dodging river traffic I paddled hard crossing the mighty river once last time, beyond the water bound Pilot Town and into the pass.  Quickly the lighthouse at Port Eads swung into view.  Just a couple more miles I told myself.  Up ahead work boats floated on docks in the midst of reconstructing the port after it’s almost complete destruction at the hands of Hurricane Katrina.  Two small colourful boats moved slowly in circles.  Kayaks?  With the ocean in sight I stopped to shake hands with 2 young men.  Boats dirty and loaded with gear, like mine.  Faces darkly tanned and hair unkempt, like mine.  Our laughter filled the air.  Brent and Hunter had that very same day completed their own journey to paddle the length of the Mississippi River, a 2300 mile journey.  We could not wipe the smiles from our faces.  Better than any news crew or cheering crowd to herald our arrival, our parallel journeys and shared experiences provided so much more.

I did make it to the Gulf of Mexico eventually.  My two comrades in arms had surreptitiously arranged for a boat lift back to Venice.  I wanted in on that ride.  With a promise to wait for me I paddled as hard as my weary body could handle the final short distance out the mouth of the South Pass and into the big waves of the ocean.  

After 117 days and 3780 miles I had indeed paddled the Missouri-Mississippi River, North America’s longest, from source to sea.

We could not wipe the smiles from our faces.  Better than any news crew or cheering crowd to herald our arrival, our parallel journeys and shared experiences provided so much more.

Mark Kalch

Mark has undertaken expeditions exploring the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, paddling the Amazon River from source to sea and crossing the Islamic Republic of Iran on foot and alone. His initial ambitions to chase adventure and adrenalin across the planet have been quickly replaced with a desire to genuinely explore and tell the stories of the people and regions through which he travels.

The 7rivers7continents project is an endeavour to complete source to sea paddling descents of the longest river on each continent.

W: www.markkalch.com
F: www.facebookcom/MarkKalch
T: @MarkKalch

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