by Sara Dykman
We all knew when we left Triple Divide that the river would steadily change with every twist and turn. We knew that the river would grow from a clear, tiny snow melt drip to a fierce collection of drips muddied by their long journey to the sea. We knew towns and people would be a rarity on the upper stretch of our adventure, but that further along the towns would come to the banks to watch the parade of water bringing life to the Midwest. We knew all this, but only as a broad thought that carried no detail. For me the point of this trip was to be surprised by these details, to watch and live with the changes.
I have been surprised by the river every day of our trip, but for the last few weeks, from my home town of Kansas City to St. Louis I have been surprised less by the river and more by the people that live along its shore. After all I have been catching glimpses of the river ever since I was little, and have driven alongside the river dozens of times to visit family. Aaron and I have even bike toured on the Katy Trail, the bike trail that parallels the river. But I had never been on the river and we had never been part of the River Angel network.
A River Angel is a person that takes care of paddlers. This care can come as an invitation to stay at their house, a warm meal or cold beer, or intel on the next stretch of river. These River Angles give us the encouragement we need and bring our canoe trip out of the river and into the culture of the river. From Kansas City to St. Louis we have been lucky to meet many River Angels, and I will remember them more than the fall color bluffs and the mile marker countdown to the Mississippi River.
Lots of the River Angels we have met in Missouri are part of a network that is on and off the web. When you meet one, word of you spreads down the river faster than the current and soon people are helping you at nearly every town. Other times help is more spontaneous and those River Angels don’t even know they are River Angels, though we certainly tell them they are.
I’ll start in Kansas City where my parents were the River Angels we dream about. They gave us their house, the kept us full, and they even organized a party for us. We spent 8 days in Kansas City, presenting to four schools, watching the Royals fight in the World Series, and essentially taking over my parent’s house. We didn’t want to leave, but we were on a canoe trip to the Gulf so at some point it was time to paddle the next stretch of river.
For all my adventures I break them into small bites so that I don’t freak out and choke. When we left KC our next bite was the last 340 miles of the Missouri River, which would take us to St. Louis. We knew it was going to be a busy bite because we had at least four schools planed and hardly enough time to canoe to each of them. We were ready for the challenge, but healthily skeptical. After all, as winter sets in we lose day light and paddling time every day. So with a 7 mph paddle pace and short, floating snack breaks we can paddle 50 miles in seven hours, BUT as winter steals our sun that means we are paddling nearly all the time the sun is up so there is little room to push bigger days to catch up on miles.
I say little room, but not no room. We can of course get up earlier and paddle from sun rise to sun set with a tiny lunch in the middle. We don’t want that to be everyday of our trip but every once in a while it is a fun reminder of what we can do. On our last day into St. Louis we were racing bad weather and a school presentation deadline. So we paddled not only the longest day of the trip but the longest day of our lives. Sixty-two miles with day light to spare. And that is where we met River Angel Muddy Mike, who operates a canoe house and was at least as unique as all the other River Angels we have met in Missouri.
Big Muddy Mike worships both rivers that flow through his St. Louis home. Just this year 68 paddlers have stopped off at his place to prepare for the next section of the river, a barge highway we will quickly learn to navigate. He lives and breathes river but for me the best part of our stay here was meeting a few other paddlers going down the Mississippi River to hear about their journey and compare and contrast the two rivers.
Meeting River Angels always seems a bit like luck. Here we are canoeing down the river and we can show up in a town and be treated like family. Just the other day we stopped in the small town of New Haven and were treated to PIZZA by Lance even though his pizzeria was closed! If that is not special treatment then nothing is. AND by the time we left New Haven we had a lucky glass robin from the glass blowing shop, bellies full of pizza, a slight buzz from the distillery tour and on top of it all we were clean from showers. Only on a river with open arms and hearts could we get this kind of treatment.
But I am getting ahead of myself, because before we got to St. Louis we had to leave KC. Twenty five miles after we left the familiar skyline behind we were pulling up to Bill’s cabin. Bill is a soft spoken man that doesn’t need to be the center of attention and is as nice as can be. He is a friendly paddler that we were all immediately comfortable with. We sit around eating and telling stories as if we have been friends forever. In the morning Bill gives me one of my favorite gifts ever, a handmade marble he made especially for each of us.
At Bill’s we also got to see Dave again. Dave is a wonderful older man that took us out to eat in KC along with his wife Fran. They were wonderful not just because they managed to find the BEST restaurant in KC (and it was vegetarian), but because they were so positive and full of life. I love meeting interesting people and I love meeting people like Dave and Fran because their passion is contagious.
From Bill’s cabin we pulled a 48 mile day to arrive in Waverly, MO where Robin greeted us with cold beer and a lasagna feast. He also organized a school visit in town, which can sometimes be more tiring than paddling. In the morning we presented to Santa Fe Elementary and then were back in our boats by lunch. Robin would continue to be our River Angel even as we left Waverly by contacting and connecting us to folks downstream.
From Waverly we paddled like crazy to be at another school the next day. Brunswick was 60 miles downstream and 3 miles up the Grand River. We left ourselves no wiggle room and arrived at the school in our raingear 10 minutes before our presentation. It was an impromptu presentation because we had planned on doing a river visit, but decided the kids would not fall in love with the river while it was pouring rain and cold. We were okay with being inside.
So much of Missouri was about us being okay with whatever happened. It is the only way you can sanely do these sorts of trips. Nothing ever goes as plan so embracing the randomness of it all is part of the adventure. Embracing the bad weather and knowing it will get better is part of the adventure too.
After our Brunswick presentation we ate gifted pizza in the shelter of a pavilion. Then just as the rain got thick and cold we were paddling back down the Grand River away from Brunswick. It was our fastest school stop yet, and we had no choice because we had a field trip scheduled down river and the only way we were going to be on time was to paddle.
We survived the rain and made it to Cooper’s Landing, the famous paddler’s bar that sits on the water and is as eclectic as the River Angels that call it home. Cooper’s Landing was also our stop to present to the fourth grade students at Mill Creek in Columbia. We arrived with one hour to spare. Luckily the first presentation was a river field trip so being slightly worn by the river added to our credibility.
River field trips are my favorite piece of our education mission. Here the river and the animals at home in the river’s riparian edge are the teachers. We don’t have an outline of what we are going to talk about on our river field trips; instead we walk slowly through nature and let the kids make observations and discoveries. In the first five minutes we had caught a snake and learned that garter snakes use a disgusting musk smell as a defense mechanism when in danger. The kids were learning and experiencing their river without them even knowing they were doing more than having fun. What a great time we had learning where toads live and what it feels like to walk through fall’s leaves.
After the presentation we had some time to shower and rest before our classroom presentation with the same students the next day. We ended up staying with David, a social justice advocate and River Angel that ran the radio station. He was like a wind storm always going a mile a minute in every possible direction. While we were there he biked us through the streets of Columbia singing poetry on the way to a vegan restaurant that was raising money for the Latino Community Center and then moments later he organized us to present at his radio station. The turnout for the radio presentation was just him but it was recorded and perhaps one day he might find a few hours to produce something with it.
After our classroom presentation we biked on bike paths all the way from Columbia’s city center back to Cooper’s Landing where we hung out around a fire and talked with an entire organization of River Angels. River Relief is a nonprofit that takes kids onto the river to do trash pick-ups. By giving kids the opportunity to take care of the river they are fostering a deep connection and commitment to the river. And on top of all that, folks like Steve, Mel, and Jeff are helping us move down the river.
And move down the river we do. We leave Columbia and head to Jeff city, home of the capitol and one of the most memorable River Angels of the trip. When I look back to my paddle across Missouri Joe Wilson is the face I will remember and when I remember him I can’t help but smile.
Joe greeted us at Serenity Point, a sand bar that he has built and cared for. It is his stretch of river and he will fight with every ounce of his soul to keep that place beautiful and available for paddlers. For our arrival he built two fires and had all the state flags that touch the Missouri River flying high for us. Three of his dogs ran to our boats and waged their tails with appreciation. If he had had a red carpet he would have unrolled it for us.
I could honestly talk for pages about this man. In his younger days he raised 5 boys, coached boxing, sold computers, and had a tv show about dogs and dog adoption. He is a master story teller, and if he wrote a book I would read it (he doesn’t want to write a book because he doesn’t think anyone would believe him). He walks the talk and never wavers from what he thinks is the right thing to do. He is a man you want on your side and the side of our rivers, and luckily for us he liked us as much as we liked him.
By day we ran errands and rested at his river retreat. Then in the evenings we found ourselves in random places that make me smile. One night we watched the Royals get one step closer to their World Series victory with Rick, a city council member that understands Joe, and his family. This was a great time to shower, eat, and relax, because the next night we were presenting to the entire city council thanks to Joe.
I travel to find the moments where I can look around and say “how did I get here??!!” At the city council meeting telling our story, advocating for river access, and receiving commemorative city coins I certainly asked by self that a few times! Nia also asked herself that question as she listened to the city council pray then all of us stand for the pledge of allegiance. Geeze traveling is great!
We were in Jeff City for three nights and we spend most of them huddled around the campfire with the capitol shimmering on the water and the bridge noise forcing us to lean our heads in close to hear. We sang songs and were happy to listen to him tell stories in his way, which is to say colorfully and with perfect quotable moments thrown in. Sayings like “I’d buy a bucket with a hole in it if it was the right price” and “I hope I find my false teeth before the dogs do” made us laugh. He didn’t just say funny things, he also said thinks that were thought provoking; a unknowing philosopher. Joe should be in the movies, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was.
We carry the stories of Joe and the other River Angels with us as we canoe down the river. The stories grow as we met more and more people, and we feel more and more lucky. This is the story of the river as it changes on its’ journey to the sea. Thanks to the river and the River Angels, I can’t wait to see where it takes us next and who we will meet along the way.