The campground now empty, I moved my gear down the ramp and picked my board off the rocks that comprised the wing dam. Janet came down with her dog Rio Oso to bid me farewell. I paddled past the sternwheeler and out for my last four days on the Missouri.
I hadn’t been on the water for two hours when I decided to pull off after looking at the weather radar. One thing was certain, rain was coming, but I wanted to be sheltered if lightning came with it. I unpacked my rain fly and tied it to some tree branches. There I sat for four hours before deciding I needed to make distance.
With no lightning present I paddled on. Heavy rain drops plunged into the River, to be carried 1200 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, as fog floated on the hills. The thick, often viney vegetation along shore gave the feeling of paddling in some far away rainforest. I set up camp at the end of a huge sand island just above Jefferson City. The mist in the air locked in the silence of my surroundings.
The orange of the morning’s sunrise fought off the gray that carried over from the previous day. Rain saturated my tent all night. With no chance of it drying quickly, I stuffed the wet and sandy mess into its bag and paddled away from my strangely fantastic beach. An oasis only when viewed in hindsight when comfortable and dry.
Barges worked their way into docking position on my left as I passed the Missouri capitol building on my right. Occasional dark clouds and distant lightning rolled past as the paddle strokes whittled away the hours. Toward the end of the day I spotted a channel marker that read 99.0. Down to double digits to the Mississippi. I knew the miles would go quickly from here. It felt like just a couple days ago that I was going past the 500 mile sign.
As I passed under the Hermann bridge a huge rising moon rose directly in front of me. With the sun and moon the same distance above their respective horizons I quickened my pace to get past town and the parked barges to find a secluded camping spot. I set up my tent as the thick clouds turned from grey to a red matching the color of my pruned, cracked feet. Three days remained.
I left Hermann for an unknown destination for the night. Dark clouds once again rolled in as I reached Washington City. I had planned on paddling past and I had already eaten lunch but I figured I could always eat more as I waited to see what the weather did. I tied my board to a dock and walked up the road in search of food. The weather cleared and I was back on the water less than an hour later, having eaten a second lunch.
Right at the 47 mile marker I found a rare gap in the rip-rap on an outside bend. A level spot had been cleared by a bulldozer in the dirt. Knowing it was going to rain again that night I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to camp on anything besides sand, even if it was a fine dirt. I waded into the water under another brilliant full moon rise, careful not to lose my footing in the current, and rinsed off a few days of sweat and grime. Feeling refreshed I climbed into a well staked down tent, ready for more ominous weather.
My last full day paddling on the Missouri would only be 35 miles. I hit St. Charles for lunch. A large bird of prey remained uncommonly comfortable with my presence as I walked by on my way to the Lewis and Clark Boat House to say hello to the director who I met back in Bismarck.
With days of clouds and rain preventing me from using my solar panel effectively I needed to get some more juice in my batteries while I ate. The only table by a plug was far away from the other patrons, probably for the best. Not only did I look homeless and dirty, I now had an eye infection that left my eyes bright red. Keeping contacts clean when everything was caked with wet sand is apparently a task I failed at.
The miles melted down to 11 to go. I pulled off at the end of Pelican Island, a land mass spanning several miles in the shape of its namesake bird’s head and beak, and set up my tent for the last time. With city noise to the south and a smoke stack to the north I made sure my cameras had fresh batteries for the next day and watched my last sunset through the mesh of the tent.
I’d wondered if I’d get used to living in a tent each night and sleeping on a two inch thick, inflatable camping pad. Fact is, I had. I was quite comfortable and slept better than I had at any other time in my life. This was probably largely due to the great expenditure of energy I put forth each day but none-the-less, I was happy in my mobile shelter. The tiredness at the end of the day wasn’t like what you feel when coming home from a nine to five. That drained and listless feeling wasn’t there. In its place was a feeling of relaxed satisfaction in having covered miles on the largest river system in North America. So many days I looked forward to having my camp set up and drifting off with images of the day’s landscape running through my head. I can only count two mornings the whole summer where I woke up remembering dreams I had. Maybe there was too much stimulation during the day or I was simply too tired. Interestingly enough, the last night on the river was one of the two nights. The first one was my last night on the first of the big lakes, Fort Peck.
On September 21, 2013, the last day of summer and two days before the 209th anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s arrival back to St. Louis, I stepped out of my tent to complete the journey. As I took my first steps of the day a flock of birds flew a couple dozen feet overhead. They were silent except for a whoosh of wind as they flew by in a small murmuration. A last farewell from nature as I headed toward the cement and steel world down river.