I have delayed writing this entry for a while now. There is no way to accurately wrap this trip up in words. None-the-less here is a description of my last day.
Just two hours remained on the Missouri. I paddled as hard as ever, not because I was in a hurry but because I enjoyed a certain rhythm. A rhythm that got me 2300 miles down North America’s greatest river. City noise melded with chirping birds and the sound of the current rushing past a rock lined shore. I spotted the “1” mile marker around the same time I saw huge barges motoring up the Mississippi.
Before the trip started I’d imagined reaching the arch would be a flood of emotion at having completed the trip. Toward the end I realized this would come instead where the Mississippi meets the Missouri. The remaining ten or so miles to the Arch (located on the Mississippi not the Missouri) was just icing on the cake. It was at the confluence where the trip was complete for me. After the waters of the two giants mixed, I paddled over to a wing dam and tied to a rock. Looking to the north I sat for 15 minutes and watched the barges go by as I bid farewell to the Missouri.
It was not just a river to me anymore. I would never see it as a line on a map again. Instead I would feel its motion and hear its sounds. Every point along that winding line will instantly produce images of driving rain or spectacular sunsets viewed from the solitude of my night’s camp, each with a waterfront view. It took me on an incredible journey that far exceeded my lofty expectations.
Reluctant to leave the Missouri behind, I paddled into the Mississippi and to the Chain-of-Rocks. This is a section of whitewater full of jagged rocks that I had no desire to run.
I hauled my gear up the bank to the parking lot above that allows for an easy route around the Chain. Michael F. Clark, aka Big Muddy Mike, arrived in a van pulling a trailer with a 19 foot canoe. Big Muddy Mike is all things confluence. He knows this section of river better than anyone and so kindly agreed to loan me a canoe for friends and family to use. Soon after, Shane Perrin of SUP St. Louis arrived with a trailer full of boards. Shane is an ultra endurance SUP racer, completing massive distances in seemingly impossible amounts of time. He had me on his radio show, Going the Distance, on Stoke Radio several times as I travelled down the river. Just so happens that he also had a rental business and agreed to set me up with six boards to borrow.
A couple carloads of people I hadn’t seen in months arrived to paddle the last nine miles to the arch with me. My ever-supportive parents even made the trip up from Florida. I gave everyone smelly hugs, my girlfriend getting the worst of it, and we got set up to head into the Mississippi. A colorful array of SUPs rested on the sand as everyone got fitted for PFDs and listened as Big Muddy briefed us on safety and what the conditions would be like down river.
St. Louis is a huge port with a lot of barge traffic. I had been nervous for days about being in charge of a group of people heading into heavy barge traffic on a fast river. My mom and my friend Kyle were in the 19’ canoe and Rachel’s Uncle Mark was in a solo canoe. Friends Stephanie, Corey, and Josh, were all on SUPs along with my dad, brother and Rachel. After some initial wobbles everyone got settled and to my great relief we were easily able to stick together. My fear was that people would get spread out all over the place and not able to help each other if a couple people went in the water. A tailwind pushed us right along and allowed us to make the 9 miles in about 90 minutes. We got lucky and only had to deal with the waves of one barge.
It was a surreal experience being with so many people for these last few miles. It really meant a lot to me and I am thankful to each and every person that came out to paddle or welcome me in at the arch. I led the way to the landing spot at the arch and toward a gathering of people. Many of Rachel’s family are from St. Louis so they came out to meet this weird paddleboarder guy she was dating. There were also parents of friends and people who had followed along on Facebook such as Alice Tinklenberg who drove down from Quicny, IL. Also there were my river brothers Josh and Reed who I met on the isolated shoreline of Fort Peck. They had arrived a few days before in their kayaks and stuck around for me to arrive before setting out just hours later for 1000 miles more paddling to the Gulf of Mexico. Janet even drove down with her daughter from Columbia, Missouri. She would arrive back in this spot 10 days later in her kayak and reach the Gulf on Dec. 4th after over 7 months of paddling and 3800 miles!
We gathered on the ancient cobblestones that lead into the water and spent a couple hours enjoying the afternoon and watching barges go by. Eventually, we made our way to Morgan Street Brewery for beer and pizza. Fatigue hit me as I sat down. Taking off my sunglasses I revealed a worsening eye infection. With my bright red eyes I looked and felt a bit like a zombie but I ran on the satisfaction of completing my goal and on a summer full of amazing experiences.
The night wore on and I found a second wind. I couldn’t believe how many friends and people who didn’t even know me came out for this day (thanks to Corey’s mom for hosting many of us at her house that night). It was surreal. I didn’t even feel like I did it. It was just an idea that at one time I couldn’t even fathom getting the opportunity to do.
I had many people send me messages along the way saying they were living vicariously through me and would love to get a chance to do what I was doing. Setting off on this trip wasn’t without its compromises. I had to quit my steady job to get the time off and plow a good amount of savings into the gear costs. The trip became the ultimate priority. It’s the only way something like this can be accomplished. There are a million reasons not to do it but at some point I had to examine if those were legitimate reasons or just excuses. I feel very fortunate for having found a way to do this. The hardest part was the lead up to head west and start the trip, not the trip itself. I had followed along on other people’s adventures for years before I couldn’t sit on the sidelines any longer.
Life was simple those 107 days. I had only what I could carry on my board. Inconveniences became accepted parts of my days and slow speed developed into my pace of life. I will forever remember my chance encounters with random people I met along the way and carry with me an appreciation for simple pleasures. Paddling for all hours that held daylight became a comfort.
Perhaps even stepping in a puddle and getting my shoes wet will produce fond memories of the summer of 2013. I may not know what lay ahead in the coming months and years but I know one thing for sure. I can never regret travelling down the Big Muddy.