Canoeing the Great Plains – A Missouri River Summer, by Patrick Dobson

Canoeing the Great Plains – A Missouri River Summer, by Patrick Dobson

In 1994, in May, I was having a really bad
day. At that time, I was working at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, refinishing
and repairing the hotel’s antique and reproduction furniture.
Before that, I had worked in the banquet department, and
I had just graduated shortly before that, with a Master’s in
History, at a time when nobody really needed any historians, so I
was working these jobs and feeling, in many ways, that at 30 years
old, my life was ending. I was tired again on that day, and
I had been for really, months. It was a regular grind for
me to get up and be at work at 7 o’clock and get done at 4 o’clock.
I mean, these are regular things that people do all the
time, but for me, that routine was really bone crushing, and the
kind of work that I was doing was fun at first—I am always really
a quick starter and I do very well, but then after about six months,
I begin rotting because my expiration date has passed. So here I was on this day, and I was distracted,
and I was thinking that life really had to have more
to offer than just working and dying. I mean, I was sort of looking
out on my life and thinking that, you know, I’m going to
work, day in and day out until I retire, and then I’m going to
die, and so there had to be something else besides that. Refinishing
and repairing antique and reproduction furniture was a great
job, but it was not my life’s calling. So I was distracted
and thinking these terrible thoughts again and at the time, I
was a relatively new father, and I was not doing very well at it.
My daughter was born three years before, and I was a single
dad. Her mom and I never got married. So she was sharing houses
and I was just not doing very well. I was not very comfortable
as a father. I was broke all the time, it seemed. Here I was,
working and working and working, and I never had anything in the
bank. Again, it just seemed to be getting up in the morning,
going to work, coming home, falling dead tired into bed,
and waking up the next morning. That is what life seemed to be, this
sort of repetition of these days. And worse, I was impatient
with my daughter, Sidney. There were times when she was with
me, those weekends and those weeks when she was with me, because
I did not feel very comfortable. I was afraid that I was always
going to hurt her in some way, that I would have the wrong kind
of discipline, that I would really screw up her whole life by making
the wrong move. And due to these sorts of pressures that I
was putting on myself, I really was not able to cope very well with
life, as it presented itself. So on this day, as I said, I was tired and
distracted and I was painting the floor of the engineering department
at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. We had a Navy man who was in
charge, I think he was second in charge of the engineering department,
and he liked his floors battleship gray. So every couple
of weeks, I would paint the floor of the engineering department,
because our shoes were so dirty all the time. Of course I was
doing the work with the furniture and had all kinds of solvents
and stuff. So I was painting that day and I was sort of thinking
these thoughts, and I was really sort of on the edge of despair,
when I realized that I had painted myself into the middle of the
room, just like a Mack Sennett movie, you know? And at that
point, I really did despair. I sort of leaned on the broomstick
that had the roller on it, and I really did think that this was
the way it was always going to be, and that I was a failure because
of it. In the end that day, I thought something had to happen.
I was standing there in the middle of the floor and the door
to the loading dock was open, and outside, a thunderstorm sort
of sat down on the city. The thunderstorm struck. And it was
one of those big ones that gets into your insides. And so with the
rain and the thunder, and the smell of rain and fresh grass
coming in through the door, something did click. It was like
spring breaking. It was not the thought that something had to
happen, but the thought that I had to do something, anything, to end
my misery. The thunderstorm reminded me of traveling in Kansas.
I used to travel in Kansas a lot. I used to get sort
of cooped up on the weekends, get into these crushing routines,
and find myself driving those country roads out in central
and western Kansas, and it reminded me, that thunderstorm reminded
me, of the times that I was in Kansas and the way that the
thunderstorms sort of sat at the end of those country roads where
the sky really turns that blue-black above the blonde of the prairie,
itself, and I thought to myself, you know, it’s time to
walk. And I know that sounds strange to some people, but when I
was a kid growing up, we would get in the car once a year and race
across Kansas. My dad absolutely hated Kansas. He thought it
was boring and it was the worst place in the world, and we would
race to the mountains. As a matter of fact, we drove at night sometimes.
But to me, looking out that car window, just the space
itself, the space itself, fascinated me, and the way that it
just seemed so different a world than the one I grew up in,
and I lived on State Line Road, looking across the street at Kansas,
so this was a completely different sort of Kansas that was
presented to me. And as I was standing in the middle of that
room that day, I thought I wanted to experience that space,
and that I would walk in it. I’m sure all of you understand what
it is like to walk someplace versus whether to drive in it, and
to be out in the middle of all that space, be underneath the
sky and in the land, is a completely different experience than
driving it. As a matter of fact, over the years, I have come
to see driving as more a video screen than experience of the
actual landscape around me. So I wanted to experience that
space, and I thought to myself, well, I’m going to do this. I’m
going to walk. I’m going to walk the Great Plains. And I went
home that night and looked for the biggest city farthest away
from Kansas City, and that was Helena, Montana, at least on my map,
that was going through my mind when I decided I was going
to walk. Once in my head, I decided I was going to do it. And
I was also motivated by this feeling, this fear, that overcomes
me when I get a thought like that in my head. I get this thing
in my head and I begin to fear more than embrace things, I
begin to fear not doing something more than doing it, if that makes
any sense. I wind up doing these kinds of things when the fear
of not doing them becomes greater than the fear of doing them.
So it was very short order, that this became a solidified
idea in my head, and that I would do it, and it was because that
in fact I thought that if I didn’t do it, I never would. The river idea came to me from a kid, my daughter’s
brother, not my son, but her brother said, “well, if
you’re going to walk Montana, if you’re going to go all the way
to Montana, why don’t you just canoe back?” The kid, Bo, was six
years old at the time, and they were studying Lewis and Clark
at the time, and so to him, it sounded like a perfectly brilliant
idea. Of course to me, it sounded like a real scary thing, but
I had to ask myself, well if I’m in Montana, why not canoe home?
It was instantly part of my plan, and I never thought not to
do it. So for the next year, I worked in the banquet
department and I worked overtime in the engineering department,
so that I could save five months of money, five months of
rent, five months of utilities, five months of what I thought I
would need on the road, so that I could make this trip. And
one of the reasons I wanted to pay rent and utilities, was so that
when I came home, I would be there with my daughter. I would not
have to go look for a new place. She would be able to come over
to my house and we would be able to resume some kind of life
together. And I know it sounds almost insane, really, to think
that I was going to be away from my house for five months and still
want to pay rent for it, but to me, at that particular moment in
time, it made perfectly good sense. Part of the reason that the river became such
a great idea after Bo mentioned it, as a matter of fact, it was
almost instantly the idea that this would happen, was that ever
since I was a kid, the river captivated me. I Everybody here, or
probably most people here remember when the Broadway Bridge was
a toll bridge, and you had to pay your quarter to get across it.
Well sometimes in traffic, those cars would back up one behind
the other and you would get stuck in the middle of the bridge,
and that is something by itself, to be stuck on a bridge
like that, because you get to feel the bridge sort of give and
take beneath all those cars and all the traffic. Well looking
down then, into the river, I began to think when I was a kid,
just what was that like to be down there. To me, as a kid, it
looked like a river. It did not look like many people would describe
it to me later, as a trough. You know, it did not look like
me to a manmade construct at all. To me, it was a river, and
it was dark and it was scary, and I remember one time being stuck
on the bridge, and having one of the big barge packets come through
at the same time that we were on that bridge, and it was at
night, and to see the lights and the way that they spotlighted the
river bank as they went along, really captivated me. It was so
big and so mysterious and so scary all at the same time.
It is still a fixture of dreams of mine, to see them sort
of unmanned, seemed like a scary, ghostlike thing, coming through
the river in the middle of the night. So because I felt it so intriguing and my
school life was not very exciting, grade school and high school
were awful times for me, I would disappear in grade school, into
the second story library in grade school, and the library was
sort of stuck in a corner. You had to actually go looking for
it in order to find it. And so I would disappear in there when
it had free times when we had library days and I would disappear
and start looking through the encyclopedias and stuff, and began
to find stuff on the Missouri River. I remember I was very
proud of myself, rivers in general, captivated me, the Missouri
River in particular, but I will never forget when I
was in the third grade and I read all of Tom Sawyer in two days and
to me, that was quite a big accomplishment, and of course,
there was a lot of river in that book. Later then, I read Huck
Finn, and of course did not quite understand it. I mean, I was
only in the third grade, but I certainly ate through that book
and was very happy with myself when I finished it five days after
I began. Later, when I was in high school, I decided
I would start looking at Missouri River stuff in more particular
ways, and I ran into the journals of Prince Maximilian Neuwied
and his artist, Karl Bodmer. And so, in high school again, when
I was feeling lonely or upset, which was nearly all the time, I
would disappear into that library and read through those journals
and flip through those beautiful watercolors that Karl Bodmer
did in 1833, when he went upstream with Prince Maximilian on the
Yellowstone. So I worked overtime for five months. In May,
1995, I began my walk on May 1. It was not an easy trip. I
had never walked that far in my life. I certainly did a lot of walking
when I was younger, and I came to know cities that I
lived in fairly well from walking them. When I was 22, I lived
in Trier, in Germany, and because I did not know anybody, I would
spend hours and hours walking, so I walked a fair deal, but I had
never walked a long way with a backpack on my back on hard surface
roads. And so I learned a lot about what you need in terms
of shoes and equipment and so on, and a lot about what you don’t
need. I had packed all this stuff, thinking that I was going to need
it, like I was going on a backpacking trip in Missouri for
a weekend, and it turns out to walk to Montana, you need a whole
lot less stuff, and certainly on those hard surface roads
in the heat and in the rain, it was a very difficult time for me.
I was very scared, really almost all the way until I got to Guernsey,
Wyoming, and I really experienced the very first day without
any kind of anxiety. Now it never occurred to me to turn around
and go home. It never occurred to me that this was something I was
not going to do, so I kept doing it, and I did it for 1450 miles,
all the way to the Missouri River. When I arrived at the river,
I had another thought, and that is, I had never really been
in a canoe before, and during that year that I worked so hard,
I also queried canoe makers and magazines and stuff, to see if
I could write notes from the road, sort of a journal thing, and
the only place they said yes to the journal thing was Pitch Weekly,
and later I came to work there, because the walk and the river
trip really began my career as a writer. But I arrived at that river and realized that
this was a real grown-up river. This was not some sort of
mountain stream below Holter Damn, below Holter Lake, that river
was not what I saw when I went through Three Forks. When I went
through Three Forks, that is still something that you can
understand as a stream, as something that I could handle.
But when I wound up there, at the Wolf Creek Access in Montana,
all the sudden, that was something that was very difficult for
me to imagine doing. I spent two days on that bank, soft of dillydallying
around, putting things off, hoping that this would
make things better. Again, it never occurred with me to walk back
to Helena and get on a bus and come home. That canoe maker had
made a canoe, he had sent it to Helena, Montana for me, and
it had that big beautiful boat on the side of the river, and
I was scared to get in it. The second evening I was there, two guys came
up. One was a schoolteacher and the other one was a lawyer,
and they had this really leaky, little 12 foot boat that they
put on the river and they spent weekends, weeknights they would
go out, then they would go the five miles from Wolf Creek Access,
to Craig, Montana. They invited me along. It looked
so natural and normal for them to be in this boat and to go down
the river, and they really showed me a great time. We smoked cigars,
fat cigars. I did some fly casting while we were out there,
they drank whiskey, because I don’t drink, but it really looked
like they wore the river as they would their favorite sweater,
and here I was so frightened of it. So I got this sort of confidence.
The next day then, I put that boat in the river and
really felt what it was to be on the river for the first time. But while I was dawdling—this is sort of
a side note—while I was dawdling, I had been trying to convince myself
that I really could do this thing. My boat is there on the
bank, I have my little vent, and about the time I get myself
convinced that I am going to take off the next morning, a truck
bounces in down on the river access with a bunch of Mackenzie
drift boats—I’m not sure if you know what those are, but they
are a certain kind of boat that is very familiar to that upper river,
and a trailer full of boats and a whole bunch of dudes,
literally, in the sense of the word “dudes”, in trucks and in
cars, and the woman who was in charge, was barking orders at these other
guys who were working for her, and they were filling coolers
with beer, and I guess fat cigars for these guys who were all
in perfect fly-fishing outfits, all fresh from the Orvis
store, and so once they got on the river, she came down and sat
on my picnic bench, and she was a heavy smoker. She smoked, and
then lit the next one with the cigarette before. She says “What
are you doing here?” I said, “Well, I came all the way.
I walked here. I walked here, and I’m going home on that
river. The first thing she said to me after that was “You’re
doomed! It’s a flood year boy. That river is going to eat you!” And
I put on that voice, because that is really the voice that she
had, was this deep, gravelly voice, and so all the sudden, that
confidence that I had, disappeared. After all, this was somebody
who was on the river every day, or every other day, and she
was telling me that I was doomed, and that the river was going
to eat me up. Fortunately, I ran into those two guys, and
they really showed me something else. Now while I was sitting there on the river
bank and while I was doing my first day in the boat, I had to ask
myself, what was I really looking for. And what I was looking
for, unfolded as the walking trip first, and as the river trip
unfolded. On the river, of course, I would be more alone than
in any other time in my life. There was nobody there to distract
me. There was nobody to blame anything on. Anything that
happened, happened because I put myself into it. So I would be
more alone, and I would be looking inside as never before. I
don’t know how you feel about looking inside yourself, but to
me, at that particular moment in life, it still is really frightening
stuff to look inside. I found the opportunities to be very,
very frightening, as I said, and exciting at the same time.
I had never done this before, and now I was committed and it was
something that I had to do. At the time, of course, I was not very self
aware. I had only been sober for about five years before I got
on that river, and I was still trying to figure out what life was
going to be. I had drank really, my whole life, from the time
I was 11, to the time I was 27, so here I was on the river, actually
looking back at my existence and these bone-crushing routines,
and trying to figure out how did I come to get stuck in these things
time and time again. So I had all of this time then, and
all of these reasons, to look inside. I think I started the trip to challenge myself.
I really wanted to have something to write about. That is
all I have ever wanted to do since I was a little kid, was be a writer.
And I believed all those things that people told me when
they said I could not be a writer, that I would never be able to
compete, that I would never be good enough. Well, this was the trip
that was going to make me a writer, and I was determined to
do it. I found, very quickly, that I was looking
for a sense of purpose. I really had no idea of purpose before, other
than to stay sober and make enough money to pay the rent, so
I was rather adrift in life, and had no plans, and so that is why
the bone crushing routines happened again and again, because
I was just sort of going from one thing to the other. I wanted
the strength to be a father, but at the same time, you know, I
left my kid in Kansas City for five months, in the care of her mother.
I left my kid. But I left her, for I thought at that time,
and I still think today, for a very good reason, and that was
to show my daughter that there was something more in life than
just taking what came, than just working and dying. There has to
be something more. And hopefully, by my example, she will have
learned that herself, and I think she has, to some extent, and more
than anything of course, I just wanted life to be different.
The river put me to the test and like I said, I had no experience
on the river. The only time I had ever been in a canoe was a
drunken weekend canoe on one of those mid Missouri or southern Missouri
streams. I began to drink on Friday afternoon, and still
don’t know how I made it home. So I got home, Monday morning came, and I
have no idea what happened between Friday afternoon and Monday
morning, so that was the whole of my canoeing experience. I only
had the barest notion, the barest idea of how to control
that boat. When I was in Helena, I asked one of the people at the
sporting goods store that took the canoe, and I asked them, “Do
you know anybody who gives canoe lessons?” And they were like,
“You got a canoe and you are going to need canoe lessons?” These
were all these really buff and beautiful Montana outdoor
people, and they could not believe that I needed a canoe lesson.
They helped me up with this guy, who was a known, and they told me
this, a well-known whitewater canoeist in Montana. So we got
the boat out of the store, took it to a Helena city lake, and
he yelled at me for about an hour and a half, while I turned the
boat over and sloshed around and felt ashamed, because he
was saying things like “I can’t understand how come you
can’t do a simple J-stroke. And I was J-ing and prying, and touring North
America—he called it the North American touring technique, where
you just paddle on both sides of the boat. And so after that,
I was completely humiliated, and I never thought to ask the
guy until after the lesson, what I asked him, which was “have
you ever been on the Missouri River?” “Oh, no, that river is
too big. It is too dangerous”. So here I have this big, blonde hourglass
of a human being telling me that he is too frightened to get
on the river and I am going to do it with flipping the boat over
in a Helena, Montana city pond. So I took off. That day I felt really good.
I made it to Craig, five miles away. I made it in less than one
hour, and it had taken us, me and the two guys, several hours
the night before. I had all the confidence in the world, but I
really was not ready for what happened. What happened was the landscape and the quiet.
It was sublime. I am sure that we have some people here who
have done a lot of paddling before, but again, when you are loosed
in that space, and with that kind of quiet, some very amazing
things happen to the inside of you. And so after that first
day, when I landed at Cascade, Montana, my very first camp, I really
had all the confidence in the world. I really thought
that I had learned a lot that day and that I could do this canoe
thing fairly easily. The next day, however, I was sort of canoeing
along and got real complacent and decided I would take a nap
in my boat, and I woke up in the middle of a thunderstorm, a lightning
storm in the middle of the stream. You know, what woke
me up, was a wave crashed into the side of the boat and splashed
my face, and I woke up and I was panicked all the sudden,
and I realized that I really don’t know anything about this canoeing
thing, and I tried to figure out whether I am supposed to go
to the Cut Bank or the Lee Bank, and there are cottonwoods on the
Lee Bank, and in all my time outside, I had seen cottonwoods splinter
in heavy thunderstorms. One time in Montana, I was
actually fishing the North Platte River, and actually had a whole
cottonwood come off a cliff, not on top of me, but fairly close
to me, so I did not want to do that, but at some point, the panic
set in and I was just going to do anything I could. And I finally
decided, I don’t know how I decided, I just decided,
that even though the lightning would get the cottonwoods first,
then I would get it right after, I was going to dive in underneath
those cottonwoods and test my look. So I pushed into the cottonwoods,
pulled some willow around the cross brace, around the
yoke in the boat, and by that time, hail had begun. And it was not
just pea-sized hail. This became really serious marble-sized
hail. So, thrashing around, I pulled those willows around
the yoke of the boat to hold it in, ripped open my bag, pulled
out a terry cloth towel and threw it over the back of my head
and my neck to lessen the blow of the hail, because by that time,
it had gotten bigger than marbles, and it was really frightening.
I think I did a lot of screaming and yelling, and about halfway
through that, one of those branches on the cottonwood fell down
next to the canoe and sloshed water in the boat, and I am curled
into this really tight ball, and I barely notice when it stops, right?
All the sudden, I realize that I am sort of out of danger,
and there are pearls and agates in the boat, right? Two inches
of hail in the boat. And so I got out this ridiculously small little
pan I had, and I began to bail the boat out. I actually came
around the corner, got back into the stream and was grateful
to have my life, and I came around the corner, and there was the
park I wanted to stay at that night, and I just laughed myself silly. Of course, I ran into rapids. If you have
ever been on the upper Missouri, there are rapids. It is not like
whitewater rapids. Instead, they are like huge stair steps, where
the river sort of falls down into these standing waves. And
so I saw the first of these, I think it was the Dauphin Rapids.
And I thought to myself, my boat would be crushed, I mean,
if I was going to go through these big waves. So I got smart, or
I thought I got smart, and saw a chute on the side of the
river and I thought, well, I will just walk my boat down to where
it is calm at the bottom. Well, I got into the chute, and it
was really great. Everything was fantastic. Then within about
100 feet, my feet were swept out from underneath me, I am struggling
to hold onto the boat, and somehow I flop myself into the
boat and start paddling like crazy, because I am so afraid
I am going to get washed against these rocks. And this is serious
standing wave stuff, where my boat is crashing through the
whitewater, and then coming through on the other side, flipping
up and down, and I finally came through in the calm water below
all of these rapids, and went to the opposite bank. There was a
guy standing there in a fly-fishing outfit. This guy did not look
like a “dude”, he looked like the real deal. And he said “How’d
you do in there?” And I said “Well, I don’t think I did
very well”. And he said “Well, I could tell by your English—I
could hear you all the way out here”. So that’s the beginning of the trip. As
I moved forward in the trip, I have a lot of—I will show you some
pictures of the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic, but while I was
up in Montana, it was the windiest time of the year, and some people
told me that it was the windiest year they had had in 50 years
up there. So I made it through the Upper Missouri Wild and
Scenic, which, if you have never been there in a boat, or even in
person, just by yourself, you should do that. It is really
a magnificent, lonely, lonely place. It is really just sublimely
beautiful. So I get through the Upper Missouri Wild and
Scenic and into Fort Peck Lake, and I think to myself, well, all
these stories people told me must not be true. Of course, that
was a day that the wind was not blowing and I made 25 miles into
the lake and I thought I was so brilliant, this is going
to be really easy and what not. After that, I was completely shut
down by the wind. The next five days, I made 10 miles, most
of those miles, 8 or 9 of them in the first days. I put my boat on
the river every day, and one day I paddled all day and I struggled
to make 300 yards. I am paddling up the sides of these swells,
these four and five foot swells. I am trying to stay close to
the bank so that I could get out. The wind is pushing me out
into open water, then I get to the top of one of these swells and
I have to paddle back down the other side in order to keep from
being blown backward. Fortunately, I only had to go really one open
water stretch. That was where the crooked creek came into
the Missouri at the UL Bend Wilderness. There is a little Corps of
Engineers Rec site there, and there was a trailer there, and
that was all I could see, but I thought “this is going to be
it”, and I got out in the middle of this lake, and I began to curse
the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt for having built the lake
during this administration. And if anybody knows me, for
me to curse Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is quite something.
So here I was out there, and I was cursing and screaming and
I was very mad at the Corps of Engineers. I was really frustrated,
not having anything to hold onto, literally, anything to hold
onto out in the middle of that, and I finally was able, after a time,
to actually surf my boat—get on the top of a swell—and
surf toward the shore over and over again, until I wound up on that other
shore. And there, I met a guy by the name of Kevin Scoby. I
will show you his picture here in a minute. Kevin was one of
these weird people who liked to spend all of their time alone.
But he is still very friendly at the same time. He invited me to
stay over the weekend where a lot of ranchers would come
down over the weekend and we could have a good time together. And
then when the next day came and I began to look out at that lake
and it was smooth again, and I thought maybe I should get going
because I may not have this opportunity again, Kevin said “Well,
where do you think you’re going? I’m going to take you around
this lake.” And I was just stunned. I mean, this guy, out of
nowhere, said “Oh yeah, I’ll take you around the lake, no
big deal”. And so I did. I spent the whole week with him and he
took me to Wolf Point, Montana, and then I canoed into lake
Sakakawea. I read the journal of another kayaker who—back
up a minute—when I got to Great Falls, I met an incredible couple by
the name of Jim and Diane McDermott, and they took me around the
Great Falls to Fort Benton. They gave me a lot of good advice.
Like, when you are in the canoe by yourself, you turn it around,
put the stern forward. I had no idea. I was sitting all
the way in the back of my boat with the boat sitting up like this.
They had all kinds of great advice, and they gave me this
journal of this kayaker, and what the kayaker wrote in this
journal, was that he stashed his boat in the bushes underneath
a highway bridge at Williston, North Dakota, went up and got a
shower, had a good meal and came back then two or three days
later. And I thought, that’s what is going to happen with me. And I did that, and while I was walking into
Williston, I met somebody who was real nice to me, took me
around, bought me lunch, introduced me to the best hotel in
Williston, North Dakota at the time, and then as I got done that evening,
I was worrying over how I was going to make it through all
these big lakes—there was another 650 miles of big lake in front
of me–and I sat down on a bench in Williston, North Dakota, and
a woman came up and introduced herself, Doris Hanson. She looked
out of place. She had big bouffant hair, you know, with a polyester
scarf wrapped around it, and big horn-rimmed glasses, and
we got to talking and she said “Well, I have a friend who goes
down to Yankton all the time. You should go with him.” And I was
just stunned. That was another sort of incident where I thought,
“Well, this woman is crazy. She talks too loud and she just
seemed to be sort of presumptuous. So she got up right away and
we went down to talk to her friend by the name of Rick Hickok,
and Rick said “Oh yeah, I’ll take you down to Yankton. You don’t
mind staying with Doris for a week, do you?” So I said, “I don’t
know what that means!” And Doris took me out to dinner and while
we were at dinner, she was just so happy to be with me and so open
and so honest, and she revealed to me that she had just gotten
out of the mental hospital about three weeks before. It turns
out, she had been in her house, shut in her house after her husband
left her, she shut herself in her house for five years. She even
unplugged the clock so she would not know what time it was,
and pulled the shades and so on. Her ex-husband and her friends,
they were the ones who brought cleaning supplies and food
to her. She stayed in that house for five years. And so when
it became obvious that something was very wrong with Doris, her ex-husband
and the chief of police had her committed and she wound
up spending, I think, three months, in a psychiatric institution,
and she had just gotten out three weeks before she met me,
and I had the most wonderful week. She cooked dinner. She would
get big bags of potato chips and ice cream and we would sit
on her patio and eat these things, and I went to five movies that
week. I saw all of the movies that were showing at the two theatres
in Williston. So really, Doris was real fine, and I was
of course very sad to know that just a few years after I met her,
she died, hopefully not of alcoholism or a heart attack, but she
just died and it made me very sad. So Rick took me. He drove me and my boat 750
miles to Yankton, South Dakota, and put me on the river below
the Gavin’s Point Dam. Now, there I ran into a river that is
much more familiar to us, living on the lower river—rolling hills,
grapevines, the kinds of reeds that we have on the river bank.
The next 60 miles from Gavin’s Point Dam, to Ponca State Park,
the river lulled really fat and warm a puddle in the sun. And
so I took my time. I mean, I had skipped all this river and I
had this growing feeling that I wanted to be back with my daughter,
but I did not really want the trip to end. An so on the
Missouri National Recreation River, I took my time. I really
tried to put off going downstream, because I did not want my
river trip to end. I was by myself for a week and a half on the
way into Omaha and all the way along, of course you begin to realize
differences of the upper river and the lower river. Of course,
on the lower river, there are more human sounds, more mechanical
sounds, more sounds of cars and traffic, but it was not that bad.
I liked that, after having been alone for so long on the
upper river, and not hearing anything. There were times when I
was on the upper river, when there was not wind, when there
was not any ripple in the stream where I could literally hear my
heart beat in my ears. So I liked it. I liked being by myself in
the middle of all this. It is a great feeling to feel that you
are a thousand miles away from everybody, even though you’re
in the middle of a town. An in Omaha, I met a guy by the name
of John Biondo. I had heard about him upstream—some jet skiers
caught me near Blair, Nebraska, and asked me what was going
on. They had just met this guy, he was having a terrible trip,
blah, blah, blah, and I was canoeing through Omaha and I saw
an opening. There is a harbor there with a bar on the other end of
it, and I thought what I really wanted at that time was a candy
bar and cola. If you have been alone out there in the sun on
the river for a long time, that sugar stuff really begins to sound
very good. So I dashed in there, and I met John Biondo at
the bar. He was writing in his journal. It was the middle
of the day, actually about 11 o’clock. They had some big party
the night before. The bartender had bloodshot eyes, and there were
people sweeping up and just not looking like they were having
a good time of it, and it was already 103 outside, and I thought
to myself, “Well, how about if we canoe together?”, and in my
head, I said, “I’m going to beg this guy. I am going to beg, because
I had been by myself and it would be fun to have a river mate to
go with me”. It turns out that John had done the same thing
I did. He went from Fort Peck Lake, around to Yankton, South Dakota.
Actually, he canoed even less river than I did, and he
had broken up with a girlfriend right before he went on this trip.
He was lonely, alone, and he was really into Indian artifacts
and the river was up so he could not search around on gravel
bars for Indian artifacts, and he had all these reasons why
he was having a terrible time. So I talked him into going
with me. I told him, “Look, you know, a couple of days. A couple
of days. If you don’t like it, you can get out of the river
and go home, that’s always there for you.” Being able to canoe
with somebody else and having a good time building big fires
and shooting guns, does not happen very often. Of course, I did not
have the guns, he had the guns and I wanted my fingers on them
too, because it is like a free fire zone out there. It was kind
of fun. I am not a gun guy. I don’t own one, but it was still
going to be a lot of fun, if I could talk him into going, I could
shoot his guns. And from that point, I had the best two weeks
of my entire life, to that point. John and I lived like a couple
of Huck Finns. We did not put on our shoes for two weeks running.
We came by a sandbar we liked, and we stayed there for
two nights. We shot guns, we fished, we screwed around, we built
big, big fires. We wrote and read in the sun. That took me all
the way into Kansas City. While John and I were together, after
the first day or so, we kept talking about how much longer we wanted
the river to be, because life on the river really is something
very special. And having been alone and on that river for two
and a half months, you know, the prospect of it ending, was very,
very difficult to think about. I wanted to go home and be with
my kid. I did not want to go home and get a job. I did not want
to go home and pay bills. I did not want to go home and be an
upstanding human being, but I wanted to go home and be with
my kid. But at the very same time, I wanted the river between
Omaha and Kansas City to get longer. Now, I arrived on the river bank at Kaw Point.
The river boat was still there. I was able to call a friend
of mine to come pick me up, and I realized at that moment,
that I really was home. It took me a while to understand how
much the river really transformed me, being out there by myself,
looking for the things that I was looking for. I did not find everything
that I was looking for, and in some ways, the river is
still transforming my life, with further trips on it, as well as
the lessons that I learned. And what I learned, really, from
all of this, was that I am not a finished product. That in fact,
I am a work in progress. And I think when I left, I wanted
to come back to a completely different life, and that is not
what happens on river trips. River trips show you, or I think showed
me anyway, who I was, and began to really show me that my best
qualities are dealing with things as they come, not as I
imagined them. And so I am still very scared a lot, I still think
a lot about, “If I don’t do this, then I never will”, and
all of that, but I am more able to cope with the everyday realities,
because the river really showed me that, if I just do one thing
at a time, just one thing, and then the next thing after that,
life is going to be just fine. I would like to show you some pictures of
the river now. How much time do we have? This is it. This is Sidney. She was three
years old when we took this picture. This is what she looked
like when I conceived the river as an idea, and the walk across
the Great Plains as a way of transforming my life. She was really,
at that point, the reason I was taking the trip. And I know that
it sounds odd to some people, that you would leave your kid
for five months, in order to find your kid, but that is exactly
the way it was, and exactly what happened. It is why I kept going
when I did. It is probably why I never thought to get on a bus
and come back home. This of course, is my first camp in Cascade,
Montana, at the end of that first night. When I was walking to
Montana, I actually gained very quickly, a sense of decorum. I
was camping in public, at public parks, in people’s front
yards. People offered me their couches in their living rooms. They
spontaneously offered me this. I met literally hundreds
of people on the way to Montana, so I came to have this sort of
practice where at night, I would sort of make sure all my stuff
was in order—that I didn’t have undies laying out or my socks,
you know, those kinds of things, because this was in the public.
Of course, first night on the river, all that disappears. When
I looked out of my tent, I actually was in my tent when I took
this picture, and thought, “Man, a bomb hit”, because I
had lot all sense of decorum, I was out on my own, and certainly
free to do it. Now that bit from Montana—how many people have
actually been in the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River? So you
already know some of what I am talking about. You probably recognize
some of these pictures. But of course, I’m out there in
that lonely place, out there all by myself, and these scenes of the
Cut Bank, this is the Cut Bank near Ohm, Montana, really did
strike me as something very beautiful, and of course, you get a sense
of loneliness if you look at this picture. There is a human
in the picture, but he is looking out at, really open country. This is Jim and Diane McDermott. When I met
them in Great Falls, that last telephone call I made—I mean,
I got out of the river, and I am going to call these canoeing clubs,
or I am going to try to find somebody who knows how to get around
these big dams, and around the Great Falls. Some woman in a coffee
shop was very nice, she gave me a telephone book, sat me
down in her office where I could use the telephone and I made
about 15 calls to sporting goods stores, and outdoor equipment
places, and at the very last one, someone said “Oh yeah, you
ought to call the Medicine River Canoe Club”. And I was like
“Well, how do I get a hold of them?” Diane answered the phone
and they put me up at their house that night. Then some other people
took me around town for a day or so, then they took me to
Fort Benton, Montana, which is the start of the Upper Missouri Wild
and Scenic. Now, the river at Fort Benton, does not really
look like this. This is very shortly after Fort Benton, we
get into the White Cliffs country. It is more subtle. There is
more brown, but it is still, like I said, very lonely up there.
There is not much next to the river outside of Fort Benton,
for many, many miles, actually probably all the way to the Kip Recreation
area near Malta, Montana. But this is the White Cliffs
Region. This is LaBarge Rock, named after Joseph LaBarge,
a riverboat captain that resided on the upper Missouri River in
the 1860s through the 1880s. These formations you see, are white
sandstone and every now and then, there are these volcanic dykes
that stick up in them, and you will see some more here in a
second. But to me, seeing LaBarge Rock, was like magical, because
I had looked at all of those Karl Bodmer watercolors, and
dreamed about it for years and years, and all of the sudden, I’m
there. I mean, I’m living it in a way. This is like my dreams
come true. Of course, this is across the way from Eagle
Rock campground. It is just this lonely little spit of land with
some fire rings on it that the parks service keeps up in the
Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic. Really brilliant white cliffs, beautiful
white cliffs. This is above Eagle Creek, and I did not realize,
I mean I realized it at the time obviously, but I did
not realize later, how much hiking I actually did, up from the
river. I think I spent a good portion of every day, hiking
up into the plains above the river, above the coolies and above
all the ravines, and so you can’t really see the river here,
but it is behind that second row of rocks in front of the third,
so I am pretty far away from the river itself. This is Eagle
Creek Canyon. It is about 60 feet across at the very top, and
probably not as wide as my shoulders at the bottom. This is Citadel Rock. And like I said, I was
living the dream. I mean, this is a Karl Bodmer picture of that
same formation. This one here, I saw that come into my vision
and I thought, “Oh My God, I almost died and went to Heaven.” I can’t remember exactly where this is,
but these are part of the White Cliffs region. Like I said, I would
hike up behind the cliffs, up on the thing, and I would have
these great vistas, these fantastic views, and stuff that Lewis
and Clark described in their journals as grotesque forms and sort
of other-worldly sorts of formations. This is another hike from the river. The White
Cliffs runs for about 100 miles in the Upper Missouri Wild
and Scenic River. This is Pilot Butte, another one of those
volcanic dykes that just sticks up, and again, it is part of what
Karl Bodmer painted in those wonderful watercolors that are all
now in the Jocelyn Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. I cannot remember the name of this formation,
but it is also part of a Bodmer watercolor. Of course, the river
shifts a lot between 1833 and today, but it is the same
formation. I wish I could have seen bison while I was up there,
but most that land is left over to cows these days. This is Hole In The Wall. You can see, if
you look close, there is a little hole in the wall. It is a formation
that runs about 450 feet above the river. It is literally
a rock wall, and here is the Hole In The Wall from above. When I
hiked up onto that narrow wall, I actually walked all the way
out to that point and just leaned into the wind, and it was frightening
and scary, but it was so beautiful and you could see so far.
This is on one side of the rock wall, these mushroom gardens,
on either side of the Hole In The Wall. And this is Cow Creek. Now Cow Creek has its
own story. If you remember history very well, it was the last
clash between the Chief Justice Nez Perce and the American Army,
happened at Cow Creek Island. The island is no longer there.
In fact, below those branches, that is where the island once
was. When you are looking across the Missouri River to Cow Creek,
it slithers around in there like a big snake, hundreds
and hundreds of turns and crooks in that river, all the way up to
its source upon the plain. But I gotta tell you, that this is where it
all came together. It was so peaceful, and so quiet, that I thought,
if people have souls, like they told me about in grade school,
then this is where they come when somebody dies. I had
never been in a place more serene, more beautiful and more subtle,
in my entire life. I headed into the Breaks country. Of course,
the ground changes a lot, the landscape changes, and you get
into what these big, what they call breaks or coolies, these ravines
on either side of the river. Here we have another Karl Bodmer
picture of a buffalo herd coming down one of the breaks in the
river. This is on the last tail end of the Upper
Missouri Wild and Scenic. Things get more subtle. The colors
are really much more nuanced, and no less beautiful than in the
White Rocks region. This is one of my typical camps. This is at
Judith River, which is a BLM campsite that they keep on the Upper
Missouri Wild and Scenic, so you can see my water is there boiling
for coffee. It is the end of a good day. This is Kevin Scoby. I named him my savior,
because he got me off that big lake and out of that scary stuff,
and got me back to a river that actually flowed. And I have these other pictures from other
trips that I made on the Missouri River, just to sort of show you
the contrast between he upper and lower Missouri. You all are familiar
with this, but one of the things that we do not often think
about, is how beautiful the lower river is. You can see
a white dot on the front of that pile of drift. That is my friend,
Gary Jenkins. And that is just how big that sandbar was,
west of Franklin, Missouri. This of course, is the river in the evening.
Maybe anyone who has canoed the river, can understand what
this means, when all the wind has settled down, and the sky and
the river almost become one. This is Little LeBoeuf Creek, where it is
storied or told, that John Colter was buried, just up the creek
from here. Here is my friend, Gary Jenkins. And the only reason
we ever set up a tent was against the bugs. I learned on the way
to Montana, how not to sleep in a tent, and I still don’t sleep
in a tent. The only time I sleep in a tent is when there are bugs
or if it is going to rain, and even if it is going to rain,
I still have a canvas that I use instead of a tent. This is in Franklin Island. I mean, just this
real, subtle stuff. And unless we stop, slow down and take
a look at it, it escapes us. Glasgow. You guys are familiar,
I imagine, with Glasgow, Missouri. And it is interesting too,
how when you frame these things with a camera, how you can sort
of pick out the beauty. Sometimes, it is too much for us to
understand if we are looking at the whole thing. A picture like
this, to me, brings back a memory of a time, as well as a landscape
to me that is very, very beautiful. Missouri’s Rhineland Region. That is Gary
there, in the front of the canoe. That canoe, I was telling some
people before, got stolen from me. I had almost 5000 miles on
that canoe when it got stolen from me, and it was a big loss,
and I just recently bought a brand new canoe. I should not say
just recently—a day and a half ago—bought a brand new canoe.
The same profile as the one that I had before, that the canoe maker
in Maine had gotten me. It is really brilliant and I am happy
to have it and I cannot wait to get out on the river again. Labadie Bottoms—and if you have ever canoed
to Saint Louis, you know that Labadie, on one side is this really
beautiful swampy area where the Labadie Creek comes out, and
on the other side is a huge power plant. But these two things living
side by side, make this very interesting sort of contrast,
that unless we are looking for it, we miss. There is Gary again, on the way to the Columbia
Bottoms. And there is Pelican Island. Again, when the wind
dies down and there are only sounds, perhaps of the highway behind
you, the river is sort of a really lovely, beautiful place. Here is Pelican Island again. This is John Biondo. He is still a friend
of mine. We actually had a text message conversation yesterday.
I have known him all these years between now and then. He and I
have traveled the river again, before he met us at Weldon Springs
when we went down the Missouri in 2009. And there is your wayfarer
at the Columbia Bottoms. I want to thank everyone of you for being
here for me tonight. I hope somebody has questions for me.

2 thoughts on “Canoeing the Great Plains – A Missouri River Summer, by Patrick Dobson

  • October 14, 2016 at 2:26 am

    Cool story and a Big thumb's up!


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