October 1, 2016. Missouri River north of Rulo, Nebraska
Wow! It is the first day of October. We are now in the last two months of this expedition. Its really intense to think about may 13th, when we started hiking up to Browers Spring. I just can’t believe it. Also that we camped in Missouri tonight. Saying good bye to Iowa, the states are just starting to melt away. Along with the miles now that we are on the river and not on the reservoirs.
It was a cool and gray toned day, as the clouds in the sky obstructed the sun from shinning her hot rays down on us. Perfect paddling weather. Crept up on Diane and Warren at a boat ramp. Decided to keep paddling, as there was still some day light left. Found a spot of solid-ish mud. Played cribbage in the boat. Paddle to mile 506. The world turned pink as the sun began her dance down the sky.
Rhythm in the boat
When your paddle blade enters the water at the beginning of a stroke, it’s called the catch. This is when you engage your core muscles as your shoulders hold your slightly bent arms in a relaxed but firm position. Your abdominals and back muscles do most of the work. Stroke after stroke, mile after mile. Your arms would wear out after a few days if you relied on them alone.
As soon as that blade enters and your muscles engage, you are “locked on” to the water. It’s a fraction of a second but it feels powerful. As you transfer your power through the paddle, you propel the boat forward. This is called the drive. There are days when it takes great effort to move the boat if the conditions are rough or you are tired. There are also days, many of them, when the drive is effortless.
When the blade reaches your hips, you gently release it from the water. With a flick of the wrist, you can slice it horizontally and more aerodynamically through the air and back to the starting position. This is the recovery. Remember to breathe.
Catch, drive, release, recover. Catch, drive, release, recover.
When I was eighteen and a new student at the University of Minnesota, I walked on to the University of Minnesota rowing team. I’d never rowed before but “athlete” was my primary identifier growing up and I was terrified that I wouldn’t know who I was without the thrill, agony, camaraderie, and self-mastery that comes with competitive sports. “Catch, drive, release, recover” became my mantra for the next four years as I threw myself 100% into the deep and demanding end of Division 1 athletics.
Early mornings and hours on the Mississippi, in the weight room, on the ergometer, or in a bathtub of ice nursing sore muscles. Weekends on a bus or plane; every day occupied by “catch, drive, release, recover”. I was made for it. I loved it. I thrived. If not for those tiresome University classes, I’d have hit nirvana then.
After two years of the hardest and most focused work of my life, I found myself in the bow of the top boat in the program. The next season, I worked my way into the stroke seat. This is the last seat to cross the finish line but the seat that the other seven women in the boat follow. This seat is the rhythm. This seat sets the cadence and holds it, no matter what.
From this seat, you sit face-to-face with your coxswain and over her shoulder you can see everywhere you have been. You can also see the reflection of your sunglass-hidden eyes in her sunglass-hidden eyes and you are glad for the protection from each other’s fire. In the most high-intensity moments she is screaming at you as your muscles threaten to erupt.
It’s a great and dynamic relationship, stroke and coxswain. It is imperative that you trust each other because her eyes see what you only feel and you can feel what her eyes can’t see. Her voice calls out when a blade is early or late, when more pressure is needed on the port or starboard side, or everyone needs to relax on the slide back up to the catch. Her voice adds unity to eight powerhouse women pulsing with lactic acid and grit.
The coxswain has one of the hardest jobs in the boat. She has to tell someone when they are out of sync while they are doing something that’s really, really hard. That takes guts and a mutual understanding that she’s just telling you what she sees and it’s never personal. She also has to steer the vessel to keep everyone safe while making as few corrections as possible to avoid adding drag to the shell. She has to know the course, the buoys, all the bends in the river by heart so that she can focus on the eight blades in front of her and call out the good and off.
My job was comparatively simple: translate what she yells into a smooth beat, pull my heart out and don’t let anyone behind me rush the recovery. Catch, drive, release, recover.
A good coxswain knows how to get the most out of her athletes. She knows when to praise, when to demand, when to amp up, and when to drop her voice into a powerfully guttural call that comes from a deep and mysterious place inside the typically small-statured cox. As a rower, you are one of the privileged few to get to hear this sound from a woman and your muscles respond to it instinctively. With this sound, she is telling you to defy every limit, push past every barrier, ignore the lactic acid pooling, silence the pain, and catch, drive, release, recover. And you want to. Again and again until you cross that finish line.
I like being the rhythm. I have confidence in it. It’s hard for me to follow the rhythm of someone else. It’s a challenge for me in the boat, on the guitar, and in life. As we paddle our canoe, Drifty, we alternate who sits in the bow (front) and stern (back) every day. So every other day you are either setting the rhythm or following it.
If you want your boat to move with maximum efficiency, your blade should enter the water at the same time as your partner. This consolidates the drag added to the equation and keeps you in sync. The cadence is important to boat speed. A quicker cadence means a faster-moving boat. In windy conditions or when you need to get somewhere in a hurry, you need to increase the cadence. Most of the time, for us, the cadence can be pretty relaxed.
We aren’t out here racing but efficiency and good mechanics are a priority when you have nearly 4,000 miles to cover. Catch, drive, release, recover. We have to be our own coxswains out here. We have to be able to set the rhythm, feel and follow each other, make corrections, steer, and encourage each other all while making extreme demands on our bodies and minds day after day. Most days we hit the swing and occasionally we don’t. It’s really a lot to ask. I feel happy and proud about our ability to do it so well so consistently.
Catch, drive, release, recover.
October 2nd, 2016. South of the Nebraska and Kansas Border
Great day on the water. Paddled into Kansas! We are just cruising through the states now. It is outrageous to think back to how we spent three months in Montana. Now we spend only a handful of weeks in one state before moving into another. Once on the Mississippi River we will spend mere days in one state before moving on to another. AS we travel south, the forest along the banks is becoming more lush and plentiful. A great change from the plains. In the boat for 10.5 hours total today. Not a lot of hard padding, since the current is so powerful. The Missouri, what a river.
October 3, 2016. Missouri River south of Atchison, Kansas
Paddled through the town of Atchinson, Kansas today. This is the hometown of Amelia Earhart and it was enjoyable to walk through the the streets, especially the ones made of red brick. We stopped a moment at the home of Amelia Earhart. Now a museum, it was closed when we arrived. The rocking chairs on the porch provided a nice opportunity to enjoy the late afternoon.
Dinner this evening was a real treat. A delicious pulled pork sandwich, toped with coleslaw and a side of french fries. Don’t forget the ranch sauce. Food tastes so much more delicious on the river and I love getting to have dinners like this. After a nourishing meal, it was back on the river. I enjoy these meals for another reason: no cooking or clean up. With daylight left, it was time to keep on paddling.
The sun began to set on another day of river life, the camping prospects were looking bleak, as usual. Lots and lots of muddy shoreline make up the Lower Missouri River. As it began to get dusky, we paddled upon a kingdom, high enough up that if the river rose in the night (which was unlikely given the lack of rain north of us) we would be fine. It was also muddy free, given that is was a person made rock wall, jutting out from the muddy shore line. An attempt was made at sleeping out in the open, not wanting to set up my tent. Well low and behold the mosquitos were out in full force. Up the tent went, without the rain fly as the evening was oddly warm and there wasn’t any rain in the forecast. A delightful nights sky of stars and moon danced in my vision as I drifted off to sleep.
New game: stick or snake? 99.9% of the time it is a stick floating by but like four times it was a snake. Snakes are exponentially more eerie in the water. They move fast and can climb in your boat. No, thank you.
New hazards: black widow spiders, water moccasins, poison ivy that grows on vines so is not just confined to the ground, barges, and strange under-currents.
October 4, 2016. Dee and Ken’s Home, Kansas City, Kansas.
Another long day on the water, paddling our way to Kansas City, where a home and bed were waiting for us. Dee and Ken Landau had connected with us through the Missouri River Paddlers Facebook page. Several of the amazing connections we have had were the result of us posting on the page. Thank you paddler’s community for all you do for us long distance paddlers! Another typical day on the River, just paddling, eating and paddling some more. Apply sunscreen, drink water, repeat over and over again. It’s a simple existence and one I enjoy. Though the prospect of a change of pace in Kansas city was very enticing!
We arrived at the boat ramp and another river angel Tom Bailey picked us up and transported our boat and gear to his house, where we would be able to leave everything for the 5 day break we were about to have! I was looking forward to multiple days in a row resting!
Dee and Ken picked us up, got us ice cream! A major treat! Welcomed us into their home, where we each got our own room and the cats and dogs were so wonderful to be around. I love animals, their energy can be so calming. The bed was amazing, with lots of fluffy pillows and had the added benefit of being under a roof. This was especially appreciated tonight because of the storm that started and raged all through the dark hours. I slept like a little mouse. It was awesome.
A bed in Kansas City, Kansas.
October 5, 2016. Dee and Ken’s Home, Kansas City, Kansas.
Yesterday, fellow Missouri-Mississippi paddler and river angel, Tom Bailey, scooped us up off from the river on the north end of Kansas City. We had had dinner and river talk with him before making our way over to stay with Dee and Ken Landau. Tom was a novice paddler before beginning his descent of the Missouri-Mississippi in Three Forks, Montana with a friend a few years back. Tom is running a shuttle and guide service in Kansas City to encourage and support more folks to get out and explore the river too. Cool dude!
Dee and Ken are Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, paddlers, and river angels that had been tracking our journey. They immediately invited us into their home and family when we put out the word on the Missouri River Paddlers Facebook page. We spent a couple nights with them enjoying the shelter and rest. We swapped adventure stories and back-country recipes and got to hang out with Dee’s amazing daughter, Jess, as well.
Big hearts and good people-people. No sooner had we arrived and Dee and Ken were already handing us the keys to the place as they took off for the weekend in Chicago. The trust and generosity that flows through the river community is a force of rejuvenation in itself. Before Dee and Ken left, they told us that we always have a home in Kansas. “Not just a place to stay,” Ken added, “but a home.”
As thunderstorms raged for the second night in a row, gratitude for the shelter swelled inside. It gets harder to weather those big storms as we go. Each day a little more tired, each storm seems a little bit badder and it takes a lot energy to get through them. You lose a lot of sleep. Not inside the house, though. A bed, pillows, walls that keep wind and rain out, a roof that protects from the lightning. No worries tonight.
October 5-6, 2016
What amazing and much needed physical and mental rest. Staying in one place for days in a row can be a nice break from the sort of fast pace we have been going at while on the river. I enjoy a more laid back pace and its been hard keeping up with everything. I have had the opportunity to read for hours at a time, one of my favorite activities. Plus all the different and delicious food available because of modern refrigeration. What life must have been like before these inventions.
It has also been good, as Lisa and I have spent time in our own spaces. It is really good for me to get to spend time with just myself and other people. I am an extrovert and get energy from being around other people. Though I also need time with just myself and I can sometimes struggle to find a good balance. I have felt really good about balancing my alone and people time, reading a whole book and starting on another! Laying on a couch, with a dog snuggled up to you and a good book in hand is one of my most perfect days, which was what most of these two days was spent doing. This is also one of the reasons I love to paddle rivers like the Missouri. The mix of wilderness, towns and cities and opportunities to meet all types of people is incredible. River life.
October 7, 2016. Wilson’s Serenity Point, Jefferson City, Missouri.
I’ll always remember the day I met Rod Wellington. Rod is one of the few paddlers to take on the Missouri-Mississippi River system from source to sea. He kayaked it in 2013. Alyce had been in contact with him in the planning phases of the expedition to get intel on the hike to the source and navigating the initial tributaries.
Rod was honest in his accounts of the early phase of the expedition, likening it to a dark and winding tunnel that allows no light in until the very end. “You don’t know how dark it will get or how long the darkness will last.” On an encouraging note, he added that the initial trials through the snow, barbed wire, and low water would set us up well for the “real challenges downstream” – the reservoirs, the Great Plains, etc. He was right.
Rod is a native of Canada with waist-length dreadlocks, a lot of strong opinions, and more energy than the center of the sun. He’s also an author, a die-hard cyclist and kayaker, a vegan, and a really nice, genuine guy. He came and picked us up in Kansas City and drove us to Jefferson City so we could join the Missouri paddling community in celebrating the life of a river angel, Joe Wilson, who had recently passed.
We got two and half hours to gush about the river and adventure with someone who knew it as intimately as we did. Rod has dedicated his life to exploring rivers and writing about his experiences and it was inspiring to talk to him about his process. He has a really good sense of humor and smiles when he talks about selling books and t-shirts out of the trunk of his car for a living. His spirit seems far younger and more enthusiastic than his physical age. I’m so glad we got the chance to meet him in person.
October 8, 2016. Kansas City, Kansas.
Rod and I drove around the winding river-valley roads of rural Missouri looking for the start of the Race to the Dome. We talked some more about pursing passions and getting your ideas off the ground. The big take-away was don’t spend too much time doing a job you don’t like, follow your gut, and say “yes” more often than not.
We pulled over a few times so Rod could take some photos and admire the scenery. I appreciated his affinity for the beauty of the nature world and his willingness to follow his curiosity. I also had to laugh because I’m the same way which contributes to perpetual tardiness and here we were trying to make it to the start of this race while backing the car up to get a second glimpse of a pair of horses grazing in a field of “perfect light”.
With a little help from some fog delaying the start, we made it in time to mingle with some of the paddlers before they got on the river. There were serious racers, total novices, and everyone in between. The race is put on by Missouri River Relief, an organization dedicated to connecting people to the river through education, recreation, and river clean-ups. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits despite the fog.
My competitive instincts had me wishing I had entered the race when I had the chance, just for fun, of course. I had to remind myself that “recover” is part of the stroke sequence and should be applied to the expedition sequence too. I watched the start quite happily from shore. After helping some late-comers launch, Rod and I headed back to Wilson’s Serenity Point to find Alyce.
We spent the day watching the race, lounging, and getting to know the local paddling community. In the evening, we gathered to hear some folks talk about the life and work of Joe Wilson, a dedicated River Angel and paddling community advocate. He single-handedly orchestrated the clean-up and development of “Wilson’s Serenity Point”.
The access point/boat ramp closest to Jefferson City stood in disrepair for years and became a place for vandals to congregate and do damage until Joe took matters into his own hands. He wanted this place to reflect the beauty of the Missouri river and river people. He wanted it to be a place where paddlers would enjoy stopping. A place where community members would be proud to come and lend a hand or find peace next to the river. With newly planted trees and landscape features, river-log benches and wooden swings, paddle art, and trash cans, it is certainly one of the more beautiful and inviting access points on the river. Unfortunately, vandals still wreak occasional havoc but increased police patrol and community presence is helping.
People came from all over the state to pay tribute to Joe and re-affirm the need for the paddling community to support other paddlers, the river, and the shoreline. I felt humbled to have been invited to share in this moment in time with people I had not known previously. I also felt proud to be called upon to carry forward the legacy of serving the communities I am a part of. Joe asked one thing: spread the love. Will you join me?
After the ceremony, I hitched a ride back to Kansas City with Karen, a friend of Dee and Ken’s. Time to get some introverted recovery space.
October 8, 2016. Wilson’s Serenity Point, Jefferson City, Missouri.
At 7:21 Lisa called out that she and Rod were leaving for the start of the Race to the Dome. As I was woken up by, this I declined the invitation and rolled over falling back asleep. I love being able to lounge in my sleeping bag and tent and not go any where in a hurry. Having finally rolled out of my tent I meet several volunteers with Missouri River Relief and was treated to a doughnut. I love meeting river people and paddling enthusiasts! I helped move some tables around and meet Steve Schnarr of Missouri River Relief; whose name I recognized from Facebook. This would continue to happen throughout the day, meeting people I had only known through Facebook, including Traci Lynn-Martin, who is setting out on her own expedition next summer. Titled Just Around the Pointe, she is setting out to kayak 8,600 miles and set a world record! So many inspirational people in this world. I had awesome day of socializing, eating pizza and watching the boats come in for the race. It went by so quickly and soon the race was over, awards were being handed out and lots of clapping and congratulating.
The Memorial and pot-luck dinner for Joe Wilson, one of the most extraordinary River Angel’s the Missouri River has ever seen. It was moving to hear family and friends speak about his dedication the park, which was once just a boat ramp. It was his dedication, persistence and motivation that was the force that made it the park it is today. The River is powerful beyond measure. She brings people together in a way that nothing else can. That was evident at the memorial and the proceeding circle of people who gathered around the bonfire, to share stories of Joe and the River.
I had a wonderful evening sharing stories and being by the river. I got to meet and chat with Janet Moreland, the first women to kayak the 4th longest river system in 2013 and one of my role models. Janet had paddled the Mississippi River, from Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico over this summer. I thought it was interesting how we had sort of flip-flopped rivers; since Janet had already done what I was paddling and I had paddled the Mississippi River in 2014. We talked about the work of planning an expedition and the task of writing about all of it. Janet is also planning on paddling the Yukon River the summer of 2017. One Woman Three Great Rivers is the title of her expedition and I am excited to follow along dexter summer when she’s on the Yukon. I love the paddler’s community and how the River brings people together. Just another amazing evening, surrounded by inspirational people.