So, You Want to Paddle Down the Missouri River?

By Norm Miller, in his own words…

Norm Miller paddling UP the Missouri River in 2004, retracing the Lewis & Clark Trail: STL to the Pacific.

What does it take to paddle down the Mighty Missouri River from Montana to St. Louis?

I personally don’t think there is a formula as in hind sight, the experiences of others who have taken the challenge are all different. I think it maybe more of a personality type that can just go and take off for weeks or months…especially alone.

I am very comfortable being alone, which is not the same as being lonely. Some people are more secure with themselves than with a group of people. I’ve had friends tell me that they could never paddle and camp for weeks alone. When I hear this I get the sense that they don’t know themselves well enough. For me, it’s always been a way of life. I’ve been very independent all my life. Don’t get me wrong, I had plenty of friends to roam the neighborhood as a child, building forts, playing army, hiking and fishing and just plain escaping from our parents. I also spent many hours alone, comfortable being solo.

Norm’s expedition from St. Louis to Three Forks, MT, over the Rockies, and down to the Pacific Ocean took six months.

I often wondered that if everyone who has gone on a long paddle trip took the same personality profile, if we would all score the same rating? For the most part I am very shy, which some people find hard to believe. As a child I use to hide under my bed when relatives would come over, only to come out after they left. Now that I’m near 50-years old I feel more at ease around people, especially groups. But there are times when I must seek the shelter of my cave and go run off solo somewhere.

I personally feel more at ease when life is simple. I often feel I was born 200-years too late. I love to camp and enjoy the peace that I find along rivers or travelling abroad solo. I’m comfortable being in foreign countries and not knowing the language. I get by easily with sign language and drawing pictures to communicate to people.

To me if you can paddle all day, set up camp, cook your food, clean up your mess, go to bed, get up in the morning and repeat everything, then paddling two-three months is not that big a deal. It becomes far more of an emotional, spiritual, and psychological journey than a physical one. My mind is always at battle wondering about things, my well being, what if’s, do’s and don’ts. In 2004 while paddling up the Missouri I was at a constant battle with myself. The main issue was the slow pace in which I moved. I could have easily walked much faster than I was paddling. In the strong currents of the lower river, 2-mph hour was my tops speed. So, living in the 20th century with all the high-speed fast paced lives we all lived, slowing down to a snail’s pace was very difficult. I had to concentrate on the small picture, never the final destination. My mantra was “one stroke at a time will get you to the ocean.” I had to stay focused on the bend ahead, the distant tree or bridge and never the Pacific! I would have gone insane had I not slowed my mind set. “River Time” is what many paddlers talk about; slowing down the pace of the world, the natural environment and not the speedy rate that most follow.

Being able to adapt to changing conditions is another factor that is helpful. On my first big paddle trip I started off very set in my beliefs as to how the day should go. I didn’t accept change very easy. Well, that only lasted about a week and I knew that nature dictated much more than I ever imagined. The weather was the biggest factor. Wind and storms will tell you when you can and cannot paddle. So get use to watching the sky, feeling the wind, observing the weather. It truly tells a lot. After a week or two you can get much better than the weatherman at determining what the forecast will be for the day. There will be times when you just have to wait it out. I’ve spent days wind-bound to a tent, waiting for a break to proceed onward. Don’t be in a hurry. Enjoy the storms, the hail, the tornados, the flooding, the snow, the lightning and the intense sun. Explore the surrounding shore, the distant hillsides. I’ve spent hours in N. Canada on a remote river on my knees looking at stones. I’ve found some amazing things while wandering around waiting for the wind to abate; from Inuit burial grounds, old buildings, rare animal sightings, hot springs, and even a family gathering with plenty of cold beer. Being stranded in the wind is also a good time to rest, to catch up on that needed sleep. I’ve come to love the wind! It has become my friend. I no longer curse it but enjoy its gifts and wonder.

Wind-bound on Canyon Ferry Reservoir

to be continued…

Plenty of Food for Thought

Lake Oahe (photo by Bob Bellingham)

Every morning of every day I think about my trip with great anticipation and longing to get on the water.  I look forward to the solitude and the simplicity, waking in the morning near the water, starting the stove for coffee, searching for whatever wildlife will come my way, taking photos, reading, or writing in a journal.  Perhaps I have set up my tent facing the river so when I wake up I can lay in my sleeping bag gazing at the river and dream about the day ahead, or the day behind.  I have backpacked alone before.  I am comfortable in the wilderness.

Camping alone (1983) in the Mokelumne River Canyon, Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Sheltered Bay on Lake Francis Case (photo by Bob Bellingham)

In three weeks I will have an education degree in social studies and science.  So, this morning I’m thinking about how I can make this trek and this degree work together.  I glance over at my NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) monthly newspaper I get in the mail.  I see a photo of a man on top of a snow-covered mountain.  The caption reads, “Minnesota high school science teacher…uses photographs taken during his world travels to stimulate inquiry in his classes.”  Sweet!  As I read the article, I learn that his photograph introduces a topic, prompts a story, generates student interest, provokes questions to which the students want answers, initiates a real life connection, brings the mountains into his Minnesota classroom, and creates a teachable moment.  BINGO!  I can do that!  My past experiences can provide lots of material.  My upcoming trip will create a file full of opportunities.

Windsurfing S.F. Bay. That’s me in the middle heading out towards the cruise ship from which my brother, Jim Sullens, took this picture. Certainly, a teachable moment somewhere in there.

As an example, on all of his experiences this teacher records basic weather data (temperature, precipitation, cloud coverage, wind speed and direction) which provides a transition into graphing and analyzing data.  Great idea!  Now I am thinking, hmmm, the ecology aspect of being on the river and the exposure to wildlife and, of course, environmental stewardship are teachable opportunities.  And the dams, the many dams, can provide ample high-powered subject matter.  How about the geology and geography between Montana and Missouri?  And, oooh, the moon phases and constellations?  Hey, what about bringing into the classroom the sights and scenery experienced by Lewis and Clark and their crew, and the Native Americans with whom they came in contact?  My head is spinning with possibilities!

Moonrise (photo by Dom Liboiron)
Gavin’s Point Dam (photo by Bob Bellingham)
This monument is on Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and is dedicated to two missionaries who worked with the Lakota. It features Christian and Native cultural and religious symbols. The stones also had many fossils imbedded in them. (photo/caption by Dominique Liboiron)

So much food for thought!  If I am not able to have an outdoor classroom, I will strive to bring the outdoor classroom inside.

178-mile long Lake Sakakawea, held back by Garrison Dam, home to extremely high winds. (photo by Dominique Liboiron)
No, it is not the ocean. These are waves produced by winds on Lake Sharpe. (photo by Dom Liboiron)

Yes, I look forward to the solitude, but the simplicity may be more multifaceted than I thought.

If you are reading this, and you have some teachable moment ideas for me to think about on my trip, I encourage you to comment.  Thanks!

Live fast ~ paddle slow

I better get back to my homework.  🙂

Wilderness Classroom…can you say, “Totally Awesome!”

Dave and Amy are on a three year kayak/canoe/dog-sledding expedition around North America, bringing the wilderness into the classrooms of 65,000 school children and 1900 teachers.

Currently delayed on their North American Odyssey, which they began on Earth Day in 2010, they were scheduled to present at the New Jersey Kayak shop right before Hurricane Sandy hit.  They presented to a small audience, and then got outta there.  The shop suffered damage, but their kayaks were waiting for them, tied up in front, when they returned from evacuation.  They are staying in New Jersey for awhile to assist with the hurricane relief before heading down the east coast to Key West.

Check out their introductory video here, their blog, and their Facebook page to see exactly what they are doing.

Very cool.  Enjoy!

Big Muddy Adventures: an alternative way of teaching, from the river.

Mike Clark
Big Muddy Adventures, Proprietor
Big Muddy Mike“Big Muddy” Mike Clark is one of the most accomplished canoeists and guides in America.  He has over 10,000 miles of big river experience and has led thousands of people in large and small groups on guided river trips since 2001.  He has completed entire navigations of the Mississippi River (2001), Missouri River (2002, 2005-2006), Yellowstone River (2006), and Sunflower River (2004, 2005, 2007, 2008).  He is the founder of Big Muddy Adventures.  Michael is also a veteran elementary and middle school teacher and currently teaches computers, science and history part time at St. Ann Catholic School in Normandy, MO.

Annually, Mike leads a live learning adventure expedition for school children across North America — connecting our youth with our rivers. Mike Clark is a youth leader and truly a Steward and Champion of America’s Rivers. He has won a number of awards, including the Pekatanoui Award for non-motorized River Cleanups and in March 2012 was recognized as a “Hero of the New South” by Southern Living Magazine for his work as a river steward and river guide.

I love what Big Muddy Adventures is all about.  You can learn more here.


“I had enjoyed the rest in Inuvik. For a moment I had been lulled by the comforts, but the restless feeling had returned. I longed to be on my way. I had missed the solitude terribly.”

-Victoria Jason, author of Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak – One Woman’s Journey Through the Northwest Passage.