On April 14, 2013, I left Columbia, MO, and set out on an extraordinary solo kayak voyage down the 4th longest river system in the world, the 3,800-mile Missouri-Mississippi River System. Upon completing the expedition on December 5, 2013, I became the first American, and first woman, to traverse the entire river system from source to sea.
My mission began as an empowerment model for our nation’s youth, showing them that dreams can be achieved through decision, desire, and details (and hard work). The mission soon flourished into an empowerment model not only for youth, but for adult women and men as well. At 57 years old, I was living proof that neither gender nor age should prevent you from pursuing your dream. Not only that, the expedition embraced education and environmental stewardship by bringing awareness to Missouri River Relief, a not-for-profit river clean-up and education organization. Our hope is to bring the Missouri River into the classroom, and the classroom out to the river. Touching the river, knowing the river, and loving the river are key ingredients to sustaining the health and vitality of our planet’s veins and arteries.
The adventure began on April 24, 2013, when Norman Miller and I skied into the ultimate source of the Missouri River, Brower’s Spring, in southern Montana near West Yellowstone. We planned for 7 hours and finished in 31 hours, much to our surprise. We spent the night in the mountains with no sleeping gear, food, or fire. Let the adventure begin!
The next leg involved biking 100 miles through the Centennial Valley. This dirt road traversed Red Rock River to Clark Canyon Dam. The Red Rock River is not paddler friendly as it is full of man-made dams composed of barbed wire, wood, electrical wire, and corrugated sheet metal. I put my kayak in the Beaverhead River below Clark Canyon Dam on May 1, 2013. The Beaverhead eventually turns into the Jefferson River, which becomes the Missouri River about 200 miles downstream at Three Forks, MT.
My first day was a test of will as I became entangled in a tree strainer, spraining my hand and nearly dumping my boat. On day two, I put two holes in my boat, thankfully above water line, as the swift and narrow Beaverhead River made it difficult to avoid collisions with snags along shore. Nothing a little duct tape couldn’t fix! After 11 days of paddling I arrived at Three Forks, where I then regrouped at Norm Millers’ Base Camp International in Livingston, MT, patched the holes in my boat, and set off down the Missouri River at Three Forks on May 15, 2013. The rest, really, is history as I proceeded to live life on the river, with simplicity and joy, for the next seven months.
I will cherish this expedition until the day I die. I experienced challenging decision-making, marvelously mellow mornings, exasperating electrical storms, wild wind and waves, stunning sunsets, random acts of kindness, unforgettable human river angels, the wonders of wildlife, big huge barges, even bigger and huger freighters ;), and frightening fog. Last but not least I met a whole world of beautiful and extraordinary supporters up and down the river to whom I cannot give enough thanks, and whom I now consider river family.
Please enjoy a few expedition photos I picked out, in no logical order, but which are among some of my favorites. You may remember…
Please visit my sponsor page at the top of my site to see the wonderful companies that believed in me and helped me out in some way to ease the financial burden. Special thanks to Patagonia for their generous clothing sponsorship. Eddyline for their excellent service with my boat as well as donating the best paddle I could ever imaging taking, a Swift Paddle. Many heart-felt thanks to all of Columbia, Mo’s outdoor shops for donating items to LoveYourBigMuddy. Huge thanks especially to our Klunk Bikes for re’cycling’ me a bike, which I love very much to this day.
And to every person that was able to donate financially, I know who you are and you will NOT be forgotten. Particularly my local Riverbilly family and those contributing to the Blues Benefit. Click here to see who these tremendous supporters of LoveYourBigMuddy are. This was YOUR expedition! THANK YOU! If you see a photo you would like on this post and it is part of your donation reward, please email me and let me know. I will be posting more photos shortly.
For a comprehensive view of media articles and podcasts, click here to visit my media page, located at the top of the site.
Lastly, warm thoughts go out to the crew at Canoe and Kayak Magazine, and to all of the individuals who took a moment to vote LoveYourBigMuddy Expedition into the “Spirit of Adventure” Award arena for 2014. Certainly, the honor was all mine to receive the award in the midst of an incredible paddling family. YOU, too, can be a candidate for such a cool recognition. Just…
…remember to keep your eyes on the road ahead. Don’t quit your DayDream. And, dream BIG!
LoveYourBigMuddy Expedition on Facebook. see what’s up…
One never returns from an expedition the same. Your life changes, your perspective changes, your needs change, your desires change. The independence accrued from a solo paddle expedition will lead you to new heights and challenges. Life is too short for status quo. The vision, mission, and decision for something new and meaningful is ever present. And, recognizing the moment when the time is right to embark on a new adventure occupies one’s thoughts continuously. Of course I speak for myself, but maybe others, too.
The first step in expedition planning is determining the feasibility of an adventure. Time, money, and physical needs must be evaluated prior to making the ultimate important “decision.” Once the decision factor shows shades of green, as in “go for it,” then the desire builds and the details are pursued with positive and enthusiastic fervor. Much like overcoming obstacles while immersed in a journey, the obstacles in planning are confronted with solution-minded and proactive action and determination. “Fake it ’til you make it.”
The journey is not over until the mission bears fruit. The goals of LoveYourBigMuddy Expedition included 1) empowering youth (women and men) to confidently pursue their dreams and desires 2) conducting effective education in the natural environment, which includes bringing the Missouri River [our world’s rivers?] into the classroom and the classroom out to the river[s] and 3) preparing the next generation for impactful stewardship of our nation’s [planet’s] waterways. Purposeful living embodies the spirit of adventure. Stay tuned for further details…
On Monday, June 17, I paddled my final day on Fort Peck Lake. The winds were dead calm and the water so glassy I could see myself in the reflection. I owned the lake that day. I could go anywhere without fear of swamping. I felt I could cross to the opposite shore all morning long if I wanted, a feeling never before experienced on Fort Peck Lake. This lake is intimidating. We left with a mutual respect for each other. Yes, friends.
I knew from Dave Miller’s “The Complete Paddler” that the owner of the marina rented out some RVs with showers. I longed for the moment I could shower and relax. It had been a couple of weeks since I immersed myself in the luxury of running hot water. I did take a sponge bath the first day on the lake, but that was a looooong time ago. Immediately upon pulling in next to the ramp I headed for the office.
I asked for the owner, expecting an elderly lady who had been managing the resort for, well, at least ten years. I was surprised to find the owner to be a young woman.
“I am paddling the entire length of the Missouri River and I have not taken a shower in a couple of weeks. I really need a shower and a place to sleep and do laundry. Can you help me”? I asked with determination. “Please say ‘yes.’”
Michelle, the new owner, no longer provided the RVs to accommodate overnight visitors. She did have a house, however, in which she was not living. She and her daughter, and husband when he was here, stayed in a large recreational vehicle and used the house for storage, laundry, and showering. Her husband spent half his time working in nearby Sidney, a town near Williston that was also experiencing a massive oil and gas boom. The marina was a new purchase and investment for this young family. And, they relocated Michelle’s mom, DeeAnne, to live with them and help take care of their young daughter, Allison. I sure appreciated them letting me hang out for a day or two.
I enjoyed feeling safe and secure and out of the elements after the two long weeks on the lake and in the Breaks. However, by the third day I was ready to get going. I arrived at the marina on June 17. Today was June 19. An intense wind and electrical storm was forecasted to sweep through the area tonight, and I was strongly advised not to go until it passed. Jack, retired Air Force and new staff at the marina, helped me put my boat in their warehouse. Winds were forecasted to blow 75 mph that night. I survived the storm easily, but soon got word that campers at Eagle Creek in the Breaks did not fare so well. Their tents got ripped to shreds, and a paddler on the Marias River lost his canoe and all his gear, including a case of beer(!) when the wind swept it up and away. The owner neglected to tie his boat down, a first-time and devastating mistake. I never left Blue Moon unsecured after this night.
I was grateful for Jack as he took the time to show me around Fort Peck on Tuesday, June 18, and also took me to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center below the dam. It was here that I saw the most incredible dinosaur skeletons! Unfortunately, my phone ran out of juice and I couldn’t take any photos. Oh well. Today was Jack’s day off and I was happy he offered to show me around. He also agreed to drive me to the put in below the dam the next day, but this was delayed one day due to the big storm forecasted to hit our area, a perfect example of living on “river time.” You just go with the flow and try to stay flexible.
We arrived at the campground below the dam around 6:00 PM on Thursday, June 20. I planned to take off on the river early the next morning. I was getting very excited in anticipation. The thrill of adventure is intoxicating and addicting. But, the mosquitos were sobering and annoying. All part of the total experience. Jack and I sprayed Deet on ourselves and finished our beers sitting on the tailgate of his pickup truck. Hot summer fun! Next thing I knew I was being entertained by a local who had brought his new invention down to the beach to test the waters, so to speak…
I left about 9:30 in the morning with sunny skies and glassy water, my favorite conditions. From my journal I wrote, “Good paddling today…The first day back on the water it seems like there are soooo many miles you just want to knock some out. Paddled all day. Saw lots of ship sinkers (my name for snags in the river with pointed ends facing down river) and two shipwrecks, one in the river on a sandbar, the other laying on shore…I paddled about 30-35 miles. The current is about 5 mph, so very quick. I found a decent sandy campsite with creamy mud at the shore. I guess that’s because of the Milk River, it is sooo creamy! Marginal cell, but got some postings up.”
I looked forward to passing the Milk River. One reason was because I had heard of the stark contrast in clear water of the MO and the milky water of the Milk. I also looked out for it because my friend, Dominique Liboiron, who had paddled a canoe down from Saskatchewan the summer before, had camped right on the point at the confluence. I remember he told me that he was so intimidated by the Missouri River that he camped for three days at the confluence before paddling on down. Of course, all of his fears disappeared once he started downstream and realized the Missouri River was actually just one big “lazy river.”
I spent about a week or so paddling the stretch of river between Fort Peck Lake and Lake Sakakawea. I had heard a lot about Wolf Point on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, and that it was probably not best to stop there. Well, I passed by at 5:00 in the afternoon on Saturday with no real reason to stop. I did not see anyone around, either. Well, I saw one guy. He was in a big beautiful canoe paddling down the river. Wow! Who are you?? I asked , surprised to see another paddler of whom I was totally unaware.
“I’m Shawn Hollingsworth,” he replied.
“Where are you from, paddling from, and to where are you paddling?” I asked, standard questions asked of any paddler you meet on the river.
“I am from Virginia Beach, VA, I started at Three Forks, and I am paddling to the Gulf of Mexico.”
“Wow, all by yourself in that big canoe?”
“No, I’ve got a travelling companion.” He then told me about his little bird in a box inside his canoe. He picked up the injured bird while walking down the street in Fort Peck. “He has an injured wing, and his name is Bob (Bird On a Boat).”
He asked me if I was a school teacher. “Actually, I am. Umm, how did you know?”
“Ya, my mom is following you on Facebook.”
“Really? That is too funny!”
This was the beginning of a real sweet friendship. Shawn and I paddled off and on for the next week, until we were both situated on windy Lake Sakakawea. I remember Shawn telling me that Bob finally flew off when Shawn was behind me, paddling through the river-to-lake transition onto Lake Sakakawea on June 28. Most days we did not paddle much together since he was slower in the canoe, but he always seemed to make it to my camp in the evening, much to my delight. He was such good company and, at 23 years old, was on the adventure of his life.
I loved spending time with Shawn. I was so proud of him embarking on this adventure alone after his two buddies left him. One left him two weeks before leaving Virginia Beach, the other left him after a harrowing crossing of Fort Peck Lake. Shawn had never paddled before and now was left to skipper a three-man canoe, which he made all by himself. Plus, he was raising awareness for breast cancer.
I was happy to share with him some tips on reading the river and waiting patiently during high winds, the latter of which guys find most challenging. Paddling in extremely high winds on Fort Peck Lake nearly killed Shawn and his paddling partner. They ended up getting towed off the lake and his partner decided to call it quits. Another paddler had swamped a couple of weeks earlier in big swell generated by high winds. He lost his tent, sleeping bag, cell phone, and his adventurous spirit. He nearly died from hypothermia, and ended up leaving his partner as well. Waiting through big wind sessions on these big lakes is all part of the game. Impatience must be replaced with going for a walk, reading a good book, exploring the beaches and hills, or whatever else one does to entertain themselves. It is a matter of life and death on these big lakes.
On my second night of camping back on the river I saw the most exquisite sunset I had ever seen. I almost missed it while putting up my tent and battling the mosquitoes. I think this is the worst mosquito deluge of the whole trip. Thank God for my 98% Deet. And, for the stunning sunset that night. I think this photo generated more hits on Facebook than any other during my whole trip. Well, except for the skeleton plastered up against the snags on the Beaverhead River. That was a good one, too.
Here is a little video I shot just prior to taking this photo. After the little video, I began setting up my tent and packing everything in it. I just happened to turn around and noticed the sunset was in full swing. I grabbed my camera right away and got several good shots. I was stunned at the magnitude of colors displayed.
I made it to the Highway 16-Culbertson Bridge on June 24th. Situated just past the reservation, I decided to camp here after some locals said they thought it would be safe. Not long after I landed I met Glenn Stewart, who hollered down from atop the bridge. He was working on the road crew and, after talking to him, he immediately became interested in my journey. If you need to go into town and have breakfast or go to the grocery store, we’ll be here tomorrow and you can just take my car into town. Wow! A true river angel with a generous heart to help. Thanks, Glenn! Glenn and his son, Kelly, and his wife ended up following the rest of my trip on Facebook. Shawn showed up the next morning when I was getting ready to leave. Glenn offered him his car and he was able to make it into town, too. Shawn wanted to stay here and rest up. I did not know when I would see him again.
I ended up going into town the next morning after a pretty good storm hit. Some kids came down to the bridge that night and played some decent country music and lit off fireworks. I almost got up to join them, but didn’t want to spoil their summertime river experience. I’m old, you know…LoL! It’s what memories are made of, right? I slept good after they left, woke up with sand in my tent, but forgot about any discomforts as I ate my ham and eggs breakfast at the Wild West Diner in town.
The day was cloudy and a bit windy from the west, which is not too bad. Once paddling, I got out my iPod and listened to music, which is so much fun, but I hesitated to do it too often. As I wrote in my journal, “I listened to more music, just for a little while. I don’t want to get lulled into complacency while on the water, too dangerous.”
I camped just a few hundred yards from the Montana/North Dakota border. Also situated at this location is Fort Union. Norm Miller encouraged me to bushwack into the fort, which I did, and had the pleasure of meeting Yellow Bird, an Arikara Native American working at the Fort. I spent an hour or two visiting with him. I enjoyed immersing myself in the history that surrounds this mighty Missouri River.
“The Grandest Fort on the Upper Missouri River
Between 1828 and 1867, Fort Union was the most important fur trade post on the Upper Missouri River. Here, the Assiniboine and six other Northern Plains Indian Tribes exchanged buffalo robes and smaller furs for goods from around the world, including cloth, guns, blankets, and beads. A bastion of peaceful coexistence, the post annually traded over 25,000 buffalo robes and $100,000 in merchandise.” -http://www.nps.gov/fous/index.htm
The confluence of the Yellowstone River is just a short paddle away. The staff at the Fort Buford Interpretive Center, located there, were kind enough to buy my camp site for me. I will continue my next blog post at the confluence. I will then be just a couple of days away from starting my trek across Lake Sakakawea. Shawn and I will meet up for the next few days, but then we begin our own journeys down the Mighty Missouri River. Sad parting with him, but not without a promise to reunite and share stories someday.
I just received an email from Virginia Marshall today letting me know that they had published our Q & A interview conducted last month. I like it. Hope you do to.
Also, look for another expedition post soon about the Missouri River stretch between Fort Peck Dam and Fort Union (at the Montana-North Dakota Border). Still going through lots and lots of photos and videos. Oh, and I made my first iMovie video short. I’ll post that once I figure out how to do it.
Cheers! Hope you enjoy the interview…
Q&A with Big Muddy Paddler
Janet Moreland paddled 3,800 miles down the Missouri River. She’s just getting started.
Janet Moreland believes it is never too late to pursue your passions. The 56-year-old mother from Columbia, Missouri, graduated from university with a degree in education in December 2012. Less than four months later, she set out in Blue Moon, her 17-foot Eddyline Shasta tandem kayak, on a 3,800-mile expedition from the headwaters of the Missouri River at Brower’s Spring, Montana, to the Gulf of Mexico. On December 5, 2013, she became the first woman to complete a solo, source-to-sea descent of the Missouri/Mississippi River system, the fourth longest river in the world.
Who is Janet Moreland?
I love the outdoors and strive to immerse myself in the natural environment whenever possible. I spent much of my youth in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains ski mountaineering, and windsurfing the northern California rivers, bays and waves. I began canoeing rivers when I moved to Missouri in 1994, and started kayaking the Missouri River in 2001 after moving to Columbia, MO, in 1996.
You can often find me three miles down the road from my house on or near the Missouri River at Mile 170, Cooper’s Landing, where I spend much of my time walking my dog, paddling, or enjoying the company of our large river community.
Do you remember the moment you decided to walk out your door to take on a solo Missouri River source to sea? What was the biggest factor that motivated you?
One of the biggest motivating factors was the notion that I would be the first woman to paddle the entire length of the Missouri River solo. This turned out to be very inspiring for many women, students, and men, following my expedition. Later, I realized I would also become the first American to journey from source to sea.
You write on your blog that your mission for this trip included empowerment, education and environmental stewardship. How do you meet these lofty goals and paddle 3,800 miles?
Well, the journey is not over until the mission bears fruit. I am still actively working on realizing these goals. The first step in my trip was to complete the paddle successfully. Many who followed my trip on Facebook or on my blog were very inspired that a 56-year-old woman was attempting such a grand and challenging expedition. Also, I wanted to model for school-age children that they can overcome challenging obstacles and be successful in achieving their goals. Many of my students from last year were excited about my attempt, and followed me on social media.
Regarding education, I tried to share as much of my experience on the river as I could, including some cultural and historical information. I wanted to increase awareness of Missouri River Relief, a dynamic non-profit organization dedicated to the stewardship of the Missouri River, as well as educating our youth and communities about the river, on the river. While I was on my expedition, River Relief was conducting river cleanup events on the river from St. Louis to Washington to Kansas City to Omaha.
Who are your paddling heroes, who inspired you and who continues to?
Well, Norman Miller was my go-to guy when deciding and planning this expedition. He was a motivating factor as well. He paddled up the Missouri River in 2004 for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial celebration. He followed their route up the river, over the Rocky Mountains, and back on the water to the Pacific Ocean.
I made a point of meeting all of the 2012 long-distance paddlers (LDPs) on the Missouri River when they passed by Cooper’s Landing. I enjoyed talking to all of them about their journey and took mental notes. So, some heroes include Dave Miller, author of The Complete Paddler, and the one who planted the seed in 2005 when he passed through Cooper’s Landing (Norman Miller watered that seed last summer), Bob Bellingham, Mark Kalch, Dave Cornthwaite (swimmer), Rod Wellington, and Dominique Liboiron. The LDPs I paddled with this year, Reed and Josh, Shawn Hollingsworth, and Scott Mestrezat are also my heroes, and I consider them my river brothers.
The MR340 paddlers are also my heroes. Anyone who immerses themselves in a 340-mile race across the state, on the Missouri River, is inspiring to me and a hero in my book. Stand-up paddle boarder, Shane Perrin, is my hero in this regard.
What kayak did you use to take on the Beaverhead, Jefferson, Missouri and Mississippi rivers during your Source to Sea expedition, and why?
I paddled an Eddyline Shasta kayak on my journey. Paddlers Andy Bugh, 2011, and Bob Bellingham, 2012, paddled the same kayak. In fact, I bought Bob’s kayak from him before he flew home to Australia. The boat is a 17’ tandem open cockpit carbonlite kayak and very stable. And, the open cockpit makes it more roomy that the standard plastic mold sea kayak. I did not want to be cramped inside a tight cockpit. I love my boat. We could go anywhere in extreme conditions and I never felt nervous about capsizing.
The Shasta was challenging on the Beaverhead because the river is narrow, windy, swift and shallow. I had a 12.5’ plastic kayak with me, but my support crew needed to head back to Missouri so I just put in with Blue Moon, my Shasta, and went for it. I put two holes in it on the second day. Oh well, they were above water line and duct tape fixed it until I stopped over at Norman Miller’s house near Three Forks and I fiberglass patched the holes.
What were the highlights of this journey? Was there anywhere along the route that you would highly recommend to paddlers that they might not know about?
There are so many highlights of the journey that I cannot name them all. I will say that the ski in to Brower’s Spring at the source was a highlight. We planned on a seven-hour ski, but it took us 31 hours. We were totally unprepared to spend the night, but we managed. The Jefferson River in Montana was a beautiful stretch of river. Fort Peck Lake was some serious wilderness paddling. I had already gone two weeks without internet in the Missouri River Breaks National Monument, and then another two weeks on Fort Peck Lake. I felt very isolated and exposed to wilderness. I loved it. I have had wilderness yearnings all my life, and that experience fulfilled them. And, the Mississippi River turned out to be a wonderful romantic experience. I fell in love with the sandbars, the tow and barges, the freighters, the wildlife, and the river. My Mississippi River experience far surpassed my expectations.
Favorite location you pitched your tent? Least favorite?
Numerous favorite locations I called home for a night, or two. One that sticks out was on the Mississippi River just below the Arkansas River confluence across from the Chicot City navigation light. I camped on a sandbar shelf, which positioned me up, and looking out, over a narrow bend in the river. I was protected from the north by a long hedge of willow trees. I love being up high, and I love having the tow and barges passing close by. The tow and barges have a romantic feel to me because I believe the pilots of these boats would be navigating the river in steamboats if they were living in that era. The river is their life, so I felt at home navigating amongst them. The fog on the river the next morning was exquisite and I managed to capture the moment with photography.
Least favorite camp was on Fort Peck Lake in a low-lying cove with no trees and covered with mud. It was here that I experienced one of the several severe electrical storms on my trip. I bolted out of this site first thing in the morning, wallowing in mud. Ugh.
Reading your blog, one is struck by the many helpful, hospitable folks you met along your journey. Can you tell us about a few who stand out most in your mind?
This is a very difficult question to answer. There are sooooo many river angels. People up and down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers were very supportive and wanted to be a part of my success. People were constantly asking me if I needed anything, offering food and a place to sleep, gear needs, coming out to paddle with me, picking me up off the river and taking me into their homes, sharing their lives and families with me. Some were strangers who just gave me cash because that was the only way they had to support me and help me. It was unbelievable. The people who cared about me and my success are the greatest memories of this expedition.
Did you ever come across people who just didn’t get what you were doing, or told you it was dangerous or foolish?
On the drive up to Montana we had to replace a windshield wiper and the manager of the store, upon explaining to him what I was doing responded by saying, “Well, THAT seems like a big waste of time. Why would you want to do THAT?” Then, his employee came out and replaced the wiper, and offered kind words of encouragement. I learned early on that such an expedition is not for everybody.
All of us LDPs this year can tell the same story of people warning us about Fort Peck Lake and how people die on that lake. They all told us the same warnings: winds come out of nowhere and huge swells and waves will swamp you and people drown on the lake all the time. Very discouraging messages, and taken with an element of caution. Fort Peck Lake made us all stronger and wiser for Lake Sakakawea, 178 miles long, and Oahe Lake, 230 miles long, the two huge lakes still ahead on our journeys.
Was there ever a point you would rather have been doing something else, or a place you just couldn’t wait to escape due to unhappy circumstances?
I never experienced unhappy circumstances that discouraged me. I never felt that I would not complete this expedition, or that it was a burden. I loved every minute of this journey and was very sad when the river ran out and I had no more paddling to do. I can never duplicate this journey. It is over. I want to share it, though, in presentations and writing, and will get a book out there in due time.
What advice would you offer to anyone contemplating a long trip or solo journey?
Do what you love and love what you do. If there is any doubt as to the journey you are embarking on, and whether you will be content or successful, take some time to consider if you are doing the right thing. Consider your reasons for doing it. Your mission is an important motivator. If you are inspiring others, you will likely succeed and be fulfilled while doing it.
What’s next for you?
I have lots of things I am thinking about, including writing a book, teaching school full time, and presenting my experience around the country. That said, I am scheduled to be the featured speaker at the Quiet Water Symposium on March 1, 2014, in East Lansing, Michigan. I also have [another] major river expedition I have begun researching.
I finally did it! I made it all the way to the Gulf if Mexico, but not without some very harrowing and tense moments in the Southern Louisiana fog. Fog? Who knew? That was an oversight on my part. Forgot about the fog.
This is my amazing support crew that helped get me through the fog, through the Head of Passes, down South Pass to the Gulf, and back to Venice in a thick fog bank. What an epic finish to an unforgettable journey. Big THANKS to my support crew, the Bar Pilots and their crews in Venice and Pilottown, and to all of my supporters who cheered me on every single day!
My unforgettable crew and dear friends and daughter:
And the stellar crew at Pilottown:
Pilots at Venice Bar Pilot’s Association:
Our first attempt to make it to the Gulf was on December 4. We were doing pretty good on the East shore, although the fog was lingering on that side. By the time we passed Pilottown in the fog, we were engulfed. At one point we all heard a boat coming right toward us. I was out of the channel, and so was my support boat, but I didn’t know it. They were in only three feet of water. Hearing the boat coming closer and closer, but not seeing it, I was terrified they would be run down by a big fishing boat. I screamed at them to turn around. They appeared to be frozen staring into the fog. Oh. My. God. Will I witness their demise???? Thankfully, no. After the boat passed us by, we all knew we were finished for now. I got on the phone to Pilottown and asked them if we could come ashore.
“Of course, we will be expecting you,” they replied.
When we arrived 15 minutes later, they immediately took us under their wing, brought us inside, fed us from a smorgasborg outlay of food, shared their ‘mission control,’ and educated us on their system for bringing big ships up from the Gulf to New Orleans. Most importantly, they explained the Fog Predictor, which indicated a lift in the fog at 9:00AM until midnight tomorrow, December 5. We set our goal to the Gulf for tomorrow. They invited to breakfast, too. So nice and comforting, these river angels.
On the final dash to the Gulf, my greatest concern was the fog in the Head of Passes. This is a wide open space from which three branches of channelized water run to the Gulf. The Southwest Pass is the shipping lane for tankers, freighters, and container ships, Loutre Pass is mainly small craft and fishing boats, and South Pass fishing craft. Tankers come up SW Pass and cross through the Head of Passes to the West Bank near Pilottown. As you can imagine, in the fog, this is a dangerous route through which to paddle.
Just prior to leaving Pilottown, three Plaquemines Parish Marine Sheriffs pull up in their boat on their way down to Port Eads, located one mile upriver from the Gulf down South Pass. When I found this out, I somewhat pleaded with them to guide us through the fog through the Head of Passes with their radar. As you can see in this photo, I was gravely concerned. I could not get them to commit, for whatever reason, so we determined to just go for it with the support we had from the Pilottown crew, and the Venice pilots, who drive the ships up the Pass.
The Pilottown crew were phenomenal in communicating our whereabouts to the best of their ability. However, when they began asking the ship pilots if they had seen us, I knew we were on our own, so to speak. We had to navigate wisely through this stretch or catastrophe would be imminent. What we did know from my marine radio, was when a ship was coming up through the fog out of SW Pass, or down into the Head of Passes past Pilottown. Mark used his depth finder to try and avoid the channel, but at some point we had to cross.
There was a moment when we were immersed in fog and very vulnerable. I began to paddle with my GPS as my guide, which is what the crew told us to do. How scary is that in the fog???? Very! As my heart began to sink further into my gut, I mustered everything I had to keep my composure, as we all were doing at that time. At that very moment, we heard a boat coming right for us. Oh my God! Will it see us in time to stop??? All we can do is wait as it gets closer. Then, appearing as though angels from the spiritual realm, the Sheriff’s boat appears and immediately they begin pointing out the channel light at South Pass.
Miraculously, the fog began lifting at that moment and we could then see all three passes! What a moment of joy and relief that was, never to be forgotten.
I paddled harder than I had paddled on the entire journey, the 12-13 miles down South Pass. I took out my iPod and played river songs and sang at the top of my lungs, particularly Black Water by the Doobie Brothers. Playing music always gives me a much-needed boost of energy.
The highlight of my entire trip had to be when I saw my white pelican near the shore in South Pass. I couldn’t believe my eyes! He had come to see me through to the end, and provided that quiet comfort we both understood, that he had provided since day one of my paddling journey. I still shed a tear when I think about how perfect and complete this trip has been.
We had a clear shot to the Gulf, and most of the way back up the pass. We were not out of the woods yet. But we had made it to the Gulf of Mexico!
We made it about 2/3 the way up South Pass when the fog settled in again. We were on a race against time and fog. We absolutely HAD to get back to Venice before dark. We moved as one with eyes and minds on high alert. As you can imagine, the victory was oh so sweet.
Our home away from home in Venice, Louisiana. The Lighthouse Lodge and Villas comped our villa for all but one night, the night that April donated to the expedition. Big thanks to April Durnin for donating to the expedition two free nights of lodging (one night for two rooms) at this fabulous hotel. We could not think of one single complaint. The villa was extraordinarily lovely.
I will be updating this blog in the days to come. That will help me sort through my photos and videos, and reminisce on the pleasures of this incredible journey. Then, of course, I will write a book, or books. I would like to write a memoir, a curriculum book with lesson plans and activities focused on the rivers and natural environment, and a coffee table book with some of my best photographs. Oh, and T-shirts. I want t-shirts made ASAP. Maybe a calendar right away. So much to do!
I will follow up this post with some videos as soon as possible. Until then, I hope you enjoyed the adventure of my final days. I’ll be back to fill in the gap.
Shouting out a huge THANK YOU to each and every one of you who believed in me, the expedition, and who gave their heart and soul to support the journey. MWAH!! Much love to all, Janet Moreland XOXO
Do what you love and love what you do.
Love Your Big Muddy Expedition
3,700 River Miles
April 24, 2013 – December 5, 2013
First American Source-to-Sea Missouri River
First Solo Woman Source-to-Sea Missouri River
The Missouri River is the Longest River in North America
The Missouri/Mississippi River System is the Fourth Longest in the World.
I paddled ten hours and 48 miles to get around UL Bend on Fort Peck Lake. I woke in the middle of the night and took some Advil. My muscles were stiff. It hurt so good. I felt like I had accomplished a lot by travelling so far. Now I would have to deal with the lake that I had heard so much about, and had been warned about by so many, friends and strangers: “Be safe through Fort Peck!! No big crossings unless way before 8AM! You need to take advantage of the lake telling you it’s safe to go…not when YOU say it’s safe to go. Watch for quicksand!!” Or, “Fort Peck is a very dangerous lake. Motor boats get swamped out there. The waves can come up fast. Don’t get caught out in the middle of the lake. People die on this lake.” Gee whiz, people. I wish I could enjoy the ride more instead of worrying about making unsafe decisions or passages across the lake. My journal reads, “I need to stop wondering if I’m making the right decision and just trust my judgment. I can SO do this!”
I was more concerned with the possibility that there might be mountain lions around. I think I saw mountain lion tracks. Or, maybe they were coyote or wolf tracks, not sure. In hindsight, probably coyote, or racoon, or even badger. I had a little Montana Survival booklet with me. That was a really good purchase for five bucks. The nail imprints in the tracks indicated they were more likely the tracks of a badger, racoon or fox.
That very night, after I was zipped up in my tent, some animal made a loud noise right around dusk just outside my tent. Holy mackerel! It was a honk, cough, yell, growl, screech, or something, I don’t know what. “Stay calm,” I told myself. “What do you need to do to survive?” I took the safety off of my bear spray, got my buck knife out, grabbed my machete, and put my whistle around my neck. I was hoping it was not a mountain lion. This area just seemed so mountain lion-ish with the desolation and rocky mountains all around. I also had my bottle of Advil next to me as I was preparing to down a couple to prevent stiff and sore muscles that night. I know, I’ll shake this bottle of pills and the animal outside will surely be startled, not having a clue what that noise is. I shook the bottle so it was loud and annoying. I heard the noise again, along with a couple of hoof stomps, and then it was quiet. My final deduction was that the animal was an elk. It was not a deer, but something similar that I was not familiar with. I’m sure it was an elk, or maybe an antelope. I was camped at their water hole, no doubt.
I was ready to knock out another 10-hour day. The weather report was calling for NE/East winds and some weather rolling in from the Pacific Northwest. Darn! I was loving all that sunshine and glassy water. I traveled up the North-South arm and reached the East-West body of the lake. The winds were indeed blowing at me. I would have to wait. There were whitecaps everywhere. I decided to hike around and take some pictures. As it turned out, I set up my tent just before a thunderstorm rolled through. I would be here until tomorrow.
I would not paddle any more big 10-hour days on Fort Peck Lake. Winds blew every day. I paddled some mornings, and even some afternoon and evenings. I was comfortable at one spot where I landed, mainly because there was no mud, but it was also a very beautiful cove, and I was ready to wait out a big electrical storm forecasted and coming my way. However, the winds layed down unexpectedly and the wind advisory got cancelled. I wanted to stay put but I knew if winds were calm I needed to paddle. I packed up.
I made some progress, but was NOT pleased with my camp that night, the camp at which I was forced to ride out the predicted electrical storm, which was severe. I was exposed inside a bay that was treeless and low lying, and extremely muddy. This was, literally, the low point of my Fort Peck Lake experience.
I ended up surviving the storm that packed a major north wind, ripping the tarp off of my tent. I reached out and caught a corner of it just in time to keep it from flying into the water. The winds flattened the north side of my tent and ripped my tent stake out of the ground. I had to get the stick four foot that was still on the bow of my boat. I ran out of my tent and grabbed the stick off of my boat. Thankfully, I had not been struck my lightning. I secured my fly with the stick stuck deep into the mud. What a relief to have my tent upright again. Of course, I couldn’t help but think I had just inserted into the ground a lighting rod, which seemed to be the high point on shore, and right outside my shelter. Oh well, there was nothing more I could do. I had to wait out the storm, and I did it squatting with only my feet touching ground and my hand on my SPOT “SOS” button. I thought if lightning struck me, my reflex would press the button. When the storm ended, I was so thankful to be alive. I did not concern myself with the two inches of rain that was falling outside. I was dry inside, and alive.
I got out of there at dawn the next morning. I wanted no part of this campsite any more. I paddled several half-days and eventually made it to the Pines Recreation Area, a location in which Lewis and Clark wrote about as having the first pine trees they saw. I met a wonderful couple, Matt and Carol Williams, and their son and wife, Bill and Tammy. What friendly people. They first brought me watermelon, which was a delicious treat, then later invited me to their camp for steak dinner, wine, and a marshmallow roast. I was so happy to have met these people. They added a warm human social element to this desolated lake leg, and their company and generosity was comforting. I was amazed the next morning when they assembled a cold pack with fresh walleye fish and fruit salad for me to take to fix for dinner that night. We drank coffee together and shared stories before we all parted our ways.
This day was a Sunday, and the Williams family headed home. I ended up waiting out a big wind day just down the shoreline. I met a man while hanging out on the point who was looking around for a mountain lion as tracks had been spotted inside the recreation area. I knew it! This WAS mountain lion country! I was on guard after that, but I came back that night and camped at the same spot as the previous night. This was a first for me, to camp in the same spot two nights in a row. I did not worry too much as calm winds were forecasted for the morrow, and I was up before dawn to paddle my last day on the lake. I woke to a gorgeous orange cloudless sky and glass waters. These conditions would remain all day long. What a wonderful way to end this lake experience. I felt like I was leaving a good friend whom I had gotten to know personally, and for whom I had the utmost respect. Yes, that would be Fort Peck Lake.
I hated to leave the Roundup boys without saying good bye, but I had to get on the water early in order to make it through UL Bend on Fort Peck Reservoir, approximately 48 miles away. UL Bend is the river-to-lake transition area, and not without its challenges. I was packed and in my boat at 7:00 AM. As I was pushing off, Eli appeared on the shore. I was so happy because I got to say good bye. I also let him know that I left my card on the ice chest for him. It is always bittersweet leaving new friends and river brothers. These boys, young men, are my river brothers.
The Fort Peck Reservoir is 245,000 acres in size. Extending up 125 miles from the Fort Peck Dam is the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife, which encompasses 1,100,000 acres and all of the Fort Peck Reservoir. The refuge contains a multitude of habitats which include native prairie, wooded coulees, wetlands, river bottoms and badlands. “Given the size and remoteness of the Refuge, the area has changed very little from the historic voyage of the Lewis and Clark expedition…” [http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=61520]
These river-to-lake transition areas are kind of spooky because the river shoreline slowly disappears into the water and before you know it, you are out in the middle of a lake. This can be daunting if the wind is blowing. Fort Peck Reservoir’s transition section also has shallow sand bars and mud to deal with. Thankfully, I was somewhat unaware of these things or else I would have been intimidated and stressed. They say ignorance is bliss. In this case, this was true. It did not take long, however, before I realized I had to pay close attention so I would not get stuck on a sand/mud bar.
Once the shoreline has disappeared, it can be very difficult following the channel of the river, especially when the current is slowing down and spreading out, and the river transforms into a lake. This pelican, I believed, helped to show me the way and I made it around the daunting UL Bend to a campsite.
I made it to Fort Peck Reservoir! I paddled 48 miles for 10.5 hours. This was a really productive paddling day and, boy, was I tired, but very very happy. I was especially joyful because my campsite was not muddy. Well, not too bad, anyway.
Later this evening I witnessed the power of a northerly squall line coming across the lake. I had been warned about sudden fierce winds coming out of nowhere. Thankfully, I was safe on shore with my tent and Blue Moon secure. At first it sounded like a motor boat across the lake, then it grew louder like a truck, then a train, and finally a jet plane. It was awesome to watch the wind line move rapidly over the water toward me. I knew what was happening, so I was intrigued, rather than fearful. Seeing this occur helped me to be cautious, aware, and respectful of the wind and water while on this lake.
I left the RoundUp boys on June 9 and made camp the same evening on the Fort Peck Reservoir 10.5 hours later. I would journey across this 135-mile lake for the next eight days. A lot can happen in eight days. I was immersed in wilderness and forced to use my own judgment and decision-making skills in order to progress safely to the dam. High winds, snakes, electrical storms, wildlife, zero cell service, hours of waiting out the wind, picturesque scenery, and the giving hearts of the few people I met would make this one of my most memorable experiences of my life. Stay tuned for part two, the next eight days to Fort Peck Dam, through some awesome and incredible wilderness.
I decided not to stop at Judith Landing, the approximate middle of the Breaks. I regret that move a little, but I was yearning to get in some solitary camping. I knew that all of the others on the river were getting out at Judith because of the James Kipp closing, so I kind of felt that I would have the lower section to myself. I saw James and Klaus loading up at the Judith Landing boat ramp, and we were able to wave and say our last good-byes.
I decided to camp at Gist Campground. I was right. No one was around beyond Judith Landing. The campground was located on a beautiful stretch of river with a steep rock wall that plunged straight down into the river. I knew then that I was going to like this place.
The river banks were muddy because of the recent rains. I decided I could not avoid it no matter what, so I just took off my shoes and let it squish between my toes. The Big Muddy’s mud is actually soft and silky and washed off the skin quite easily. What are you gonna do? You just have to deal with it. No sense in getting anxious and frustrated about it.
After staying for two nights and several small hikes later, I moved on. The river had dropped three or four feet since I had arrived. This beached my boat fairly high above the waterline, and you know what that means? It was time to get muddy again. Off came the shoes and I moved the boat up the river to where I was camped since there was no difference now in the mud situation. The riverbank was muddy everywhere. I would soon find out that the mud was prevalent for miles and miles to come. Finding campsites downriver would prove to be extremely challenging.
I learned about some historic events as I was actually paddling down the river. The Cow Creek Crossing was one such event. As I read about the Nez Perce Indians, led by Chief Joseph, marching towards Canada in order to escape confinement to a reservation, I was moved. 750 men, women and children, now refugees in their own country, trying to escape the American military and the inevitable tragedy that would follow. Unfortunately, they were close to Canada, but not close enough to escape. I followed their trail through this entire section and stopped every so often to just imagine where exactly they walked and what they must have looked like. I was filled with emotion.
I paddled slowly past the Nez Perce National Historic Trail where, in 1877, approximately 750 men, women, and children of their “nontreaty” tribe tried to make their way to Canada to reach asylum. I saw the many water crossings they likely took, and a narrow trail along the river on which they walked near Cow Island. They were so close to freedom before they were stopped and 200 Nez Perce braves fought to defend the fleeing tribe. My heart bleeds for them. This section proved to be very melancholy for me, and unforgettable.
My plan was to stop at the James Kipp Recreation Area. This is considered the end of the road for the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. I planned on refilling my water here, and camping the night. I had no idea the flooding wreaked such havok on the campground. Not only were the roads closed just a few days previous, but the electricity was still out and that meant the water pumps were not working. A fisherman took me around to find water to no avail. But in order for him to do that, I had to get up this boat ramp. “Apparently, they have not cleared the ramp yet.” I chided. That got a good laugh. The camp host eventually came to the ramp with a ten-gallon bottle of water and filled my five gallon bottles.
It’s 4:00 PM and I’m outta here, I thought. I’ll just paddle on down the river and find myself a campsite. Oh dear. That turned out to be the greatest challenge of this trip. It took about 15 minutes for me to realize I better start looking hard. Four hours later there were still NO sites to be found, and I had stopped to investigate several areas. This was the first time I thought I might have to sleep in my kayak. OMG!
Just as dusk was falling on the land, I came around a bend and saw something unusual. Three men were walking, yes walking, on the riverbank. How are they doing that?! I exclaimed to my brain. Is it not muddy in that spot. I paddled in a straight line over to their boat, and them. I made friends fast. Actually, I had no intention of going any further. Thankfully, Eli, Brandon, and Travis turned out to be river angels, river angels from Roundup, Montana.
Soon, darkness was upon us, and Eli helped me carry my gear down the bank, through the willow forest, and up the hill where I set up my tent with a gorgeous view of the river. I went from rags to riches, and was thrilled. The boys ended up camping at their truck that night, which was located at the top of the hill, and we had a fire and passed around a bottle of JD (only a couple of times). When in Montana, you do as the Roundup Boys do. I was so happy! And, Brandon gave me his Leatherman to take with me. Now, THAT’S special!
I had a long day of paddling the next day in order to get to Fort Peck Lake. I rose up at sunrise and was in my boat at 7:00 AM. I waved to Eli from the shore. I was sad to leave these river angels.
It is so easy to get attached to kindred spirits that share their life with the river. There is a bond that is undeniable. We share riverblood.
43 miles later this day, I arrived at Fort Peck Lake. I had had no internet service for nearly a week, and would not for almost another. I found myself immersed in mountainous wilderness. I was in heaven.
A busy morning at the Coal Banks Landing boat ramp once the storm left. The ramp was bustling with boats, paddlers, gear, and excitement. Special thanks again to Bub and Tinker Sandy for taking care of all of us wet river rats and opening up the visitor’s center to everyone for the lasts two days. I decided to hang back and wait for everyone to leave before I got ready to go. When I left, there was not a soul in sight. That’s the way I wanted it. I wanted to take it all in without a lot of external distractions. I had been waiting for this nearly a year.
The White Cliffs section of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument evolves as you paddle in to this stretch of river. The anticipation keeps you on the edge of your seat. Will there be cliffs around the next bend? They show themselves gradually. And, before you know it, you are immersed in this fabulous wonderland of rock castles, spires, hoodoos, magnificent walls and lone sentinals.
I arrived at Hole in the Wall thinking that everyone else would stay back at Eagle Creek, which is a popular camping area with great hiking and historical significance. The environment around Hole in the Wall is grandiose and quite spectacular. I was the only one there! I would have a wilderness experience in the midst of incredible beauty!! Well, not exactly. Withing an hour two paddlers arrived. Then, a party of seven or eight men showed up. Oh well, I can share. I will just set my tent off to the side and have my own wilderness experience. I learned something this day. When you meet good-hearted people, nothing else is really more desirable. The benefits are great when you share a part of your lives together. The experience becomes unforgettable. This day I met Klaus and James. I am so happy that I did.
I loved meeting Klaus and James. Klaus came over and invited me to sit around the fire with them that night. They said it wouldn’t be a long fire because firewood was scarce. That sounded good to me. After a couple of hours we gathered for a fire. Klaus had cups and wine and we toasted to my expedition. Then we spent a couple hours just enjoying each others’ company and conversation. THAT beats a solitary wilderness experience, any day. I am thankful for the time we had together.
The next day I met some of the others who had camped in the area. They were all very interesting gentlemen. One was from Bozeman, another from the Seattle area, and one also from San Diego, among others. The Bureau of Land Management officers showed up. They told us stories and were helpful in showing us good camping areas down river. Apparently, James Kipp Recreation Area had opened back up, at least the roads leading into the area. Because of all the rain, though, we could expect a lot of mud downriver. Oh well.
I was excited to hike to the top of Hole in the Wall. I said good by to Klaus and James. They were going to camp at the Wall camping area. I did not know if I would stop there. We took pictures to make sure we didn’t miss out on that opportunity, and we exchanged addresses.
And, off I went to hike to the top of the Hole in the Wall. Wow, what a grand experience!! Unforgettable.
I thoroughly enjoy my hike up to the top of Hole in the Wall. While I was standing up there looking around, I thought, I think I am experiencing breath-taking beauty. I had to stop and calm down I was so excited.
I paddled on and came to Klaus and James’ camp. It was getting late and they invited me over. I was happy to stop there. The camp was one of the best and most peaceful I have experienced thus far. Not to mention my new friends. We had another tremendous night telling stories, jokes, and laughing freely. When it was time for them to shove off the next day, I was truly sad. I’ve got their number. Happy about that.
I arrived at Fort Benton the same day that I left Great Falls. The paddle only took a few hours from Carter Ferry. I knew rain was forecasted, so I planned on staying in Fort Benton for a least a couple of days, which I would have done anyway. This post is a photo story post. I hope you enjoy it.
Carter Ferry is one of only six cable ferries in existence. Another cable ferry is in Virgelle, between Fort Benton and Coal Banks Landing. There are also two others in the area, making four out of the six ferries that are functioning located here in northern Montana.
It began raining again on June 2, the afternoon of the day I arrived at Coal Banks Landing. I have some interesting photos of the paddle down to Coal Banks, the paddlers laying over at Coal Banks, the proprietors of the Virgelle Mercantile Store, and my second visit to Fort Benton when I came with Dominique Liboiron, who came to visit me from Saskatchewan during this next rain delay before starting into the Breaks. Dominique paddled from Saskatchewan, Canada, to New Orleans last summer and winter, arriving just before Mardi Gras. We instantly became friends when he stopped over at Cooper’s Landing, my river hangout in Columbia, Missouri. My next post will share with you our visit together and some additional interesting things we discovered in Fort Benton.
Do what you love, and love what you do!
Live slow ~ Paddle fast (notice that is switching around a little. No, a lot.) 🙂