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…