Missouri River Trip Hell
Contributed by: Joe
The Missouri River begins life high in the Rocky Mountains, on the eastern side of the North American continental divide in Montana, a rocky gully indistinguishable from thousands that carve their way through the crags and corners of America’s western backbone, no hint of the mighty, muddy force it becomes when, thousands of miles later, it joins with the Mississippi River, southward bound to the Gulf of Mexico. The Missouri River, 2,341 miles, rolling through Montana, North and South Dakota, marking the border between Nebraska and Iowa before separating Missouri and Kansas until, in Kansas City, it turns east, splitting its namesake state in half, the northern plains and small hills from the ancient Ozark Mountains and hollers to the south, the lifeblood of towns along its banks before railroads relegated the giant paddlewheelers to the dusty bin of history labeled nostalgia. The Missouri River, where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s journey to the Pacific Ocean began in earnest more than 200 years ago.
Our plan was six months in the making. Float the Missouri River, getting in touch with nature on its terms, just two guys, a canoe and whatever awaited us around the next bend, Lewis and Clark writ small – like, really small. Willy and I looked forward to it all summer, waiting for a three-day weekend that would work for us both. Finally we settled on the first weekend in August.
Our plan was six months in the making. Six months or six years, it wouldn’t have mattered. We were woefully unprepared for the hell that awaited us.
Willy and I have plenty of floating experience. In our early days, it was the Little Piney with a cooler full of beer, and we only drove hung over to the put-in spot one time without the paddles. After several trips down the Little Piney, we graduated to the Big Piney, which turned into perhaps the worst drunken experience of our lives, proving conclusively that mixing 15 miles of river with (at least) a case of beer each is another ring of Dante’s hell. And a good way to lose a paddle. And a T-shirt. And a cap. And a Celtic spiral ring. And a whole bunch of shit. And a really good way to get some strange looks from the other people on the river, who tended to give our drunk asses a wide berth.
A couple of years after the Big Piney debacle, we floated the upper and lower sections of the
A couple of years after that, we took a trip down the
We had all that experience – and I had even been whitewater rafting in
My sister thought it was a cool idea, or at least she humored me by telling me that.
Willy’s wife told him he was crazy.
It was six months in the planning – but that’s not exactly true. It was six months in the imagining, six months of us saying, Man this is gonna be cool; man I can’t wait. The actual, you know, nuts-and-bolts planning consisted of us waiting until the last minute to try to find a canoe for the trip. It was only the one thing we absolutely had to have.
Of course there was no canoe to be found in the greater mid-Missouri area. None. Within a 50-mile radius, there was no place that rented canoes, no place that even had an idea where one could be rented. Well, fuck.
Willy arrived on a Friday. His dad has a canoe, but there was no way Willy could use his little red Chevy S-10 pickup to haul that 17-foot monster. I suggested he could tie a log chain to the fucker and drag it behind him up the highway, but he took a pass on that idea. It would have been better than the alternative, because the alternative we settled on was a rubber raft. Of course you can’t rent those, either, so that meant buying one. Well, fuck.
So we got up on Saturday morning and started combing the city for a rubber raft. Wal-Mart had some advertised online, but when we got to the store, they were sold out. A bike/fitness/camping store didn’t have any, either. Well, fuck. What are we gonna do?
We took a timeout to get a bite to eat and plot our next move.
After striking out on renting a canoe, after striking out on finding a raft – not to rent, but fucking buy – a smarter person would have taken it as a sign. A smarter person would have thought that the gods were trying to tell us something. A smarter person would have said, You know what? Maybe we should just shit-can this floating idea.
We’ve never been accused of being that person.
We were determined to go, and our last hope was the Bass Pro Shop. And there it was, hanging from a rope 10 feet off the floor, a Fish Hunter inflatable raft, complete with a blow-up seat cushion.
Except for the $135 price tag. Except that it took five guys 20 minutes to figure out how to get the damn thing down. (Yo, dipshit, a ladder might be in order.) While the Saturday morning Bass Pro flunkies were trying to figure out how to get the raft for us, I started to get pissed off. The longer they fucked around, the more pissed off I became. I was thisfuckingclose to saying to hell with the whole thing and walking out, fuck the float trip – and just how fast can I get a beer?
If I had done that, I would have avoided the unmitigated hell that was Sunday’s trip down the
Finally they got the dam raft down. I plunked down the credit card, bought the raft and an electric pump and away we went. We shoved the deflated raft into my car, and my mood lifted as I began to look forward to the trip again.
Our plan was to float the 15 miles from the
We made the only smart move that weekend and decided to wait until the next day to float.
With the hazy memory of the Big Piney disaster in our minds (detailed in North by Northwest No. 12), Willy and I decided we would stay stone cold sober for our
And the day of our trip dawned.
We got up Sunday morning, loaded up a couple of small coolers with all the water bottles and ice they would hold – plus our stuffed chicken breasts that we planned to grill and some sort of grocery store deli counter pasta salad that looked almost edible – went through our checklist and headed for the river.
It was warm that morning, with nary a cloud in the sky. It was the first weekend in August in the
We got to the put-in spot, inflated the raft, loaded it up with all of our gear – including a waterproof camera so we could document our adventure – and shoved off a little before 10 a.m., excited to finally be on our way. That feeling lasted. For all of 20 minutes.
It quickly became painfully evident that there was no way in hell the river was moving at 6 mph. Every once in a while, we would pick up a current that might be moving at 6 mph, but most of the time we’re slowly slipping downstream at about 2 mph. And it became clear that a trip we figured would take three hours or so is going to take a whole hell of a lot longer – oh yes, much longer.
It quickly became even more painfully evident that our seating arrangement left a lot to be desired. As in, the raft had no actual seats. Willy was trying to use the inflatable seat cushion. He was muttering under his breath. I was sitting in the middle of the raft on a cooler – a small cooler, maybe 10 inches tall with a top that was no bigger than 10x8 – that wobbled like a bitch and put my back in a most uncomfortable position as I tried to paddle. I began to cuss the cooler. I cussed it for the next seven hours. Finally, I took off my Coast Guard-approved orange, neck-holding, save-your-ass life vest and tried to sit on that on top of the cooler. Fuck it, they could fish my bloated body out of the river if I drowned. The life vest on top of the cooler worked fucktacularly. Son of a bitch.
A couple of miles into the trip, conversation sort of dried up. With railroad tracks on one side of the river and the bicyclist-used Katy Trail on the other, our chances of seeing anything other than a Canada goose and the occasional heron – like, a fucking bobcat or something similarly cool – were remote at best. We didn’t talk a lot, but we communicated very well in a passive-aggressive sort of way. Trying to keep the raft pointed straight downstream, I would paddle on the starboard side. Of course, that would make the raft point to port, whereupon Willy would dig his paddle into the river, turning the raft back to starboard. And I would paddle, starting the whole process all over again. It went on for all 15 miles. I’m just glad he didn’t smack me upside the head with his paddle like he did with a 2x4 back in our Oktoberfest, wine-drunk days in Hermann.
The sky was bright blue and baleful in the ever-increasing heat.
Except for the occasional “This sucks,” conversation was slow, but our drinking water was going fast – too fast. Being out in the middle of the river, with the sun beating on us, with the temperature steadily climbing as the day wore on, we were sucking water down at a furious rate.
I think I’m about to have a heat stroke, Willy said. Let’s find some shade.
So 300 or 400 yards down the river there was a place to pull off that had trees close to the water and enough shade to work. Willy looked bad, and his breathing came in pants and gasps – and not the good kind. I’m about to die, he said. We beached the raft, Willy hopped out and into the water he went.
There’s a reason the
It might have saved Willy’s life.
But it didn’t keep Willy from getting a nasty nosebleed. After dunking himself for the third or fourth time, he emerged from the water with blood streaming from his nose, turning his moustache and scraggly beard a bright red. It was worse than the time he punched me in the face and broke my nose when we lived together in college (at the Chateau Regency trailer park, window closing in winter not included), and I bled like a stuck hog when that happened. Somehow Willy got his nose faucet under control and we shoved off again, still so many miles from Cooper’s Landing.
I was damn near dead, Willy said.
I began to wish I was drunk.
I began to wish I was stoned.
I began to wish I had dropped two windowpanes of acid and had no idea what was going on. There’s no way in hell the trip could have been any worse if I had been completely fucked up.
God damn, it was hot.
I will NEVER fucking do this again, I said.
Time didn’t cease to exist, but it might as well have. The final five hours of the trip were filled with the ungodly, never-ending heat, the slow-moving raft that wouldn’t stay straight, the ever-decreasing supply of drinking water, the monotony of the passing landscape, the envious looks we gave people who roared past us in boats with actual, you know, motors, the slow tick of the mile markers along the river, the regret, the regret, the regret.
I had fever dreams of teleportation, wishing that Scotty could beam me the fuck out of there, into my air-conditioned apartment with a beer in one hand and the TV remote in the other.
The torture of the trip made us slack-jawed and nearly catatonic. It was all-consuming, the whole of our world. That motherfucker Sisyphus had nothing on us.
Finally the river began a slow bend to the east. At the far horizon, probably another two miles away, there it sat as just a speck of white on the bank: Cooper’s Landing. It briefly raised our spirits. It didn’t last. Because being able to see it, to have the end of our trip in sight, made it seem as if the river was moving even slower than ever. Cooper’s Landing stayed the same size on the horizon for a long, long time.
An hour later, we made it to Cooper’s Landing. We crawled out of the raft and staggered up to Cooper’s store – his shady, air-conditioned store. Sweet Jesus, we were both damn near dead. We bought Gatorade and sucked it down.
For a long time we hung out in the air conditioning, sitting on bar stools inside the store, sipping another bottle of Gatorade, not talking much as Cooper sat behind the counter watching TV, happy to have taken the worst sober trip of our lives and lived to tell the tale, able to say, forcefully and with conviction: I will never fucking do that again.
Till next time,
January 1, 2007
Revised edition: January 27, 2007