eKC feature
August 5, 2005


A river like Paradise

by Patrick Dobson

Gary Jenkins, a Kansas City attorney in private practice, under the vines at our campsite on an unnamed island across the river from the Labadie Bottoms. (photo by Patrick Dobson)

An ethereal space exists between land and water. There, objects normally heavy and cumbersome become insubstantial, gain grace and float in dreams.

Some of these objects are physical — a canoe, its contents, the bodies of the people in the boat. Some don’t have real, physical manifestations but are real just the same — bills, debts, personal conflicts and work politics. Still others are fantasy — boat-swallowing whirlpools, banks lined with maniacal killers and perverts, giant catfish that will snap at a person unlucky enough to fall in the water, and bad-smelling water so polluted it causes skin diseases from casual contact.

Fortunately, in that space between land and water, care and worry disappear, fantasy reveals itself as such, and time stops.

And it’s that space that my friend Gary Jenkins and I sought June 24.

For two weeks, we planned to disappear in that long mirror of dreams called the Missouri River. The middle of summer was not the best time to canoe that water. The river was up after the Corps of Engineers had opened the floodgates on dams upstream to fill the channel for largely nonexistent commercial traffic. Plus, it had been raining north of Kansas City for three weeks previous, and all that water went straight into the Missouri.

But it was our time, two weeks of days and nights on the river. No one had their hooks in us, and if they did, it didn’t matter. We had a ride to St. Louis in our hearts and heads, and nothing would hold us back.

Planning the trip was a simple matter of deciding when to leave and some preparations that included ordering an out-of-date navigation map from the Corps of Engineers and making a trip to the grocery store. I had actually canoed the Missouri from Montana to Kansas City a few years back, and both Gary and I are outdoor types with all the things we need to camp.

But during the time we arranged things for our trip, friends, acquaintances and strangers, with the air of experts, told us of whirlpools, wildlife and wild maniacs. They urged us to take guns. They said we were insane to attempt such a journey, wrought as it was with giant commercial barge packets, polluted water and dangerous currents. One man even said, “You’re gonna have to deal with suckholes, man. They’ll eat you up.”

In all my time on the river, I’ve never seen a suckhole. Eddies abound, but they are small, from just an inch around to the size of the canoe. But, in a canoe or any boat, you are underway, and if an eddy takes hold of a boat, as I’ve let them do sometimes, it deviates the course of the boat a little. It doesn't suck it anywhere, much less down.

One weekend trip a year or two ago, I drifted my canoe into the biggest eddy I could find off the end of a wing dike to see if I could get the boat to spin around in it a while. The eddy spun out from underneath me, shifting the course of the boat a little.

After all these years, I don’t really understand what a suckhole is supposed to be.

From Purgatory to Paradise

Kevin Kinghorn, a good and loyal friend, drove us to the river that Friday. We had to boat on Gary’s car, and since Kevin lives around the corner from Gary, he had gone with us to take the car back home. Kevin helped get the boat off the roof of the jeep and set it in the water. In just a few minutes, the boat was packed, all the goods tied down between thwarts, and we were off.

“Just have fun, men,” Kevin said as we lifted from that weightless space between land and water and set out on the river. He understood.

We paddled from the boat ramp at Riverfront Park (the real one off Riverfront Road behind the Sears outlet on Front Street, not the suburban cemetery called Berkley Riverfront Park). The river was strong, banks and sandbars under the currents of the swollen stream. Once around the wing dikes that line the banks before the Chouteau Bridge, we felt free from the city, from the indoor complaints — the low-level miseries that tend to plague a person after become adult, comfortable and serious in life.

Near the 291 Bridge, I had my eye on a tender pushing a sand flat (a special barge on which sand dredging companies pile sand they suck from the river). I was trying to see if it was moving and how fast it was moving toward us, as tow boats, small and large, moving upstream tend to chop the water up. My concern was not that the tow’s wake would upset our canoe, but that since we were so loaded down, we might ship water in a stiff wave and be stuck paddling a half sunken canoe to shore. (Most canoes do not sink due to built-in floats.)

Suddenly, an urgent series of blasts on a horn drew my attention to a more immediate danger — three sand flats were moored to the bank, the last just 100 feet away and backed with a tender. We were headed for it dead on. I told Gary to paddle on the right side of the canoe, as I did. We pulled the canoe out into the stream and passed by the barge less than ten yards away. The tender’s captain stood from his wheel to make sure we were all right. I gave him the thumbs up, the international signal for “I owe my life to you.”

The panic hit me then. My hands started shaking and my heart beat so hard I thought it was popping out of my chest. My breath came in short gasps. My greatest fear, inherited from a childhood of newspaper stories of drownings and water accidents, was becoming a grease spot on the bottom of a barge.

“Gary,” I said when I could, at least, sound calm, “didn’t you see that we were headed toward that barge?”

“Sure, I saw it.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I trusted you knew what you were doing. You’re the one who has all the experience.”

The panic subsided a notch. It was ironic, really. An experienced paddleman — whose greatest fear is being keel-hulled under a commercial tow — nearly gets his pal and himself rubbed out under a sand company barge, and just ten miles into a two-week trip. I started to laugh.

“Gary,” I said. “Don’t ever assume I know what I’m doing.”

We made 22 of our 360-mile trip in a little less than four hours. We had hurried, in part to get away from the noises of the city, and in part because we wanted to feel we were underway.

Camping spots were few. We found less-than-par a silt bar near Jackson County’s old Little Blue Trace Park, now closed and grown over. As we emptied the canoe to pull it up from the water (a precaution against rising water and stiff winds that can disappear a boat), clouds of mosquitoes descended. Being prepared, however, we covered ourselves with repellent, built a fire, set up our tent and chairs, and watched the sun set over the water’s surface.

The mosquitoes whined about our heads but left us alone and we chatted about nothing much. Despite the accommodations and our insect friends, we felt the river ease into our bodies. The barge incident became even funnier. We made jokes about suckholes and whirlpools and flying carp. Night was silent but for truck tires on highways and the industrial hum that accompanies “city.” But even these had faded over the course of the afternoon and had become nothing more than the sound of a memory.

As the twilight turned dark blue and gray, the trees lit up. Millions of fireflies, more than either of us had ever seen, flashed in the line of trees next to our silt bar—which we called a muddy sump. Unable to let that sight go, we stayed up long after the fire had turned to embers.

“This is as bad as it ever gets,” I told Gary once we were in the tent, our heads pillowed in small bundles of clothes. “It only gets better from here.”

“I always find my greatest fears are just fears of being uncomfortable,” he said. “And once I’m in that moment, the one I had so feared, I find it was all in my head.”

We couldn’t believe our good fortune.

The water is fine

Mornings on the river were quiet, sometimes eerie affairs. On this small, unnamed island on Stanley Bend near Cole Junction, MO, fog burns off the chute that flows around the back of the island. The heavy fog in the background rises from the Missouri River. (photo by Patrick Dobson)

After we freed ourselves of the land that first day, we stood in the morning from our sleeping bags and drank tea and watched the river muscle by. By some innate and unspoken force, we rose from our folding chairs when we felt the pull of the river. We readied our gear and packed the boat, and off onto the long mirror of water we paddled.

And it was good to dig the paddles into the water, feel the splash of water dripping down the paddle shafts. And when we wanted to, we drifted between the long lines of timber, experiencing the odd sensation of not moving but seeing the world turn under us. As we drifted, we took turns reading from sea-faring stories to each other. Gary read Jack London’s Sea Wolf; I read Moby-Dick, our voices echoing across the water.

Every day for the next two weeks was like this. When it was time, we stopped paddling for the day and made camp. Usually, we didn’t set a tent as the mosquitoes were never a problem again. We slept instead under the stars, listening to frog, crickets, night birds and an occasionally angry beaver slapping its tail on the water in loud cracks. Every now and then a splash indicated a deer had dived into the water to swim to the other bank. In the morning we’d wake to find new tracks of raccoon and mink around the edges of our campsites.

From Kansas City past Boonville, the river at its rise forced us to look for Missouri Department of Conservation small-town park accesses, where we carried our gear up from the boat ramps into the shade of cottonwoods. There, we met people connected to the river, through angling, skiing or relaxing. The river pulled more than silt and drift and sand. It pulled evenly and firmly at the very strings of the human heart.

Past Boonville, we found perfect sandy islands to build our place for the night. Grape vines and ivies spilled out of solid stands of sycamores and silver maples onto sandbars that let us get away with just about anything we wanted. We shot a pistol and blew off fireworks. Every day at the start of our travel, I launched a “celebratory salvo” of bottle rockets from the back of the canoe. My joy and contentment about being in a boat without a motor snapping and echoing through the valley.

The river was there to cool our feet and baptize our heads. We bathed there daily, washing the heat and sweat off our bodies and out of our traveling clothes. We swam and then sat on rocks or sand, experiencing the wonder of water that big flowing by at eye level.

And of people, we met plenty, and they told us much about Missouri’s river culture. River denizens Jeff and Gloria McFadden visited us at the boat ramp in Lexington, where we had camped for the night, and stayed for four hours, telling river stories. The next day, when we’d set camp at a small boat ramp in Waverly, Jeff and Gloria showed up with their house/pontoon boat Morningstar and took us out on the river for an evening float that lasted five hours. We motored upstream and drifted down, taking in the silent presence of the river, hearing the birds and animals that live along its banks, and seeing the sun set in orange and pink on the water.

We could always tell when we were coming close to a place where Missourians were familiar with their river when they asked us what we were doing and didn’t call us crazy, cracked or insane when we answered — as people did in and near places that have no connection with the river, such as Kansas City, Boonville or Jefferson City. They didn’t say that floating the Missouri River in a tiny skin of fiberglass was dangerous. They didn’t ask us if we needed a permit or asked us if what we were doing was illegal. They didn’t warn us against the myriad of river hazards that exist only in myth and the pages of Missouri’s large metropolitan daily newspapers.

In and near small towns such as Glasgow, Chamois and Washington, people would ask us what we were doing and we’d tell them. They’d get a gleam in their eyes, and they say that’s what they wanted to do, what they’ve always wanted to do. Almost to a man and woman, they said, “That’s really great.”

Myth and mythos, paths and pathos

Most people, in present and former river towns asked us about commercial traffic on the Missouri, being under the impression (or delusion) that the river was a rough sea of barges and towboats carrying the goods of a state and nation along its arterial face. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Commercial traffic has been falling along the Missouri since the 1977 flood, and only achieving 3.3 million of 12 to 20 million tons of barge traffic the Corps designed the river channel to carry. Hardly any agricultural products are shipped on the Missouri other than an occasional barge packet of soybeans or molasses for processing into cattle feed.

In fact, we saw only Magnolia Marine Transport Company’s Leslie B. and Jennie Dehmer, two powerful towboats, ferrying asphalt up river from the Mississippi. Jesse Lybarger, captain of the Jennie Dehmer, said recently in a letter to the editor to Eco-logic magazine, that “There is no longer any grain trade or fertilizer trade on this river at present, as all of the other companies have left as well. I just went to work for a company that is still trying to run this river towing asphalt to Kansas City, but how long they can last, I don't know.”

Eco-logic is a publication of the Environmental Conservation Organization, which was founded in 1988 “when 17 national organizations met in Chicago to devise a strategy to protect private property rights from erosion by excessive environmental regulations.” Lybarger argued that recent measures to protect and restore wildlife on the Missouri detracted from the ability of river towing companies to use the river, despite that the channel of the Missouri is taxpayer funded to the tune of five to seven million dollars a year, funds which hardly, if ever, returned the expense to the national treasury.

But this lack of large boat traffic belies the other commerce on the river. Sand and gravel companies operate dredges on the Missouri, such as Holliday Sand and Gravel and Capitol Sand and Gravel.

These sand dredging companies do not need the 200-foot-wide, nine-foot-deep channel Congress has directed the Corps maintain, which now stands at only 125 feet wide due to restrictions ten miles past Hermann. (It’s there that the river won’t allow the 200-foot channel due to environmental and hydrological conditions that continually grounded barges on the riverbed.) Rather, they vacuum sand from the riverbed and pile it on special sand barges that don’t run as deep as commercial barges. Most of the time, these barges, once full, are transported a short distance and unloaded on shore by bulldozers for packaging, sales and distribution.

On the other hand, tourism, angling and river watching is huge on the Missouri. Often, we passed the quiet moorings of anglers in the early morning, reading books, talking among themselves and keeping an eye to their rod tips. Towns like Washington, Hermann, New Haven and St. Charles, and a score of smaller towns, have made use of the river an industry. Near the mouths of the Osage and Gasconade, pleasure boaters and water skiers chopped up the surface of the river with a fury, as their families and friends barbequing and picnicking on sandbars watched their antics.

Due to economics, the legitimate concerns of Americans for their environment, and he river itself, commercial traffic has become one of a number of myths surrounding pleasure travel, like ours, on the river. We saw no man-eating catfish, no meanly aggressive snakes, no boat swallowing eddies. We laughed at one man’s notion that the river was so muddy a man could stand a spoon in it.

In Missourians’ backyards

Evening at the confluence of Little Boeuf Creek and the Missouri River. Local lore has it that Corps of Discovery member and America’s first mountain man, John Coulter, is buried near this point. Colter had returned to Missouri after his travels west and in the 1820s settled near New Haven, MO, on Boeuf Creek about two miles upstream from where this photo was taken. (photo by Patrick Dobson)

Most of the time, it was as Gary said, “We floated through Missouri’s back yards.” Indeed, this was true, since most cities and towns in Missouri have turned their porches toward highways. Only Missouri’s smaller cities and towns, like Washington, Chamois and St. Charles fully acknowledged the river and use it as a force for their prosperity. And there were a few, like Hermann, that realized the river could be a force in their town’s economies and turned a part of their house back toward the river after relying so heavily on highways and interstates.

In the midst of Kansas City, Boonville and St. Louis, we would have hardly known we were in urban areas except for the towns’ light bubbles obscuring the stars at night. Few people in those places use the river, though most didn’t hesitate to tell us why we shouldn’t be on it.

But one man, Mike Cooper, will tell you why you should be on it. Cooper turned a lonely stretch of river into his livelihood. He built his landing, called Cooper’s Landing, on the site of the Port of Nashville, MO, which was washed away in the flood of 1844. His marina is the only place for boaters and anglers to buy gasoline for their engines between Rulo, NE, and the Mississippi River — close to 600 miles of river bereft of retail commerce.

Cooper’s Landing was a fine place to put up on the swollen river. The contradictions were enormous and endearing. Here, on the otherwise rural river, a koi pond stands at the center of a campground spread beneath cottonwoods. Katy Trailers rode in for the night, and Cooper barbequed chicken and sold full dinners for $5. Meanwhile, a family from Columbia sold spicy Thai food from a fully equipped stand and trailer set on the corner of his marina (above which was his house).

We watched the storm that had chased us all day turn the sunset into a purple and orange blaze. Meanwhile, Lee Ruth played love songs and river tunes, traditional and of his own writing, on his guitars, mandolin and banjo.

People like Cooper were far and few between. We listened to admonitions and then witnessed wonders in those same Missourians’ back yards. Once away from large towns, we understood what it means to have a star-filled sky. At night, the flashes of millions of lightning bugs blanketed the dark woods, giving them depth and holding us in awe.

On July 4, we camped on what seemed to be a lonely sandbar at the mouth of Little Boeuf Creek. Soon, however, we found that sand spit peopled from shore throughout the day and night. A brother and sister from Pacific, now in their 40s, came to dig cottonwood saplings for their yards from that spot. Their father had taken them out often out on the river on a little boat ramp now under the sand. They reported that local lore around New Haven and the now-abandoned steamboat port of Dundee held that Corps of Discovery member and America’s first mountain man John Colter is buried just at the top of the point, a notion we had no reason to doubt since Colter’s final resting place is unknown.

There also, a group of young adults from Washington, just down stream from that sandbar, who came to shoot off fireworks. They were a lovely bunch, rowdy and boisterous in an animated and carefree sort of way. They laughed and screamed, giggled and joked as they blew holes in the water with misfiring mortars and threw bottlerockets so they could see the flash below the water’s surface.

As their fireworks were on their way to becoming ash, we talked to Nick, a melancholy and good-natured 18 year old. He was a creative sort, and ambitious, but he was determined not to leave Washington and return educated, unhappy, and arrogant as he had seen so many before. Nick had a scholarship to the local community college, where he wanted to study computer science. What happened after that, he said he’d see.

In the meantime, these were his friends, and he liked them and wanted to be a part of them. As he was speaking, his compatriots, loosed of their clothes, swam in the river, their reflections dark orbs on the starry water. Naked water nymphs appeared near the Tiki torch burning on the bank. I could only think that people reach perfection in dim light.

Nearing the confluence

An old river pal, John Biondo and his hound Holly, at the Missouri Department of Conservation fishing access at Weldon Spring. The access is just across the river from the immense Howell Island, where John lives in the bottoms of unincorporated Chesterfield, MO. (photo by Patrick Dobson)

As we entered our last days on the river, we slowed down. Whatever hurry we had put into the trip, to compensate for rain and wind layovers, wasn’t needed. The weather, though at times Missouri-jungle hot, was gentle. Even days of over 100 degrees pass smoothly and without complaint; the breeze off the river’s surface made the canoe quite a bit more pleasant than standing on shore.

We fought to put off the inevitable. We met friends at Weldon Spring who boated up from Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to float back down with us. My good friend John Biondo, a riverman of the most pure sort (a man who uses a canoe to hunt and fish upstream and down) came to spend the evening with us. I first met John in 1995 in Omaha. Like me, he was canoeing the river from Montana, and we decided to travel together. We have been friends ever since, and it was good to see him again.

John and my other friends, however, were distractions from a growing melancholy. I had begun to feel the river running through me. All my dreams after the first few nights had been of it or on it. And though Gary was ready to go home — not eager, just ready — I wished there was more river. It’s happened to me before, that I want to see my wife and child, want them even to spend some time with me in this Garden alive with the smells of water and all that green Missouri produces in the spring and summer. I wanted them to experience this Paradise, but I don’t want to go home. Being attached to the land, unable to float free — as Huck does after his brief tenure with Tom’s aunt — becomes inimical to happiness.

In the end, that lightness of separation from land and all its cares come with a canoe. It is only a fleeting second between pushing off. And you have to be mindful not to miss it. It is a sort of anticipation of the time, the river takes hold of the canoe, swings it into its grasp and takes control. But then comes a far more lasting and indelible feeling — that of the river leading on, pulling ever forward, never resting yet putting those who seek it at ease. There are no problems on the river. Just mornings and evenings of sunfire pink and blue-purple, days of flowing blue and green.

The end…but not really

From my own experience and in watching others, I think I can say with certainty that a boat with a motor distances passengers from reaching into that space between the land and the water. Swimmers may comprehend it, but for the most part, they are constrained by their own bodies. The sensations of fear, temperature and water against the skin distract them from that moment of being freed of land and given to water.

And that canoe becomes part of the river. Being away from the river — reattached to land — that is hard. Some never recover from it but wouldn’t trade that for all the money in the Missouri Lottery.

Sitting now on my front porch, the sun throws shadows from the sugar maple, and it sets me to remembering what the sun did to the river at that time of the day. I will never see a sunset but wonder how that would have looked on the water, how the light plays and fades among the trees and along lazy tributaries.

The river has reminded me again I own too many things, have too many commitments that do not matter. It has shown me again that life is too short to waste with what Walt Whitman called, “indoor complaints.”

I take solace in the fact that river journeys are never through.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at patrickdobson@earthlink.net.



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