Bikes, Boats and Big Rivers

Adventurers and outdoor educators reflect on six months on America’s longest river system

For six months last year, long-distance cyclists and first-time canoeists Nia Thomas and Sara Dykman teamed up with friends Aaron Viducich and Matt Titre to complete a 13-state, 3,500-mile source to sea journey on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The On the River expedition started from the Triple Divide near the Canadian border and ended in the Louisiana bayou. Besides lots of adventures on the river (Titre was the lone experienced canoeist of the bunch), the expedition stopped in river towns along the way to deliver educational programs at schools.

We caught up with Thomas to learn more about the experience, which recently earned them a nomination for the 2016 Paddle with Purpose Award (Click HERE to vote for all the 2016 Canoe & Kayak Awards).

CanoeKayak.com: Where did you get the idea for this trip?
Nia Thomas: As always, this trip started with an idea and a desire to explore and see the world from a different perspective. For Sara and I, the idea of paddling the Missouri and Mississippi river from source to sea originated on our Latin American bike tour in 2013-14. A year in the saddle means a lot of time to think, and part of that time was spent dreaming up our next adventures. I liked the idea from the outset: Leaving roads and (for the most part) people behind, letting the flow of the water decide your route and gaining a whole new perception on a country. (Coming from the UK where our longest river is 220 miles, the idea of paddling on the same body of water for six months was really appealing and exciting). One thing we knew from the outset was that we wanted this to be an educational trip — not just an adventure. Growing up in Kansas City, Sara had experienced a lot of negative attitudes towards the Missouri River, so we set out to try and reconnect the children to the river, and to show that anyone is capable of having an adventure!

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How did the route take shape?
We decided that Triple Divide Peak would be our starting point. This was for two main reasons: We’d both previously worked in Glacier National Park and this magnificent landscape has a special place in our hearts, and Triple Divide Peak is geographically very cool! The meeting of the Continental and Laurentian divides mean that from the top of this mountain you can look into three watersheds, and so depending on which drops of melting snow you follow you could end up in the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean or Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean.

Tell us about your team.
Sara and myself were the first two on board. But we decided very quickly that paddling a double canoe for six months would be akin to riding a tandem bike for six months…that might not end well. So we decided finding two other paddlers would be a good idea, not just for our sanity but also for safety in case of a capsize. Sara knew Aaron from college at Humboldt State and had ridden bikes together a lot. At this point, between the three of us we had around three days of canoeing experience. Matt was another college friend of Sara’s, and a seasoned whitewater paddler. He was the natural choice for the fourth seat. We all owe our J-strokes to him.

What the trip teach you about these big, iconic American rivers?
I think the main thing we learned about the Missouri and Mississippi is how beautiful they are. There were so many truly incredible places along our journey, not to mention the awesome wildlife, and often we were the only people for miles around. These rivers are wild and remote and, on the whole, under-appreciated.

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How about the canoeing? What was that like for a newbie?
The first thing we had to learn was how to pack four bikes into two canoes, and how to tow 18.5-foot Clipper Mackenzie canoes by bike. We wanted to be self-sufficient on this trip, and the bikes meant that we could get to schools, go and buy groceries and portage around dams without having to organize transport.

I think some of our steepest learning curves on the Missouri were on the reservoirs. It was there we discovered to sail by lashing our two canoes together and throwing up a tarp—and also how hard flatwater paddling can be. We had some very strong headwinds and some pretty tight deadlines as we had school visits booked downstream. On Sakakawea and Oahe in particular, it felt like a constant battle to get there on time. I’m glad to say that we were never late for a school visit!

How was the Mississippi different from the Missouri?
I had no expectations of what the Mississippi river would be like, other than wide. I was delighted that despite its size and barge traffic, it was wild and remote, with plentiful sandy island camping options and endless supplies of driftwood. We carried a Dutch oven with us so biscuits, cinnamon buns, cornbread and pumpkin pie became regular evening treats. The navigation on the Mississippi was certainly harder. Learning to negotiate towboats pushing up to 49 barges kept you on your toes.

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How did the school groups respond to your message?
The kids we met along the way were amazing. We worked with around 1,500 kids at 15 schools by the time we reached the ocean, and at most of those schools we took the kids on a field trip to the river (as well as giving presentations), which was awesome. To get to see them exploring and discovering in the riparian zone was magical, over the course of a couple of hours even the most unenthused kids were getting sucked in. The questions were pretty memorable too, some were incredibly insightful and others completely off the wall. My favorite (and most popular) is still "Where do you go to the bathroom?!"

Some kids enjoyed fishing or hunting and had been on the river before, but for others, especially in the inner-city schools (like in St. Louis) it was their first time down to the river. It was pretty special to be a part of that. We talked about becoming stewards of the river, and how everyone along the Missouri-Mississippi is connected by the water. They made a promise to the river to help look after it and got to sign our canoes and send that promise, along with their names to the ocean. I’ll be forever grateful to the teachers who could see the benefit of the project and invited four (sometimes smelly) canoeists into their classrooms, and organized buses and chaperones so that their kids could be a part of the adventure with us. On the really long, hard days of paddling, it was often the schools that kept us going, and gave us that extra energy to push on.

What do you miss about the trip?
I miss waking up in a new spot every day, the sound of the river flowing by in the night, the simplicity of getting up every morning and paddling, and the excitement not knowing what’s around the bend. To get to travel a river from its mountain to start, right down to the ocean is an incredible experience and a privilege. But luckily for us there’s always another adventure out there, Sara is preparing to bike the monarch butterfly migration next spring for "ButterBike" and I’m hoping to take a month out of my Ph.D. to join her in Mexico. As for getting back on the water, well Triple Divide Peak has two other faces, and thus two other watersheds to explore.

— Read here about all of Nia Thomas and Sara Dykman's projects

— Read about 82-year-old adventurer and "river angel" Dale Sanders' 2015 adventures on the Mississippi River.