A Q&A with Lisa Pugh of the Source of Confidence Expedition

From May to November 2016, two women paddled down the Missouri-Mississippi river system from source to sea

Photo by Viki Carpenter
Photo by Viki Carpenter

"If you have lost faith in humanity, paddle a river." – Alyce Kuenzli

I caught up with Lisa Pugh four days after she and Alyce Kuenzli reached the Gulf of Mexico, becoming the first all-female team to canoe the fourth longest river system in the world — the Missouri-Mississippi. Lisa was beaming with what can only be described as a post-expedition glow. Slightly sleep-deprived yet still riding the high from her recent accomplishment, she answered a few questions and shared their story.

The two friends set out on foot to the source of the Missouri River in southwest Montana—Brower's Spring—on May 11. While they hiked and paddled, their third team-member, Viki Carpenter, performed all the vital tasks of a one-woman support crew—delivering resupplies, building their website, and filming. Source of Confidence is more than a typical expedition; it is also an organization founded by these three women with the mission to support women, girls and anyone who identifies as female in navigating their own paths to confidence.

Photo by Alyce Kuenzli
Photo by Alyce Kuenzli

CanoeKayak.com: How did you and Alyce meet?
Lisa Pugh: We met at VOBS (Voyageur Outward Bound School near Ely, Minnesota) in 2012. We were both instructors. We've been close friends for four years.

Tell me about the expedition.
I think the trip brought us through three distinct parts of the country:
1. Wilderness: Where we were totally self-reliant.
2. Rural: Where we weren't in wilderness anymore, but weren’t necessarily around people. In rural sections, access to clean water and food was tough and we had to navigate past things like private property and barbed wire.
3. Urban: Where we paddled through big cities with lots of people. Here we were often reliant on other people for getting food and clean water.

Transition was constant. We were in and out of towns. The river changed. Weather was variable, wildlife changed, terrain varied. At times it was a challenge to find places to camp. We got comfortable with transition. We got comfortable talking to anyone. We learned to accept generosity.

Photo by Lisa Pugh
Photo by Lisa Pugh

What were the major milestones for you?

Again, I’d split my answer up into a list.
1. Hiking to the source at Brower's Spring
2. Putting the canoe in at Clark Canyon Reservoir
3. Paddling all the reservoirs on the upper Missouri
4. Reaching the confluence with the Mississippi
5. Finishing in the Gulf of Mexico

All told you paddled almost 4,000 miles. What was the most difficult part of the trip?
The middle of the expedition in the Great Plains was the hardest part. We experienced some intense storms with 70 mph wind, torrential rain, and occasional hail. There was serious heat too. Tents are pathetic in the face of a Great Plains storm. There is nothing to stop the wind—nowhere to take shelter, nothing to hide under.

We had to make a lot of decisions about travel and our safety based on the wind. During this time, our inner landscape started to look like that outer landscape. It was harder to communicate and there was some tension. We each had a different threshold for what we were willing to paddle in. Then again, some of the big weather challenges brought us together.

Photo by Lisa Pugh
Photo by Lisa Pugh

What was the biggest surprise weather-wise or terrain-wise?
The wind—and how big an impact it had on our travels, especially on the reservoirs. We often had our ears glued to the weather radio, listening to the forecast for cues of impending doom. Each reservoir was effectively a big lake, with a big fetch. Winds from the south prevailed. We only had a tailwind a handful of times. I know because we had a sail that we only used about a dozen times in 200 days. The wind was one of the best teachers of surrender. There is no point to being mad at the wind. It is best to know there is nothing you can do about it; just accept that you'll paddle when it lets up.

The heat was a big challenge too. On the Great Plains, with no shade around, there is no escape from it except for swimming. Being from Minnesota, I'm not a heat person. We only experienced a couple weeks of fall in Missouri, but it was hot all the way down after that. I only put on shoes five times after spring in Montana.

How did your friendship fare?
Beginning with the intensive planning in April we started blending friendship and business. We realized that we had to set boundaries. We had to hold ourselves and each other accountable. For a while it got harder to communicate and that kind of shook our confidence. So we made a rule: our friendship comes first. We could have let these early tensions drive a wedge, but we chose to let this experience bring us together. Our mission trumped petty disagreement but that doesn't mean it didn't get messy at times. We learned to be intentional about communication and to let things go. Intention was the foundation to our success. Now we know each other really, really well.

Photo by Lisa Pugh
Photo by Lisa Pugh

Was there any point where you wanted to quit or thought you might not finish?
No. Not once. We met Janet Moreland, the first woman to paddle the Missouri-Mississippi (solo in a kayak in 2013), in St. Louis. She shared this mantra with us: decide, desire, details, in that order; and that really helped us. We had decided long before reaching the source that we would reach the sea. With that decision made, the desire to follow through never wavered, even in the peak of challenge. Also, we're both strong-willed, stubborn, and great at laughing and making misery fun.

What were the people like along the way?
We met a lot of fellow explorers along the way. People and the river are so interconnected. The river is a great unifying force. There are people living in Montana who know people in Missouri all because of the river. We paddled through pretty conservative parts of the country as liberals with a progressive mission. Different political viewpoints didn't matter because it was the river that unified. Kindness and generosity doesn't follow party lines.

We learned to ask for support—from Viki and from river angels (a loosely affiliated paddler support network) all along the way. Support is a cornerstone for building confidence. It ties to our mission of creating space for women to pursue building confidence.

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What was it like to paddle past Cannonball, North Dakota, knowing about the Standing Rock protests?
We were there in August, before the news of what was happening really started to travel. We paddled down Lake Oahe on the east side. The confluence of the Cannonball River is on the west side. We wanted to make the crossing to meet up with someone we knew over there, but the weather and our timeline didn't allow for the two-mile crossing. If we had known of the pipeline and pleas of Native people for support at the time, we would have reconsidered our call to paddle by.

There was lots of talk about the protest along the river—sharing of information and gathering of resources within the river community. I can't fathom what would happen if the pipeline were to be built and then it leaks. Many people depend on the river for their livelihoods—resorts, fishing, not to mention drinking water and the ancestral homelands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. To impact the river is to impact a lot of people near and far—a lot of people live downstream. It's a pretty barren place. The river gives life to the land. We're talking about the fourth largest river system in the entire world. We can't be careless with it.

What did you learn about building confidence?
Building confidence is an active process; it comes from doing. Taking action—taking positive risks–is key. It takes courage to move forward in the face of fear or doubt. We learned from failure—a lot. We celebrated success as much as possible.

Among the lessons learned were: Hang onto nuggets of joy and beauty. Roll with it when things don't go as planned. Be humble. Apologize, ask for forgiveness, and forgive. Confidence can come from many sources including people. If you feel confident, help someone who doesn't. If you don't feel confident, have the courage to ask for support. It's an amazing process of self-discovery and building community.

How do you think the fact that you are women affected your experience on the river?

Everything we were doing was influenced by the female lens, our lens, so it's hard to know what impact specifically being female had on the experience. We had a unique perspective on people and the river. We had a people-centered mission. People really invested in supporting us and our mission, maybe more so because we were females doing something uncommon. We were approachable, independent in many ways and vulnerable in others, and open to giving and receiving. These traits can cross gender lines. People might have been more concerned about our safety. Some questioned our skills and knowledge. Some seemed to have been emboldened to say something to us because we were female. People approached us with curiosity mostly, but sometimes judgment. We tried not to let it affect us; just kept doing our thing.

What's next?
This is just the tip of the iceberg for Source of Confidence. Viki is editing the documentary now. We plan to develop curriculum, give presentations and write a book. Alyce wants to paddle all five of the longest river systems in the world. The sky is the limit.

Tell me about reaching the Gulf of Mexico.
I never felt a higher high than reaching the Gulf. We took the South Pass. We pulled up on a sandbar and let the salty waves catch our bodies as we celebrated the victory. The motorboat we had contracted picked us up and suddenly we were traveling upstream at 45 mph—that was flying. We were the queens of the world in that moment. The smile didn't leave my face for two days. Alyce was more quiet, which is unusual for her. My parents, Alyce's mom, and Viki were all on the boat. We spent two days in New Orleans all together before heading home to Minnesota.

Source of Confidence by the numbers:
3,800 miles
14 states
200 days
3 women
Lisa Pugh, 29
Alyce Kuenzli, 30
Viki Carpenter, 27
Drifty the canoe, 6

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