By Lucas Will
What’s more intimidating, spending the next 5 months kayaking 3,900 miles from the headwaters of the Missouri River to the confluence of the Mississippi and onto the Gulf of Mexico, or arriving in a country for the first time of which your knowledge is based only on episodes of Seinfeld?
Both are true for Mark Kalch, an Australian-born paddler, as he prepares to travel the length of the longest river system in North America.
The 34 year-old is attempting the second river of his 7 Rivers 7 Continents project, in which he plans to paddle from source to sea on the longest rivers of each continent. In 2008, he along with Nathan Welch and Philip Swart rafted the 4,300 mile Amazon, highly debated with the Nile to be the world’s longest river.
As Kalch works his way down all 7 rivers, covering over 22,000 miles of water from the ferocious Yangtze River in Asia to the Onyx, a 25-mile long glacial flow in Antarctica,, he hopes to highlight the relationships shared between these rivers and the people that live along them.
A lifelong sea kayak and raft guide, Kalch was listed in Canoe & Kayak’s Ten Paddlers to Watch in 2012, a title he downplays. Based in London, we caught up with him this last weekend in the midst of packing gear, chatting with sponsors, and one last JiuJitsu session. He’s en route now.
Check out the video trailer from Kalch’s 2008 Amazon expedition below.
CanoeKayak.com:When did you have the idea for 7 Rivers 7 Continents and where did it come from?
Mark Kalch:We made our successful decent of the Amazon and we were quite stoked with that. On the river we had a lot of time though, obviously, and we were on this big 30-mile wide river with nothing else to do and your mind starts to wander a bit, and I had the idea of coming up with a multi-year project, something that has a continuing theme throughout the whole thing. I think it was actually my girlfriend who came up with the idea about trying to paddle the longest river on each continent.
Tell us more about why you are doing this project and what you hope happens as a result of it.
The only reason why I did the Amazon was for an adventure, but after meeting all these amazing people and going through these amazing environments by river, you start to think a little bit. With this project, I want the journeys to be more than just an adventure—which is fine, I don’t think expeditions or big journeys need a better reason than that— but because there is so much more to take from it. I want to show people how rivers connect with human populations. For my U.S. paddle I’ve teamed up with American Rivers, and for the project as a whole I’ve teamed up with International Rivers, because my main message is about rivers and their influence on people, and I’m trying to get that story out there. These big rivers have influenced where people live, how civilizations have developed, and I think that’s pretty amazing.
Do you have an order of how you’re going to tick the rivers off?
Not really, again it sort of comes down to logistics and organization. Doing the Missouri/Mississippi now made sense in that I could do it by myself. It’s the fourth longest river in the world so I thought if I can do that then I’ve done the longest in North and South America and that sets me up pretty nicely in terms of if I want to get people to listen to the stories that I’m hoping to get out of this. And then after this one, you know, depending on a successful descent, I think I would like to do the Yangtze next. And then maybe I’ll have a look at the Nile. I’m a bit scared of the Nile, to be fair. All I think about is crocs and hippos, and guns, to be honest. But I’ve got some good contacts there and some really experienced guys. I’m happy to do the smaller ones, like the Volga and Murray-Darling at slightly later dates, because they don’t take a hell of a lot of logistics or take as much time.
What are you paddling?
On the Amazon we used a whitewater, 13-foot raft, and we kept that boat from where we put in until we reached the ocean. When the river gets 50km wide and you can’t see the other side it’s not like at the end of they day you can pull over and camp, so we just slept on the raft. With the Missouri/Mississippi I’m paddling a 17ft sea kayak because I can, at the end of the day, just pull over and camp. As well as that, it’s quite good through the water. You can imagine a whitewater boat on flat water, it doesn’t move too quickly. On the Yangtze and the Nile I’ll probably try to make a bit effort in terms of logistics on the upper sections using whitewater kayaks or rafts and then on the lower section swap over to something with a bit more speed, otherwise we’ll just be there forever.
So you did the Amazon in 2008, your second river now in 2012. How long are you thinking it will take to finish all seven rivers?
If I managed to finish the entire project within the next 8-10 years, I would be very happy. I’ve got a son who’s two years old and a daughter who’s five months old, and for the last two weeks, besides packing gear and getting everything ready, 90 percent of the time my mind has been on them. The hardest thing for me is, at least at this stage, is I’m about to leave my kids and girlfriend, and I just think about them. It’s going to be interesting over the next few years as I try to get these rivers done how I cope with being away from them.
Are you going to paddle the rest of the rivers solo?
I’m doing the Missouri/Mississippi by myself, because of the nature of the river. But when it comes to, for example the Nile and the Yangtze, I’m pretty confident that I’m not going to do the entirety of those rivers by myself. I wouldn’t really fancy putting myself against the upper Nile, but once the whitewater finishes, these rivers—and I don’t want to dismiss them— it can get a little bit boring when you’re paddling along and it’s the exact same scenery.
What are you expecting on the Missouri and Mississippi?
It’s much more developed as a whole so there’s going to be people about, which is sort of a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because a big part of why I want to go there is to see how they’re influenced by the river and how they influence the river itself. As well as that, more people can mean more hassles. Until you go somewhere you never really know for sure. To be fair, I’ve never been to the US so that’s also going to be a big adventure for me.
Where are you putting in and how are you getting there?
I leave on Tuesday for Seattle and I’m going to get a greyhound bus to Bozeman and get myself sorted out for a couple of days. The definition of source for the Missouri that I’ve used, which is used by National Geographic and the US Geological Survey, is Brower’s Spring, which is a fair way back up in the mountains right in the bottom SE corner of Montana. So that’s where I have to start and I think that’s about 2,400 meters. I was just told that they are due for a big snowstorm so there might be a fair bit of snow around, which is a bit of a worry because for me to start the trip I have to get to the source to follow the water from there and I’ll put in as soon as I can below that point. But until I can put in I’ll just be on foot. Wandering around at two and a half thousand meters with a lot of loose snow is not something that I’m really keen on.I was put in touch with the chap who owns an area of private land that I’ve got to cross to get his permission and he was more than happy for me to do it, and he said hopefully he or his son can come to the source and do that first little bit with me, which if they can, I’ll be a happy man because avalanche and bears is not something that I’ve had a lot of experience with.