American Amazon

Finding big-water wilds on the Missouri River

[In 2012, Mark Kalch completed a 117-day, 3,780-mile source-to-sea descent of the Missouri-Mississippi River system. Stay tuned to CKAWARDS.COM for Thursday’s 2013 Canoe & Kayak Awards, where Kalch goes head-to-head with Dominique Liboiron, who also paddled the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to the sea in 2012, for the Spirit of Adventure Award. Click HERE to read more about Kalch’s 2008, 153-day Amazon source-to-sea featured in our Amazon-themed June issue, which included stories of West Hansen’s 2012 Amazon Express source-to-sea, as well as Rocky Contos’s historic explorations of the river system’s headwaters. And read more about Janet Moreland HERE, and Scott Mestrezat HERE, two other adventures through-paddling on the Missouri River now.]

PHOTOS AND TEXT BY MARK KALCH

The rivers occupy entirely different continents, their people entirely different cultures, not to mention one freezes up over winter. But, days paddling on the Missouri River could well have come from another time and another place: the Amazon.

Paddling the world’s longest rivers is a drawn-out and, to be frank, an often boring process. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, paddle and repeat for months at a time. On the Amazon it was 24 hours a day, but you get the idea. The riverbanks slide past, occasionally at speed, but mostly at a languid pace. You have time to really explore and take note of your surroundings.

Besides sharing a similar hue of muddy brown, I would have never guessed the Missouri to take me back to time spent on the Amazon. Sometimes the moment lasted a matter of minutes. It could be a bend in the river at the right time of day or an explosion of dense green for a whole afternoon. Even the feeling of complete isolation could take one to the South American continent.

My 2012 solo source-to sea-descent of the Missouri-Mississippi River had begun high in the Centennial Mountains of Montana and took me slowly down to Three Forks, where the Missouri begins by name proper. Here and just upstream on the Jefferson River, the landscape is big. Big sky, big mountains. Drifting slowly by the Lewis and Clark Caverns, the wide, dry valley and high rocky escarpments reminded me of the upper Amazon, the rivers Apurimac, the Ene, the Tambo and surrounds. If not for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight cars clanging away alongside the riverbank, it may well have been.

Crossing Fort Peck Lake and the lakes Sacajawea and Oahe provided more time to reminisce of other big rivers paddled—not for the geography so much as for the stillness and solitude. On these huge bodies of water it feels as though you really are alone. Under the open blue sky, the breeze creating small white caps, nothing else exists. The lower Amazon is so wide as to be like a lake … no, bigger, a sea. Sweltering 100-degree days on its non-existent flow were akin to battling Fort Peck Lake in the height of summer.

Perhaps the longest stretch of Amazon in America was in the state of Missouri. Right below Kansas City and all the way to the river’s meeting with the mighty Mississippi, it seemed as though the riverside brush and trees was forcing its way into the water. Overhanging branches and vines completed the scene. The only thing missing were troops of howler monkeys. Cooper’s Landing sits on a great river bend near the town of Columbia, Mo. Sunsets here rival any the world over. With the river flowing slowly but strong and determined, at dusk, the Amazon returned. [Stay tuned for coverage and news from this week’s Missouri River 340]

Big rivers the world over share commonalities. Their relentless flow seems all but unstoppable. Their trunk and tributaries support thousands of communities and millions of people. It is no wonder that paddling each of their lengths  sparks a degree of familiarity.

— In 2014, Kalch plans to paddle the length of Russia’s Volga River, as part of his 7 Rivers 7 Continents project to complete source-to-sea paddling descents of the longest river on each continent, a distance of some 22,000 miles.

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  • Dale Sanders

    Way to go Mark.

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