Going Source to Sea on the Missouri-Mississippi

California's Paul Gamache tackles an American legend in a blistering 78 days

Spirit of Adventure Nominee

Gamache in Pierre, S.D., at the confluence of the Bad River and Missouri below Oahe Dam. Photo by Amanda Buzick.
Gamache in Pierre, S.D., at the confluence of the Bad River and Missouri below Oahe Dam. Photo by Amanda Buzick.

In late August, Paul Gamache wet the bow of his kayak in Gulf of Mexico tidewater, becoming the second American to paddle the entire length the country's longest watershed, the Missouri-Mississippi river system. The 3,900-mile epic took Gamache 78 days to complete. The 30-year-old, who parks his live-aboard van in Arcata, Calif., launched in Brower's Spring, Mont. The route to Louisiana was very much multi-discipline, including intense whitewater (what was likely the first descent of Hell Roaring Creek) and long, monotonous days battling eddy currents on the Mississippi. Gamache’s descent marks the fourth full descent of the river system in the last two years (in 2012, Australian paddler Mark Kalch completed the river from its “utmost source” in 117 days, followed in 2013 by Canadian Rod Wellington’s 256-day expedition as well as Janet Moreland Love Your Big Muddy expedition in 223 days).

Gamache split time between a LiquidLogic Stomper 90 creekboat and a Dagger Alchemy 14 touring kayak. His girlfriend Amanda Buzick provided shore support along the way. Gamache's secret weapons: A wing paddle and a pee bottle to maximize efficiency on marathon 12- to 15-hour days, plus a lightweight Hennessy Hammock for camping out at night.

We caught up with Gamache to learn more about his expedition.

Gamache just after completing what he believed to be the first known descent of Hell Roaring Creek. Photo by Amanda Buzick
Gamache just after completing what he believed to be the first known descent of Hell Roaring Creek. Photo by Amanda Buzick

CanoeKayak.com: As a whitewater paddler, what made you want to do a long-distance source-to-sea?
Paul Gamache: I've done several rivers from source to sea, including the Columbia, the 2012 Explore Six Rivers project (in Six Rivers National Forest) and the Sjoa in Norway. There's something extremely rewarding and educational about following the entire course of a river. Being a whitewater paddler allows me the ability to run rapids quickly and portage less often than a non-whitewater paddler. Being able to paddle from Montana to the Gulf of Mexico was a major draw of paddling the Missouri/Mississippi.

How did that dammed middle section of the upper Missouri treat you with all the huge flatwater reservoirs?
The dammed portion of the Missouri is extremely challenging both physically and mentally. With 17 dam portages and reservoirs as long as 237 miles, the flatwater combined with headwinds can be brutal. I was lucky on the Big Three (Fort Peck, Sakakawea, and Oahe) and didn't have to battle the headwinds too much.

Any close calls on the trip?
Lightning was by far the worst weather danger. I had some close calls paddling into St. Louis and then again on the Lower Mississippi. The locals along the river were extremely helpful. There is definitely some tension as you pass through the Sioux Reservation but fortunately nothing happened.

What surprised you most about the country's longest river?
I was surprised by how modified and manicured the lower Mississippi is. For some reason I thought it would be exciting, Huck Finn-style of paddling. Unfortunately, the lower Mississippi is not somewhere I would ever recommend recreational boating. The river channel is completely sculptured to expedite the passage of barges and container ships. If you aren't in the shipping lane you are paddling against the eddies formed by the enormous wing dams.

Any ecological takeaways with seeing so much of the country river-side?
I was really disappointed by the amount of beverage containers and other trash floating down the lower Missouri and Mississippi. It's really bad out there. I collected a lot of plastic water bottles, cans, cups, and so on without even really trying. It's all floating down the river heading to the Gulf. The other thing that really surprised me was seeing the river change from a pristine mountain stream to a farming waste bin. You can actually see the fertilizers and chemicals these farms are using change the color and smell of the river.

What’s next?
I'm definitely going to have to work for awhile to pay off this trip but I am looking forward to organizing the Burnt Ranch Race in October, South Korea in December to visit family (and hopefully paddle some), and then a 26-day private trip with friends down the Grand Canyon in February.

Gamache, pictured with his girlfriend Amanda, who ran support for this source-to-sea expedition, with Reggie the dog. Photo by Robin-Connie Kalthoff
Gamache, pictured with his girlfriend Amanda, who ran support for this source-to-sea expedition, with Reggie the dog. Photo by Robin-Connie Kalthoff