Experience is the Best Teacher

The first woman—and American—to paddle the entire Missouri-Mississippi River complex shares lessons learned from her historic solo source-to-sea



What began last April as the first of a two-part journey down the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico turned out to be a 223-day, one-shot source-to-sea expedition down the Missouri-Mississippi River system, the fourth longest in the world. The magnitude of this seven and half-month adventure can be difficult to comprehend, let alone plan and prepare for. Suffice it to say that experience is the best teacher. From my experiences on the journey, I learned a few things I could not prepare for in advance. Therefore, I would like to share some of my new wisdom gained.

Hope for the best but plan for the worst sounds simple enough, but the former is heeded more often than the latter. My partner, Norm Miller, and I planned on an easy six-hour, seven-mile ski in and out of Hell Roaring Canyon after reaching the river's source, only to find ourselves confronted with terrain traps, such as drop-off ridges and avalanche slopes, which necessitated an unexpected overnight stay. We were left wanting for firestarter, sleeping bags, food and, in turn, sleep. Fortunately, our support crew slipped a PBR in our pack for celebration or, as we viewed it, carbs. The beer was consumed for the latter reason, with pleasure, of course.

Replacing fear with a mental checklist was born out of necessity. Being terrified can waste precious energy and can be detrimental if you freeze up. The mountainous wilderness surrounding Fort Peck Lake cried 'cougar country' to my mind, and once zipped up in my tent on my second night there, the bewildering noise of an animal outside prompted not a sense of terror but rather a series of mental checks. Calmly, I began to locate my tools for survival, such as bear spray, whistle, machete, buck knife and, a bottle of … Advil? Yes, I had just swallowed four Advil after a strenuous paddling day and with bottle still in hand I began shaking it violently hoping the animal outside would become startled at the unusual sound and leave. Luckily, the animal did stomp away, most likely an antelope, and not a cougar. Whew!

Keep your eyes on the goal but your thoughts in the moment. This can be difficult when feelings of guilt arise due to a lack of aggressive paddling. Many long-distance paddlers have an inherent need to paddle 10- to 12-hour days and 50-mile minimums, and when the expedition is over they have regrets for not taking time to absorb the total experience. My mornings were precious to me and I rarely got started before 9 or 10 am. Photographing sunrises, drinking coffee, and morning strolls are all good means to embracing 'rivertime' and this new way of life. I have no regrets.

Giving equals receiving, and graciously accepting the good will of others does not always come naturally, can even be awkward, but is certainly essential.  Thoughts as to whether my efforts actually warranted such devotion arose numerous times. However, the kind and generous hearts of people that line the river from Montana to Louisiana were abundant, and support also poured in by way of the Internet and social media. Humbly respecting and being grateful for the giving of others resulted in my passion to share my journey by way of daily Facebook posts and stunning photography. The journey became coined "The People's Expedition." We had created a win-win situation.

Making friends and building family in the world of paddling is the natural outcome for an expedition such as LoveYourBigMuddy. The platform provided by this journey amplified an awareness of our nation's rivers, and strengthened the network of our nation's paddling communities. Once a relationship grows into a friendship and devotion builds, in our communities and for our rivers, then we can collectively plan and prepare for the future health and survival of our waterways. Sharing knowledge and experiences and educating the next generation of paddlers is just the beginning, and the beginning is already underway. And with that, we'll see you on the river (SYOTR)!