This weekend Nick and I spent Saturday and Sunday out on the river. We met with loose association of people who call themselves the Missouri River Paddlers. Many of the people–about 40 or so–have undertaken their own Missouri River journeys, many more astounding than mine. We gathered Friday night in Jefferson City. One of the group, an old river hand by the name of Joe Wilson, provided a full-on fish fry for everyone. Nick and I don’t eat fish, but between beans, coleslaw, potato salad, and fried potatoes, we had a good feed.
We were such a big group that the city of Jefferson City provided firewood. Members of the city council came down to the landing and took their pictures with groups of paddlers. The city even groomed the sand up around the bank. The local water company had big coolers there and everyone got a water bottle. These may not seem like big things, but to a bunch of river bums used to procuring everything on their own, it was quite a treat.
Evening progressed and we sat around the campfire telling stories. Someone produced a guitar. Since the drinkers were at it, Nick and I hit the rack at a decent hour and slept well all night under a full moon.
The river access at Jefferson City is amazing compared to what we have here in Kansas City. A wide, sandy beach leads down to the river. The park sits under giant cottonwoods and there was plenty of room for the twenty or so tents that the paddlers put up for the night. Kansas City’s access is nothing but a boat ramp, parking, and a few worn out picnic tables. It’s sad compared to what we experienced in Jefferson City, and then, on Saturday night, in the tiny town of Chamois. But more on that in a minute.
Saturday morning, we rose at a decent hour, not too early, and commenced our labors. Tent down and things packed, we loaded our boat and were with the first flight of people leaving the landing. The day was warm but not hot. A few puffy clouds poofed around the sky. The section of the river we traveled is known as the Rhineland, because the region reminded the German immigrants who settled there of their homeland. Having once lived on the Rhein, I have to say that the comparison is not misplaced. The forested hills rise from the banks to several hundred feet. The river runs wide and slow, often beneath limestone bluffs.
Despite the size of the river, which scares most people, Nick never once was anxious. I think this is because he trusts me and knows that I wouldn’t put him in danger. Of course, canoeing the river has risks—rock dikes, buoys, downed trees, etc. There’s always a possibility of tipping over if one of us leans too far over one way or the other. But none of these mattered to the boy, who never imagined anything could go wrong. By the middle of the day, Nick felt comfortable enough in the canoe that he was standing from time to time to adjust his pants. He didn’t think anything of it. I just had to caution him not to jerk around or move too quickly.
One of the things I never look forward to on a river trip is a headwind. But this time, the wind treated us well, mustering only a light breeze all day. It was perfect for paddling the 27 miles into Chamois, where the group came together again. We spent part of our day chatting with a guy in a kayak, who happened to be a cop in Hermann, our ultimate destination. I asked him all kinds of questions about his work and how it was to be a cop in a small town. Nick paddled from time to time, but for the most part, just enjoyed himself at the head of the boat.
The cop, Nick, and I stopped for lunch on a sandy beach and were soon joined by five or six other people. Nick played in the water, even took a dip in the stream. I kept an anxious eye on him since we were on the current side of the river and who knew how quickly the bank dropped off. He’s a good kid, though, and kept his life jacket on and stayed close into the boats. While everyone chatted, Nick skipped rocks into the sun. I lay back in the hot sand and enjoyed the heat of the sun on my face.
After about an hour, Nick and I got underway again. It’s amazing just how big that river is. We could see some of our mates in the distance, but only as little dots on the expanse of the stream. We spent the rest of the afternoon alone, talking now and again, but mostly quiet. It was a relaxing float.
We pulled into Chamois about 5 p.m. It is a town of about 300. But they have a fantastic riverfront park. They even have water and electricity for several dedicated camping spots. Across the way from the boat ramp, stood a modern bathroom with showers! The mayor of the town came down and turned everything on for us. He shook everyone’s hand and welcomed us to his little burg. It just amazed me that the town could put together what for a river traveler is something of a luxury when my city can’t put together a decent riverfront park.
The evening was beautiful. Nick and I ate and then just sat around the fire of one of our companions, whose fire brought in others like moths to a flame. Others sat around other fires and talked deep into the night. Morning came all too early. If it were up to me, we would have slept until well into the day. But some of us were up before dawn and their talking rousted the rest of us.
A wind had come up and everyone was talking about what it might hold for us that day on the river. Some people even bailed out on the trip for fear of the wind. But since we only had 20 miles to Hermann, I wasn’t much worried about it. To me, the wind is more of an irritant than a reason to stay off the river. Nick and I were on the water about 8 a.m. or so. The wind pushed us along and wasn’t nearly as strong on the river as it seemed to us on the land. We were also sheltered from the worst of it by the steep hills of that region.
When Nick and I were alone, we noticed the nature and, at one point, spent a good deal of time looking up at a bald eagle perched in a cottonwood on the bank. I’ve seen them before, but never so close.
We spent a good deal of the morning floating along with one of the group, a guy by the name of Tom. He had kayaked from Montana to the Gulf of Mexico and we had plenty to relate to each other just in that experience. I also appreciated that Tom tried to bring Nick into the conversation from time to time.
The wind did get us a couple of times that day. While it stayed mostly at our backs, we got into it coming around a couple of bends. The problem we face is that when our boat is fully loaded, it isn’t balanced. I pack most of the gear forward, but compared to others, Nick and I don’t carry much more than what we need for a night in a tent. With the gear and Nicholas up front, my fat ass lowered the back of the boat and had Nick’s end sticking a little into the air. The wind gets a hold of that and spins us around, making control of the canoe difficult. When we had a headwind, I cajoled Nick into putting some power into his strokes and we did just fine. There were a couple of times he decided he was too tired and put up his paddle. But I told him that I needed him for a couple more minutes, or I would say that we needed to get to some point down the river and then he could rest. When we finally made it into Hermann, the end of our journey, he was pooped out.
Tom, Nick, and I walked up into town, which is right on the river, and had lunch at the Wurst House, a place specializing in bratwursts of various types. Nick’s a super picky eater and I was afraid it would be chips and pop for him. But the restaurant had a little kiosk where they let people sample their wares. I convinced Nick that he needed to try the sausages and pick one that he would like on a bun with mustard. I then walked away, as I find that letting him make up his mind without my watchful eye is much more successful than standing over him asking him questions. Sure enough, he picked one. I was just glad to see that he ate something substantial.
Back at the landing, we waited for our compatriots to come in. Singly and sometimes in groups of two or three the Missouri River paddlers came to shore. Our ride back to Jefferson City arrived about an hour after we did. Our return trip put us back home around 5 p.m. Nick declared the trip a complete success and I prided myself on being a good dad.
The only negative thing that came from out river trip was a sunburn on the tops of my feet. We had been careful to cover ourselves with sunscreen. But once in the boat, I took off my shoes and didn’t think much about it. They were good and fried by the end of the first day. I can tell you I was much more cautious the next.