Ennui and lack of enthusiasm conquered the last several months, extending now to years, of my life. I wanted a way out, a way to see that, in fact, I’m a lucky guy with a decent home, family, and work. But it didn’t happen. I constantly got up in the morning looking forward to the afternoon nap. I wanted the spark back. I didn’t want everything to be a chore. Meanwhile, I sat at my computer and bemoan the work I’m not getting done. I do a lot of navel gazing. Every day presented an existential crisis.
That’s why, all summer, I looked forward to and dreaded our trip on the Missouri River. From my perspective as a depressed, lackadaisical subject of life’s stiffer breezes, I knew it meant work. The tedium of packing and unpacking every day seemed labors that would really take it out of me. But I would have to do them, not only to get downstream but to show my son a good time and arrive home safely. I knew that once on the river, my worries and lack of energy would disappear.
Sitting at Rulo the day the wind shut us down, I realized once again the river is large and I am small. The fear of all that water overtook me. I paced nervously and was distracted at reading and writing. Nick entertained himself down at the bank and I thought of disaster.
The morning we took off from Rulo, my mind shifted. The worry left, the listless boredom that plagues me disappeared. I thought of the work ahead to get on the water. The whole of it felt a chore. I remembered that if I do one thing, then another, the day moves from sleep to river without any disturbance.
We woke easy that morning. Nick wanted to sleep longer and I let him. Steve got up just after I did. Our things were strewn around the site as if a bomb had exploded. Everything has a place in those dry bags, and getting one thing out means that it all has to come out.
But one thing at a time. I fired up the stove for coffee. Steve set about the meticulous work of packing his innumerable dry bags and packages to stow in his kayak. Nick emerged from the tent about twenty minutes later. As I heated water for breakfast of instant oatmeal, I asked Nick to roll up our mattresses and stuff the sleeping bags into their sacks.
Steve and I renewed our efforts to get to know one another, as I put out pots for the hot water and oatmeal. When Nick and I had eaten, we started to pack. Sleeping things, towels, and extra shoes went into one dry bag. When Nick had packed up his clothes, we put our rucksacks in the other dry bag with our extra clothes—we had brought sweatshirts and long pants, just in case—books, and notebooks. Both of them sealed, I walked them down the boat ramp. We packed our cooking things after we washed them into the utility box, which contains everything from insect repellent to maps to the granola bars we would eat that day.
Once we had our things down by the river, Nick and I carried our boat down the ramp and set it partially in the water. The river was comfortably cool on my feet. I took a minute and considered the river. Down here, on the water, the river lost its frightening aspect. We would spend the day out there. This would be our home.
Packing the canoe took just a couple of minutes. I had thought about how to balance the canoe as I packed our gear. Nick is a skinny kid. I weigh 216 pounds, about twice what he does. The weight of all our stuff would have to sit forward, behind Nick, if we were to ride level and prevent those headwinds from turning us about like a weather vane. I put in the boxes behind Nick’s seat, and the dry bags behind him. The utility box, a plastic tote, would sit in front of me. The eighty pounds of water we had in two five gallon collapsible containers would ride up front behind Nick.
Nick and I donned our PFDs, took up our paddles, and I pushed the boat in the water. After we climbed in, we pushed the boat out into the current. The world in which we found ourselves, snapped into focus. We were on the river. I was suddenly calm. We would get there.
And where was “there”? The thing I was looking for may be the there. We were on the cusp of forming a milestone in Nick’s life, his first long-term contact with the river, a kid growing into an adult. It was all there. I wished for myself peace. Enlightenment, maybe? A place where I can sit with myself at home and not feel I need distraction?
My life doesn’t have much great in it because I don’t let it. I fill it with television. Naps, which have lately been noisy affairs full with the sting of conscience. What do I need to do? Who do I have to E-mail? What has my life come to? There’s a leak in the basement. The back yard’s a mess? What if it rains too much and causes the retaining wall to fall in on itself again? I have a hundred questions with no answers, a thousand scenarios in which I fail.
A breeze lifted the vegetal and green smells off the river. I took a deep breath and looked back to see how Steve was getting along. I dug the paddle into the water and felt the river in my hands again. I was sure of myself. I knew this part. Whatever may happen, I was certain I would be all right at this.
The eleven miles between Rulo and White Cloud went by swiftly. We met Steve at the boat ramp. A park spread out from the ramp in both directions. At one end stood a roofed kiosk with formal panels that told of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The local bass fishing club built a fish cleaning station, a covered patio with tables and spigots, from which large chutes carried fish guts back out into the river.
The place was open and friendly. Several of the locals stopped in to see what was up. They had called one another to say that travelers were in. Steve hooked his phone into the electrical box provided at the park. He set up an easel and took out his watercolors. After a good break with water and granola bars, Nick and I set back on the river.
We decided to meet Steve at Payne’s Landing, a Missouri Department of Conservation boat access. It was a barren place. No trees, just a boat ramp and gravel lot. We set up our camp chairs on the ramp by the water. I read and Nick threw rocks while we waited for Steve, who came in about an hour after we arrived.
After five or six miles on top of the 22 we paddled to Payne’s Landing, we started to look for camping spots. Day was clear and hot. The river was calm, the winds of the day before just a memory. The river led us along the way. We wound around long bends in the river, following the Coast Guard daybeacons that indicated where the main channel ran.
Nick sat and watched the river while I paddled. Every now and then, he picked up his paddle and worked it a while. For long periods, I set the paddle aside and just floated. In the late afternoon, the cicadas buzzed in the cottonwoods and crickets brought the shores alive with sound. Swallows dodged and dove before us, sometimes skimming the water. There’s something good about sitting in the canoe baking in the sun, the smell of sunscreen lofting up beneath a floppy hat. We watched the banks go by.
Sandbars we hoped to find were nonexistent. Everywhere the river carved out the silty banks behind the control structures—wing dikes and revetment—in large amphitheaters. Formerly, these would have offered us broad sandbars on which to camp. But the 2011 flood scoured out all the sand and the river had yet had time to build new ones.
In the late afternoon, Steve spotted a level area of sand behind the bank revetment on the current side of the stream. He pulled in and hailed us. We paddled up and stopped at the side of the bank. His boat is made of durable plastic. Kevlar and hardened gelcoat make up my boat. The rocks didn’t look inviting to me and I feared punctures in the gelcoat. The place was big enough, really, for only one camper. We told Steve we would head downstream a couple of mile to the MDC boat ramp at Nodaway Island, where Steve said he’d meet us in the morning.
We paddled further, our eyes sharp for a good bit of sand where we could overnight. Nothing, except one beautiful spit where a couple of families played and swam. Cabins and single-wides lined the banks of a small stream that met the river there. We thought it was private land and passed it up. We found out later, to our chagrin, that the spot belonged to the MDC and would have made a perfect overnight.
Our hope for a good place to rest fell flat at Nodaway Island. It was another boat ramp and gravel lot, with the addition of a pit toilet without a roof. Nick and I were through, however, having done 37 miles from Rulo. The day was running long. We decided to stay instead of hoping for a good camp spot farther along. We carried our things to the top of the boat ramp, where we found a small lot of mown grass up against some cottonwoods that were obviously on private land.
We set up our chairs and watched people come and go at the ramp. One couple, a father and daughter, asked after us, where we were going and how long we wanted to take to get there. They put a smart motorboat into the water and said they were just going out to check their lines. And that’s all they seemed to do. They were back off the river twenty minutes after they left.
People at the boat ramp were friendly. People came up and asked us about out trip. Nick went down to the bank to throw rocks. An Amish family showed up in a minivan. Their companion, obviously not Amish, towed their small boat behind. The man, who started a conversation with us said that the family was going out on the water for six days. Two men in plain clothes with suspenders and old-timey hats got in the boat. A couple of women in bonnets and long dresses waited at the top of the ramp. It took a long time to get the men in the water and ready to go out on the river. The women and a few children waited until they were away before they climbed back into their minivan and drove out of the lot in a cloud of dust.
The shade of the cottonwoods enveloped me as I listened to Nick at the riverside. He amazed me. He had entertained himself in Rulo while we waited for the wind to let up and then when we were waiting for Steve. He sat down to read a book on his phone as long as it pleased him (which for him can be a long time). He skipped rocks and tossed them as far as he could. He rolled big rocks down the revetment and into the water. Then, when that tired him, he lobbed big ones in just to see how high he could get a splash.
Crashes and clunks of rocks echoed up off the river. One of the people who struck up a conversation told me that he’d been kicked out of the access for putting up a tent. I’ve found that authorities are forgiving when you come in off the river in a canoe or kayak. I only ever heard of one instance when police forced a paddler out of a park in the middle of the night, and that was in Parkville, a burg well known to be averse to paddlers. In all my years of paddling, I have never been put out of a conservation area access in my canoe.
I was waiting for sunset or the arrival of a game warden or sunset to put up the tent. Authorities like to be asked first, and I didn’t want to run the risk of having to put back on the river late in the day. When the sun set, Nick came up from the bank, where he had been playing for hours. We set up the tent, made dinner, and soon after dark were in bed.
I lie on the mattress and listened to Nick fall asleep. I could hear owls hooting in the night, and somewhere, coyotes started yipping. How far away my existential crises and petty worries seemed. All those fears of the river evaporated as soon as we were on the river and had not bothered me all day. Looking back, they seemed all puff and nonsense.
Nothing seemed out of place here. I found myself profoundly happy. Everything was perfect. Morning arrived just a blink of dreamless sleep later.