When the first day finally came, even before my paddle touched the water, I looked across its glassy surface and felt as though my failure was inevitable.
The temperature that morning was in the low teens. A gentle, but cold breeze rolled across the Great Plains and over the river.
I pushed off from the shore, and the enormity of the journey quickly took hold of my mind as my paddle cut its first strokes through the silty water.
“1,000 miles to go,” I thought. “Dear God. How will I do this?”
The beauty of the river, even on that cold and dreary day on the Great Plains, distracted me from any thoughts of doubt or regret toward the commitment I had made. The peaceful sights reminded me of the adventure that I had first set out to find. Here it was, stretched over the horizon before me!
Each time my paddle touched the water, I felt the intensity of the force that pulsed below my canoe. I was riding on the largest moving thing in the world. Every river that flows to an ocean is connected. It is a continuous body of water that reaches across the globe and whose tentacles probe deep into the continents. The Missouri—the Big Muddy—and the Mississippi—the Mighty Mississippi—are massive, meandering offshoots of this organism.
I put the miles behind me and my moment of doubt in Omaha entered the past. Away from city limits, birds appeared in the sky. A bald eagle flew low overhead as it crossed from one shore to the other. I closed my eyes and saw the world through its vision. I was a part of this ecosystem.
“Yes, there is life out here,” I thought.
The seeming silence of the river replaced the noise of civilization. But the river is not silent. The sounds of life carry far across its surface.
Often, when the river is smooth and the wind low, noises become magnified while bouncing across its glassy veneer. Thousands of feet away, water rushing around a buoy sounds like Class III rapids.
Water cascading over a submerged wing dike goes unheard until mere yards away. This sound compounded with the effects of the horizon give the feature the appearance of a bottomless waterfall.
To be honest, I never considered myself much of a paddler. The first boat I owned was the Wenonah canoe—a Prism—that carried me down the river. Wenonah offered the canoe to me at a discount. Being broke and mostly jobless, my parents happily picked up the remainder. Perhaps they thought a nice boat would increase my chances of survival.
The boat arrived three days before the trip started. I took the boat out for a test run around Howell Island in the Missouri River near St. Charles. It was fast, tippy, and easily caught the wind causing it to behave like a crazed weathervane. Before the Wenonah, I had only paddled clunky Old Town and aluminum Grumman canoes that steered like boxes of rocks. The Wenonah, however, was spry and quick. Even though it caught the wind, I knew it would handle better with the heavy cargo load of an expedition.
One of the beautiful things about paddling is that weight is not as much of a concern as in backpacking or climbing. In my new canoe, I needed a minimum amount of weight to balance it out and make it perform better in the wind. So I was able to pack luxuries like external cell phone batteries, plenty of dry clothes, lots of fresh water—which I used as ballast—and a couple of books.
I brought two paddles. My primary paddle was made of carbon fiber and had a bent shaft for better performance. It was featherweight and rigid as steel. I loved that paddle. My backup paddle was made of wood and also had a bent shaft. It was an excellent paddle, but couldn’t compete with carbon fiber construction. Even in the hands of an inexperienced paddler like myself, the paddle and the boat made me feel like a professional; and capable of anything.
Around midday, I turned a small bend in the river and came across a new and intimidating sight.
A large floe of ice spewed into the river from the West. The source of the ice was Nebraska’s Platte River. The river no longer looked serene. My daydreams were over. A wall of white chunks of ice filled my view. The large pieces ground against each other with enough force to crush or capsize my canoe. They were a churning mass of destruction. I had to act fast.
A thin channel of ice-free water hugged the opposite bank. I steered my canoe into it.
“Please let this channel go all the way,” I said to the river. I worried that the ice floe would cover the entire river and stretch for a hundred miles.
Every few minutes the boat collided with a large block of ice. Each of these collisions stirred visions of the Titanic within my mind. My nervous system was on high alert. My body was tense with stress-induced cortisol.
“I hope there are no submerged wing dikes or buoys ahead,” I thought.
I envisioned a buoy trapped beneath the surface of the water. I imagined the boat caught between icebergs and then pushed into the several-hundred-pound welded chunk of steel as it lurched from the depths. I fantasized about the fiberglass boat exploding into pieces as it rammed the buoy; my body disregarded like another piece of driftwood.
Before I launched the canoe, two things were of prime concern to me. The first was water temperatures that hovered around freezing. The second was the possibility of capsizing the canoe in an ice floe like the one I now paddled through. Most cold weather paddlers use a drysuit to protect them in the event of a sudden cold water immersion. A fall into winter waters can lead to severe hypothermia and death in under an hour. A drysuit is a waterproof rubber suit that covers the arms, legs, and core of a paddler. Warm clothes are worn under the drysuit, and the inside stays dry even if the paddler falls into the water. Arctic divers use drysuits to keep the frigid cold of polar waters at bay. If I capsized while wearing a drysuit, I would be inconvenienced, but I would live. The only problem was that a dry suit would cost about $1,000—far beyond my means.
The alternative to a drysuit is a wetsuit. A wetsuit is made of neoprene, a synthetic rubber-like fabric that provides excellent insulation from the cold. It comes in different thickness for different temperatures. A wetsuit is not waterproof, but it keeps the body warm nonetheless. Some wetsuits cover the entire body, while others cover only the torso.
As I tried on different wetsuits, I realized that paddling in a full-body wetsuit would be more than uncomfortable. The wetsuit chaffed underneath my armpits, at my elbows, and behind my knees. So I settled on a design that looked like a leotard—no sleeves and the legs of the suit only extended halfway down my thighs. Wetsuits are warm, so I chose a thin one hoping that I wouldn’t sweat in it. Most importantly, it cost less than $100.
The thinness and minimalist design had one major flaw—in the freezing waters of the Missouri River the wetsuit would buy me only a few more minutes if I fell into the frigid water. In total, I figured I would have about 10 minutes to swim to shore. However, I knew that swimming to shore from the middle of the vast Missouri and Mississippi Rivers would take far more than 10 minutes. It was a bad insurance policy, but I convinced myself that it was better than nothing.
I continued paddling alongside the ice floe for several more miles. Eventually, the ice of the Platte melted into the warmer water of the Missouri, and only a few sluggish and slushy bergs remained in the river.
The ice floe was probably the result of the Corps of Engineers using explosives to blow up an ice jam upriver on the Platte. This action, blowing up ice jams, prevents the jams from destroying bridges or growing into ice dams that flood towns and homes.
With the last of the ice disappearing, two men standing on the shore near a boat ramp yelled out to me.
“Where are you going?” They yelled.
“Memphis!” I yelled back.
Their response was silence.
It felt good to say that. I felt like a real adventurer—like Lewis and Clark exploring the Louisiana Purchase or Roald Amundsen setting off for the South Pole. I was out there doing what I had set out to do. I was connecting with the explorers, mountain men, and pioneers of ages past. Through speaking the words, I made it real. I confirmed that I was doing this—that I, Joe Reidhead, was paddling to Memphis.
Yet, I was only 20 miles and a few hours into the journey. The comfort of civilization was never far away. And I had already experienced the fear of the river. The size. The ice. The solitude. The cold. Fear—of the river and failure on the river—nagged at me. But fear on the river grows slowly, stroke by stroke, and the journey was young.
I also worried about the other objective of the voyage: autism. Could I actually make a difference? Would this insane trip down the river do any good for autism awareness? Would anyone donate money to autism research? Would newspapers write about autism because of my efforts? Or was I fooling myself and it was all a charade?
I didn’t have long to meditate on my concerns, for ahead, standing on the bank at the town of Plattsmouth, Nebraska, were my parents. They were shivering in the sharp wind, but warm smiles stretched across their faces. They had seen me off at Omaha that morning and would follow me for the next four days along the river—now was not the time to have fear!
They greeted me with a sandwich and encouragement—a heartening gesture in those first days of unknowing and uncertainty before I had the confidence of experience. The sandwich and familiar faces were an island of support. It was as though I had reached the comfort of a high camp on Everest and my partner greeted me with a hot cup of tea.
I spent several minutes ashore, devouring the sandwich and shoving a bag of chips into my coat pocket. Then I pushed the canoe back into the Missouri and continued south. There was still daylight, and that meant there was no time for rest.
The rest of the day slowly slipped by. I saw more bald eagles. These were sightings that lifted my spirits, for as a child I often heard about their near encounter with extinction. I also saw a lone, white-tailed deer trying to swim across the river.
“Is this deer insane,” I thought. “Why on earth would it try to swim across the river? And in the winter?”
Around sunset, with thousands of geese flying overhead, I found a secluded sandbar where I set up camp and fell into a fitful, but happy sleep—happy to be on the river—happy to be doing it!
Still, I worried about the long haul that awaited me. That day, the monumental size of the journey had revealed itself to my eyes.
A few months earlier, when I stood at the base of Yosemite’s 3,000 foot tall El Capitan for the first time, I wondered how I could ever climb something so tall. Well, one move at a time.
And on the river, one paddle stroke at a time would get me to Memphis.