This is really happening, isn’t it!
Panic is setting in. We are on the calendar to slide the boat into the water in forty-five days, and I feel markedly unprepared. That is despite the fact that I have been preparing for this event for months, years, maybe decades. It’s a long story, a story about rivers.
Ingersolls have had some history with rivers. My grandfather, a midwestern lawyer and businessman, got together with some cronies and started a barge line in the 1930s. This was Central Barge Line, which ran a few boats on the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. He and partners later founded the Ohio River Company, which grew to be one of the largest river carriers in the country. My father, in his twenties, was piloting small towboats pushing one or two barges up and down those rivers. This was back in the time when towboats were just evolving from sternwheeler steamboats to diesel powered vessels. He eventually gained pilot’s licenses on all the U.S. inland river system. Pop grew up in that business and, after a Colorado cattle-ranching moment in the late forties and early fifties, went on to be president of the very substantial Federal Barge Lines operation, based in St. Louis, where I grew up.
I did a summer during my college years as a deckhand on a smaller towboat traveling the Texas intracoastal waterway, pushing barges full of bauxite (aluminum ore, which looks like orange dirt) from where South American ships brought it in near Corpus Christi to an Alcoa plant near Houston. Memories flood back from that summer of hard work in very hot, humid conditions, of learning about the lives of career deckhands (good ole boys all), beautiful vistas across coastal bays, Southern cookin’ dished out by a Cajun cook (we ate like kings), endless din from the diesel engines and the air conditioners in crew’s quarters, and orange. Orange tinted everything that was once white – sheets, walls, everything. I went to a barbershop after I left the boat and the barber said “Oh, you been down on the bauxite barges.” How did you know? “Well, your scalp’s orange.”
I got to do canoe trips down in the Ozarks of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas with my dad, which was a totally different kind of river exposure, but no less wonderful. I remember summer days floating long placid pools under overhanging canopies of hardwood trees, often with bold white limestone walls lining the way. And then a little excitement as we paddled down through a drop – riffles, scarcely rapids – into the start of another long pool.
I’ve lived in the Denver area since the early seventies, and within a few years after I moved here, my younger brother George did too. It didn’t take long before he and his wife Nan became river rats (I think he got the bug too), and started spending all their free time floating Western rivers from Idaho to New Mexico. And it didn’t take long for them to fish me into going along on float trips and developing a love of the canyon country of Utah and New Mexico. As my two kids became old enough to manage a canoe or a rubber duckie (inflatable kayak), I dragged Rachel and Adam along and got them hooked too. My wife Delly decided she had many better ways to spend her free time, so took a pass whenever the annual one or two float trips were put together.
So we like rivers. For many years I had been thinking that I’d like to do a lengthy river trip of some sort. Maybe that could be about getting my kids in touch with their family’s river connection, so they could see first-hand those big rivers that their grandfather had piloted and I had ridden so many years ago. I thought maybe someday I would rent or buy a houseboat, and maybe go west, following Lewis and Clark as far up the Missouri as possible. Sometime later I thought it would be cheaper and easier to go down rather than up, so thought about going down the Mississippi. Then I thought something smaller and more manageable (and cheaper) than a houseboat made sense.
About that time the “bucket list” concept came along, and I thought maybe after I retire I could just go by myself and do a long, lazy meander down the country’s major rivers in a small boat. I read a couple of books by guys who did that from Minneapolis the length of the Mississippi. Then I was referred to one about an amazing guy, Buzz Holmstrom, who in the 1930s took a wealthy British lady (probably a very interesting person herself) in an open small motorboat from Portland OR to New York NY on rivers (doing two portages, over the Rockies and around Niagara Falls). Eventually I read William Least Heat-Moon’s book River-horse about his doing this trip in reverse, from the Atlantic to the Pacific by river. And then there is a wonderful guide book, The Complete Paddler, by David Miller, who went the entire 2000 miles of the Missouri River in a sea kayak.
What then, I thought. Why don’t I go from the highest navigable point in the inland waterways system, let’s say Great Falls MT, to the farthest other end of the country, let’s say Key West FL? Slightly adjusted, that has become my bucket list item soon after I retire this May 25th. I haven’t found evidence of anyone ever having made that particular trip. About three years ago, after “getting the nod” from Delly, I started announcing this plan to people, so that I would be increasingly committed to actually following through and not have it just be so much hot air. A year ago, when I bought the boat, I became seriously committed (Delly probably thought I should have been committed right then, but didn’t say so).
From accounts by Heat-Moon and Miller I determined that the first several hundred Missouri River miles across central Montana are probably impassible for the type of motorboat I would need. David Miller described some of it as “a braided network of shallow channels.” So the start of the trip will be from a boat ramp at the Fourchett Creek Recreation Area, at the upper end of Fort Peck Lake, in eastern Montana. That will be the start of 1,846 miles down the Missouri River, and that is something less than half of the journey I will be embarking on. It will continue south along the Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, Tombigbee, Warrior, and Mobile Rivers, and through Mobile Bay to the Gulf Coast and on to the keys. I don’t know exact mileage, but by the time I have reached Key West, and looped around the southern half of Florida, through Lake Okeechobee and the intracoastal canal back to the west coast and to take-out at Tampa, the trip will traverse something over 4,000 miles. The calendar has it penciled from June 4th to some day before August 20th. That is our 40th wedding anniversary, and I think I need to be off the boat that day.
But I digress. The panic is because the immensity of this undertaking is becoming more real to me every day, and I have by no means topped all the learning curves involved. I have spent a year getting familiar with the boat, and still feel like an amateur powerboater (having no previous experience with motorboats). It is a 20’ open welded-aluminum fishing boat, of a type that is only made and used in the Pacific Northwest. This type of craft seemed appropriate because the hull design is suitable for both riding large waves and managing shallow river reaches. I towed it back to Colorado from Washington state, after the good folks at Northwest Marine in Pasco,WA did modifications I felt necessary. They added a second outboard motor (in case I break the main one), upgraded the seats (so my innards aren’t bounced to death for 2 ½ months), added a second battery, installed a GPS/depth finder, and built a custom “camper-back”, which extends the canvas top the full length of the deck area, to provide a tent in which to camp onboard, protected from rain and/or mosquitoes.
But the list of things to do for the trip is endless. Learn about navigation, rules of the road, Coast Guard regulations and such (in another life I was a naval officer, so that helps a little bit). Obtain electronic and/or paper charts for all these rivers and coastal stretches. Buy stuff. Buy more stuff. Learn where to plan to stay for the night – a marina, a wharf, tying off to a tree, anchoring in an inlet. Establish with some certainty where gasoline can be had. Same goes for groceries, ice, beer. Decide what to do about security of equipment when away from the boat. Consider self-protection (lots of conversations about pistol, bear spray, wasp spray, flare gun, shotgun, etc.). Arrange portage around six dams with no locks along the Missouri River in Montana and the Dakotas. Equip for worst-case scenario of getting stuck in the shallows of the upper Missouri. Plan for weather events. A storm developing near a large lake in the upper plains states can quickly deliver strong winds, five-foot waves, and lightning. Further south the route wanders through tornado country, and further south into hurricane country. The list of topics for research has been daunting to say the least.
And then there’s the crew. I was convinced early on that doing the trip solo presented too many opportunities for inconvenience or danger, to say nothing of loneliness and boredom. So I will have one companion, who will rotate through several people, generally for stays of about a week. In the navy a ship’s commanding officer’s second in command is the executive officer (affectionately “XO”). My XO staffing will include nine good folks, including a brother, son, daughter, two nephews, and a few in-laws and retired buddies.
Reading and research continues. I will get out on the boat a few more times during the remaining weeks, to play with the GPS/depth finder, practice docking and anchoring, try a full-dress overnight expedition with my brother, etc. I will get the purchases list down to “nice to have” items, work out administrative details (being gone from home for ten weeks), wrap up things at the office, say my goodbyes, and in a screaming short six weeks, head for Montana. Ready or not.