Hollywood has made outer limits recreation, or extreme outdoor adventures, a blockbuster story. Reaching the summit of Mount Everest in a storm. Rock climbing El Capitan with no ropes or anchors. Traveling in a small boat around the southern tip of South America in turbulent waters. All real-life stories of outdoor enthusiasts exploring nature to the extreme and finding something deeper about themselves in the process.
While Missouri may not have Mount Everest-size mountains or massive oceans, it does offer outdoor recreation opportunities on a grand scale with vastly changing landscapes. It provides mighty forests and prairies, big rivers and streams, and scenic rock-face overlooks and hidden caves, plus more than 1 million acres of public land to explore. Missouri is an incredible place to discover nature.
Missouri also has extreme outdoor enthusiasts, who have tested their limits in the wildest places and come out on the other side with an incredible story. For some, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. For others, it’s an annual experience. And for one, it’s just a daily part of life. These are three stories of how the outdoors have changed the course of their journey, the rough roads and the smooth paths, and how it has also left them hungry for more outdoor adventures.
The Trail-Blazing Hiker
Deep in the heart of the Ozarks, the Ozark Trail is a hidden gem. With more than 350 miles of trail, starting north from Onondaga Cave State Park and traversing south through much of the Missouri Ozarks, it provides hikers the opportunity to walk short stretches or to go to the extreme and cover hundreds of miles of ground. Bruce Linders is one of those hikers.
Linders, a St. Louis native, gained his appreciation and love of the outdoors after high school when he joined American Youth Hostels (AYH). Two brothers who were active in the organization taught Linders everything they knew about canoeing, camping, backpacking, and hiking. Linders joined AYH in 1976 and would later “I found a purpose, I guess you could say. I discovered I loved hiking and backpacking, and I would lead a trip a month,” said Linders.
He also began to dream bigger during those day hikes. He wanted to organize a week-long trip where people could rigorously hike the Ozark Trail, carrying only the essentials on their back, and camp under the stars at night. It would be a week of growing personally through hours on the trail, but it would also be a chance to build camaraderie with others around the campfire. For his first trip, he and two friends planned for 12 backpackers, but only one showed up. Luckily, Linders did not give up.
More than 28 years later, he is still helping organize and lead a week-long backpacking trip every October on the Ozark Trail. The group has now grown to around 25 people, but he tries to keep the number capped to ensure the group stays small enough for all to enjoy themselves. The team hikes close to 50 miles of the Ozark Trail, starting off in different sections, with some heading south and others north. Linders has hiked every single mile of the Ozark Trail. While it is an extreme feat, his success has not come from his own personal miles on the trail, but from the others he has encouraged along the way, including some who have needed the trail for more than just adventure.
On one trip, Linders recalls three women who came to hike the trail together, including two who were police officers. One of the friends was desperately trying to pull herself together from a traumatic event and build her confidence back up. The hours on the trail helped heal her hurt, noted Linders. It is this story still fresh in his mind, and countless others, that keep him returning year after year.
“You realize you’ve actually done something in your life that has helped people and brought them to the outdoors,” he said. “Missouri has so much to offer. It’s one of the most beautiful states there is, and I want to take people out and show them what it is all about.”
The Big River Kayaker
Janet Moreland, a middle school science teacher in central Missouri, grew up in California with water all around her. She spent much of her childhood swimming in local streams and rivers and would later take it up a notch with windsurfing in the ocean. But it is the big rivers, such as the Missouri and Mississippi, which have caught Moreland’s attention since moving to Missouri.
“I had all the background of extreme outdoor stuff, including working on ski patrol in the Sierra Mountains, and then I landed in Missouri, so I started looking around for something extreme to do,” said Moreland.
She found it by the Missouri River. Moreland, who would talk to paddlers coming off the river, became intrigued by the idea of kayaking the mighty Missouri River. Not just some of it, but all of it. After months of research, including interviewing kayakers who had successfully traveled all of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers from Montana straight through to the Gulf of Mexico, she began her solo journey in April 2013. She set off to become the first woman and first American to paddle all of the Missouri-Missippi — the longest river in North America — from source to sea by herself in a kayak. She was 57 years old.
She started her journey on skis, traveling down Centennial Mountain in Montana, where the headwaters of the Missouri and Mississippi river start and then put in her kayak, named Blue Moon, shortly after. On the second day in the water, she got two holes in her kayak, so she learned quickly how to get industrious with duct tape. It was her first lesson in having an adventurous spirit in the outdoors.
“When I hit my first rapids, I realized I had to make all the decisions out here by myself and to assess all the possibilities of what could happen,” reflected Moreland.
She paddled through storms and high winds, lakes that stretched 200 miles, 13 dams along the river, and came face-to-face with wildlife when she pitched her tent. While every day was a memorable new adventure, it was the people she met along the way that created the most lasting memories.
“When you talk to long-distance paddlers, they will tell you people on the river are the most important part of your journey. They give you love,” she said. “It’s something they wouldn’t do themselves [paddle long distance], but they want to help you get there and be successful.”
Moreland finally paddled into mid-Missouri in September, after being on the water for five months, and slept in her own bed for the night. She was soon back in the water to tackle the last part of her trip. She would arrive at the Gulf of Mexico in December with a team of friends and family cheering her on. While exhausted beyond measure, she crossed the finish line with mixed emotions.
“It was bittersweet to finish because I really wanted to finish, but I also wanted the river to keep going. I wanted to keep living off the land. I loved the simplicity,” said Moreland.
But Moreland, a self-professed extreme outer-limits fanatic, was not quite finished. She set her eyes on a solo kayaking mission on the Mississippi River in 2016. Although she hoped to finish in 60 days in honor of her 60th birthday, she finished her trip in 65 days. This summer, Moreland again climbed in her kayak to tackle all of the Yukon River, the third largest river in North America. Her heart, however, will always be in Missouri.
“There is so much wilderness in Missouri that is so accessible to people,” noted Moreland. “This state is full of rivers to paddle, places to camp, and areas to get out and experience the wilderness.”
The Fervent Fly Fisherman
Until he was 12 years old, Mark Van Patten was more concerned with staying alive as part of a west-coast gang than play outdoors with friends. His tumultuous childhood eventually led to him being raised by his grandparents in Missouri where his grandfather, a fly-fishing purist, took him immediately to a pond to start his fishing education. It was a lesson that would impact the rest of his life.
“Fly-fishing is what saved me, and also that my grandparents were saints,” said Van Patten. “It kept my interest even at a young age. If it eats anything bigger than plankton, you can catch it on a fly. The science of it got me hooked.”
As Van Patten continued to learn more from his grandfather, his love of science also developed as he waded in stream after stream in Missouri going after the perfect catch. As an adult, he would turn his love of science into a conservation career in fisheries with the Missouri Department of Conservation. He retired in July 2016 and moved back to the Missouri Ozarks with his wife, a retired middle school science teacher, where his love of fishing had first been nurtured as a child. The one constant through his life has been fly-fishing.
“I’ve fished thousands of miles of Missouri streams, even small farm ponds, and on average I fished 130 days each year even when I had to work. If it had water and fish in it, I was probably going to fish it,” remarked Van Patten.
His fishing adventures extend from fly-fishing for goldeye from a canoe on the Missouri River to fly-fishing for catfish or carp, also called Ozark bone fishing, in southern Missouri. Van Patten has also explored the extreme fishing waters in Missouri, which are smaller streams and often more difficult to fish, where you have to sneak up on the fish. He also still ties his own flies, a skill he learned from his grandfather and has continued to build upon. Van Patten points to the value of mentoring both beginners and seasoned anglers.
“People love to share the gospel of fly-fishing. There is so much to be passed on from a mentor that you can’t learn in a book or video. Us old guys have a lot to share, and we love to share it,” he laughed. Van Patten also stays on top of his game through extreme fishing in the Alaska wilderness alongside grizzly bears or through fly-fishing in salt water for monster ocean fish. But it is the waters of Missouri that always call him home, the place he first learned to hope again after a tough childhood on the streets.
“Almost every trip I make to the Current River is the most memorable trip because you see so much,” he said. “My home waters are always my favorite waters.”
Missouri is an incredible place for extreme outdoor adventures, whether it’s distance hiking in the Ozark forest, kayaking the fast flowing waters of big rivers, or casting your fly rod as the sun comes up on a chilly morning. It’s where some of the best life stories are waiting to be written — by you.