Nature Boost Podcast: Floating the Missouri and Mississippi Confluence
>> Hey there and welcome back to another episode of Nature Boost. I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation. On a hot summer day there is nothing better and more refreshing than flaoting one of Missouri's streams. But what if you have never done it before? How do you start? What do you wear? What do you bring? Have no fear, because I was fortunate enough this summer to spend some time with some awesome and highly experienced paddlers.
I first met up with Missouri master naturalist and avid paddler, Bob Virag. Bob and his team of certified paddling instructors were gracious enough to take me on a float where the Missouri River meets the Mississippi River near the Columbia bottom conservation area. This being my first kayaking trip on a moving body of water, I was a little nervous but thankfully these guys made it a safe and enjoyable experience.
>> So what we typically do is when we have an event, we will do a quick review, introduction and ask folks, what do they expect out of this, what are they looking forward to?
>> I am looking to have fun, Bob and to get on the water and to hopefully see some awesome wildlife and just have a great time paddling.
>> We can help you out with that!
>> I knew I was in the right place!
>> Yeah, you were!
>> The first and most important thing to remember when floating on any moving body of water is your PFD or personal floating device or life jacket. Even if you can swim, it is just a good common sense safety measure, much like wearing your seat belt.
>> Also called a life preserver, we want them fitting well, and snug and tight. There is a reason for that. This thing can jimmy around when you are in the water. You don't want this floating over your head. Help me! Help me! The personal flotation device is going to stay on top of the water as you fall through the straps right through the bottom. We want to make sure this thing is nice and snug. I see as you have put this on already, we typically ask people when they put them on to loosen all the straps first and then tighten them up to make sure they are snug.
I will ask one of my fellows here. Craig is going to check and make sure mine is properly fitted. If I fail, he's gonna . . . [voice trailing off.]
>> A little tighter I think. I like that a lot better. That works real well!
>> There is nothing better on you than a PFD that saves your life.
>> The cool thing about kayaks is that they are extremely maneuverable. They are fast, flexible, but they are tippable. Make sure the foot pegs of the kayak are adjusted to your height but still allows your knees to be slightly bent.
>> It is like tying your shoe. When you are in that boat, you have five points of contact. Your two feet, your two hands, and your butt. If that boat wiggles a little bit, your body is sensing all those different motions. Whether you are turning or rotating left or right, you will feel it just like you would your shoe and get better balance with your shoe. We will fit you into it really well.
>> When you are out on the water sound does not carry as easily. How do you communicate with your follow peddlers if you need to get their attention? Certified instructor Craig Heaton recommends learning a few common hand signals before you head out onto the water.
>> If we see something that we need you to stop for some reason or slow down, we will go like this. This is the stop signal.
>> You are just holding the paddle horizontally above your head.
>> Yes, straight up.
Then if we need you to go to my right, your left then we will need you to hold it this way. If you need to go the other way you will hold it this way.
If we need you to just keep coming forward it is just straight up like that. Come forward.
>> What if you are in trouble?
>> You just wave it back and forth.
>> Really fast.
>> Yes, really fast. I need some help.
The other thing is we may tap on our head like that. It is a question to you, "are you okay?" if you tap your head back the same way, then you are telling us you are okay. If you go like this, that means you need some help.
>> Then paddle upstream. Okay.
>> Try to come fast towards me.
>> Come fast?
>> Real hard. Real hard. I will make you go stop. Stop is backwards real hard. Go like that. You see how you stop real hard? Real fast?
>> Is that good?
>> Yeah. Now turn around again and go fast towards Perry. Let me get out of your way. Good, good.
Now your left side forward real hard. Slap that back.
Go forward. Now go to Perry real fast.
>> After getting comfortable in my kayak and some much needed paddling practice, I was ready to paddle out to the main current and set out on my first Missouri river float.
>> Perry is going to take us out. Like I said, those little swirls, you know, don't get too worried about those.
>> Oh my gosh!
>> Left forward, left forward.
>> Time to sweep. Paddle on the right side. Back paddle! There you go.
>> Go to Perry. Right paddle. You've fledged!
>> I've fledged! Look at me go! Look at me go, mama!
>> Pretty peaceful out here, isn't it?
>> It is gorgeous. It is absolutely magnificent! I see why people really get into it.
>> It is pretty peaceful. It is not as hard as a lot of people think.
>> There is something kind of powerful about being on your own vessel. It is just . . . you feel pretty cool on one.
>> Who will get a hold of you out here?
>> Absolutely. You are off the grid. It’s a good thing.
I can't believe we saw a bald eagle! That was great.
>> Yeah! That was good!
>> Yeah it was.
>> Not only was the float a great opportunity to take in the landscape, but as Missouri's Director of the American Canoe Association Perry Whitaker pointed out, floating Missouri and Mississippi's rivers is like touching a part of history.
>> So many of those things, explorers that we learned about in high school, they paddled down this river. Marquette and Joliet, Lewis and Clark, Hernando Desoto, Pike, they are all out here. Native Americans were out here 12,000 years before that. This was our major interstate for thousands of years. A lot of the people in this area have no idea how much history is right here.
If you ask most people about the Mississippi or Missouri River, they are going to tell you about the bridges they have to cross and they won't make that connection. That is the river Mark Twain talked about! When you paddle out here, you are actually touching history. That drop of water was Lake Itasca a couple months ago. This little bit of water was in Yellowstone, or this part of water was in the Chicago River. It all flows right by here.
>> So many don't even realize it!
>> Right now you are touching it. That is one of the things I love most about being on the water.
>> It really connects you to history. It connects you to everything, in a way.
>> Yes, history and geography.
>> You know, 150 years ago right through here we had all these steamboats passing by.
>> It is crazy to think we have all these highway systems and interstates, but this was the main epicenter of it all, really.
>> Yeah, yeah. You know, Native Americans they would get out here and trade with villages way down the river. This village up here might have salt that they could take down there and trade with somebody for material that they had to make real good projectile points with. These people might have had an over abundance of a particular nut that they wanted down there that they would trade some corn for. They would just travel up and down the river trading.
>> Here we are, and I wonder, we were talking about how much rivers change and are always changing. What it would have looked like then compared to what it looks like now.
>> Yeah. So, a lot of the river a few hundred miles further was more like the river was a couple hundred years ago. Here it is channelized and has been altered by man a lot more than it has been up there. Before the levees and the wing dykes, the river could be a few miles wide. Every time there was a flood, the river might change course. It might move a few miles that way, or a few miles the other way. But now it stays the same place year after year until we get a big flood and then it says, "No, I am going to do what I want to do."
>> Right, right!
>> And it destroys somebody's farm that has been protected by a levee.
>> Water is such a powerful resource.
>> Absolutely! You know people get their food from this for thousands of years. People get catfish out of here and drinking water and geese and ducks.
>> The wildlife.
>> So many of these cities are here because of this water. St. Louis is a river town, Memphis is a river town, Alton is a river town. They are here because of this resource.
>> More floating fun to come, right after the break.
>> You really want to go there?
>> If you’d go down that trail, if it floats your boat, gets you fit and improves your view, there’s an app for all that. The MO Outdoors app has lots of places to hike, fish, birdwatch and more. Search by activity or location, download maps, see area pics and features, and mark your favorites. Download the MO Outdoors app today and go there!
Discover more with Missouriconservation.org.
Welcome back to Nature Boost. Avid paddlers and certified instructors Perry Whitaker, Bob Virag, and Craig Heaton took me on a float to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers near St. Louis over the summer. We paddled out to Duck Island, where the guys shared more tips to kayak like a pro. Perry even told me about his ambitious attempt at breaking a kayaking world record.
>> Alright, so let's get back into basic kayaking. What can you gentlemen recommend for somebody that is very introductory into this, wants to invest in a kayak. Where do you even start?
>> Get educated before you go out and get a boat. Get the right tool for the job. There are quite a few different kinds of kayaks. Five basic ones, that would be touring, light touring, fishing, white water, and recreational.
Touring are 15 ft and longer. It is made to just get out and go. Load it down with gear and go, it is 21 or 22 inches wide.
Light touring is 12 to 15 ft, between 24 and 25 inches wide. More stable. It is not as fast and easier to turn.
White water boats are less than 10 ft wide and it is made just to turn, turn, turn, go over waterfalls, go to the ER, do Mountain Dew commercials.
Fishing kayaks are usually about 12 ft wide or more and are made to be really stable.
Recreational is a kind of . . . they all are recreational. But a lot of times when people say recreational they are talking about a $200 boat for kids or some adults.
If you get a white water boat thinking you are going to go fishing in it, you are not going to have a good time. You need to know what the different styles are and what you want to do.
>> Get educated and do your research.
>> Learn what you are doing before you get out the credit card.
>> I know you guys are based in the St. Louis area, but as far as programs to get people excited and interested in paddling . . . is there any resources out there that you recommend, websites, or organizations to reach out to?
>> There are quite a few organizations. Here in St. Louis, we have the St. Louis Canoe & Kayak Club. They are very professional and safety conscious. It is a really good way to learn some of the great places to paddle around here. There is the Missouri Whitew ater Association if the rougher water is your cup of tea. Mississippi River Water Trail Association if you are interested in paddling on the Mississippi.
>> Now something else I would like to touch on is whenever you do go out on a float trip on your kayak/canoe or whatever, your vessel, what do you recommend bringing with you? What are the necessities to have with you on your trip?
>> Boat, paddle, life jacket.
>> Okay. Craig, what can you recommend?
>> Sunscreen, bug spray, water. Food, a good hat, sunglasses. Be prepared to get wet and think about the weather and conditions and dress for conditions. If it is a cold day or a rainy day you need to suit up for that.
>> Bob, anything else?
>> They really covered it. Safety is the most important thing. It is amazing how quickly things can turn sour. Very, very quickly. Definitely do everything they talked about. But don't forget to have fun. This is really what it is all about.
If you are just starting out, and you don't have a clue, you could look up those organizations. But you could also go to a lake and rent a boat. Many of these rental outfitters have a wide variety of boats that Perry talked about. You can pick and choose and spend a bit of time on each of them and get a feel for how they work, how they don't work for you, how they fit your goals and how they fit your anatomy. If you want to take your dog out with you, don't get into a sea kayak. You may want a sit on top instead.
Definitely figure out what you plan to do for the future and aim for that, or reach a little higher if you can afford that.
You may find that by toe dipping in the rental community, that could help out.
Then organizations like ours and the Mississippi River Trail Association have a wide variety of events where we teach people how to kayak.
>> Something else I thought about as we are sitting here on Death Island, Perry went off on a little adventure and came back with some unsightly trash. Again, I think it is so important to note when you are out enjoying nature to leave no trace. There is nothing like being outdoors and seeing trash. It can really sour the experience for you.
>> There is a saying that we all live down river. We see that everyday when we see the trash coming down off of the highways and into the creeks, streams and into the main river here. All of this ends up on a long journey down to the Gulf of Mexico.
It all adds up in terms of a tonnage of plastic that is out there. As part of the Missouri Stream Team, we had a lot of cleanups and trash bashes. We have a lot of folks volunteer for that opportunity. They are very impactful. But the biggest impact these folks have is not the trash they clean up, but the people they educate in the process of doing that, not getting rid of that trash into the road, into the storm drains because it all ends up back here. If we can influence people to slow down on that disposal of single use plastic it would make a great help.
>> Very well said.
Switching gears here, Perry, you recently tried to break a Guinness World Record.
>> We tried to break the record for the fastest team to canoe the whole Mississippi River. The record was 18 days, 4 hours and 51 minutes. There is another team trying to break it as well. They did break it. We went 2,160 miles and we got hit by a storm and sunk our canoe with 137 miles to go. We were two hours ahead of record pace. We were that close! But, other than that last few minutes, the trip was great.
>> Oh my gosh.
>> Give us a little more context here. You started where?
>> Lake Itasca in Minnesota and then the Mississippi is like a creek. It looks like a lot like the Courtois or the Huzzah. Then it goes through rice fields and it changes personality as it goes through these areas and then it widens out and it looks a lot like the Meramec. It changes every few miles. Then it gets really wide and braided with lots of islands. You go through cities, industry, and then more peace and quiet, and wildlife. We crossed over beaver dams, we saw bears, we saw Sandhill cranes, we paddled through incredibly large flocks of white pelicans. I saw a fisher jump out of a tree after something. A fisher is like a large otter. That is not something you get to see very often. I was blown away by all the wildlife I saw out there. It was great.
>> Wow, what a great experience. Now were you camping every night? How did that work?
>> We paddled 24 hours a day.
>> Oh my gosh. I am tired just hearing that.
>> We ate in the boat, slept in the boat, went to the bathroom in the boat. We paddled and paddled and paddled. The longest we were out of the boat was an hour and a half when we hit some whitewater way up in Minnesota, hit a rock and went for a swim. We pulled over and dried off. But that was the longest time we were out of the canoe for the whole trip.
>> How are you not like sleeping for 3 months straight?
>> Uh, Mountain Dew. I invented a new drink. I mixed ensure with five hour energy.
>> No, you did not!
>> I am sure that drink is going to get some people kicked out of a nursing home.
>> I think doctors need to study you just to make sure you are okay. Oh my gosh, wow!
>> No, it wasn't that bad. I really enjoyed it. It was great. I trained really hard for it.
>> How long were you training?
>> Well I paddle a couple thousand miles per year anyway. I started going to a rowing gym and lost weight. I trained really hard for a year, or year and a half. When we got pulled off the river, I was ready to paddle back home. I still felt good. Except I didn't have a boat.
>> I am just in awe at this. It is incredible. My big question is this something you would like to try again? Was once enough?
>> I get asked that a lot. I already have a boat, I just need to find the right people. I don't like attention, I don't want attention. But this was a challenge and it was fun. I want to do it again.
>> You said earlier people recognized you because they followed you on social media. You could follow the trip.
>> That was weird.
I am afraid to guess how many, probably thousands of people were up and down the river waiting and saying, "Way to Go!" "Good Job!" I am going down the river doing this prom queen wave instead of paddling. It was so awkward. I just wanted to paddle, but I appreciated these people cheering me on. I want to thank them but at the same time I had to paddle.
>> We had more people turn out on the Chain of Rocks bridge to watch him go through the Chain of Rocks than we have during our Eagle Days looking at eagles.
>> And that is a big event!
>> That was huge. This was absolutely thrilling watching him go over those rocks. It was kind of scary. We were all holding our breath.
>> I was, too.
>> These guys had been paddling around 9 days at that point, and they started off like this aiming the boat for that run and then all of a sudden you just see them go boom boom boom and they didn't stop until they cleared all the rapids passage. Then finally we could breathe knowing they didn't fall over. That was scary.
>> We had a hole in our boat so I was really nervous about The Chain of Rocks. The fix held so we were okay.
>> Wow. Do you have any advice for anybody who would like to compete in something like that?
>> I don't think competing is really that fun for most people. I love being out there on the river and I want other people to go out there on the river. A lot of people through paddled the whole Mississippi between 75-100 people every year paddle the whole Mississippi but they usually take 3 months to do it. It is leisurely and peaceful. This was work. Yeah.
>> Out of curiosity what were you eating?
>> Lots of carbs.
>> We had safety boats and a couple RVs on our team. We had a chef on the RV who was feeding everybody.
>> How did they get it out to you?
>> Safety boats would come out and get the food and bring it out to us. Take our trash and give that back to the RV.
>> You had a whole staff?
There was like 25 people following us along the river to take care of us.
>> Food was not really the problem. The reality of it is I would have been content with anything, cramming food in and paddling. I didn't have time to enjoy the food or anything. It could have been edible or not. I don't know.
>> I appreciate you telling me that story. I was very curious. We were on a Zoom call and Bob said, "oh, just wait 'til you hear it."
[Theme music playing.]
>> For more information on paddling, contact the Mississippi River Water Trail Association, the American Canoe Association, or find additional resources at missouriconservation.org.
A big thank you to my new kayaking friends Bob Virag, Craig Heaton, and Perry Whitaker, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers for helping out with this episode. I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation, encouraging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.