Saturday, February 19, 2011

Complete Paddler

When I first started researching waterways that would make exciting trips, one that immediately drew my interest was the Missouri River. It is surprising that there are large segments of America’s rivers, many of them, that are seldom visited and scarcely known, and where one can paddle days on end without encountering another living soul. Some are remote enough that they have changed little since they were home to Native American tribes a thousand years ago. It was this search that lead me to The Complete Paddler by David L. Miller (369pp., Farcountry Press, Helena, MT). While there is plenty of anecdotal and narrative information that is interesting, this is really a guidebook that’s not intended for recreational reading. He takes each segment of river, then breaks that down bend by bend, mile by mile, giving the location of rapids, camp sites, places to provision and water, points of interest, and places to rest. Miller followed the river for 2,321 miles from its headwaters at Three Forks, Montana, to where it joins the Mississippi above St. Louis. He is meticulous in his organization, and emphasizes that the paddler must be just as exacting to make the trip successfully and survive, listing experience, preparation, luck and fortune as ingredients. He outlines the gear that is essential, food and shelter, boat type, navigation, sources for maps and aerial photography, a daily schedule and routine, learning to read the river, the paddling skill needed in different areas, and keeping and relying on one’s wits. He enumerates the hazards one will encounter and goes into the approaches that worked for him in dealing with them. Among these are wind and dust storms, current, sharp bends, snags and sawyers(partially submerged trees), wing dams, rapids, shallows where channels disappear into a maze, huge commercial tows in the lower river with the strong suctions and large wakes they create, large changes in water level in a single night, flying carp, hypothermia, being in areas where stealth camping (making yourself invisible) is needed, like around areas populated with meth labs, or along Indian territories where one paddler was dragged from his boat and severely beaten and where the author was shot at by Indians along the river, and lots and lots and lots of rattlesnakes.

This is of course the river of Lewis and Clark. The author did a lot of research into their expedition, and along the way even points out where they camped or encountered severe situations, makes frequent references to their journals and more recent books that delve into the character of the men, how they prepared for and executed the three-year expedition, and the historic background surrounding them, the Jefferson administration, and the Louisiana Purchase. He is most fascinated by Lewis and Clark, and I’d say it would be impossible to venture into the subject of the Missouri River and not be. The single page or two likely encountered in the average public school text on this subject does a huge injustice to both their accomplishments and modern education of our students.

To give you an idea of the research that went into the writing of this book, in addition to Miller’s personal experience enroute, there are 63 texts listed in his bibliography. One that he refers to as often as the journals is Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose. I’m already into it, and find it fascinating! This highlights the point often made by Verlen Kruger---that the research for a trip can often be just as exciting as the trip itself.

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