While hiking the “Georgia-side” Pinhoti Trail, a most remarkable event unfolded before me. Now to fully appreciate what happened and understand the circumstances which led to the occasion, I must first recount a story . . .
It’s a tale of the human spirit.
Once there was a young man with a fanciful idea that had taken hold. It was to be one of the most ambitious undertakings of the young fellow’s life—an attempt at canoeing the entire 2,341-mile Missouri River. For you see, in 1988, a 23-year old swashbuckling adventurist from Ohio set out to do just that—to paddle the longest river in North America, the fourth longest river system in the whole world.
Just west of Bozeman, Montana, the Missouri River is formed with the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers at Three Forks. The river flows more than 2,300 miles before ultimately meeting up with the Mississippi in St. Louis, making the Missouri it’s longest tributary. Of the 2,300 miles, there are approximately 1,600 miles of river and 700 miles of lakes (i.e., four large dam-created reservoirs). Once named the Peki-tan-oui and explored from the mouth to its headwaters during the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Missouri is rich in American history and folklore.
The thought of paddling the entire length of the Missouri must have seemed beyond that which is possible. Apart from its sheer length, the elevational change of the Missouri is dramatic in itself, ranging from some 14,000 feet above sea level in the Rockies at the Continental Divide to a mere 400 feet where it joins the Mississippi. Then there are the numerous states through which the river passes. Much like thru-hiking a long national trail that penetrates across multiple states, the Missouri River runs through Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska and then borders the states of Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas.
You see, once upon a time, there was a spirited young man who was fond of the canoe and who’d resourcefully find a means to carry out his vision of paddling the Big Mo. A friend of the young man was to accompany him, at least part way. Bound and determined to make the long-distance canoe trip a reality, he contacted a charter bus company to inquire about getting transported up to Montana from Ohio. Coincidentally, the charter company was running empty buses up to Alaska; and it was arranged for the two young men to become passengers on such a bus and even get dropped off right at the headwaters of the river in Three Forks. The young fellow loaded up his 18 1/2-foot Wenonah canoe along with all his gear, which had been stowed in floatable hard containers, as was common practice. Aboard the bus, he played cards with his paddling partner and, in those hours of travel, must have felt a tremendous sense of freedom for that which he was about to embark.
Camping was set up on the shores and river banks and cooking was usually executed over a fire built at dusk. Vacuum-packed foods were also taken along for caloric intake. Town stops tended to be spontaneous due to accessibility restraints and availability of resources. In remote one-stoplight flyspeck villages along the river, even a community general store or small mercantile could be hard to come by. Gear was quite simple in those days; included in his rig, among other gadgets, were a pocket transistor radio and disposable camera. Since this was before the era of GPS and smartphones, the young man took along navigational charts and old paper roadmaps to chart his position and determine daily mileages. His folks back home pinned an atlas map on their wall and, with every periodic phone call from their son, would use a highlighter and tick mark system as a way of monitoring their son’s progress along the river. With each phone call, they’d highlight from the last tick mark to the next, writing in the corresponding date next to the “phone-ticks.”
The trip would take 110 days, from June to October, to complete that year. Oftentimes, the wind was so blustery that the lad would read novels by day to pass time, then canoe at night when the winds died down. No-mile or “zero” days must have been frustrating, but weather was a serious matter on the water. His biggest mile-producing day on river was an astounding 66 miles! This was possible only when the wind was just right, generating swells such that the currents propelled him like a surfboard. Paddling such enormous distances, his upper body and forearms turned to stiff muscle. The sculpted young adventurer gained so much body stamina, it was said that he could lift himself out of the water and into his canoe by grabbing hold of the gunwale edge and pushing up his entire body weight in one smooth motion.
Venturing off on such a long-distance paddling trip of this scope would present obstacles of many kinds, apart from the river’s formidable length. One recalls the misadventures in the 1972 film Deliverance, which depicts a canoe trip that goes awry as friends on a multi-day paddling trip are stalked and savagely harmed by unwelcoming locals. Although this young man was not accosted by inbred hillbillies as depicted in the movie, he did have other distinct challenges. One such hindrance was that there were about a dozen portages around dams—all of which involved unloading the contents of the canoe, carrying the canoe over land around the river obstacle, then reloading the cargo onto the canoe again. Portaging (portage Fr. “to carry”) a canoe requires tremendous work and patience. In some instances, security became a concern over fears of theft since a portage involves leaving the canoe several times while carrying one’s cargo upriver. In another scary episode, the young man was shot at on a reservation in Poplar; and he even heard of another paddler who’d been killed or died a mysterious death that same year at Fort Peck. In yet another moment of misfortune, the young man lost his canoe in North Dakota, only to be retrieved the next day by a fisherman after a frantic search. On top of all of these misfortunes, capsizing was of regular concern, as was getting literally sucked under on dam approaches. In no way were the waters always calm. Water can have untamable power; and, for one young water traveler, the prospect of death was at times only a few paddle-strokes away.
Vessels of all shapes and sizes have long used the navigable river as an important trade and commerce route since the days of fur trading and Westward Expansion. Passing towed river barges was not uncommon on the Missouri. A canoeist floating alongside, as a matter of scale, would surely feel like an ant when compared to an enormous flat-bottomed barge—a vessel capable of handling some sixty semi-loads of bulk goods.
As for accommodations, the lad would sometimes stay over at houses of people he’d just met who’d graciously put him up for a night or two. The hosts typically allowed him to sleep on a waterbed or cot, fed him, and offered to launder his river-stenched clothes. There were always people to meet, a place to stay, and food to satiate “canoeist hunger.” Once a policeman even permitted him to sleep in jail; but, as the story goes, the officer was required by the power of law to lock the cell door! Not all inmates are guilty after all.
Money was tight and, when the young man didn’t have two nickels to rub together, he had to find a creative means of income to sustain his adventurous enterprise. At one point in the trip, the young fellow even went to a carnival looking for work. When the carnival was in town, he’d find work as a carnie setting up amusement rides and handling lines. After earning a quick wad of cash, he resumed his Montana-to-Missouri river excursion.
For you see, the happy-go-lucky figure whom I have been describing—the swashbuckler who daringly paddled the entire Missouri River at the tender age of twenty-three and who received help and hospitality from the kindness of strangers—would one day come to help someone else with a similar motive and ambition for the outdoors.
Scott, of whom the aforementioned story is about, came to my aid early on in my long-distance hike of the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT). In point of fact, I did not know him nor had ever heard of him; however, he found me. He must have seen something in me, perhaps a connection with his former self. For this man, if anyone at all, knew firsthand what it was like to be out there on one’s own for months at a time.
He was 23 then. Now, all these years later, he is a caring father of two and an 8th grade science teacher in Newcomerstown. With much enthusiasm, Scott regularly shares my hiker updates with his middle school students and even provides didactic guidance to his students, relating such topics as topography, land and water travel, and natural water sources. Scott and his whole eighth grade class at Newcomerstown Middle School are following right along with my ECT hike and tracking my progress via satellite. In a display of support, Scott drove nine hours from Tuscarawas County, Ohio to the trail town of Dalton, Georgia, just as I was passing through on the Pinhoti Trail. Intercepted in Dalton, I had the wonderful privilege of meeting Scott. As a sort of “trail archangel,” he kindly put me up in a hotel suite; and the two of us went to Outback Steakhouse, a selection which was of no coincidence since Outback is my trail name.
Hearing of Scott’s past adventure as a long-distance canoeist, I began relating his experience to my own. How intriguing it is that the two of us came together, bound by a common interest; indeed, human experiential ties can transcend even blood kinship. Perhaps I am viewed as a younger version of himself or maybe a long-lost young brother; whatever the case, one’s greatest advocate, collaborator, and fidus Achates might just be an unknown person who comes into a life just at the right time. Is it “coincidence” or “happenstance,” as Nimblewill Nomad doubtfully put it, that brings people together or could there be more? Scott comforted me in the same way that he was once comforted, a sentiment found in the New Testament (2 Cor. 1:3-4). You know goodwill and assistance may derive from the unlikeliest of places. Scott, a perfect stranger whom I never would have otherwise known, offered both financial and moral backing to ensure that I succeed. Someone whom I had never known until recently believed in me and that has made all the difference! His frequent encouragement and benevolence has fostered much hope in my getting all the way up to Belle Isle in the northernmost reaches of Newfoundland.
One good turn deserves another. In return, I too want to help and inspire others, particularly young people who struggle with a lack of self-confidence as I had. My wish is that they would follow their heart and, with their God-granted physical strength and mental fortitude, accomplish something truly extraordinary. “Believe you can,” Teddy Roosevelt once remarked, “and you’re halfway there.”
To the middle schoolers of Newcomerstown who have a whole world in front of them and to the teacher I never even had who helped me believe in myself, I send a warm thank you!