The Utmost Missouri

Photo_Norm Miller

Expedition kayaker and explorer Mark Kalch just completed a 117-day, 3,780-mile, source-to-sea descent of the Missouri-Mississippi River system. In completing the longest river in North America (fourth longest in the world), Kalch becomes the first person to ever paddle the river from the system’s “utmost source” to where it empties into the ocean. Kalch can also stake the sole claim of having paddled from source to sea on both the longest rivers in North and South America (Amazon River, 2008).

Beginning June 11 on snowshoes in Montana’s Centennial Mountains, Kalch trekked to Brower’s Spring. From there he followed the water on foot for two days until big enough to launch his 17-foot P&H Scorpio. Four months later—through 12 states, numerous dam portages, countless wildlife encounters, and dodging barge and commercial boat traffic on the lower river—Kalch completed on Oct. 5, “a mental and physical endeavour like few others,” paddling his final strokes on the river beyond Port Eads, La., and into the breaking waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Gathering and publishing stories about the river and the people connected to it, his aim was to highlight the importance of the world’s largest rivers. “The descent this time around was designed to take a bit of focus off of me the paddler and back on the river and the communities connected to it,” Kalch says, noting the lack of personal and location updates on his website. “Instead I tried to put together articles closely connected to the river (i.e. barge industry, dams, fishing, Lewis and Clark). After being on a number of expeditions where all the talk and focus is continually on the participant, I thought it was about time to put focus back on, in this case, the river. I purposefully disconnected myself from the ‘real world’ in order to put myself deeper into the project—I did not want to sit on an epic sandbar camp with the sun setting over the trees and feel the need to take a shot and tweet it.”

Kalch’s 7 Rivers 7 Continents project sees him making source-to-sea paddling descents of the longest river on each continent. With prior trekking expeditions across Ethiopia’s Omo Valley and Iran, Kalch has spoken on several occasions for the Royal Geographical and National Geographic societies. We caught up with him before he flew back home to London.

CANOE & KAYAK: What do you mean, “utmost” source? Where/when did the trip actually start?
MARK KALCH: As you are no doubt aware, by name the Missouri River begins at Three Forks where the Galatin, Madison, and Jefferson rivers converge. It is here most and nearly all full-length Missouri River paddles begin (ending just above St. Louis). However, my project calls for ‘source to sea’ descents. Obviously there is water coming from above Three Forks. So which of the three tributaries to follow back up? Of the three, the Jefferson is longest. Before it is so-named, it is the Beaverhead, before that the Red Rock River, then Red Rock Creek and prior to that Hell Roaring Creek. Where does Hell Roaring Creek issue from? Brower’s Spring. Literally a spring from the ground. Above Brower’s Spring, any water flowing down that side of the Continental Divide is not perennial. The definition of ‘source’ that I use is also used by the USGS and National Geographic. Surprisingly, that ever-so-untrustworthy fact source, Wikipedia, gives a well-referenced and explained definition HERE.

At Brower’s Spring in early June, there was still a lot of snow about and I spent a good part of my first day trekking to the spring on snowshoes. Once there I followed the water down the valley. Hell Roaring Creek is steep and narrow. Runnable?  In parts perhaps, and I do know of a couple of guys who had a crack at a descent of it alone. But with so much snow and low water, not this year. As it emerges from a canyon it widens somewhat but is very shallow, before flowing in Upper and Lower Red Rock lakes which are part of the Red Rock Lakes Bird Refuge—closed in June to any boating—so I followed their shoreline until water issued out of the lower lake. Here I put in with my P & H Scorpio 170, a 17-foot plastic sea kayak. I paddled that boat for the remaining 115 days.

So you started in a sea kayak?
I am a team paddler for P & H but it was the first time I paddled the Scorpio for any length of time and it was awesome. Just a machine. For the almost 300 miles from the spring to Three Forks, which took me about 10 days, the creek/river winds and bends continuously and frustratingly. At this point the waterway is about, say, 20 feet, as wide as a single lane of sealed road. And even now after 3,780 miles and a ton of abuse, apart from some superficial hull scratches, it remains in perfect condition.  Really happy with it.  But of course I would say that wouldn’t I?

Any other gear essentials?
In camp my MSR Reactor stove was brilliant. I relied on instant oats, coffee, oat bars, chocolate bars, trail mix and those normal rice or pasta side-dishes from the supermarket supplemented with tuna or sardine pouches.  The Reactor, while not a machine built for simmering, was perfect.  On the stretch from Brower’s Spring I had a canister last 14 days, used every day. Otherwise, books get me through a long expedition. Ideally I would have had a Kindle but budget did not extend that far. I read a lot of thriller, adventure easy-reading novels. I really dig Clive Cussler. He probably won’t win any fancy literary prizes for his writing but plenty of action and excitement!

Did you do it all solo?
I paddled alone the entire way save for four or five days in Montana. I ran into a 70-year-old chap in a canoe who was attempting Three Forks to Saint Louis. He had ridden his bicycle around the world a number of years back but was a novice canoeist. He was keen to paddle with me particularly across 130-mile-plus Fort Peck lake. He was a bit apprehensive about storms and high winds on three-mile open-water crossings. We discussed the prospect that at some point I would have to continue even if he could not and sure enough that is what happened on the lake. He made it across the lake eventually but was called home for one reason or another, and now wants to come back and continue next year.

Did you rely on any other info from other Missouri-Miss. paddlers? How can you be sure nobody else has through-paddled Missouri-to-Mississippi?
Making this a first is so far from my priority as to be almost non-existent, however, I have done a lot of research into descents of the Missouri-Mississippi. As Three Forks has been for so many years accepted as the beginning of the Missouri, any descent has generally started from there. I do know Verlen Kruger began a descent from somewhere below the Red Rock lakes but not, I believe, all the way to the Gulf, beyond mile-marker 0 and the remaining 14 miles down the South Pass. In 2011, a really nice guy called Andy Bugh attempted a source-to-sea of the waterway. Unfortunately, because of the snow levels he could not get close to Brower’s Spring and he finished his descent by leaving the main river (Mississippi) and entering the Gulf via the Achatalafaya River, a shorter descent to the Gulf (and incorrect if claiming a source-to-sea descent. Which I do not believe Andy ever claimed). Norm Miller has been like the godfather on the upper Missouri for me and indeed a lot of paddlers for the last few years. Similarly as far as Norm knows, no one else has begun at Brower’s Spring and finished at the Gulf.

What was the hardest/worst part of the trip?
Of course they can be super-difficult and often soul destroying but only in relative terms. If my latest descent got too hard, you know what? I could just stop. If I am a refugee living in a camp in sub-Saharan Africa, when things get tough I just have to keep on toughing it out. If I am a marine on patrol in Helmand province in Afghanistan, I have to go on each patrol wondering if today is the day I step on an IED or a sniper gets me. That is tough. For me these journeys are just slightly more exhausting holidays! Ha! I don’t want to understate how hard paddling 4,000 miles is but I hope you get what I mean. The Amazon was a lot more death-defying, as I am sure the Nile and Yangtze will be, but as above. There is always an out.

In saying that, by far the most difficult aspect of this descent was being apart from my family for four months—my partner, my 2-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter.  Now and then I could Skype them or speak on the phone but in four months they have grown so much. In terms of particular stretches of difficulty there are three: the upper section from Brower’s Spring to Three Forks with the river bottoming out so much, going slow, speeding up, the river banks limiting what you could see day-after-day except a tunnel of water, plus ranchers having strung fences of wire, barbed wire, electric wires and even roofing sheets across the river, where coming around a sharp bend at speed and spotting a few strands of barbed wire across the river meant for some evasive action; the lakes were often difficult as I paddled 15 lakes (often windy making life not so much fun!) and portaged 15 dams manually, with the big three of Fort Peck (130 miles-plus), Sakakwea (150 miles-plus), and Oahe (230 miles- plus); then the final 300 miles of river jammed with boats of every type—barges, tow boats, tug boats, crew boats and huge container ships and tankers. You’re pretty much invisible to them and a lot slower, in a sluggish river.

Likewise, what was the most memorable day you’ll look back on?
So many memorable days. Paddling into Three Forks to finish the first section was great. Finishing the final lake and moving on to flowing water was pretty awesome. Of course paddling into the breaking waves of the Gulf of Mexico was special. But there were countless, I suppose ‘normal’ days which were made special by a sunset, meeting someone by the river and stopping to chat or a beautiful section of river. All special.

Anything strike you about the health of the river system?
I was really surprised by how at least superficially the rivers all seemed. I expected the visible impact of towns and cities that lay on the rivers to be so much more. Guys like American Rivers and Missouri River Relief have done huge things to clean up the rivers which is fantastic. It is hard to tell as you paddle by, the impact of farm runoff, factory pipes, and general waste, though.

What’s the winter hold? Which river expedition is next on the radar?
Winter sees me moving to Argentina for four years—more rivers to paddle and mountains to climb. Next river is still up in the air. I really am attracted to the Volga for its historical and cultural aspects. But planning for the Nile and Yangtze will be ongoing.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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