Trash, Traffic and Transformations

“American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash –all of them– surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusted automobiles, and almost smothered in rubbish.  Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so called packaging we love so much.  The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.”

-John Steinbeck, “Travels with Charley: In Search of America”

Top 5 Highlights (It’s been a great couple of weeks!):

  1. Staying at Hotel Jarzemkoski– Resting and recharging with Cathy, Walt and Hank made one of our best stops of the trip.  They tried to put all the weight Nick lost back on his bones with pork steaks (Walt’s specialty), manicotti and homemade cheesecake.  Thanks for making our time in Kansas City unforgettable!IMG_7893
  2. Visiting Hermann, MO– The grocery store was close to the river, and we enjoyed the small-town main street vibe.  Don’t miss eating at Montague’s- not only did we have one of our best meals, but Louis Montague sent us away with brisket and pulled pork for the river.  Incredible! montegues
  3. Most miles in a day– We were at Waverly, MO, and needed to get to Cooper’s Landing- 123 river miles away.  Just for fun we wondered if we could make in one full day.  We started paddling at midnight and after 23 hours, a moonless night and serious fatigue we made it to Cooper’s.
  4. Conference call with cityWILD–  It was a blast to present our project to the kids at cityWILD.  After I (Joe) gave my brief prepared remarks, we went into an unbelievable question and answer session.  Some of my favorite questions were: “What do you do when people call you crazy?” A great question, one that she correctly guessed we’re asked frequently.  “Are you making this film to inspire people?” I responded that if our film inspires anyone, even a little, then I will be very proud.  To which she said, “You’ve inspired me!”
  5. Arriving in St. Louis– We’ve reached the arch and the Mississippi River!  We stayed at the Kanu House with Big Muddy Mike Clark for a couple days and then started on the heavily trafficked and immensely wider Mississippi. stloue1

Bottom 2 Lowlights:

  1. Lack of Campsites– The water’s been running high on the MO and the few campsites we could find are muddy (muddy to us means stepping out of your boat at the shore only to sink to your knee in mud-like gunk).
  2. Paddling an Industrial River– The river has changed pretty drastically since we left the lakes.  More on this in the blog below.

The Blog

There are several stages in our journey where the river’s character starkly changes.  When Hell-Roaring Creek exited Hell-Roaring Canyon, the mountain stream lost some its momentum, started winding back and forth and became deep enough for us to launch our first set of boats.  When the Missouri River slowed and then stopped at the beginning of Fort Peck Reservoir we would find ourselves traveling across lakes for the greater part of the next two states.

And now we’ve arrived at yet another, and perhaps the last, significant character change of the Missouri/Mississippi.  Soon after the lakes end, the river becomes channelized which allows for commercial transportation.  Less prominent are the side channels, sandbars and islands as they are replaced by wing dikes, the channel, buoys and mile markers.  The presence of humankind’s engineering is evident with every bend.

Power plants line the riverbank, their enormous smokestack dwarfing the surrounding trees.  Their pipes and those of water treatment plants, sewers and other unknown sources frequently discharge their unknown solution (at least to us) into the water we’re sitting atop.factory2

But by far the most saddening transformation is the amount of trash we see.  It tends to intensify around urban areas (Sioux City, Omaha, Kansas City and St. Louis), but we’ve seldom had a campsite since leaving the lakes that’s been devoid of refuse.

What type of trash do we come across?  Some of it you might expect- a lot of plastic bottles, some glass bottles and particles of styrofoam.  Other pieces have amazed us- refrigerators, ovens, fluorescent lightbulbs, tires, a dirt-biking helmet and more.  There was one time I (Joe) saw a red square-like box floating in the water, similar in appearance to Folgers coffee container.  As I approached, the box said Sharpes: Do Not Overfill on the lid.  “That’s strange,” I thought and continued on paddling.  A couple hours later after a snack break I opened the lid to find it was full of needles.  A box… of needles…. in the RIVER!! tire

It has become our habit to pick up the garbage when we see it on the water or at our campsite.  It’s frustrating because there is so much trash, and we can’t pick it all up or carry everything on our kayaks.  I was once asked by a man on a fishing boat what all the junk in the front of my boat was, and after responding it was garbage from the river the man replied, “You’re going to need a much bigger boat if you’re trying to clean up this river.”  I thought, but didn’t say, “No, what I need is not a larger boat, but more boats joining in.”

Fortunately that’s exactly what we found.  At 11:30 pm, after paddling 23 hours straight, Steve Schnarr of Missouri River Relief met us on the boat ramp at Cooper’s Landing.  He became an instant friend when we learned the Thai food in his hand and the fire at the campsite were for us.  The next afternoon we joined Steve and Jeff Barrow on a river clean up.  It felt rewarding to haul away some of the “big-ticket” items like buoys, tires and a fridge, and we were inspired to know there are people who are so dedicated to the river.mrr

As we paddle on towards the Gulf, the river will only become larger, the barges longer and we’ll probably see even more trash.  Not every piece of garbage was maliciously or drunkenly tossed into the river.  Most probably aren’t actually.  They come from a society that is accustomed to single use plastic and when our use is so extensive it becomes inevitable for some of it to fall, float or be blown into our rivers and other natural places.  Of course I was thinking about all of this as I ate my Thai food in a styrofoam take-out container with plastic utensils.  As someone who is certainly part of the problem I’m saying our current process isn’t working and we need to come up with a better way.


  • Robin and Connie Kalthoff made us some awesome fried chicken in Waverly!  Thanks for the food, friendship and music! robinconnie
  • We stayed with Big Muddy Mike Clark at the Kanu House in St. Louis.  We spent hours swapping river stories and hearing about what his life is like in beleaguered St. Louis.  If you are ever in Missouri and want to paddle on the Mo or the Mississippi look up Big Muddy Adventures!mark
  • Omaha was an awesome city to explore and part of the reason why was because our good friend Jim Crowther adjusted his schedule to be there!  Thanks for making it happen Jim!
  • And a big shout out to Ken and Cathy Caiazza who are celebrating their 28th wedding anniversary this weekend. Congratulations, we both can’t to see you when we hit New Orleans!

Special thanks to our sponsor:

  • cityWILD is a non-profit in Denver, Colorado that takes underserved youth out into the rivers and mountains of Colorado.  CityWILD directly addresses the lack of connection many young people have to natural places and uses the outdoor world to teach life skills.  To support cityWILD you can donate, volunteer or go rafting with their in-house rafting company!  To learn more check out their website or, better yet, attend the Rendezvous this Oct. 16th from 6-8pm at Denver’s City Park Pavillion.  (In full disclosure Joe is a board member with cityWILD and is unabashedly biased because he has seen first hand the difference they make)

What’s Next:

  • We’ve travelled beyond the end of Lewis and Clark’s journals and have joined Huck and Tom on the Mississippi.  Memphis is less than a week away, and we’re glad to be traveling south as the seasons change.  We have set our arrival date in New Orleans for Nov. 15th (hurricanes permitting).  Anyone who would like to join the celebration is welcome!!