The Stories Come Alive

We are proud to officially present our 15 minute video to everyone that followed along on our expedition!

Blackwater Drifters from BLACKWATER DRIFTERS on Vimeo.

A quick update on the team:

Nick is currently driving around the country getting additional footage and interviews in order to potentially make a longer version of the movie.  If people enjoy the 15 min video, then we’ll devote additional time and resources to putting together an 80-100 min version.  Nick’s road-trip will end in New York, where he will surely burst into the film world and rise to the top of his profession.  Any references people can send Nick in the film world will only hasten his success.

Joe is staying in Colorado and will be devoting his time and energy to becoming a firefighter.  Having recently received his EMT certification, Joe looks forward to spending his time helping those in their most stressful days.  He is also continuing his community involvement and has recently been appointed as the President on the Board of Directors for cityWILD.

This may be one of the last posts for the BWD project, but this won’t be the last of our adventures.  Since we’ve returned Nick has worked on another movie in Guatemala (https://nickdoesgua.wordpress.com) and has road-tripped across the country, and Joe has kayaked part of the Green River in Utah and climbed a number of 14ers.  We look forward to sharing our future adventures with you and being a supportive audience member for all of your adventures too!

The Other is an Angel

“I am only one, but I am one.  I cannot do everything, but I can do something.  And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

– Edward Everett Hale

Top 4 Highlights:

  1. Boarding the Alitis– Once we hit Baton Rouge the ocean going vessels appeared.  We remember how massive the first barges seemed, and the barges were now dwarfed by the cargo ships.  We waved to the crews three stories above our heads, and after passing 30 or so vessels, the captain of the Alitis happened to be taking an evening walk with his wife.  After hearing our story he insisted that we join them on board.  We ate dinner with the captain, swapped stories with the Filipino crew (two of which were aboard ships that had been taken hostage by Somali pirates for 6 months!), gazed at pictures taken from around the world and had a great interview with the captain before paddling away the next morning.

alitis crew

  1. Staying in Paulina, LA– Paddlers are often seen as an inconvenience in the industrial parts of the river, so you can imagine our surprise when we saw a sign that said “Welcome Paddlers” in Paulina.  We ate some incredible gumbo, restocked on groceries and talked into the night with Trixie, Charlie, and Wayne about our trip and what it’s like living in Louisiana.

paulina crew

  1. Reaching the Gulf of Mexico– We both vividly remember looking at a map 50 days into our trip, still in Montana, and wondering how in the world we were going to get Louisiana.  We’ll try our best to describe the complex feelings we had below.

thegulf

  1. Celebrating with loved ones in New Orleans– In what we would call one of the best weekends of our entire lives, friends and family from coast to coast joined in New Orleans to celebrate with us.  If we had known all we needed was to do was a little paddling to get such wonderful people together we would have started a lot sooner!

nickscrew joecrew

Bottom Lowlight:

  1. Paddling the “Cancer Corridor”– There are so many oil refineries, power plants and chemical plants lining the river from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that locals call that stretch the “Cancer Corridor.”  With the boat wakes and wind it was impossible to eliminate contact with water entirely.

CF factory

Blog

7 months ago we thought we knew the world.  We were college educated with degrees in anthropology, business, film and ethnic studies, and we felt we had a grasp of the challenges and their antagonists surrounding our waterways.

It felt like we were embarking on a noble march to expose the abandon and potential malice that people have towards the river.  We were subconsciously separating and “other-ing” (creating a “them” in an “us vs. them” binary), and if we could only show what these people were doing wrong we could start improving the water’s quality.

What we found couldn’t have been further from our assumptions.

Meeting Them

The term for someone who helps a distance paddler is a river angel.  Unknown to us before we began, river angels assist with some of the difficulties faced when stepping away from the conveniences of traditional life.  We had angels who drove us to far off grocery stores, they let us recharge our batteries and shower at their house and others who gave even more.  Typically not incredibly wealthy, they went out of their way to participate and support us.

Many of these people were also involved in contributing to the river’s challenges.  We met ranchers raising livestock for feedlots, salespeople for agricultural chemicals, industrial farmers and oil and gas workers.  While riding in the back of their car we’d invariably think, “wait a second, this person is supposed to be part of the problem, but yet they’re extending kindness to us.”  It becomes difficult to keep seeing someone as the “other” after you find you like them.

We met hard-working Americans focused on providing the best they could for their families.  They want clean water for their communities and their downstream neighbors and found themselves operating in a system they didn’t design.

Gradually we understood that many people didn’t realize how their actions impacted the waterway.  Other times they felt there were not viable alternatives.  Still more attributed their choices as responses to the desires of consumers even further removed from the waterway (Nick and I are certainly among these consumers).

Salt Water

At 10:30 am on November 14th, we made our final paddle-strokes to the Gulf of Mexico.  After 163 days of camping, kayaking and living outside we had reached salt water.

Out of curiosity we researched the average time it takes to do other adventures:

  • 4-7 weeks to bike across the United States
  • 6-9 weeks to climb Everest
  • 8 weeks to walk across Antarctica
  • 9-13 weeks to paddle the entire Mississippi River
  • 13-15 weeks to drive from Alaska to Argentina
  • 20 weeks to hike the Pacific Crest Trail
  • 23 weeks to kayak from Browers Spring, MT, to the Gulf of Mexico

I don’t know if my writing skills are fully up to the task of describing what the moment felt like when we reached the Gulf.  Words like “surreal,” “amazing,” and “unbelievable” seem empty and underwhelming.

There was certainly elation and an energizing pride in our accomplishment.  For almost 6 months we woke up every day with the singular goal of reaching the ocean.  But there was also melancholy in knowing it was all over.  The days of sleeping in a tent, being present for every sunset and routinely seeing wild animals were about to come to an end.  And mixed in as well was relief- relief in knowing our boats, our bodies, our gear and our resolve had lasted the entire way.

But there was one more emotion present as we floated into the ocean, one that would have been hard to imagine before the trip started. Gratitude.  A soul-warming, can’t-help-but-make-you-smile gratitude for the people we met along the way and all that they taught us.  Our classroom assumptions were broken down, and we found the antagonist we formerly envisioned was actually a friend and ally.  They were on our mind when we drifted into the Gulf, and they’ll be on our minds when we create the documentary.

The world became more vibrant and complex once we left the classroom.

Shoutouts

  • We needed to charge our batteries and restock on food before paddling through the “Cancer Corridor,” and Travis Allen went above and beyond.  We had a blast hanging out with him, hearing about his adventures and learning more about Baton Rouge.

travis

  • We stopped for one night in New Orleans on our way to the Gulf, and A.J. Foret was remarkably helpful.  He gave us a walking tour of Bourbon and Frenchmans St, the ability to charge our batteries and cooked breakfast for us the next morning.

photo

  • James Madere, on behalf of Parish President Billy Nungesser, coordinated a pick-up for us by the Port Authority at the end of the Southwest Pass.  James, Billy and the Port Authority crew made our lives so much easier by allowing us to avoid paddling back up river 20 miles to the closest road.

Gear Review:

Our final gear review has to be about Hobie.  This is the first time a Hobie kayak and a MirageDrive (the pedal system) have journeyed from source to sea.

Most paddlers sell their boats in the over-supplied market of New Orleans for a fraction of what they’re worth because it makes traveling home easier.  There was no way we were going to get rid of our boats after everything we’ve been through with them.  The boats arrived at the Gulf in superb condition (other than the many scrapes and scratches), and we wish would have known not to worry about something breaking when we first started.

Hobieedited

What’s Next:

It’s time to bring our experience to life for others.  From 1,000s of hours of footage we’ll bring you the most entertaining 1.5 hours accompanied by colorful and expert interviews. Interviews like this one we did with Norm Miller (river angel and historian):

Norman Miller Interview from BLACKWATER DRIFTERS on Vimeo.

We’ll continue to post about our progress through our website.  Future blogs will recount what the transition back to “traditional life” is like, changes we’ve made to our lifestyle after our experience, and our top lists of meals, campsites and cities.

The next phase of the project now begins…

A Creative Odyssey

“Rivers flow not past but through us; tingling, vibrating, exciting every cell and fiber in our bodies, making them sing and glide.”

-John Muir

Top 3 Highlights:

1.  Entering Louisiana– 5 months ago we stood in Montana and wondered how in the world we were going to reach Louisiana..  We’re finally here!taluula,LA

2.  Trash Competitions– We paddled a couple days with Bill (Great Lakes to the Gulf), Matt (Minneapolis to the Gulf), and Scott (Ohio River to Florida).  One morning Bill found a large tube on the beach and started a trash challenge where he assigned points for the type and size of trash we pulled from the river. trash2

3.  Hanging out with Matt and Jacelyn– Nick’s friend Matt said he was so inspired by our project that he quit his job and embarked on a country-wide road trip with his girlfriend Jacelyn.  We met up with them in Vicksburg, MS for some BBQ and a food resupply.10382775_10203099968405086_3660952444999317526_n

Bottom Lowlight:

1.  Walking through the Jungle– Joe needed to restock on food in Mayersville, MS.  The map application on his phone said there wasn’t a road from the river to town, so he hiked the 2,000 ft through the vines, poison ivy and dense forest to load up on food and water.  Seeing Mayersville was worth the effort though!

The Blog

This week the filmmaker of our crew, Nicholas Caiazza, put together a video blog to give a behind the scenes perspective on what filming on the river is like. Many factors can alter a production and on the river the only recipe for success is to go with the flow. The river dictates the production on various levels from when we’re able to recharge batteries to dictating shooting schedules with inclement weather.  At the end of the day keeping our gear dry and operational is the most important. Our success thus far is thanks to five easy steps that can also benefit your artistic passions in the natural world.

For those who aren’t as passionate as Nick about film, the “Filmmaker’s Perspective” will offer a sneak peek at how we gathered some of the footage for our upcoming documentary “Blackwater Drifters” coming Spring 2015.

Filmmaker’s Perspective: A Creative Odyssey from BLACKWATER DRIFTERS on Vimeo.

Gear Review:

  • We want to take a minute to again say thank you to Sachtler for providing us with gear that has made our production efficient and dynamic. Unfortunately, during the storm (featured in “When Storms Explode and Barges Attack”), the tripod sunk along with several other items. Thankfully we’re still able to use the Ace Follow Focus for handheld shots which allows us to get crisp images without sacrificing image stability. Rn3c3D3jOpseSB3ibFOkMQ

Shoutouts:

  • Bryan at the Grand Hotel in Natchez, MS welcomed us into his bar with open arms.  Thanks for making Natchez so great Mark and Bryan!bryan

Up Next:

  • We…. are…. so…. close!  Only about 350 miles to the ocean and our source to sea expedition will be successful!  Our next blog post is one we’ve been holding in reserve until the very end to present.

When Storms Explode and Barges Attack

“Death is natural and necessary but not just.  It is a random force of nature; survival is equally accidental.  Each loss is an occasion to remember that survival is a gift.”

-Harriet McBryde Johnson

Top 2 Highlights:

1. Arriving in Memphis– The hospitality and warmth our new-found friends extended to us was wonderful.  Dale and Merriam Sanders, Tom Graves, Papaw Richard Day and more made our stay incredibly special.  We were honored to sign the paddler Wall of Fame too!FDS_3398

2. Memphis Night Out– The Drifters were joined by all-star paddler Bill “One Gallon” Nedderman and Memphis resident Tom Graves for ribs at Rendezvous and music on Beale Street.bealestreet

Bottom 2 Lowlights:

1.  Weather Again: We had less than one hour of sunlight for Days 127-132.  Our journals recount the best part of our days being when the sun peeked out for a couple minutes.

2.  The Incident…  We had one of our lowest lows of the entire trip on Day 131.  Full details are relived below.

The Blog

This blog post was going to be titled “The Opportunists,” and we planned on telling you about how our current lifestyle presents certain challenges not faced in traditional life.  We were supposed to tell you all about how we find electrical outlets in random places (fish gutting stations, grocery stores, libraries, etc.), sleep in bizarre spots (next to bars, in backyards, etc.) and how our limitations have forced us to interact with people we otherwise might not have.

That was the plan until Day 131- then everything changed.

That day started as each of the previous four did- dreary and gray with headwinds pushing against us with every paddle-stroke.  Periodically we would see darker clouds with rain (which we would paddle through) and a few with lightning (which we would wait out on the shore).  As we kayaked into the afternoon we found ourselves separated- Joe elected to cross the channel while Nick stayed in the channel next to the bank (the channel is the area made deep enough for barges.  As the river winds, the channel shifts from left to right.  It’s the fastest place to paddle, but one must be vigilant for oncoming barges).

After we separated the wind and waves intensified.  Joe pushed through the waves to wait for Nick on a sandbar, and Nick decided the passing had become too treacherous and pulled over to the shore closest to him (a picture with their routes can be seen below).

Wearied from the onslaught of wind all day, Joe sat on the sandbar and endured the sand being whipped up.  Nick had a better spot, sitting on an incline across the channel.  At this point Joe texted Nick, “Running low on battery.  Let’s chill for a bit then reconnect on the water.  Thunderstorms and wind forecasted until midnight.”  Nick replied, “I’ll watch your movement… I could ferry across and meet you further down to camp if need be.”

As Joe turned off his phone, he looked south and saw the most menacing and ominous clouds of the day.  Nick had decent coverage, but Joe was on an exposed and barren sandbar, no place for a storm with lightning.  Thinking he’d see Nick at camp later on, he set out into the wind and waves to find better shelter, keeping within 20 feet of the shore.

As he paddled along the shore Joe saw a black curtain develop underneath the storm cloud.  200 yards after leaving his first sandbar landing the curtain reached the far bank of the river.  Then it hit him.

It felt like a concussion from an exploding bomb as the wind drove against Joe’s boat, driving him to shore.  It was joined by rain so thick that visibility dropped to 10 ft in any direction.  Shivering, cold and wet, Joe sat next to his boat waiting for the storm to end, grateful Nick didn’t have to deal with this too.

But Joe was wrong.  Nick saw Joe take off in a hurry and jumped in his boat too.  He couldn’t see the storm approaching from his perspective, so he hustled to cross the channel ahead of a barge coming upriver.

It wasn’t until he started into the channel that he too saw the storm.  The clouds had moved slowly that day, so he thought he could make the crossing in time.  Halfway into the channel, the worst place to get caught, Nick was hit.  His journal entry that night is the best way to relive his experience:

“There was no escape button, no way out.  Then the K.O. wave hit and I was flung into the water.  I was losing everything, the torture became real when I said to myself, can I do this?  There was no way for me to right the boat in those conditions, so I pulled myself up and sat on top of the over-turned kayak, but I wasn’t dead.”

As the visibility began to clear Nick saw the barge getting closer, and he’s still in the channel.  He realized he couldn’t make the sandbar so he resolved to avoid the upcoming barge by paddling back to the channelized shore.  He resumes:

“I paddled for my life.  I paddled with all my gear dragging in the water behind me.  For those 20 minutes I paddled harder than I ever have and gave everything to one task: to stay alive.  It showed no signs of slowing.  I knew I’d be crushed if I didn’t get out of the way.  With 10 feet to spare I cleared the barge- I never want to be that close to a barge again.  Somehow I went from nearly drowning in a rainstorm and thinking I might die to passing an oncoming barge dragging gear behind and having a boat full of water.”

Fortunately Nick escaped with his life and made his way to shore.  When he reached the riverbank he began tallying up what he lost- two bags of clothes, the main camera (with footage from that day and the previous day on it), a lens, the camera batteries, the Sachtler tripod and a hard-drive with the previous month’s footage on it (luckily we had a backup).

Shaken by the river, he pitched his tent right then and there on a slanted concrete slab and hoped Joe was alright (Joe left the sandbar for a second time after the storm passed and was camped inside some willows across the river). incendent map

(Diagram of the river and Joe and Nick’s routes)

The next morning Nick was still unnerved, but was back on the water headed to Memphis where they could resupply.  Most of the time our experience is peaceful and challenged by hours of paddling.  Then there are other times where the river transforms and the struggle becomes much larger than just making it to the next town.joenickmemphis

(One quick note on the footage from that day: Nick had some great shots on the lost camera but fortunately Joe captured part of the experience on the GoPro (for once it was unfogged).  Nick also did a personal address on his phone minutes after he reached shore, so stay tuned for the movie to see the full experience.)

Shoutouts:

  • The crew at the Economy Boat Store was unbelievable.  In addition to letting us complete our previous blog and fill our water bottles they also hooked us up with some groceries!  Thank you to Jodie Davenport, Mike, Kevin and Floyd.photo
  • Dale and Merriam Sanders let us stay with them at their beautiful home in Memphis and got the paddling community together to swap stories.  We can’t wait to see you again!
  • We had to spend almost an entire day collecting new camera gear for the expedition and Papaw Richard Day was patient enough to shuttle us around.  Thank you for the great conversation too!
  • We learned more about Memphis from Professor Graves than we could have ever found on our own.  Thanks for taking us to Gus’s, Rendezvous and Beale St. Tom!
  • Another round of care packages arrived just in time!  A huge thank you to Denise Weber, Elizabeth Niere and Cathy Caiazza. 

Gear Review:

  • By now you can tell we get wet.  Rain and river water find ways of covering  us which is why keeping our gear dry with Pelican cases s so important.  We keep our laptop and film gear in our cases and are thrilled we can depend on them.

What’s Next:

  • Only 660 miles to the Gulf now, which means we’ve paddled 3,100 miles!  We’re on our way down the Mississippi and should hit the Louisiana state line in the next week or so.  Our next blog post will be another video blog focusing on what it’s like from Nick’s perspective to film a movie while floating down the river.

 

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.

Shoutouts:

  • 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!!

A Day in the Life

“I’m not sure if we’re in a position of any wisdom but we’ve never let that stop us. So listen up…If you feel the urge to create and discover and do something that will bring you fulfillment and happiness do it now while you’re young. You will never have more energy or enthusiasm, hair or brain cells…”

– Ray Magliozzi of NPR’s CarTalk in a commencement speech at MIT in 1999

Top 3 Highlights:

1.  Visiting Pierre, SD– A fisherman and his son heard our story and invited us to their home to meet their friends, join the catfish fry and spend a night at their house.  The Tschetters were an incredible family and Brett even hooked us up with a radio interview the next morning. ChetChetter

2.  Finishing the Lakes/Portages–  That’s it!  They are finally over!  No more portaging, no more wind on the lakes, no more stagnant water once we hauled our boats around Gavins Point Dam after Lewis and Clark Lake.

3.  Nick’s Adoption in Papillion, NE– The Kinstler’s were an amazing family.  After Joe had a family emergency in Phoenix, the Kinstler’s warmly welcomed Nick into their home for 8 days. Mr. Caiazza was able to present to Creighton Kinstler’s class about what the expedition is about and what it’s like to live on a river for 5 or 6 months. Kinstlersnick talks to 3rd graders

Bottom 3 Lowlights:

1.  Portaging around Gavins Point Dam–  We were rounding Gavins Point Dam and found ourselves hauling our boats along a highway without a shoulder.  Every time we would see a car approach behind us we would yank our boats into the grass next to the road.  After 3 miles and a couple nasty uphill climbs we were ecstatic to see the river again.

2.  Headwinds on Lake Francis Case– Nick’s least favorite lake wasn’t on his list of expected challenges.  We had to work hard just to get 15 miles further on the lake for two days straight.

3.  Lightning/Sand Storm in Sioux City– 70 mph winds picked up sand and drove rain at  our tents in the middle of the night.  We awoke to a layer of sand on everything, wet clothes and bedding and hurled gear.

The Blog

In order to give you a better perspective on how we spend our days we’ve created a short “Day in the Life” video that captures our daily lives from sunrise to sunset. For all of you who wonder how it is we do what we do press play, sit back and enjoy the show.

A Day in the Life from BLACKWATER DRIFTERS on Vimeo.

Shoutouts

  • Larson’s Landing, SD– We drifted towards the sound of live music and were offered a place to stay for the night and cupcakes.  Thank you to Ed, Mindy and Jeff for making our stay so great! logans landing
  • Surfside Club (Nebraska)–  They were having their company party and invited us up to enjoy steaks, shrimp and pasta salad with them.  The next day the owner Mike was back again with delicious breakfast sandwiches to send us off. 

Special Thanks to our sponsor:

Ardent Logo PMS 172

Over the course of our journey we’ve had the chance to work with a multitude of companies and we’re proud to say that the Ardent team has supported us from day one. Ardent Learning has recently celebrated its 20th year of providing companies customized experiential learning modules to consistently elevate productivity and efficiency. Their involvement with our project connects with informing and investing in communities and creative educational modules around the country. Special thanks to Rich Fox and the rest of the Ardent team. We would not be here without your guidance and passion, continue to keep us in your hearts.

What’s Next

  • The Drifters are on their way to St. Louis and will soon be on the Mississippi River!  The river is becoming more industrial, and we’re at a flood stage water level (which makes camping a bit more challenging).

What Lakes Expect of You

“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life.  We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.  We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life- daily and hourly.”

-Viktor Frankl in “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Top 4 Highlights:

      1. Bismarck Friends–  One of our favorite receptions was in Bismarck, North Dakota.  We didn’t know where to camp in town, so we pulled over to ask at a restaurant and bar called Captain Freddy’s.  As we approached the owner met us and said, “I saw you guys floating past and I was hoping you’d stop.  Where the heck are you going with all that gear?”  After hearing our story he agreed to let us camp right next to the bar!  Thank you to Rick, Lannon, Lindsey, Brie, Meghan and everyone else at Captain Freddy’s for the warm welcome.  The next day we met up with a reporter and photographer (Brian and Tom) from the Bismarck Tribune and had a great time telling them about our misadventures and favorite moments. freddys
      2. Visiting Fort Union– Just as we crossed the border of Montana and North Dakota, we stopped at Fort Union, an old trading post during the frontier days.  Not only did we receive the VIP tour, but we were also treated to fruit cobbler and ribs they had cooked as a team earlier that day!
      3. Mud Jumping– The mud was pervasive on the Missouri just after the Yellowstone River confluence, so instead of letting this be one of our lowlights we jumped right in! Yellowstone River Confluence from BLACKWATER DRIFTERS on Vimeo.
      4. Hanging out with Ben and Hannah–  Nick’s brother (Ben Caiazza) and Ben’s girlfriend (Hannah Greenberg) drove 23 hours from Portland, Oregon to hang out with us before we started Lake Oahe.  The sunflowers, burgers and laughs were a wonderful way to rest up, and Nick was heart-warmed to have his brother support him in such a way. nick+ben

Bottom 3 Lowlights:

  1. Visting Williston– Williston is an oil boomtown in North Dakota, and after being on the water for a week straight we were hoping to relax in the town for a day or two.  We ended up leaving as fast as we could- the river wasn’t near the town so we had a two mile walk to the start of town, the roads were packed with pick-up trucks speeding around and the town felt like it was bursting at the seams (it’s estimated that 40,000 people have been crammed into this 10,000 person town).
  2. Lake Sakakawea’s Hills are on Fire– The second longest lake on the expedition (177 mi.), Sakakawea was rimmed by gas flares associated with the oil boom. williston
  3. Storms while paddling Lake Oahe– The longest lake on the expedition (231 mi.), Oahe had special challenges waiting for us that we’ll recount in the blog below.

Blog

This blog was going to be about how the lakes weren’t all that bad, how we were able to read while pedaling (we finished 4 books), and how all the hype was overblown.  Then we hit the last two days of Oahe and our perspective completely changed…

We were accustomed to wind and waves hitting us from all directions and had lost paddling days before because of strong headwinds (one on Fort Peck Lake and another on Lake Oahe).  On one of the days we tried to push through wind and waves careening toward us, we were paddling next to a paved path on the lakeshore in Mobridge, SD.  We’re giving it all we’ve got, fighting for feet and being pushed backwards with any pause, and we glance over at the shore and a young mom is leisurely pushing her stroller faster than us.  Time to head for shore and make camp…

So how did our final two days change our perspective?  In short the wind and waves were accompanied by thunderstorms. In our second to last day we were chased off the water twice by storms as we tried to round the notorious Big Bend (the river curls out and then back to where it started making a total as-the-crow-flies distance of ¼ mile but paddling distance of 15 miles. oahe This section is known for its severe weather).  We heard the first storm approaching, hustled to shore and waited out the thunderclaps and ensuing downpour for about an hour.  We eventually embarked again and as the hours passed we had blue skies and even a little wind at our backs.  Then storm #2 hit.

The Big One

Whereas the first storm was pocketed within an overcast sky, storm #2 rose menacingly out of a blue sky, the contrast from light blue to black clearly marking the battle lines.  While we could hear the thunder but not always see the lightning in storm #1, storm #2 shot bolts of lightning to the ground across its entire front.storm What followed was some of the fastest paddling we’ve ever done.  As the lightning zapped closer to our wakes, we finally made it to shore.  Not ideal for a campsite (the only flat ground was 8 inches above the waterline), but we didn’t have much choice.  As the thunder began to sound above, the onslaught of rain commenced.  We were pummeled by grape-sized raindrops- if the goal was to soak us the skies must have enjoyed the overkill.  Seeing clearer areas behind the rainclouds, we wait to set up our tents and silently endure the rain.

Oahe wasn’t finished though.  In the rain’s place began the winds, the strongest we’ve seen on any lake thus far and funneled by the lakeshore toward our meager campsite.  Exhausted from racing two storms, we’re now so close to finally being able to collapse in our tents.  We use our boats and nearby logs to anchor our tents and within 10 minutes I’m (Joe) within my tent warming my dinner.  As I sat relishing the warm noodles and rice I can hear the waves crashing outside getting closer and closer- 10 inches away, now 5 inches and then reaching under by vestibule/tent overhang.  With one last gulp of warmth and comfort I duck back outside, and Nick and I move our tents to higher, and now slanted, ground.  As we turned in that night we noticed the waves had only grown and two more thunderstorms were approaching in the distance.

Too much of a good thing?

The wind continued on in the morning, so we found ourselves with it and breaking waves at our backs.  We were making faster time than ever for a lake, but the waves were also so large that they were sometimes above our heads.  Nick said the final day of paddling was so stressful that it was harder than any of the previous obstacles faced (whitewater, fences, moose, diversion dams etc.).  One slip from keeping your kayak pointed straight would most likely end in a flipped boat that leaves you in the middle of an ocean with the shore two miles away.  It felt like Oahe was saying, “That’s it, I’ve had enough of you.”  We promise the feeling was mutual..

We were so close to being finished, but Oahe had other plans.  We were ready to write about how endless the lakes felt, how we would stare at a point for hours before reaching it amidst hilltops we previously floated beneath.  We have a new found respect for these lakes and hope our last three go smoothly.

Shout-outs:

  • We’re fortunate we ran into Shane in Bismarck.  After hanging out at Captain Freddy’s, he let us do our laundry at his house and drove us into town for the farmers market.
  • If you’re ever at the Downtown Farmers Market in Bismarck, make sure to say hello to Mike Swenson and farmers Dwight and Patsy Duke.  We loved talking to them about why they support local food. farmersmarket
  • As we finished our Garrison Dam portage (dam for Lake Sakakawea) and were lugging our boats to the next boat ramp, three guys came over to see what we were up to.  After telling them about our project Steve, Bruce and Alex felt compelled to give us some money for our next meal.  What a way to end Sakakawea! alex bruce
  • We have an incredible care package team!  A huge thank you to Elizabeth Niere, Denise Weber, Isabella Asamoah, and Cathy and Ken Caiazza for sending us such wonderful treats that would be hard to find from the water.

Gear Review:

  • The rigors we encounter in the natural environment have a tremendous impact on our bodies and our gear. Our Sachtler Ace carbon fiber tripod, fluid head and follow focus takes constant abuse from waves, dirt, sand and mud while remaining a functional tool day after day. It’s the work horse of the expedition and is still the lightest weight carbon fiber fluid head tripod on the market. sachtler

What’s Next:

  • We have our last three lakes and portages coming up and then we’ll be on a river with current all the way to the gulf!  We’re excited to see Pierre, South Dakota and to paddle through some of the Native American reservations ahead.

Parting Comment:

  • Don’t let the lakes deter you from undertaking this type of adventure!  If you’re worried about lightning and waves just make sure to have enough food and then wait it out until the conditions meet your comfort levels.  Also, if you missed our article in the Bismarck Tribune, you can check it out here.

Last Days in the Last Best Place

“The hills and river Clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance.  The bluffs of the river rise to the hight of from 2 to 300 feet and in most places nearly perpendicular; they are formed of remarkable white sandstone which is sufficiently soft to give way readily to the impression of water… As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end..”

-Meriwether Lewis May 31st, 1805

Top 4 Highlights:

  1. Paddling the Missouri River Breaks– We’re told that this is one of the few places on the river that resemble what Lewis and Clark saw when they paddled through (see introductory quote for part of the entry).  We were feeling great after a long day of paddling, so we decided to drift into the cloudless, full moon night.  Watching the moonlight reflect off the white cliffs was sublime. sunset
  2. Seeing Big Horn Sheep–  We’ve seen just about every animal on our list while on the river (elk, moose, deer, bear to name a few) except for the big horn until we reached the Breaks.  Then we saw about 100… bighorn
  3. Slot Canyon Hike–  We took a 2 hour side-hike while in the Breaks and were able to scramble through slot canyons barely wider than our shoulders. joe_spiderweb
  4. Visiting Wolf Point–  We were told by almost everyone we met that Wolf Point, Montana (on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation) was extremely dangerous and people would shoot at us as we were floating by.  We met Jeff and Julie Neubauer, residents of Wolf Point while on Fort Peck Reservoir, and they said all that hype was way overblown.  A number of days later we were floating toward Wolf Point, keeping our eyes wide and feeling slightly nervous.  After not running into anyone through much of the town we hear the roar of a motorboat and see it heading right towards us.  Tensed and not knowing what to expect, we awaited the oncoming boat.  And who was it?? Jeff and Julie Neubauer with Kai and, Jerry and Marie .  They had been following our tracker and wanted to give us a warm welcome!!  We had one of our most memorable nights grabbing burgers, meeting their friends in town and sleeping by their family orchard.  Wolf Point was great!!

Bottom 3 Lowlights:

  1. Nick met a rattlesnake–  The lighting was perfect so Nick set up his camera, staged the shot and as he was running back to his camera he heard the rattle start.  He looked down, saw the snake and hopped into the air with a “Whoaaaa, that’s a snake!”  The shot was lost but Nick is still intact. snake
  2. Joe met a mouse– A mouse jumped into Joe’s boat during the night after leaving the Missouri Breaks and we set to trying to find it a new home.  After emptying the boat and holding it on end, Joe wasn’t convinced it was gone, so he did the unthinkable in Nick’s mind- he intentionally flooded his boat with water.  The mouse never reappeared, but Joe’s next step would have been to put the next rattlesnake Nick ran into inside of his boat for the day.
  3. Wind on Fort Peck–  Fort Peck was the first of our three big reservoirs and after 3 days of unbelievably perfect weather, the fourth day kept us in our tents with the force of the wind.

 The Blog

As a boy few adventures captured my (Joe’s) imagination and envy like the Corps of Discovery led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.  What did a sea of buffalo look like?  How would it feel to camp for 2 ½ years, observing lands none of your peers had seen before?  What were the diverse native cultures like?

As young men Nick and I are now able to retrace part of their expedition and more fully experience their trials than ever before with books or movies.  Some parts we’ve find to be remarkably similar.  For example, after paddling all day and unwinding while reading the “Journals of Lewis and Clark,” the mosquitos would come out in hordes, and Meriwether and William found the “Mosquetors troublesome” in that area too.  Camping day after day, being exposed to the elements and encountering surprises around the next bend make us closer in lifestyle and experience, at the moment, than we feel to some of our peers.  joe reads LandCBeing able to paddle through the Whitecliffs and read Lewis’s description of the “visionary inchantment” surrounding us kindled a connection we thought impossible with someone who died 200 years ago.

But try as we are to relive part of their experience, the world is undeniably different.  While they were trying to fill in a blank area on their culture’s map, we’re now able to pinpoint our location in that area within feet of where we stand using cell phones, gps locators or satellite imagery.  For our part there are new challenges since the early 1800’s like fences, dams/reservoirs and needing to keep a wary eye for disgruntled farmers saying you’re camping on their land.

Honestly my boyhood enthusiasm is a bit more tempered today.  While some things I’ve learned have made the expedition more legendary (grizzly bear battles, Great Falls portage) other parts make me less enchanted (many groups of Native Americans were crucial for their success, but are hardly mentioned).  I also now know that discovering these natural places is inextricably linked to extinctions, broken promises and beaver/land/gold rushes to follow.  While still admiring the Corps of Discovery, I can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness when considering what they portended.

Shoutouts:

  • Tuti and Gary Marks– These fine folks stopped by and offered us some cherries and ice during our traverse of Fort Peck Reservoir.
  • Jeff and Julie Neubauer– The hospitality we were shown while in Wolf Point was unreal.  We can’t thank you enough for flipping our expectations 180 degrees.jeff&julie
  • Rodger and Julie Post at the Downstream Campsite after Fort Peck were incredible camp hosts.  Not only did they put up with us filming our walk into their campground while cars backed up behind us, they also showed us how to flip firewood for a profit, drove us to Glasgow and shared a home-cooked meal!  They seemed real close to adopting Nick by the end of our stay… thepostsfun
  • After paddling for awhile on Fort Peck we pulled into a side channel to try and find a campsite but there were too many houses for us to feel comfortable.  We called up the 40 ft bluff to Patrick and his family who were having a BBQ, “Hey, is there camping anywhere around here?”  Their response?  “Oh yeah you can camp right there.  If anyone has a problem they can come to talk to us about it!  Why don’t you come up and grab some sausages too?”  Sure beats the can soup we were going to have instead…

Gear Review:

  • Remember the human powered blog post?  Well Keen is the hiking shoe that gets us from one side of the dam to the other.  A huge thank you to Keen for making comfortable, reliable shoes so we can focus on the work at hand. 440

Parting Comment:

  • We appreciate everyone’s enthusiasm in the blog!  We’re going to try and keep to a schedule of posting every 10 days or so, and we’ll try to present more pictures and commentary in the interim on our facebook page (“Blackwater Drifters”).

The Pleasant Insanity of Being Human-Powered

“Come on now all you young men, all over the world… You have not an hour to lose…  Twenty to twenty-five!  These are the years!  Don’t be content with things as they are.  The earth is yours and the fullness thereof.  Enter upon your inheritance, accept your responsibilities…  Don’t take No for an answer.  Never submit to failure.  Do not be fobbed off with mere personal success or acceptance.  You will make all kinds of mistakes, but as long as you are generous and true, and also fierce, you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her.  She was made to be wooed and won by youth.”

-Winston Churchill, 1930 (I would extend this “call to life” to all gender identities and place the focus less on subduing the Earth as being “fierce” while young)

Top 3 Highlights:

      1. Spending time with Theraisa, Mark, Ashlynn and Kailey Caiazza.  We’re eternally grateful to Nick’s cousin and his family for their help in making our Great Falls portage less stressful.  From scoping out routes to celebrating the 4th with fireworks and footraces, Great Falls was a lot more enjoyable than the hurdle we dreaded.IMG_4567
      2. Hitting the Morony Rapids.  We were advised to skip these rapids, told they would flip boats in a heartbeat.  What else could we do but run them?  After walking our boats for so long around Great Falls, flying down the water and colliding with enormous ice-cold waves was the perfect gift.  Check out Joe’s line through the rapids:

        Morony Rapids from BLACKWATER DRIFTERS on Vimeo.

      3. Filipino BBQ– We went to check on our boats at the park and there was a substantial gathering at the picnic tables nearby.  As we pulled into the parking lot Mark Caiazza casually said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we crashed their party?”  15 minutes later we had full plates and were eating with the Filipino community of Great Falls.  Nick was in heaven

IMG_8336 Bottom 2 Lowlights:

  1. Portaging around the 5 dams that make up Great Falls– more on this ordeal below.
  2. Losing the back plug.  There is one plug that is perfect for letting water out of your boat while on land, but when in water this now becomes the ideal hole to let water into the boat.  We needed to spend a couple hours at the hardware store after Nick’s disappeared. (Fortunately, Nick MacGyver’d a workaround using duct tape, a bungee cord and a rubber stopper)

 Introduction

If you could somehow be transported to our exact location sometime over the last 45 days, the odds are pretty high you wouldn’t see us paddling, but dragging our boats over a road.  You’d feel the 90-degree heat and see our sweat-soaked clothes and would think we resemble draft animals more than cross-country kayakers.   We’re probably at that halfway point in our hike when the water we took out from is gone and the river we’ll put in at is not yet visible.

Eventually a car slows down and attempting to end the pain and discomfort witnessed they say, “Why don’t you throw your kayaks in the back of my truck and I’ll drive you to where you’re going?”  Our practiced response stuns the driver, “No thanks, we’re doing great.”  This is exactly the place we want to be.  I can’t tell you how many times the driver will leave and while shaking their head say, “You guys must be nuts.”

The Blog

There are three aspects of our expedition that set us apart from other adventures.  The first, as many are aware, is that we are making a documentary about how the river evolves from the Rockies to the Gulf.  The second is that we started from the utmost source, and the third is that we are completely human-powered.

To us the tenants of being human-powered are as follows:

  • We need to paddle, swim or walk every inch of the river
  • Rides are acceptable but can’t further one’s river miles.  Rides would be permissible to visit places that are further from the river (farmers market, museum, etc.) but you need to be dropped off right where you began
  • All gear that is introduced to the expedition must be carried by the team members- It is permissible to be calculating about when gear is introduced.  If you know you don’t need this article until St. Louis you don’t need to carry it from Montana, but the second the gear is part of the expedition it must remain as part of the carried/paddled load until deemed no longer necessary.
  • No support vehicles (ex: motorized boat or car) are to be used for carrying gear, escaping elements etc.

Being human-powered seemed like the natural choice for us.  We want to demonstrate that adventures can be accomplished with limited emissions, and we also want to experience the entire river system.  You “feel” how a dam walls off a river more directly by walking around it than by abstractly thinking about it while driving by.  And then there is Churchill’s living with fierceness idea- we think we can do it, so why not try?

Lofty ideals start off simple enough but are put to the test when the kayak hits the pavement for 18 portages.  We’ve had some simpler ones where the daydream of paddling to the dam, taking the boat out and putting it back on the other side is possible (Clark Canyon, Holter, Toston).

Then there are the beasts- Red Rocks Refuge (11 miles, gravel road, no camping allowed in the interim) and Great Falls (14 miles, 5 dams, winding gravel roads).  Imagine being strapped into your kayak, loaded with all your gear and amidst the heat you’re crawling along the side of the road.  With what seems like an endless walk (and muscles making you aware they are not endless) you lean forward, focus on the next step, and resemble a horse plowing through a field.

Great Falls, MT Portage from BLACKWATER DRIFTERS on Vimeo.

As you’re going up and down the series of hills you tell yourself all kinds of distractions, half-truths and lies to keep your spirits up: “It’s nice to use other muscles for a change.” “I wouldn’t have been able to have this view without my walk.”  Maybe you look for animals, listen to music or daydream about sitting, just sitting, on your boat with a river current underneath.  But the honest truth is you’re not having the best time of your life.

Lest the audience think we are complaining about our self-imposed challenge (or Army Corps of Engineers/Power Companies imposed?) let us clarify we wouldn’t have it any other way.  The portage will finish, pain is temporary, and you don’t always need to be having fun to appreciate where you are.

Gear Review:

  • Having Geigerrig’s hydration system and heavy-duty backpack has been crucial while walking around the dams.  It’s easy to get dehydrated and this pressurized pump system is perfect for spraying down to keep cool and share water.nick geiger

Shoutouts:

  • Andrew Muller (aside from being one of the best real estate agents in Boulder, CO) has been huge in helping our expedition and making sure everything is quiet on the home front.  Andrew was also instrumental in talking with Joe about actually making the leap (which means Joe will be staying in his basement indefinitely while making a movie upon returning….)
  • Mark, Theraisa, Ashlynn and Kailey- You’re so great, you made it in the blog twice!  Never would we have expected such hospitality and we hope your friends didn’t think we were too big of goofballs! The girls probably already do. As we get older and move around and our new lives takes precedence it’s amazing to think that a kayaking adventure can bring a family together. Thanks for looking us up Mark!
  • Keep the hull down Bobber, find the best gems Dean and don’t ever think about getting back on the grid Anne!

What’s Next:

  • The serious lakes are here- Fort Peck, then Sakakawea covering much of our route through North Dakota and finally the big daddy- Oahe spanning South Dakota.  1/3rd or our entire trip will be spent paddling on lakes, and these three make up the majority of the flat water.

Parting Comment:

  • Even in the roughest of times changing your perspective can seemingly change everything.  While we were a third of the way into our Great Falls portage a father and his two boys were so drawn to our project that they asked if they could walk next to us for the next mile or so.  They were inspired and envious of our trip, and part of us wanted to say, “Really?  Sure there are parts I’d envy, like going through St. Louis, seeing moose or making it to the gulf, but this part?  I don’t know if you realize I’m about to haul my boat a number of miles across this dirt road.”  Seeing it from their perspective took us out of the drudgery of the next 100 steps and let us see how these steps help us reach the next 100 days.guy and kids