"It wasn't, of course, the beginning, for who can say where voyage starts — not the actual passage but the dream of a journey and its urge to find a way?"
— William Least Heat Moon, in "River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America"
Inspired by William Least Heat Moon's tale of a boat trip across America, Ashlander Bill Heimann set out this past summer to canoe the Missouri River. Solo.
Adventuring is nothing new for this 68-year-old retired bicycle shop owner. He has hiked the Appalachian Trail. He bicycled across the United States — four times — and pedaled around the world on a trip that lasted for a year and a half, to name a few of his extended journeys.
Heimann sports a salt-and-pepper beard and a grin that animates his entire being when he recalls his travels. His compact and muscular frame seems as much built for paddling as pedaling.
Three Forks, Mont., where the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers converge to form the headwaters of the Missouri River, served as the put-in point for his canoe trip. It was at that spot in 1805 where Lewis and Clark realized they were at the beginning of the longest river on the continent.
The hardest part of planning the trip, says Heimann, was knowing where to stop for food. Communities on the banks of the Missouri are few and far between. Heimann carried up to 17 days of food in his yellow, fabric-covered Wenonah Kevlar canoe.
"Several times you'd come across a small place, a small store, that you didn't expect, that wasn't there on the map," Heimann explains. "Other times you figure there was something there, but there was nothing, so it was difficult planning on exactly where you were going to stop for food except for the major places."
Along with his food, camping gear and spare paddle, Heimann carried five gallons of drinking water. The canoe's fabric cover ensured that he would not lose everything in case he capsized. It wasn't whitewater that caused him concern — he encountered minimal rapids, and those infrequently.
"The Missouri is a combination of free-flowing water and lakes," Heimann explains. "On the lakes, you get strong winds, up to 45 mph, with waves 3, 4, 5 feet high. You're completely exposed."
The lakes are human-made, the result of the Missouri's many dams. The largest lake Heimann encountered — Fort Peck Lake — is 134 miles long and several miles wide. Paddling straight through the middle of the lake leaves a boater far away from the safety of the shore in the event of a summer thunderstorm.
"So you hug the shore, but the waves there are bigger," says Heimann. "You also have sharp rocks. There are always the side bays to cross: the bays were once side canyons and that's what you're crossing."
High winds sometimes last all day, forcing canoers and kayakers to hunker down on land. The insiders call it being "winded up." Heimann was once winded up for two full days.
The Missouri proper begins near the base of the Rockies and flows eastward and northward. The mountains soon disappear and the terrain consists primarily of occasional sandstone bluffs and flat endless plains.
"You're at the level of the water," says Heimann. "You're seeing green: a lot of grass, but no real forests. You see the occasional cottonwood tree."
During the summer, as Heimann discovered, the temperature on the water can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit. A wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses were a necessity.
"I dressed in hi-tech, wicking fabrics," Heimann recalls. "But with a life vest there's no air movement. You get wet from perspiration. You're constantly having to drink. If you take off your sunglasses, your eyes hurt."
Alone on the river, free-flowing or lake, Heimann had plenty of time to think.
"In the beginning, I thought a lot about my paddle stroke, how good a job I was doing propelling my boat, really focusing on how to do this thing called paddling a canoe," Heimann says. "Then as time went on, I started thinking about the river, what it meant, the things that were going on beneath the surface, all the life that was down there, big fish. There are many places on the Missouri where the river is very clear, you can see the bottom quite easily, and I began to think about the life that I was passing over, this whole community of species and being."
During the eight weeks he spent on the river, the inevitable association of thoughts led him deeper.
"I think everybody should make the opportunity to figure out if you can be friends with yourself, whether if you met yourself somewhere on this river, could you be friends with this person," Heimann asks. "What do you like about yourself? What would you change?"
Like the vision-quester, Heimann felt the inexorable urge to journey inward.
"I found that I still liked who I was, I was a different person than when I first did that (asked himself those questions), which was a trip on the Appalachian Trail, but still, I liked who I was and, yes, I could still be friends," Heimann concludes. "Did I like everything about myself? No. Would I change things about myself? Some, if I could."
Solitude, Heimann found, makes the occasional encounters with strangers more rewarding.
"In a state park campground there were two gentlemen sitting on a table, talking, and they called me over," Heimann says. "They were two homeless guys who had just been given a lot of food by a camper who had decided to leave early. They offered me an evening meal and a couple of glasses of wine. They went down to the river and helped me up with my boat, they helped me set up my camp."
Heimann spent three days with his new friends, swapping adventures, sharing food. Another time, at a dam, the company's hydrologist gave him and his canoe a lift to portage around the dam. Heimann ended up with a home-cooked meal and a comfortable bed for the night.
Inevitably, though, thoughts of the journey's end kept popping up.
When I begin a journey I have no idea of where I'm going," Heimann explains. "I just go somewhere and begin the journey, and it just goes until it ends."
In this case, the end felt like Williston, N.D., not St. Louis, where the Missouri joins the Mississippi.
As he and his canoe headed back to Ashland in a U-Haul, Heimann couldn't shake the feeling that this journey wasn't finished. Next June, he and the canoe will return to Williston.
"Some event will occur — it does on many trips — and it will say to me, 'This is the real end, this is where this journey ends,' and that's what I think will happen with the Missouri," says Heimann. "I seriously doubt if it will be a physical location."
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at email@example.com