Backcountry Bisons: Patrick Dobson, Canoeing the Great Plains

With our new Virtually Bison Books tours, you can explore Western Literature from your home or on the road. Backcountry Bisons is the newest tour featuring an array of memoirs that bring the reader into the Western environments that the authors explored, hiked, or connected with in an inspiring way.

Below author Patrick Dobson describes the many personalities of the Missouri River. Dobson is a writer, historian, and ironworker with a PhD in history. He is the author of Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains (Nebraska, 2009) and his book Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer is one of the titles featured in the Backcountry Bisons virtual tour.

The Journey of a Paddler on the Missouri River

The Missouri River winds through rocky ravines, broad valleys, and immense grasslands easy on the eyes and good for the soul. Most of the river from Helena, Montana, to Fort Peck Lake is a peaceful roll around wide bends and tight curves that give out to straightaways where one can see for miles.

Through vast reservoirs, the river flows through the semi-arid lands of the Great American Desert into the jungle-like Great Plains, where vines loll lasciviously in the water from the low branches of enormous cottonwoods—forest so thick that the river traveler feels the universe has shrunk to size of the river and its green walls.

The Missouri always holds surprises. Rapids haunt the upper river. These aren’t the whitewater adventures seen on some turbulent western streams, but sudden stretches of standing waves where the river steps down from its former height into pacific waters where all things turn to inner-thought and imagination.

The rivers personalities shift with weather and light of day—and the traveler must take the river on its own terms. Thunderstorms erupt from seemingly nowhere, rousing the afternoon napper into gasping despair amid waves crashing against the side of the boat and waves rolling upstream and over the bow. In a sudden storm, hail the size of marbles pelt the paddler into quaking submission and fills the canoe with sparkling pearls. Tornadoes lift water in spouts from the vast reservoirs that the traveler has spent the entire day with a headwind to make just 300 yards downstream.

From the foothills and High Plains in Montana to wide avenue of commerce and urban life in Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri, the river holds for the traveler a gamut of social experience. Whatever landscape, however, a constant feeling of solitude infects the river traveler. In places West, the creature in the boat can be the only person for fifty miles. Despite this, a friendly river angel enters the picture and gives a tour of their town, enjoins the river traveler in close and personal conversation, and sometimes bestows catfish fillets for the evening repast. These angels appear at the most unexpected moments, sometimes materializing out of the landscape, sometimes approaching curiously at a boat ramp at a riverfront park.

The lower river puts the sojourner in the center of metropolises—the Sioux cities, Omaha, Kansas City. Still, being out there on the water can make a person feel a thousand miles from anywhere. Though the structures of city and commerce are all around, one gets the sense that nobody is looking, that nobody knows you are out there, that nobody cares. There’s a peace that comes with that. Complete anonymity in the midst of human activity. Self is self alone and has to come to peace with that or be driven from the boat and water back to the cacophony of daily life.

Over the summer, the length of the day shortens and daylight becomes dear. But from sublime sunrises to orange and purple sunsets, the river takes on the character of a shapeshifter, one minute lazy and brown, the next a long mirror of sky running like unwound tape through the landscape.

And there is no life like that on the river. Living like Huck and Jim, the paddler finds it difficult to put on shoes to go into a town for supplies. Even then, one retreats from the confines of streets and buildings to the freedom of the stream. No one tells you what to do. There is nothing to do unless you want. Reading, writing, and gazing at the river. They never get old. There’s always a fire, no matter the heat of the day or the steamy atmosphere of the night.

Problems come when the sojourner reaches his or her destination. After the liberty of the river, climbing back into daily life presents culture shock. It’s hard to fit back in, not just because of the independence of life on the river but also due to the changes the river wrought in the traveler. Nothing seems the same as before. The river has changed the traveler. Beauty is etched on the mind. Freedom unlike any ever known makes for edginess and querulous fractiousness.

In time, one adjusts. The boatperson sees others with a gentleness and understanding. They have not lived the experience or seen the sunsets or lived through the storms. They cannot engage in conversation on the same level of the traveler. Work becomes less necessity than something to be tolerated. The river travelers have a kinship that exists not as memory but as an experience. Sooner or later, he or she realizes life cannot be so free as the river.

But the river is faithful and loyal. It is always there. It waits patiently for the paddler’s return.

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