Canoeing the Mississippi-Missouri

Nicholas Francis and William Butcher

To the Memory of the Indian Nations of North America: the Dacotahs, the Cheyennes, the Sioux, and many others without name.

  1. Mississippi Dreaming
  2. The Ruin of Many a Poor Boy
  3. All Gone to Look for America
  4. "A Bad Start in an Alien Land"
  5. The Patient Mariner
  6. In Which We Lose the Missouri
  7. A Monstrous Big River
  8. Lost Between Two Shores
  9. Downhill All the Way
  10. The Missouri Breaks
  11. A Tale of Two Rivers
  12. A Name I Will Remember
  13. Memphis Blues
  14. Journey to New Orleans
  15. And Quiet Flows the Mississippi
  16. Mothers, Tell Your Children?
  17. Appendices

NOTE ON AUTHORSHIP: This book was written by Nicholas Francis and William Butcher together. We both consider it such a joint work that it would be invidious to attempt to ascribe inivdual authorship to particular parts. N.F. and W.B.

NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY: In this book the terms "kayak" and "canoe" will often be used interchangeably. More precisely, "kayaks" (covered canoes, of Eskimo origin) and "Indian canoes" (normally open) will frequently be considered as both belonging to the general class of "canoes".




I had wormed my way, inch by inch, out of the treacherous mud. I had survived one cold night without protection. By drinking the silty water of the inland sea, I had dulled my hunger.

But now every stroke was an effort, and the first house still lay three days ahead. Also, my canoe had developed a leak, and the sun was going down. I was just starting my 25,000th stroke since the taste of food, when I heard a sound rather like distant thunder. Seconds later, a plane hopped over the hills, seemed to hesitate, then banked steeply. I wondered if I was dreaming when I saw Bill's curly hair and lopsided grin. But the Mars Bars that had bounced off the shore tasted wonderfully real.

The bridge that had brought me to that surprising rendezvous spanned not only two continents but also a large part of my youth. To understand where I was and what I was trying to do, it is perhaps best to go back a little.

It was raining when it all began, and it was cold. A decade would pass before it finished, and it would be raining again; but now the drops were warm and fell from a translucent sky. It started in the darkened library of a boarding-school in Scotland; and it would all end when a mighty river flooded gratefully into the gleaming blue of a tropical sea.

That ten-year span would be a time of great years and of wasted years; from meetings with irate professors appalled at my lack of progress to meetings with a President and a future king visibly impressed at my progress. It would above all be a time of searching and of growing, while I groped my way towards a distant and elusive goal.

This book, then, is the account of the first recorded kayak conquest of a primordial American dream. The journey was the age-old one of self-discovery; but it was also one where a British boy, who once smoked forty cigarettes a day, used the longest single canoe trip on the globe to alert the world to the dangers of a terrible scourge. In short, to aid the fight against cancer, I attempted to canoe the 3810 miles of the Mississippi-Missouri. This is the story of my Journey to New Orleans.


My interest in canoes started early. Walking back from school one day, I saw a beautiful covered canoe in a shop-window. Sixpence pocket-money a week seemed reasonable credit to me, so I took my school-cap off, put a deep voice on, and bought the £42 0s 0d kayak, "to be delivered to Mr Nicholas Francis's residence in a fortnight's time". Two weeks later, my mother answered the phone. "Yes (...) Do you not mean DOCTOR Francis (...) It was a young man who made the order - a schoolboy?" Then the reckoning came. My parents eventually located my hiding-place, and demonstrated in no uncertain terms that any remaining canoeing plans would have to be postponed indefinitely!

At thirteen, I was sent away to boarding-school. Most of the boys had been at prep. school, and were used to public-school life; but I hadn't, and wasn't. What didn't help either was that I was also: the only Roman Catholic in a staunchly Church-of-England establishment, half-French (when De Gaulle had just kept Britain out of the EEC), and the only boy to have thin black gym-shoes. I was socially dead. I became a loner - rejecting all forms of sport, and taking long walks in the bleak Highland landscape.

I did have one friend, though. David Combe and I used to go to the musty school library together and pore over Britain's imperial past: Livingstone, Scott, Lawrence, Hillary and Tenzing; the winning of India, the saving of Canada, and the losing of the United States. One especially dreich afternoon, David asked "And you, Nick?" Without hesitation, I replied: "Some day, I will attempt something worthy of this glorious past". The starting-point of the circle, if indeed there was one, had finally been found.

As I drifted and rebelled my way through school, my mind was mainly elsewhere. The rest of my family had set a standard of excellence in most of the things they had done, and I was searching for some way of matching up to their achievements. When I left, this had produced no practical result at all, but I had at least found a number of well-defined aims for myself. To experience life as quickly as possible; to earn some money of my own; and to climb a ladder towards a plateau at fifty-five that is customarily called success. My real ambition, however, was to go far beyond this plateau, if necessary by going round it, and to experience adventure like my heroes - to find my other self by taking paths not already worn down by thousands of previous feet.

The first two aims were achieved by means of a tree-felling job, which shocked society and worried my parents but did wonders for my physique and self-confidence. All in all, it took more than eight months to get the school out of my system. But then, when I went to Aberdeen to study languages, it all came flooding back. The University and I gave each other up, and, on the spur of the moment, I went to sea.

Travelling the lower deck of the Merchant Navy had further effects on my development. I grew up quickly; and I discovered the lure of the sea. After a hectic day's work, I used to walk along to the fo'c'sle and stare out into the dark abyss all around. I would try to imagine what it could be like to be in a tiny vessel amongst the raging elements, instead of being protected by thousands of tons of machinery. I had still never been within spitting distance of a canoe, but I slowly acquired a belief, perhaps irrational, that I would be able to handle one when the time came. At this stage there seemed no particular hurry.

After five months, I decided to have one last go at fitting in. At the grand old age of twenty-one, I signed on for a degree in "Hotel and Catering Management" at Strathclyde University. I had no idea what it entailed; but I was encouraged by my Uncle Gerard, who worked in that line of business himself, and that was enough.

I felt very relieved to find that I could stick it - just! In my spare time, I found myself concentrating on fencing, table-tennis, and mountaineering. Only slowly did I realise that perversely all three were activities I had rejected at school, and that, like the tree-felling, all three depended on well-developed arms. The future would bring these ideas together again with a vengeance....

The future began to happen, almost by chance, a couple of years later. Strathclyde students were required to gain work-experience in the long vacation before their final year. My intention had been to work in Argyllshire for a while with a friend called Ewen Macleod, and then to go to Paris and work there. But as soon as I got to the Glenborrowdale Hotel, Ewen showed me the magnificent sea-loch stretching out behind the back door. Loch Sunart freed the dreams and pangs that had been battened down in me for half a decade. I decided to buy a covered canoe and to stay in Argyll all summer long.

Ewen and I hitched into Fort William and ordered a superb "Kester Torridon". A week later a phone-call came for a Mr Nick Francis - who answered "present" this time - and soon a gleaming plastic-wrapped doll was delivered: a hair under 16 feet long, 1 1/2 feet wide, and less than forty pounds in weight. At last I had found a sphere in which I really wanted to test myself.

After an interminable day, we carried the kayak down to the moonlit sea-loch. In a state of great excitement, we nearly cracked her wide open with a half-bottle of Moet and Chandon. After an age of trying, something finally gave, champagne gushed, and Ewen slipped "Lady Midnight" lightly into the water. She fitted like a new glove. But she also felt extremely sensitive, and I felt terribly awkward. Then, very slowly, we moved off together....

I measured one of the islands at the mouth of the Loch: exactly 10 miles right round. Then, at two in the morning, I paddled round it myself, taking ninety minutes - an average of 6 2/3 miles an hour. Further nocturnal experiments taught me that I could "cruise" at 5 mph almost indefinitely.

A few weeks later, I read that somebody had just broken the cross-Channel record. He had canoed the 22 miles in 3 hrs 36 mins: "only" 6 mph. With intense training, I thought, I might have a chance of breaking that record myself. Once the idea was in my head, I couldn't get it out. Every night, I used to go round that island, working at my speed and stamina, until in the end I knew every pebble and blade of grass on it.

Once or twice I capsized in choppy water. Each time, I tried to get back into the canoe while still on the water, but each time I was thrown off the bucking stern. In the end I gave up, and simply swam to shore. A decision I was to regret some years later.

To reduce the boredom, I started counting. 500 strokes, I found, covered one mile. After 5 miles, I would have some chocolate and a cigarette. Then, exactly on the hour, I would set off again. If I dawdled, the rest period disappeared; if I rushed, my upper arm muscles gave me hell. In the end, I had it fine-tuned down to the nearest minute.

Only too soon, the long hot summer came to an end. I had however become a happier and more confident young man. I had also acquired a new set of priorities. First, to try and get my degree. Second, to carry out a medium-distance sea-journey. Third, to have a go at the Channel. And fourth - provided these last two forays went well - to attempt some supreme challenge - though I wasn't quite sure at this stage exactly what.


All through that year, I waited and dreamed. With my mind on other things, I took my finals and then a job as a hotel-porter. Very soon I had £200 in my pocket and bulging muscles on my arms. Then I decided to canoe round Ireland.

The full story of my shoestring Irish trip, with its disappointments and disasters, but also its triumphs and high comic moments, would take almost a book in itself. Here I will simply record that, starting from Carnlough in Northern Ireland, I in the end reached Hookhead, near Waterford. One of the reasons I had to stop was money; and the other was that I had failed one of my finals. Liam O'Neill, a very good friend from Strathclyde and a native of Carnlough, very kindly drove down to fetch me. Tanned but still uninspired, I resat the final, before taking the high road down to Dover.

My second canoe venture was not without its problems either. Again, I will only record that I paddled as fast as I could, and managed to average 5 3/4 mph. But this was not fast enough; and in the end I was left with a handful of shattered dreams. I went despondently back home, to discover a consolation prize. I had passed my final final and was now Bachelor of Arts! On the rebound from this shock, I found a managerial post at a three-star hotel in Edinburgh. The job itself was pretty awful, but it did at least afford some breathing-space to think about what I should, or could, do with the rest of my life.

My mind wandered inconsequently back to my early heroes. Many of them had been soldiers, but the military life now seemed much too stifling. The others had been explorers; but every last corner of the globe had been mapped out long ago - even the moon had been done. In any case, I wanted to be a backwoodsman rather than a technician/administrator. I wanted to be able to plunge myself completely into what I was going to do. I had already followed through two canoe journeys, one with some success, but one with the bitter after-taste of failure - which can be just as much of a spur. Now finally, I had to make some sort of choice between the material satisfactions of having a regular job and the less tangible ones of pursuing self-fulfilment. I dithered for weeks; and then gave in. I would go for the challenge.

Eventually my thinking became clearer. It would have to be a canoe journey, across a major sea or down a very long river; and it would have to be something that had not been done before. From there, my vagabond spirit made a quantum leap. My pocket atlas showed me that the distances weren't as big as all that. In my innocence, I decided to try - quite simply - for the longest single canoe trip in recorded history.

That was settled, then. But where did the record stand? I hurried to the Scottish National Library and carried out mountains of research on every conceivable water course.

First, the North Atlantic. I soon discovered that two different people had already attempted it, but that both had used sails, and that neither had been totally successful. In 1938, Franz Romer reached the West Indies in a Klepper canoe, but died before setting foot on the American mainland. Hannes Lindemann repeated his compatriot's feat in a double canoe in 1956, but had also drowned, while island-hopping towards Florida during a hurricane (he couldn't swim...). Even with these horrifying apotheoses, it still wasn't clear to me whether the Atlantic could really be considered canoed.

Next, the Nile. My atlas showed that the longest branch, the White Nile, came down from a country called Burundi. The river had been attempted in 1953-4 by a Franco-American canoe team under Jean Laporte. They did reach the Mediterranean safely, but had had to miss out about 800 miles of the most dangerous or inaccessible sections. Not bad going, I thought, but hardly conclusive.

The Blue Nile. It started in Ethiopia and had exacted, I soon found, a terrible toll. The first attempt to even navigate it had been in 1903, using steel boats. But these had been wrecked after only five miles, and, as the men trekked back to Addis Ababa, natives castrated one of them. In 1962, two canoeists had been killed by local bandits. Other expeditions had lost their boats, been shot at, or been attacked by crocodiles. Only in 1968 had the river even been navigated, by Colonel Blashford-Snell's team in huge rubber boats. The cost was again extremely heavy, however, as they lost a man through drowning. Since then no attempts had been made. Aha - an uncanoed river at last?

Then came the Amazon. Despite all my searches, there seemed to be no record of any sort of navigation of the whole length. All I could discover was that about 3400 miles of it had been canoed by an American team in 1970. H'm....

That left the Mississippi-Missouri. But here, my most exhaustive researches produced an almost complete blank. Certainly, early explorers had navigated most of the Missouri from the Rockies down to the confluence at St Louis; but it seemed pretty clear that the whole of the Mississippi-Missouri had never been canoed. Very interesting....

I turned with great relief to the question of the actual lengths. The Atlantic was easiest, as I could measure it on my pocket atlas. It was about 1900 miles across the shortest bit (Ireland-Newfoundland); or 3300 for a slightly warmer route (Portugal-Florida). Not bad for a start. Now for the rivers!

I hauled down dozens of dusty encyclopedias and even a few theses on the hydrological systems of the world (if only my geography teacher could see me now). Most authorities gave the Nile or the Amazon as the longest river - but some independent souls preferred the Mississippi-Missouri. I delved deeper, and at last began to understand why. The length of a river isn't that simple. There are a number of embarrassing problems.

Where, for instance, you've got a river that splits into two, you clearly take the longer bit; ditto, when two branches come together. But what do you do if both happen in succession (a geographer's description of an island)? Again, if a river "crosses" a lake, you take the crow's-flight distance, but what do you do if there's a kink - or two - in the middle? Do you measure the shortest route down the river? The route along the middle? Along the current? Where do you count as the beginning? The drop on a tree that fights its way along to other drops and hence down to the ocean? And as the end? The point on the river "opposite" the point where dry land stops? Where the marsh stops? Where the fresh water stops? What happens if there are tidal or seasonal variations? Or if the river has been artificially lengthened or shortened?

If I could answer all these questions, I realised, I would be better off applying for a Professorship in Hydrology than planning a canoe expedition. I decided to take all distances with a large pinch of salt - which gave more constructive results. Until about 1960, the Mississippi-Missouri did apparently reign supreme as the longest river in the world. The effort had shrunk it considerably however. From an amazing 4500 miles in the eighteenth century and 4300 when Mark Twain was writing, it had shrivelled first to 4200, and then to a mere shadow of itself. Current estimates ranged from about 3600 to 4200 miles.

The White Nile was obviously a very strong contender, unlike its Blue brother. It had undergone a period of juvenile growth, well into the twentieth century, when one just wasn't an explorer if one didn't lengthen it by another 50 miles. But it was now generally reckoned to be between 3900 and 4200, though getting shorter all the time (having reached senility without ever really being mature).

The Amazon also weighed in, like an ageing boxer, at various figures. Since 1960, most of these had been between 3800 and 4100 miles, although some authorities muttered darkly that it cheated by leaping from its own bed into its neighbour's. The dirty beast!

As for the others, even I could see that the Yangtze-Kiang, the Yenisey, or the Ob (the what?) were mere also-rans, just wet trickles. In sum, there were two and a half runners, but still no clear winner. I girded my loins, and set off for the library again.

Only then did it click that in any case it didn't really matter. The Nile and Amazon expeditions had each "only" done about 3400 miles; and so nothing was easier than finding something longer. Any of the terrible trio would do. I accordingly plumped for the one that hadn't been canoed at all. With tremendous relief, I chose the Mississippi-Missouri.

Rushing back home, I proudly told my parents, in a single breath, that the Mississippi-Missouri was by far "the longest river in the history of the world", that a few authorities thought it still remained the longest, that it was definitely the longest uncanoed river in the world, and that a successful navigation would be the longest continuous canoe journey ever.

In response, my mother wrung her hands while my father forced a professional thermometer under my tongue.


I was terrified, when I began to think seriously about it. I bought a road-map of North America, and shakily traced the course of the Mississippi-Missouri River. From the source of the Missouri up in the Rocky Mountains, over the Great Plains, and on to St Louis, where the Mississippi came in; then down across the sweltering cotton-fields of Mississippi and Tennessee; and finally through the sub-tropical swamps of Louisiana, and out into the Gulf of Mexico. Taking her length to be 3800 miles, she was almost the distance from Britain to India. If I wanted challenge, here was challenge enough!

In my own private language, I began to call the river the "M-M". She was the lifeblood of America - she was America! She went regally past Three Forks, Great Falls, and the Dakotas, Sioux City, Omaha, and Kansas City, Cairo, Memphis, Vicksburg, and Fort Jackson. On her banks were the Missouri Breaks and the Badlands; the hunting-grounds of the Crows, the Cheyennes, the Sioux, and the Pawnees; the battle-sites of the Civil War; the birthplaces of jazz and the Blues. She was eminently and exotically French; it was my ancestors who, under Louis XIV and XV, Napoleon, and Co, had explored the river system, and who had owned it all for about 100 years. The names Pierre, St Louis, Natchez, Baton Rouge, New Orleans were living witness of this heroic age; and French, of a sort, was still spoken on the banks. As I paced the cold, hard streets of Stevenson's Edinburgh, I madly chanted these glowing litanies of history to myself. In a final paroxysm of self-induced excitement, I realised that canoeing the M-M had a unique resonance. The canoe was invented by the North American Indians. I would be approaching their heritage in a vessel they could clearly recognise as their own.

Then I came back down to earth. I had £40 a week and an overdraft. The only person I had met was Robin Knox-Johnstone, the round-the-world yachtsman. This was when he autographed his book for me - and for a hundred other people.

I sought advice everywhere and anywhere. A captain at Army-HQ (Scotland) wanted to send half a company down the river with me. A director of the Scottish Tourist Board, who had the vision of a myopic bat and whose canoeing experience consisted of a technically perfect descent of the Water of Leith, told me it was all just a ploy to avoid getting a "real", i.e. office, job. The most travelled of my friends, William Butcher, argued that the project was impossible on financial, physical, and psychological grounds.

The only person totally in favour from the beginning was a girl called Jean Smith. Week after week, she used to come over from Glasgow to see me, when I was up and when I was down. As the weeks dragged by, she gave me all her strength.

Only with Jeannie's help did I manage to survive, to resist all the eminently sensible opinions thrust upon me. Only by repeating, again and again, "The M-M has never been done, I can do it", could I begin to take the first steps towards planning such a crazy venture.


The Ruin of Many a Poor Boy


I knew I would be passing through very sparsely inhabited regions for many hundreds of miles. With an estimated speed of 70 miles a day (including the current), I would be out of touch with civilisation for several days at a stretch. From bitter experience, I also knew that, if you do get caught up in a storm, you need the knowledge of some sort of haven to pull you through, rather than just a wet and miserable sleeping-bag. Otherwise, you find yourself doing all sorts of stupid things. A back-up team, I decided, was an absolute necessity, for both practical and mental reasons.

In the meantime I had to keep my body and soul together, but I couldn't spare the time I needed while I was doing my managerial job. Feeling a bit silly, I stepped off the career ladder I had just clambered onto; found work as a night-porter; and began to plan the expedition during the day.

My mind wandered off to the why and wherefore. Hillary's famous 'Because it is there' remains a vital inspiration; but in my view is no longer enough. The man who scales the North Face of Everest or rows the Atlantic must have skill and courage and luck, but what if one of those ingredients is lacking? What if appalling weather conditions result in a rescue, costing thousands of taxpayers' money? Does he have the right to expect that rescue when it was he who put himself at risk? I knew that the answer was no. I would have to devote my efforts to a constructive cause. The solution came quickly to me: I would raise funds for a medical charity.

Soon after, I was delighted to get a hearing with Mr Colin MacKenzie, who worked for the Cancer Research Campaign. Once in his office, I quickly described my earlier ventures, spread the multi-coloured map of North America over his telephone and blotter, and passionately propounded my project. I presented the expedition as a response to the appeal which the Prince of\\1'ales had made for the coming Jubilee Year. He had called on the youth of Britain to get off their backsides and do something constructive in the field of physical endeavour. I went on to say that the C.R.C. could make huge amounts of money by inviting firms and private individuals to sponsor the expedition on a mileage basis. I also pointed out that it could be a huge publicity venture.

Colin MacKenzie listened to the end. Then he said, in his broad Scots accent 'That's all moost inter-r-esting, Mr Fr-r-ancis. But how much wull it all cost?' My dream came down to earth with a crash. I muttered something about the need for a detailed breakdown, based on the most recent prices; and beat an undistinguished retreat to the door.

Very early the following morning, I was carrying twenty-three man-sized rubbish-bags out to the back of the hotel. I had to hold my breath with each one, but was glad to feel a ray from the rising sun. There was still a handful of people having yet another last drink at the bar. For the first time, I could contemplate such a scene with a semblance of serenity. The guests' complacency and easy money represented in my mind the considerable benefits of the managing career I had given up. They had attractive wives in the double living-rooms and beautiful cars in the double garages. But now, at last, I realised that their lives encompassed a great deal of reality, but not very much dream; and that man must live by trying to bring the two together. At the same time, I knew very well that the road to dreams was paved with well-intentioned misfits - that the chances were stacked very high indeed against me.

So it was that a curiously bitter-sweet feeling came over me as I waited for the 24 bus, singing quietly to myself 'Mothers, tell your children, not to do what I have done':

      There is a house in New Orleans They call the Rising Sun

      An' it's been the ruin of many a poor boy And me oh God I'm one.

      Now the only thing a gambler needs Is a suitcase and a trunk;

      And the only time that he is satisfied

      Is when he's all drunk.


Despite the rigours of my education, I knew nothing about living in the wild. Fortunately, Liam did, having spent three years in the Royal Navy Reserve, travelling extensively and finishing up as President of the Strathclyde section. His leadership qualities were also clearly strong, since he was working as an Assistant Manager at the Royal George Hotel in Perth; he had an excellent knowledge of mechanics; and he was a straightforward sort of person. My mind was made up - I would ask him to be back-up leader.

Next, I had to decide the actual size of the back-up team. Its members l would be responsible for such varied tasks as: driving, photography, the camp-duties, paperwork, and the all-important media liaison. I knew I would have to plan on having two further members

Five minutes before going back to the C.R.C., I finished typing out the following (not very professional) estimate:

Transport to and from the USA for four persons £640

Main back-up vehicle: probably a Dodge or Range-Rover, bought second-hand £5000

All-terrain vehicle with short wheel-base and four-wheel drive: Austin Champ or Jeep, second-hand £1000

Food for four persons at an average outlay of £3 per person per day over eighty days £960

Fuel for the two vehicles £600

Canoes: two sea-kayaks (Kester Torridons) £180

Tent £80

Catering equipment: stoves, butane gas, pots, pans, etc. £30

Four sleeping bags: £20 each £80

Four sets of clothing: anoraks, boots, wetsuits, etc. £200

Tool-kit, two spare tyres Life jackets, flares, glass-fibre repair-kit £90

Ropes Maps Second-hand power-saw and axes £100

Miscellaneous £150

Insurance £200

Total £9660

As Colin MacKenzie slowly read, my mind was racing. The list fact very incomplete. There was no allowance for a support boat, firearms, or radio equipment. But against that, the total came -somehow -to less than £10,000. This had to be good news - expeditions like power-boating the Congo or going up Everest backwards normally cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.

This time, the Appeals Secretary was more forthcoming. He emphasised that the Cancer Research Campaign were held to a very tight budget. Of every pound they raised, 93p had to go towards research, which left very little money indeed for ventures such as mine. I underlined once again what the C.R.C. could get out of it. At last, MacKenzie said that he was prepared to discuss the matter further with London.

I waited for weeks and weeks -and then weeks more. I realised that I had now burned all my boats. Maybe I would have been better listening to the Tourist Board director's advice after all?


My brother Robert reminded me that we had relations in Katonah and in Nebraska, and that Uncle Gerard was now living in Arkansas. These relatives, some of whom I had thought of as rather distant ones, came a whole lot closer when I realised that Katonah was in New York State and that Nebraska and Arkansas were both 'on' the river. Encouraged by Robert's support, I finally started to read about the lands I hoped to be passing through.

I found out that the English language carries within it the traces of the mighty Mississippi. 'Touch and go' came from frenetic coal-stops during steamboat races; a 'carpetbagger' was an adventurer with a flimsy hold-all who shifted south to exploit the new Black voters after the Civil War; and 'selling a man down the river' was probably, in the slave-era, to prevent him from ever seeing his wife and children again.

1 began to read Mark Twain. Tom Sawyer, I quickly discovered, was pretty childish, and in any case hardly featured the Mississippi at all. But then 1 tried Life on the Mississippi, Twain's true-life experience as a steamboat pilot between 1857 and 1861 - and was totally and irremediably hooked. Twain had known the joys of the river - and its rages, for his brother had drowned in it.

It had all started when he left Hannibal, his home town on the Mississippi, in search of adventure. His original idea was to join an expedition exploring the Amazon, so he headed down towards New Orleans and Brazil. He might have got there - and hit posterity with Life on the Amazon, Huckleberrio Finno, and Thomaso Charpentiero. But it was not to be. Down to his last $30, he persuaded the pilot to teach him 'all' the secrets of the Lower Mississippi, for the sum of $500 ...'which I'll, er, pay you out of my first wages'. I supposed that all a pilot had to do was to keep his boat on the river, and I did not consider that that could be much of a trick, since it was so wide.' But he soon realised the dangers of a river that can change its course in a single night. He even took his pseudonym from it, for 'mark twain' means '2 fathoms (12 feet)'. It implied that the boat could squeeze by, but only just -perhaps a sardonic comment on the writer's life. ...

Twain claims that a steamboat pilot was the only unfettered and independent human being on earth. With time, however, he found that the Mississippi no longer excited him: 'All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river.' He himself thought it was because he knew the river too well; but it may be that the coming of the railways destroyed the very raison d'etre of the steamboats.

Then I glanced at Huckleberry Finn - and for twelve hours was dead to the world. It spoke of caving banks and Spanish moss, of bullfrogs and water-moccasins, of leaning river-shacks and one-horse towns on sleepy creeks. But it above all talked of Huck and Jim rafting down a river where 'you feel mighty free and easy and comfortable', of 'floating' a 'monstrous big river'. The words reverberated in my head: 'the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along'. It was everything I wanted to do, it was freedom, adventure, escape, it was the American way of life written in universal terms.

Twain had inflamed my imagination. I wanted to relive the adventurous spirit of America from before the railways. I wanted to rediscover Huck and Jim 's life. But I wanted to be part of the river, not just 'floating' on its surface. I wanted to put the magic back into the Mississippi.

Liam told me that a close friend of his, called Timothy Eley, was very interested in the trip. He was just finishing a degree in geography at Strathclyde; and had followed a training course as a reserve sublieutenant on the Captain Scott, where he had been named 'best all-round cadet'. I met Tim, was impressed by his determination and resourcefulness, and decided to invite him to join us. He would be our geographical expert, but above all carry out the camp-duties.

For the fourth member, I did think of William Butcher. But I was really looking for a professional photographer. After interviewing a fair number of candidates, I finally chose Rick Beattie, who was about to finish a three-year diploma in photography. He seemed easy-going, but not afraid of expressing his opinion. I just had to hope he wasn't too laid-back.

As May 1977 budded, the C.R.C. continued to make encouraging noises, but insisted that there had to be some financial commitment on my part. Playing my very last card, I phoned my Uncle Gerard in Arkansas, and invited him to be associated with our venture. Very kindly, he put his 'mobile home' at our disposal. So then when I announced to the C.R.C. that the main-vehicle part of the budget was covered, Colin MacKenzie's bluff was called! I went to see Professor McWhirter -the man really in charge -and put my case to this most understanding person. Two days later, the Missrssippi-Missouri Cancer Research Solo Kayak Expedition (MMCRSKE for short) came into the world, with a silver spoon of £3500 in its mouth. Now the game was definitely afoot!


We started by ordering four glass-fibre kayaks from Chris Newell of Inverness: two 16-ft sea-boats with directional stability, for use on the Lower Missouri and Mississippi, and two shorter slalom-boats, for the 1000 miles of white water I had read about at the top. The two sea-boats, especially, caught my imagination, with their simple, streamlined shapes. I named them Cameron of Lochiel and Lochinvar. Identical they were, and yet how different their fates - for one, a cruel end on a distant shore, for the other, a proud place in a national museum.

Scottish Television wanted to film me in action. Dutifully paddling up and down, I executed a smart telemark turn as I came into shore. I moved my lips to answer the first question, but heard only the sound of the camera. I thought of the half-million spectators out there, but this time the question didn't sound quite the same. 'Nick Francis, will you be the first man to piddle 4000 miles to New Orleans?' I caught an incontinent twinkle in his eye, the cameras whirred again, and I was finally able to produce the flow of words required.

On the last day of May, Liam and I drove down to London. We were lucky to be able to limit expenses through the generosity of well-wishers: Tim and Rick stayed with college friends, and Liam and I stayed with William Butcher. In the morning, we had our first meeting with Randal Sadleir, the Chief Public Relations Officer at the Cancer Research Campaign. With his enthusiastic help, the Mississippi snowball soon began to roll. I found myself in the British Airways Head Office, asking for sponsorship. We would be flying the flag in America, just like them. Could they help? They did, with a magnificent gift of £2000. Lord Mat thews of Trafalgar House Investments (Cunard) offered to transport our equipment to the United States free of charge. Alders Furniture of London gave the funds a boost.

Rick joined us on 13 June. I gave him £380 as a separate photographic fund, and he assembled an impressive-looking kit, using his own camera-body as a base. On the 14th, we went to look at a second-hand Avon inflatable with outboard engine, price £300. Anxiously eyeing the patches, which seemed to have totally replaced the original rubber, I enquired if the boat hadn't seen action as an advance craft at Gallipoli. The owner told me rubber boats weren't invented till after the Second World War. I gave up at that point, but wondered to myself who would be rescuing whom. On 15 June, we packed the car with the four kayaks, two sets of paddles, shell-shocked A von, outboard engine, two tents, assorted camping gear , and other bits and pieces. We set off, groaning, to Southampton and the Atlantic Cognac. Then full-steam back to the London office again, where Randal bounded in. Bass Charrington had offered us their nineteenth- century ship, the Old Caledonia, as a venue for a send-off press-conference. It was on the Embankment, just along from Fleet Street. Definitely an offer that the press couldn't refuse.

On the 16th, we went to talk with Colonel John Blashford-Snell in his nuclear-bomb-proof lair, somewhere below Whitehall (more I cannot say!). We insured the equipment. We went to the American Embassy to fill 'out' forms. Suddenly, we had a panic. The Old Caledonia was all organised, but the four kayaks were sailing drunkenly across the Atlantic. A frantic phone-call to the British Canoe Union, and one of their members generously offered to bring his sea-kayak the whole way down from Derby.

Tuesday 21 June arrived and, with it, butterflies in my stomach. Then everything started happening at once. My parents arrived, and hugged me warmly. Tim showed up, having finished his finals the day before. The star of the show, the kayak, arrived (thank God!). The butterflies became a flock of geese and started trampling around. Liam and Tim carried the Baidarka to the shore and I slid her sleek length into the current. Then I. got in. She was unfamiliar, and I unsteady. A barge passed and I waited for a while. I was just starting a short sequence for the BBC, when the wash hit me. Only by savage side-paddling did I avert an ignominious capsize. That evening, the London Evening News wrote: 'Crowds hung fascinated as a small canoe bobbed like orange-peel upon the murky waters of the Thames.' Had they but realised!

The following day passed quickly with media meetings. I phoned MacKenzie, and emphasised that if we were going to plug cancer research across America, the home-based publicity and fundraising would have to be totally his responsibility.

On Thursday 23 June, four hours before the flight, I realised that there might be problems taking money out of the UK. A hectic race with William ensued through rainy streets to the Bank of England herself; then another sprint to the departure lounge at Heathrow, where I breathlessly rendezvoused with the back-up team. Flight BA 609 to New York was soon announced and William wistfully wished us the very best of British luck

We looked at each other, and took a deep breath. Then we walked across the shining tarmac and towards the greatest adventure of our young lives.



Tim and I walked down to Katonah Lake, New York State. Beside a jetty, we saw the dim outline of a two-man open canoe. Hesitantly, we climbed in and paddled away towards the centre. A full moon came out and then was gone behind the clouds. It was very warm and unnaturally still. A snapper turtle came up, and looked over his powerful hooked jaws at these strange humanoids with accents from far to the east of Long Island. We rested on the paddles and felt very close. That lunchtime, we had been watching the pouring rain. Now we had finally made it to America: we were ready to take anything on.

In the morning, stepping down from the early commuter train, we felt a bit lost. The soaring acres of plate-glass looked magnificent from the distance, but when we were actually amongst them, the claustrophobia and humidity felt overpowering. In desperation, I decided to ask a police-officer for directions. He was wearing dark glasses, chewing a piece of gum, and methodically hitting his palm with a dented baton. His teeth and baton maintained their perfect rhythm as he answered: "Get-a- f___in'-map-Mac".

We eventually walked into a cafe and found Liam and Rick with their host Jim Landers. Aged 25, he had already been working as a journalist for five years. Not long before, he had met Liam while based in Belfast, from where some of his despatches had appeared in the Washington Post. He knew Woodward and Bernstein. He was now working for The Trenton Times, but looking for something new. My mind was racing. Jim had a Plymouth Duster, which he offered to put at our disposal. On the spot, I invited him to join the expedition. Jim accepted, provided only that he would come and go as he pleased. We shook hands on it.

I started talking to a very pretty girl who was standing in the bus queue in front of me. She seemed quite interested in our trip. I groped for my cigarettes but the packet was empty. "I could really do with a fag" I said invitingly. "You're into fags, are you?" she replied, her eyes narrowing attractively. "Not all the time!" "Will you please excuse me?" She had gone and Jim stood there, grinning at me: "In the States, a 'fag' means a homosexual, you idiot!" How embarrassing!

I had a meeting with the directors of the American Cancer Society. They began by telling me that they could do nothing to help, as they had had no prior notice. "What about my Uncle Gerard?" "Do you mean the blind gentleman in Arkansas?" "?" (Apparently, when asked what date we were arriving, he'd said "I'm running blind.") After further useless sparring, I realised that the ACS were afraid the expedition would draw funds out of their own coffers. "Surely we are on the same side?" I argued, but without effect. Knowing that foreigners were forbidden from doing any fundraising at all on their own, I offered the ACS half of the funds we might raise, pointing out that they would be getting the full benefit of the publicity. Still no. I finally offered them all moneys raised in the US. They said that each state branch of the ACS was autonomous, and would therefore resent any directive from New York. In any case, there wasn't time. There ensued a long, fraught silence.

At that moment, the Public Affairs President walked in. The end director explained: "This young guy, Nick, has just come over from England, funded by the British Cancer Society. He and his buddies think they'll kayak all the way down the Mississippi and the Missouri. He says this trip might raise a bundle." Another silence, and then the newcomer replied: "It's great! The first descent of America's longest river. 'A canoe for cancer.' 'A man against a monster.' It's a copywriter's wetdream. I'll pull out every small-town Rotary Club and every bigshot state-governor. From the Rockies down to the Gulf. Across thirteen states. Just imagine. This could become the biggest thing since the selling of the President!"

There was an even longer silence. Then the end gentleman got slowly to his feet. "Irv," he said, "you blew it!" With these last words, I knew that my fundraising dream had taken a lethal blow. I was tempted to say that this was not the way to fight a terrible killer; but I realised that they didn't think I could possibly do the river. And I still hoped to win them round by doing a reasonable stretch of it.

So it was that we said goodbye as if nothing had happened. But I was seething inside as I walked out through the huge marbled lobby.


Jim introduced us to a tough friend of his called "Tilt". He had gained this strange name when he lost part of one leg while covering his helicopter-gunship's take-off from a jungle clearing in "'Nam". Tilt asked me where we were going. So as to avoid all mistakes, I slowly got the map out, carefully unfolded it, and then confidently pointed to the top left-hand corner - thank God my finger found the thin blue line straight away. A heavy silence hung as Tilt studied the Badlands and the Missouri Breaks. Then, very softly, so softly I had to lean forward to hear, he intoned "You's headed into bad country, boy." I knew that some of it was for effect, but even so I could feel gooseflesh prickling down my back. The room had suddenly dropped twenty degrees.

Having wound up the East-Coast business, Jim, Rick, and I caught the night-train for St Louis. At 8 a.m., Jim woke us up, and pointed down at the biggest and brownest river I had ever seen. We rushed to get our things together. But Jim just laughed and said "I'd like to see your reactions when we get to the Father of Waters himself. Gentlemen, meet the Ohio." We smiled sheepishly, put our cases up again, and went back to sleep.

We eventually rolled into St Louis at 10 p.m., climbing down into a temperature of 95%. Setting off in search of the Mississippi-Missouri, we came to the end of the street, and there she was, lying in front of us. At first I was a bit disappointed. She was as big as you could imagine - about half a mile across. But she seemed very flat.

As a brown plash wet my feet, however, my feelings slowly changed. I tried to visualise a solo kayak in the midst of that sombre swell and a seed of awful fear grew deep inside me. In a very short time, I would be canoeing off into the unknown. I really couldn't believe that that icy river-course could ever be made to join up with this brown sea whose perspiring bosom now seemed much too large. I tried to follow the river down - Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota - but my brain was just a seething blank, I couldn't recall any of the other states. I couldn't even remember what state I was in.

After a while, we went back to the hotel and I fell into a hot and troubled sleep. I dreamed I was pulling on a muddy blue pullover three sizes too big for me, but I couldn't get into it, the sleeves just kept on getting tangled up.


To go from St Louis to Rogers, Ark., on Independence Day, you take three buses, losing air-conditioning on the second and suspension on the third. We were very glad indeed to be met by Gerard, Liam, and Tim brandishing ice-cold beers.

It was obvious that Gerard was hoping to come with us; but it was equally obvious that it just wouldn't work. Gerard was over twice our age, and he operated in a highly-organised, almost military, manner. We, in contrast, were already using a distinctly bits-of-string style. There was just no way that we could work together over a long and gruelling expedition. Feeling very guilty, I tried to bring Gerard round to the idea that there were important character differences and that this would cause problems; and he eventually accepted the idea with very good grace.

My uncle then made two extremely generous offers. The first was a gleaming white palace on wheels, with full-size fridge and cooker, six beds, carpets, power-steering, stereo, television, and air-conditioning. Total value, £11,000. I looked in the wall-to-wall mirror at the grisly gang: we were afraid to even sit down. I knew we would wreck it if we took it over the rough terrain of thirteen states. I thanked Gerard profusely, but said I just had to decline it, with real regret.

His other offer was a magnificent set of maps, drawn up by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and covering the whole 3810 miles of the Mississippi-Missouri. Their scale was one inch to a mile, and they were based on surveys done only three years before. Tim and I started gleefully fitting the individual sheets together. But then we stopped. Gerard had told us that the result would reach out of the living room, over the front lawn, across the main road, through the neighbour's house, and into his swimming pool: 317 feet in all! We looked again at my tired road-map; and solemnly tore it into bits. It had seen sterling service with MacKenzie and Tilt, but its time had finally come.

Alone in bed that night, I studied the crisp white pages with their blue band that just grew and grew. Suddenly I remembered some notes that Bill had put together in his university library. Uncrumpling the serried sheets, I read some incredible facts: altogether, the river has 100,000 affluents. It is so long that the water takes three months to get to the end. The catchment area includes two Canadian provinces and thirty-three American states: every state east of the Rockies except Florida and those silly little ones in the Northeast. Plus one that is west of the Rockies. Total area: 1 1/4 million square miles, or eleven times the British Isles. Mark Twain called the basin the "body of the nation": "all the other parts are but members." Jules Verne said the United States were just two mountain ranges with a river in between. Smiling at Bill's résumé, I thought about the help he had given me in London. Perhaps I should have invited him after all?

Three a.m. chimed, but still I couldn't get to sleep. I idly leafed through the maps again, curious to see what the rapids on the Upper Missouri looked like. I searched - and I searched. I couldn't find them. There was no sign of the 1000 miles of white water I'd told everybody in New York about. They had been almost totally replaced by 1000 miles of still water - six huge reservoirs, up to 7 miles wide and 230 miles long, each one a veritable inland sea.

My sleep was again agitated. At breakfast, I felt really awful. Then, straight after, Jim took me aside, and said he was very worried about how disorganised the expedition was. I said I agreed, but could we leave it for a few more days until we all got into our stride? Yes we could, he said, apart from one problem: money....

I have to interrupt Jim here to admit that my original manoeuvring was indeed rebounding on me. My costing had included £5000 for a main vehicle - and then I had told Cancer Research that this part of the budget was covered by Gerard's mobile home. Without that home, there was now a big hole. "You've simply been switching the hole back and forth across the Atlantic." "Like a three-card trickster?" I prompted, and then pointed out that there had to be at least the promise of money for me to operate. "That's what they said about the Mississippi Bubble." Guessing wildly, I argued that the Bubble was just an investment scheme that got off the ground too quickly. I pointed out that if I hadn't acted as a go-between, there wouldn't have been a hole at all for the two of us to be arguing about.

Jim did have a very good point though. I told him that, while waiting for two final £500 cheques that the C.R.C. had promised "further down the river", I would split the big hole into a large number of little ones, try to tie some of them down with pieces of string, and hope that some of the others would just float away. But were we ever going to get to the Missouri?, I began to wonder.


Early the following morning, Liam and Gerard went out to study the used-vehicle market of Rogers County, Ark. At lunchtime, I glanced at the top of their list, and gasped audibly. But the second bottom vehicle looked interesting: a six-year-old Dodge pick-up with 90,000 miles on the clock, price $1600. What we really needed was a newish four-wheel-drive, but with our total resources now down to $1100, we decided to buy the Dodge. The proprietor accepted $600 down-payment, plus the promise of five monthly instalments of $200. I hoped to resell what was left of the truck long before the last three were due - I was back in the business of pyramid-selling!

I also wanted to buy a firearm. "For animal or human predators?" said Jim. I held my ground, saying that I wanted a .44 magnum powerful enough to blow an alligator out of the Mississippi if he decided he wanted my kayak for breakfast. "If you used a .44," riposted Liam, "you'd blow yourself out of the water!" In the end, we met at exactly halfway, with the old lady who ran the laundromat lending me a .22!

One final question still remained to be settled. There was already a mounting pile of urgent correspondence (the C.R.C., for instance, might be wondering where we had got to...). Also, I began to realise, we needed an advance-man: someone prepared to travel alone into unknown towns and arrange contacts "from cold". I could think of only one person who fitted the requirements: William Butcher. He had also worked as a lifeguard, and you never knew....

Liam drew up a long list of items that we'd forgotten to bring, and I phoned Bill. Although it was three a.m., he was overjoyed, and promised to set out the day his librarian contract finished. I explained that he would have to pay his own way out, as the expedition coffers were in such a desperate state. He just replied "I'll hitch the land bit." Brave words, I thought, knowing the 3,000 miles involved.


At last, on 9 July, we were nearly ready. Tim screwed a freshly- painted board onto the back of the pick-up, announcing MISSISSIPPI-MISSOURI CANCER RESEARCH SOLO KAYAK EXPEDITION. As a last contribution, Gerard gave us a light rifle. Then we said a sad goodbye, and the little convoy started out.

Through a blanket of CB static came an inimitable Midwestern drawl: "Ten-four. Your handle?" More static, and then "Do you have a copy on me?... Two bears on the Interstate, 8 miles, moving." This was too much. All we could manage was: "Wallflower calling Daisychain, are you receiving me? Over." A long pause. Then, very clipped and very British: "Daisychain receiving Wallflower, loud and clear. Your message please. Over." Those coast-to-coast truckers must have blanched!

Our new toy made the time pass quickly. Soon we were at Omaha, and overlooking the Missouri River. She looked very brown and very turbulent. This terrible creature would be my companion and foe for the weeks ahead. Who would win? I remembered the Thames and felt more than a little queasy.

We headed up through the treeless wastes of Nebraska and South Dakota. Well after darkness, we stopped in "Mobridge" and set up camp, together with a fine crackling fire. Our senses crawled as Jim told us about wolves, coyotes, bobcats, bears, eagles, and vultures. This was real pioneering stuff. After all those months of dreaming and scheming, we were finally getting there.

Awake with the dawn, we eventually arrived at the parched plains of Montana. Jim told us that it was the last state to be seen by White men - François and Louis-Joseph de la Vérendrye in the middle of the eighteenth century. Even now, he said, it has only a few hundred thousand people in an area the size of England.

We saw what he meant as hour after hour passed on the dead-straight road, and only the occasional lonely farmstead rushed by. As we drove into the first foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the sky lowered in preparation for a violent electric storm. Still the road stretched interminably ahead, and the whole of humanity seemed to have been wiped from the face of the earth.

Then the rain started to lash down. Awed by this savage display of nature's magnificence, we switched the radio on, seeking respite from the desolate world enveloping us. The Abba song "Knowing Me, Knowing You" was blasting out. As night came down, the storm got worse and the wind buffeted against the two-ton pick-up, howling between the kayaks like a stricken banshee. Each flash of lightning silhouetted a new jagged peak, rising out of a blasted landscape, incandescent for a moment and then dying as swiftly as it had been born. Somehere above us, the stars were glowing across a myriad miles of empty space, but they were invisible through the shifting curtain of darkened cloud and driving rain. Pressed together in our fragile cockpit, we felt that we were driving into hell itself, with only the wipers and the music holding out that terrible night.

But tomorrow we would be there, and I could finally begin my Journey to New Orleans.


If you come down to the River

Bet you gonna find some people who live

You don't have to worry if you have no money

People on the River are happy to give

(Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Proud



Three Forks is a tiny hamlet situated a mere 600 miles from the Pacific - as far west as Salt Lake City, the Grand Canyon, and Phoenix, Arizona, combined. Its altitude is only 4000 feet, but on all four sides are mountains over 10,000 feet high - part of the range that stretches from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, by far the longest in the world. The hamlet itself might easily pass unnoticed. But a traveller would be blind indeed if he didn't see the significance of the only bar. It is called the Headwaters Cafe; and it is here that three small rivers, the Jefferson, the Madison, and the Gallatin, meet to form the longest river in the Northern Hemisphere.

After a slow breakfast and a dilatory wash, I had yet another cigarette. I studied the charts. I mentioned that it was the thirteenth of the month. At this point Tim enthusiastically asked "But what made you decide to start here, Nick? At university, we always talked about the Mississippi-Missouri-Jefferson-Beaverhead-Red Rock Complex." I took a deep breath, and said that the simplest answer was that I wanted to canoe the Mississippi-Missouri, and not any other river, however elegant a name it might have. The M-M, I considered, was already more than enough on my plate.

Tim and Rick carried one of the slalom-boats down to the water. Everybody wished me the best of luck, and Liam gave me a gigantic shove. I had set off.

Map 3 Three Forks to Craig

As I moved out of sight, I felt a sharp surge of panic. With the malevolent snow-capped mountains hemming me in on all sides, access to the river was impossible, and I knew that if anything happened, that would probably be that. I stopped paddling, took a deep breath (again), and started counting each stroke: one-two-three-four, five-six-seven- eight.... The canoe shot forward.

There was no sign at all of a human presence, just the steep, gravelly slopes of the mountains falling into the dark water. Only the thin ranks of severe fir trees maintained a puritanical verticality, as if saying "u" in disdainful unison. It all made me think I was in some kind of Teutonic folk tale. I was just looking for the sombre shapes of starving wolves slinking slily along the silent shore, when the sun came dazzingly out: I was immediately transported 2000 miles further east, and the gently unwinding river was now leading Hiawatha towards his Minnehaha. She was combing her long black hair on a sunlit rock just around the corner. Then a glimpse of a deer-trail changed me into a Mohican, and I was kept busy stealthily stalking for a few hundred more strokes. But after that, my repertoire of mythical archetypes became totally exhausted. I was exactly 4 miles out of Three Forks.

For the foreseeable future, I realised, I was going to be spending my waking hours sitting in a boat that was 1 1/2 feet wide and uncomfortable to boot. Also, I had something to confess to the back-up team, and I wanted to get it off my chest. Another problem was going to be physical fitness. My upper arm muscles were already aching slightly, and I was now sweating. I suppose I should have expected this, as I had been rushing from pole to post for months, but not doing any real exercise, let alone kayaking. In addition, I had never quite managed to give up smoking. Admittedly, this did make it a little paradoxical to start canoeing a river for cancer. But I really couldn't help it. I reckoned it was better to help Cancer Research by whatever means I could. You never knew, I might need them some day! But I resolved to stop the filthy habit as soon as I possibly could.

By one o'clock I was starving, and pulled into a little bay with smooth shining sand. The water lapping at its edges was the sort of blue-green you see only in brochures. I drank some, lying face down, Robinson Crusoe-style. But then I opened the lunch-bag: peanut-butter and grape-jelly sandwiches. The same as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before. Hardly fare for a ravenous pioneer in virgin territory.

After a short rest, I left my own little corner of paradise. At about five o'clock, the river started to broaden out and slow down. As I rounded a right-hand bend, I saw a dam stretching across the river, and a tiny figure up amongst the mountains. It was Liam with the radio. "Twenty-four miles down," came his metallic brogue, "only 3786 to go!" I heard the sound of gunshots. Tim was trying out his expertise. So far so good.


I rested for a while, enjoying my exhaustion. And then Tim suggested I might make for the village of Townsend, "not far down river". I groaned, but dutifully set off. After a few more miles, I made out the silhouette of a bridge and an old truck with three kayaks perched precariously on top. As I came closer I was surprised to discover a bottle of Schlitz swinging on the end of a rope - a touch of Liam's genius. But access was clearly impossible, so I shouted my thanks and paddled beerily on into the night.

I rowed for another 6 miles without seeing any sign of Townsend. Over the last hour, the air had become much colder. There was no moon, and visibility had dropped to about 20 feet. All I could see was the unnatural glow of the kayak against the inky river, as smooth as a black billiard-ball. Whenever I stopped rowing, it became deathly quiet, with the kayak just drifting through a sea of dark nothingness.

All of a sudden, there was a tremendous splash. I nearly jumped out of the boat with fright. Some bastard's throwing rocks at me, I thought - but then realised I was too far from the bank. Another loud splash, this time behind my right shoulder. Then I saw something small, furry, and floating. I tried to twist away, but too late, and the bow brushed against it. In a flurry of water, it came alive. It was a beaver, and seemingly a very angry one, for his tail crashed down again. The noise was just as bad, but this time I got drenched as well. Pushing his tail up in the air, he wiggled naughtily, and disappeared from view.

So much for my idea of being in a vessel that forms part of the river, I mused. I'm at the mercy of any smart-arsed little beaver. Give me the poetry of a warm Scottish bed any time. I realised that it would be folly to go on; and therefore decided to stop. As the greyish outline of an isolated sandbank drifted into view, I eased the bow gently towards it. It would be colder there than on shore, I knew, but at least the creepy-crawlies wouldn't be able to get to me.

I huddled against the fibre-glass trying futilely to fight the cold. To save weight, I had brought no extra clothing or sleeping-bag, and the temperature had fallen to about 40%. I felt scared of falling asleep in case I never woke up again. Where the hell was Townsend? What the hell was I doing, frozen and miserable, on a sandbank in the middle of the Missouri?

Hour after hour crawled by, and an icy mist came down, coating the kayak with a shiny veil. Just before five, the cold slivers of dawn crept into the sky. I climbed stiffly into the kayak. Soon there came a muffled whine, and the grey slouched shape of the inflatable came storming into view, with Liam at the helm. He explained that the beavers had been slapping their tails to warn their downstream friends. It was Bastille Day (14 July), and in honour of my ancestors, breakfast was oeufs sur le plat washed down by a vintage Nescafe. Twelve years in the dreaded prison wouldn't have taken as much out of me as that one night!

I grabbed a few hours sleep, and then a young reporter arrived from the Helena Sunday Independent Record. As I hastily pulled on my British Airways jacket, he said "Hi! I'm Randy"(!), and enquired enthusiastically if I could put my thing through its paces. Whatever turns one on..., I thought, starting some fairly complicated combinations, but he said he couldn't see what was going on. "Take him out in the inflatable, could you Tim, for some close-ups?"

As the boat scudded by, I telemarked strongly and ploughed impressively through the deep wake. The reporter was in ecstasy. "Come a tiny bit closer, Tim."

The snub-nose slewed round, and then her bow lifted out of the water as she came hurtling across the full width of the Missouri. "Finely judged", I thought, starting to get ready for the wash - but she just kept on crashing. I gestured maniacally, and after another fateful second, Tim wrestled with the rudder and the grey nose started to turn. I was back-paddling with all my force, but knew that it was much too late.

A confused image of foam and rubber as my arms swung instinctively upwards. Then an elephant sitting on my chest. Next, water, water everywhere, the taste of Missouri mud in my mouth, and a burning pain in my ribs. Liam's face leaning over and pulling me from the river.

In the darkened tent, Liam was probing my ribs. I took over the delicate task, and could feel that the end bits of two of them weren't quite right. In unison we diagnosed: cracked ribs! I groaned. Liam tried to reassure me by saying that the kayak had taken the full brunt of the impact. In fact, just where my right knee had been, there was now a ragged four-inch hole. Also, the propeller had gone right over my head.

Randy went away again, and I took stock. After less than 40 miles of my assault on the Mississippi-Missouri, the tally was as follows: no confession; one missed rendezvous; one freezing-cold night in the open; one damaged kayak; and two cracked ribs. Or, as the front page of the Sunday Independent Record proclaimed: "A Bad Start in an Alien Land!"


The next morning, the pain was too bad for me to even consider paddling. As I made this announcement, the different reactions gave me the opportunity to think about what I had wanted to discuss anyway. Rick, I felt, was not pulling his weight. By using Jim's "extraterritoriality", he was avoiding his share of the tasks round camp. Nor did he seem to be taking nearly enough of the right sort of photographs.

I had a talk with him. He said he was disappointed by the trip, he hadn't expected it to be like this. In addition, what was left of the £380 wasn't enough to buy film with: in college, they had been taught to take large numbers of shots of the same object and use only a few of them. I asked if he couldn't adapt his methods? But our talk didn't seem to get us very far, on this or on any other topic.

The problem with Tim seemed to be the opposite: more than enough motivation, but applied in all the wrong places. Twice already he had tried to make me canoe further - when it was beginning to get dark, and when I was injured. I took him aside, and he argued that the expedition lacked coherence, and that everything was moving too slowly. I said I agreed, but pointed out the reasons for some of the problems we had had. As we talked, Tim quickly adopted a more constructive attitude. He offered to repair the slalom-canoe with the fibre-glass kit. I took Liam aside in turn, and asked him to assert his authority more fully, assuring him of my support.

On the 16th, things started to feel, and go, a bit better. The team met me for a hot lunch; and by dusk the day after, I had beaten Canyon Ferry and Hauser Dams. Ninety miles in five days was much slower than I'd imagined. I just had to hope my average would pick up.

After dinner, we heard the sound of wolves baying in the distance. It must have made some connection in my brain, for I started rummaging through my battered suitcase. Finally, I pulled out William's "Dossier No. 2", "Early Explorers on the Missouri". Liam threw another couple of logs on the fire, and by the flickering light I read out the closely-spaced lines.

It was the French who had first claimed this area, in 1682. Never a people to do things by halves, they had in fact claimed possession of the whole Mississippi-Missouri basin. What they called "Louisiana" (after Louis XIV, the Sun-King) included therefore about two-thirds of the modern United States, plus bits of Canada - quite an empire. Their claim was admittedly a bit tenuous at this stage, as they hardly knew where the Missouri ended - let alone began! But various explorers had then worked their way up most of the river valley, followed by the fur-trappers. Settlements were made, and the claim was just beginning to be a bit firmer, when France ran into problems back home. In the end, she was forced to give up her North American Empire altogether. That part of Louisiana west of the Mississippi went to Spain (hence the name Montana (= "Mountain" in Spanish)); and most of the rest, to the British. In 1800, both parts came back to the French. But in 1803, Napoleon came under pressure in the New World: and only had enough troops to defend either Louisiana or Haiti. Had he made the right decision, it is just possible that the language of North America today would have been French. As it was, he decided to save Haiti (where they do still speak French). At the knock-down price of four cents an acre, the United States took possession of the Mississippi-Missouri basin - and more than doubled their surface area.

Parts of the purchase were still unexplored. President Jefferson wanted to see what he was getting, and, even before the deal was arranged, had issued orders to Captains Lewis and Clark to reconnoitre. Their mission was to head up the Missouri to its source, and then down to the Pacific. At that time, Britain still claimed most of the land west of the Rockies and north of the Spanish colonies. Lewis and Clark were accordingly issued with passports, and instructed to keep a low profile and to come back the safest way - probably, Jefferson wrote, via Cape Horn.

The expedition finally set off from St Louis in May 1804, with a 55-foot keelboat and two pirogues. They had several guide-interpreters with them, including a fur-trapper called Toussaint Charbonneau and his Snake-Indian wife, Sacajawea (= "Bird-Woman"), a native of Three Forks. The crew pushed, pulled, rowed, and towed the heavy boats up against the current. They passed the town of Saint Charles and then, about 60 miles out, the last White establishment on the river. With multiple interchanges in French, English, Minnetaree, Snake, and Sioux, friendly contact was made, as instructed. Amongst the Ricaras, the laws of hospitality dictated that women had to be offered to male visitors, normally by the husband or brother. ("When do we get to Injun country?" chipped in Tim, with a wicked gleam.) The one Black in the expedition got special attention, wrote Lewis - wrote Bill - for the Indians "desired to preserve among them some memorial of this wonderful stranger". ("Would a blue-eyed Irishman do?" (Liam).)

An encouraged expedition struggled on. After about a year, they came to the Rockies, and then to a place where the river split into three. Sacajawea had come home.

They sat on the Pacific shore for a long while, but couldn't find any ships to pick them up. They decided, consequently, to come back the same way, and this is where their problems started. A wolf bit through the hand of one of the men while he was sleeping. The expedition was attacked by Indians, and had to kill two of them. And Lewis was shot in the thigh at 40 yards distance by one of his own party, who claimed he thought he was an elk ("Moo! moo!").

The expedition got back to St Louis, looking like the Swiss Family Robinson. They were thus not only the first White men to cross what was to become the United States, but the first to navigate the whole of the Missouri. This last fact is all the more remarkable given that the source of the Mississippi, 8000 feet lower and 1000 miles closer to civilisation, had not yet been discovered.

Subdued by the memory of these great men, we carefully refolded the sheets, and went to bed in virtual silence. Much later, I heard something moving near the pick-up. I slipped the safety-catch off my gun and crawled out Indian-style, with Liam hot on my heels with the rifle. Silhouetted against the moving river-blackness was a stationary black form. We froze. If baby bear was there, mother Bear was certainly as well. The grizzlies in this region, Jim had said, weighed as much as a third of a ton and occasionally grabbed people from their tents and ate them. We crouched until our bones ached. Still it didn't move. Finally Liam picked up a small piece of wood and threw it nervously at the immobile intruder. Its only reaction was a strange rustling noise. I boldly lit a match and saw a shiny rubbish-bag. We clearly had something to learn about wilderness survival: Lewis and Clark wouldn't have had this problem!


Early next morning, with my ribs now just a mild ache, I paddled into some of the most beautiful scenery in America. First there were bare grey rocks, sloping gracefully down into the sparkling blue water. Then the rocks grew red patches and adopted a more aggressive stance. At the next bend, two skyscrapers conspired together to crush the river out of existence. Only at the last possible moment did a small crack appear - the beginning of the famous Gates of the Mountains.

The sheer sides of the Rockies groped 1200 feet above me. Against the sun I could see fantastic shapes - ledges, pinnacles, caves, holes right through the rock. Further on were forbidding mountain passes, shrouded in coniferous forest. All this stark desolation made me think again of the Norwegian fiords, but here there was something still more grandiose and inhuman. Even Lewis and Clark - very rarely affected by natural beauty - had been struck in awe at this point. As I thought back to their tremendous exploit, I finally realised the full enormity of my own attempt. I was trying to take on the Missouri with my dwarf-sized kayak and my bare hands. I felt extremely vulnerable, as the cold of the terrible overhanging cliffs crept into my very bones.

As suddenly as they had started, the Gates stopped, and projected me into a wall of blazing hot sushine. I was both relieved and saddened it had been so short. But soon, with the help of a slight current, I was swallowing up the distance to Holter Dam. Two worries filled my mind over the last 10 miles. We had used up virtually all the money, and were down to $30. I was also thinking again about the back-up team. I was having more hot meals than the boys. I really felt I needed that amount of protein - as it was, I was 9 stone, and sinking fast. But we couldn't afford it for everybody. The resultant tensions and jealousies disrupted organisation and motivation. Longer-term goals were being totally neglected....

It was a lovely paddle. The scenery was now decidedly Alpine - high mountains, but relieved with greenery, and even the occasional chalet perched against the clear blue sky. Just after passing Prickly Pear Creek (?), I spotted something moving on the left bank. It was a baby deer. A week's fresh and succulent venison. I slipped the paddles inboard and aimed my gun. The kayak drifted until we were only 20 feet apart. I looked into the face of the little creature with its splayed legs, and knew then that I could never pull the trigger. I slowly got the paddles out again.

Half a mile later, there was a choice of routes. I took the left-hand one, but then it became narrower and narrower, and the current slower and slower. My way was finally barred by a tree-trunk, with a dome-shaped structure at the far end - my dozy friends taking their revenge for my sleep-paddling. Undeterred, I climbed out of the canoe as heavy-footedly as I could, lifted it over, and dropped it down the other side. A nifty foot to stop it drifting shiftily away, and soon I was sitting on top of it, holding on to a projecting branch, and wondering how I'd got myself into such a situation. I'd still never managed to go from on the kayak to in it. Keeping hold with my hand, I slipped my weight backwards until the whole kayak was sticking rudely up. Then I curled my right leg into position. But just as I was twisting my bottom on the hull, something happened, and I was rolled into the water. It was absolutely freezing. Mr and Mrs Toothy Beaver must have been chortling away all the time!

At dusk, I came into Craig, admiring the tiny village nestling below the steep mountains; and soon hit camp. Tim had a piece of good news: someone in the local bar was interested in buying part of our radio equipment. We climbed into the pick-up and drove there. With a heavy heart, we sold our two base-units for $150. The expedition was solvent again, but for how long?

At that moment a huge cattle-rancher came in. He was wearing all the appropriate gear, and looked very hard but very honest. Tim got up, and introduced him: "It was Everett Hicks who set up the radio deal." Everett seemed to like our story, and invited us up to his ranch the following day. I quickly decided I needed a day off.


A little after midnight, we were woken by a high-powered pick-up grinding and slithering over the gravel track. It was Everett, with one of his cowhands, two bottles of bourbon, and forty cans of beer. We threw some wood on the embers and had ourselves a party. As the beer started to dwindle, Everett led me over to his pick-up and proudly showed me his armoury. He had a pump-action shotgun, a .44 magnum, and enough weapons to take on a small army. Unclipping the magnum, he challenged me to a marksman competition. With my miserable pea-shooter, I felt distinctly outgunned and unmanned, but felt I had no choice. After half a dozen cans had been dangerously demolished (by Everett!), his companion stood up. He shouted that we were all plumb crazy, and stalked off into the night.

We had another beer, and Everett talked about his 3000-head ranch. The rugged face flickering in the shadows, I realised, belonged to the last of a pioneering breed. His kind had won this savage terrain, no matter what the cost in Indian lives - or their own. He would share the last of his wordly possessions with you; but never try to steal his cattle or his women: he would kill you without blinking. There was a long, contemplative silence, and then he was gone, leaving us with our thoughts in the calm of the night.

After breakfast, we had a tidy-out. The bottom layer of the pick-up was just a mass of half-closed suitcases, half-open plastic bags, soggy bits of paper, and mud-caked socks. Liam threw it all out, remarking en passant that my pile was the biggest and dirtiest. While brushing out the cab, he made another discovery. In the space behind the seat, there was a neatly-pressed green kilt. Tim's initiative was voted intelligent but undemocratic. His toilet-bag and shirts were ceremoniously dumped in the back, and three bulky suits joined the kilt, virtually crushing the sporran out of existence. Such, I suppose, is the painful price paid by innovators.

Spick and span, we pulled up at a sign marked: L.Y. RANCH. TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. There was a skull to prove the point - a bull's, I think. We had steak after delicious steak. Everett asked if we would like to spot some bears. We jumped at the idea and, accompanied by his beautiful young daughter Terri, into the back of his pick-up. Then it began to pour. We huddled under a old tarpaulin. Further and further we drove, climbing over the barest of tracks. Suddenly Everett killed the engine and the four corners lifted slightly. Ahead of us appeared about fifteen elk, each animal cantering gracefully and easily across the track. And then they saw us. The little ones and the hinds continued, more urgently now, sensing the danger. Two magnificent stags stopped as if in mutual understanding - both knowing what they had to do - waiting for their young to pass. Then slowly they turned towards us, lowered their antlered heads and froze. After long seconds, Everett gently released the handbrake and we freewheeled back down the ravine, leaving them alone with their hinds and their victory.

As we arrived back at the cold campsite, each of us was silent with his memories of the day. I thought back again to the disastrous beginning of the week, and realised that the land didn't seem quite so alien now as before. Although I couldn't bear to look at the maps, the Mississippi-Missouri hadn't beaten me yet - I was still moving.

We all said a warm goodnight, and then slept like dead people.