Canoeing the Mississippi-Missouri
V THE PATIENT MARINER
"I'm the captain and the owner, and the mate,
and the pilot, and watch-man, and head-deck-
hand; and sometimes I'm the freight and
The next day was Thursday, 20 July, and I set off towards lunch at a village called Ulm. The wind, I noticed, was in my favour for the very first time. My mind seized this pretext to wander off to Romer's amazing Atlantic crossing. From there, a thought came to me: why not hoist a sail myself? Even jamming a couple of branches behind the seat and stretching a pullover across would help. Nobody need ever know.
But then my conscience crept back. I was trying to canoe the river, not sail it. Any artificial help would spoil the whole idea - otherwise I wouldn't be able to look at myself in a mirror in ten years' time. To compensate, I pulled my British Airways jacket into a looser position, and sat up straight.
Map 3 Craig to Fred Robinson Bridge
After a few miles, however, I realised that it didn't seem to be making any difference at all, so I pulled my jacket tight and slouched down again. Once you've let yourself in for a masochistic thing like pulling some paddles through a river a couple of hundred thousand times, you might as well go the whole hog.
Then I tried to calculate exactly how many strokes were in fact needed to get to New Orleans. 3810 miles, 5000 strokes a mile, call it a round two million. Deduct a quarter for the current. That made 1 1/2 million. "One and a half million!?" I'd go off the clock about fifteen times before I got there. Some river....
Liam was suddenly on the shore, shouting and waving me in. While I ate, we got to talking about Bill. He ought to be somewhere past the Great Lakes by now. I sneaked a look at a meticulous schedule Tim had drawn up for me at base-camp. It showed me as 600 miles further on. He'd be doing well to find me.
Next day, after a hard slog under the hot sun, I rendezvoused with the team at 2 p.m. Exactly thirty minutes later they told me I just had time to get to Great Falls, where Jim had arranged a press-conference for five o'clock. I groaned, but paddled off again. It was now hotter than ever, and I had to keep pouring the cool Missouri water over my head.
I arrived at 5.05 and was impressed to see about a dozen men with cameras assembled on the bank. As we mutually surveyed each other, I thought that the figure at the end had a vaguely familiar way of standing. I looked again, and realised with a shock that it was Bill!
We had a joyful reunion, until the press clustered round. In great form, I told them about our various adventures and emphasised the charity aspect. "Where can our readers send contributions?" I muttered something about sending it to the C.R.C. in London, but I knew that for most Montanans, England was about as far away as the fifth dimension. In any case, the currency regulations probably stopped you sending money out. Once again, I cursed the ACS's selfish attitude.
At last it was over, and beers all round. As we drank the lukewarm liquid, Bill told us about his trip.
His problems had started, he said, at Kennedy. Immigration had grilled him in teams for hours, asking him again and again why he had only $300 in his pocket for two months and where he was going to stay. At long last he had escaped. It was 90%F, and there was a black-out covering the whole of New York. Ignoring the looting all round, Bill had hitched through 15 miles of riot-torn suburbs. A bus, and 2 a.m. saw him standing, Dylan-like, on Highway 80.
Two thousand seven hundred miles later, he walked into a newspaper office in Northwestern Montana. He put down his bulging rucksack and asked the pressmen if they had any idea where a British kayaker was. "We're meeting him in five minutes. Want a lift?" came the cool reply.
We examined with delight the equipment Bill had lugged up into the scores of lorries: a 40-foot strip of rubber to reinforce the inflatable, a brand-new tape-recorder with dozens of music cassettes, and lots of other things, all paid for out of his own pocket. "How's your diary going, Nick?" My splendid hard-backed notebook was empty bar four lines at Three Forks. "No matter", said Bill, "it's under control. The wonders of science." By this time, it was too late to do any more canoeing. The team set up camp while I sat in the cab of the pick-up playing with the recorder. Once Bill had shown me how to operate it, I thought back to New York. The first thing I discovered was that it was very hard to just speak into an inanimate machine. Bill was excused camp-duties and promoted tape-recorder operator. By bedtime I had recorded two weeks - at this rate I'd soon catch up, I told Bill. I'd be just about in the year 2000 by the end of the trip.
Next morning, I was raring to go. I knew that the day's schedule included Great Falls, one of the most impressive sights on the whole Mississippi-Missouri complex. Lewis and Clark had written about the water falling "in one smooth sheet over the precipice" and forming "a perfectly white foam 200 yards in length", with spray 20 feet high all the colours of the rainbow. I was just setting off, dreaming, when a Scottish voice sounded: "Make sure you don't go over the edge, Nicky. It's quite a drop."
As if to make sure, there they all were. But anybody save a myopic midget on a sinking surfboard would have seen the rough strata of stone curving away on both sides. After a quick portage, we looked at them from below. There was just a narrow curtain of water dropping tamely into a large pool. Only the battered and ravaged rock formations helped us imagine the awesome destructive beauty the place must have once had.
I amused myself paddling behind the curtain - let nobody say I had left any stretch uncanoed - and then we discussed the next bit. The map showed half a mile of rapids, and I was worried that the lowness of the water would make it worse. After a reconnaissance on foot, I set off in one of the slalom-boats. I wasn't used to its manoeuvrability and found myself oversteering. But with the sun blasting down and the water spraying everywhere, I soon began to enjoy myself. I had to do a long sequence of savage back- and side-paddling to just scrape past rock after rock that seemed to be groping and lunging at me. Only too soon I came to the end, breathless and shaken up, but exhilarated.
Somehow, Rick hadn't managed to take any photographs at all. I told him I was extremely disappointed as the Cancer Research Campaign desperately needed dramatic shots. "Do you want to do it again?" asked Liam.
I then made a bad mistake. I asked Liam to tie a rope round the bow of the kayak and tow me part of the way upstream. Near the bank lay a stretch of smooth water, and I thought my idea would be easier than climbing out of the canoe. But even before we got moving, there was a hitch. The rope tightened, then went completely slack, and the 6-knot current grabbed the bow of the kayak and spun us bodily sideways. I started to telemark to keep my balance but the rope snapped tight again at the worst moment, and the stern jammed against a rock. All of a sudden the whole wanton destructive power of the Missouri was rushing against me.
We stayed there for a couple of seconds, but then the equilibrium started slipping away. Liam had to let go completely, and I quickly tried to bring the canoe parallel to the current again. But the water was much too strong. The kayak, out of control, turned over completely.
I was suddenly upside-down under the cold, savage water, and fighting for my very life. Instinctively, I tried to kick myself free from the tiny cockpit. But something was jamming on the right. I remembered the handgun and cursed. Again I pushed as hard as I could with my arms, but it was no good. Clawing sideways, I desperately lunged towards a split-second of air. I was inches away, when the canoe twisted me back under.
I heard later what happened next. The team had watched with horror as the smooth orange bottom of the kayak moved wildly back and forth. With each movement, they expected to see me emerging from the water. Rick had apparently been too surprised to take any pictures. But something had clicked in Bill's head. He did a quick calculation, bounded over the shore, pushed off with all his strength, and arcked over the inshore rocks. His arms, head, and chest made it to the deeper water, but his left hip hit a submerged rock.
At about the same moment, a combination of desperation and self-preservation pushed me deeper into the cockpit, and then outwards again with all my might. My legs snapped tight, my muscles trembled with the strain, and something finally gave. With my head twice its normal size, I was wriggling out of the hole and then I was breaking the surface drinking down the cool air. The water was pure glitter, and the colour control of the sky and grass had gone haywire. To my amazement, I saw Bill as well, treading water only a few feet away. Still swept along by the current, we slowly worked our way together into shore.
Bill's flesh showed a nasty-looking jagged cut that was bleeding badly, but the hipbone had absorbed much of the impact, and he assured us it didn't need medical treatment. I myself was in one piece, but shaken, and with a splitting headache. I had lost my leather hat, jersey, bottle, and knife. The canoe itself had been washed up further down.
"Does this sort of thing happen often?" Bill enquired, one eyebrow slightly raised.
In the afternoon, I changed kayaks again and headed off towards a series of dams. At each one, the team portaged the canoe round and raced on to the next one. The dam-keepers kept telling us it would be much easier to simply relaunch at the bottom. But the boys persevered. First it was Black Eagle Dam, then Rainbow, Cochrane, Ryan, and finally Morony.
Somewhere on this stretch my crotch and matches were definitively doused be an incoming wave. Coming up to a 5-mile and 2500-stroke break, I beached my boat and walked through the "garden" of a riverboat shack. Halfway through the arid scrub, a window opened and a head filled the frame. "Wherethehell you going?" "Have you got a match?" "That land's full of rattlers. Nothin' is getting me in there", and the head disappeared. I looked down at my paralysed feet, my smile congealing. Minutes or eons later, matches came sailing through the air. I crashed back to the fence as noisily as I could.
Somewhere also on this stretch, Lewis and Clark had described an island perched above some falls. On the island was a single cottonwood tree, with on it the proud nest of a solitary eagle. For my part, I couldn't find the island, and certainly didn't see any eagles - just a couple of vultures, looking very down at heel and miserable.
As I rounded a bend I heard the characteristic zip of high-velocity bullets. They were producing little spurts of dust on the sun-baked bluff on my left - but I had no idea where they were coming from. I pulled in and waited for them to stop, but they didn't! In the end I decided to risk it. I moved boldly across the wide expanse of water, wincing maniacally with each ricochet.
I paddled on relievedly through a dappled paradise of cool pools and glorious meadows - just like England in 1950s technicolour. Late that evening, I saw thousands of small white stones spelling out "Fort Benton", together with the statue of a dog. It was "Shep", immortalised by Elvis Presley, and arguably the most famous dog in the world. When his shepherd master died, Shep began a long and tragic vigil which was to last for five years, waiting for his master who would never return. He dug himself a rudimentary shelter beside the railway track. Minus 20 or 90 plus, a dog waited for each train, scanning the passengers, searching for the familiar smell. It was always the same ... the last passenger left ... the train drawing away into the night. In the end, a passing engine ran over his body. I can only hope that Shep rejoined his master.
Beside the superb old-style railway bridge, there was a blue tent, plus a roaring fire and a pan of mince and tatties. As Tim ladled, Liam told us about the history of Fort Benton. When the first steamboat had set off for here in 1860, the crew and passengers had to stop the boat every couple of days to chop wood and hunt game. With the crazy Montana gold-rush of the 1860s, things began to get organised. For a start, the mountain-boats, as they were optimistically called, were made arrow-proof, as the Pawnees and Sioux had come to resent the puffing intruders. In the 1870s and 80s Fort Benton became a major port - the only one in the world 4000 miles from the ocean. Liam then told us that some of the boats came here "directly" from New York State. "Yeah, via New Orleans!" came our sceptical chorus. "Not at all. Via the Allegheny, the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Missouri. Just make sure, Nick, you don't end up in Manhattan!"
Liam had found a list of steamboat wrecks on the Missouri, and it made horrifying listening as he emphasised the disasters. Up to 1897, the US Corps of Engineers had classified them as follows: whirlpool, 1; overloading, 1; collision, 1; ran into the bank, 1; storm and wind, 2; sandbars, 4; explosion of boiler, 6; bridges, 10; rocks, 11; fire, 25; ice, 26; snags, 193. "The snags are the ones to watch." We gave a round of applause; but he hadn't finished yet.
Fort Benton had also been the main staging-post for the Northern Overland Pony Express, from Missouri to Oregon. The NOPE was set up as a rival to the Pony Express to California, but with two major differences. It blazed its own trails. And it operated in totally hostile territory - at that time there wasn't a single American military outpost in the whole of Montana. Its riders were often beaten or killed, and the service had to be stopped after only a few months. And in 1885, concluded Liam, the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived, and a whole heroic era in the winning of the West came to a sudden end.
Next on the agenda was money. After only 250 miles, we were virtually broke again. What made matters worse was that some of the members had brought their own money. I understood the problem perfectly since I myself was without a penny to my name. Finally Liam came out with an idea that had been in all our minds for a while. "What do you do, why, you go out and get a job!" I said I could see huge problems: legal ones, time ones, and expedition-coherence ones.
Then I had a sudden desire to be back on the river. It was a beautiful evening as I headed off through the bare, dry hills. As the sky turned red and then blue-black, however, the water began to run out. The encyclopaedias, I decided, had been dead right to call the Upper River unnavigable. As my boat began to slide, I cursed the dams and the two-year drought.
Twain reports that he would calmly cruise in until he touched, then apply full power - and just scrape over. It worked twice; but then we were well and truly stuck. I reluctantly placed my hands on the warm, smooth slime. Having checked that the kayak's draught was, as advertised, exactly 4 inches, I wriggled my bottom. Her bottom wriggled. I swung the whole boat forward excruciatingly slowly. Then I brought my hands quickly back into position before she could get comfortable again. I manhandled that boat until my shoulders ached with pain. Tim had told us stories about "gumbo" mud: about the Missouri being too thick too drink, but too thin to plough; or so sticky it has problems going round bends; or so muddy that if you throw a man in, he just breaks his leg. Now I knew that some of them might be true.
Then the river came back. I slowly paddled another 10 miles, came into the dark shore, and lit a fire. For a while, I sat and appreciated the gentle sounds of nature. Only too soon an engine whined and a snub-nose came threading its moonlit way. In the boat were Liam, Bill, and some unwanted male groupie. We started back upstream, but there was a wet whirring noise as the propeller dug itself deep into the mud. Liam cut the motor and we jumped out of the boat and pushed. Only after minutes of sweating and swearing, did we notice that our passenger hadn't lifted a finger to help. Half a minute later, we were on another "sand"bank, and had to push off again.
We'd go up one channel for a hundred yards, only to get stuck in the invisible cloying mud. Back we'd come. And so it went on, blind-man's-bluff in a moving labyrinth. We kept going only by inventing a system to get us through that crazy night. Bill found himself a position with one foot hanging over the side. Out of the darkness came "One leg - full stern ahead, Mr Bosun!" or "mark twain - go easy!". Coordinating the information more efficiently than a 32-bit micro-processor, Liam nursed the boat along, alternately caressing and cajoling it. I was leaping in and out like a Chinese coolie. "Three quarters of a leg - one knee - half a shin!". I leapt out as clumsily as I could, and swamped the groupie. Then an arched silhouette was looming up. We were home at last.
Jim and Tim had been working their way through Fort Benton. At their fifth plastic-covered musak-drenched old saloon-bar, they had found a small silo-building firm that was looking for heavy labourers. If we were caught, we would be put on the first plane out. Also, the wage offered of $2.50 (£1.04) was an insult, especially for Liam and Bill who had given up jobs paying four times as much. But it was either work or starve. We decided that the members making such a sacrifice should have the unheard-of right to one square meal in a cafe per day, together with one glass of beer.
And thus it was that, the following morning, Liam and I loaded the inflatable down, said a guilty goodbye to the boys, and roared off. Fifteen miles on, I pulled Lochinvar from her hiding-place. Then, with Liam in convoy, I canoed into the Missouri Breaks, and back through time itself. As the river cut through a succession of faults, we left the last traces of human activity, the last scraps of vegetation, and soon we had nothing but the bones of the Breaks for company. All we could see was an occasional etched rock, surging effortlessly out of the water, and a stony wall swept smooth by eons of waves with regular rock layers, chiselled in three-D by some divine architect.
The blue sky, grey stone, and green river went on and on. Finally it was time for lunch. Afterwards, I scrambled up the cliff, and was amazed by the change. With the sweat drying on my brow, I could see the Missouri literally breaking through the countryside, violating hollows, slicing through hillocks, shouldering off rivals. Only in the cactus-strewn distance did it apparently exchange force for guile, working its weary way up until it could survey the high, rolling plains of Montana. I knew, however, that this was just an illusion. The Missouri would never see what I could see: Kirk Douglas coming over the dusty horizon with a thousand longhorn all the way from Texas. But then again, it had its own secret visions, its own cherished memories: gold-prospectors panning, buffaloes drinking, coyotes swimming, coloured canoes paddling, painted Indians whooping, shy long-haired girls bathing.
By nightfall we had covered 32 miles. At a little bay, Liam showed me how to build a makeshift tent out of our tarpaulin and sundry sticks. As the food started sizzling, I looked out across the ghostly drifting river, towards bluffs and "buttes" that hadn't changed for 10,000 years. Captains Lewis and Clark had camped on the same spot, I knew, and gazed out on the same primeval cliffs.
Early next morning, we came back to civilisation with a shock. There was an abandoned chain-ferry and a ramshackle bar. Four hatted cowhands were lounging against the counter. As Liam went to the "restroom", eight eyes descended on me, and stayed there. I ordered two coffees, feeling as though I had just arrived from another planet. A loud voice cut through the silence: "Maybe he thinks a handgun makes him look more virile!" The sugar-lump softened in my hand. (HURRY UP L-I-A-M!) "I've been canoeing through the Breaks," I said quickly. "We're hoping to make it through to New Orleans." A hint of interest dawned in two of the eyes. "Hey, you the guys kayaking for cancer, or sump'n?" All was well. I decided, however, never to wear my gun in public again.
Then it was back to the untamed wilderness. Back in Fort Benton, I had overruled Liam, and chosen tea that was twenty cents cheaper. That night, we discovered that it was "green (ie Chinese) tea", and didn't taste the same. We had forgotten the sugar, and in fact it tasted absolutely awful!
We saw a narrow hole in the side of a sheer bluff. This was meant to be one of the hide-outs of Butch Cassidy and his "Hole-in-the-Wall Gang". I gleefully remembered Tom Sawyer's wet attempts to reconstruct his own hole-in-the-wall and Huck Finn's corrosive comments. At our lunch halt, I again felt restless. I'd read about some amazing fossils that had been found near here: one of only two egg-bound dinosaur embryos in existence; the body of an Akylosaurus - a 24-foot long club-tailed horned toad; and a 47-foot skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. But all I could see was bare rock.
That night I had a dream. There was a sort of a path leading up to the plateau, and I began idly following it, but it just petered out halfway. As I started to work my way back to the river, I spotted some lumps lying in the sand, and casually turned them over with my foot. Then I was kneeling on the ground examining them more closely. They had angular bits on the sides, and there was a slight indentation on the bottom: primitive arrowheads! I quickly looked up, expecting to see a ring of white head-dresses; but cliff, sky, and Missouri were the same as ever. I smoothed the hot sand over, prayed to God that nobody would disturb the site for at least another 100 years, and returned to the lonely shore.
Two days later, we arrived at the brand-new Fred Robinson Bridge, having covered 130 miles in four and a half days. The desolation of the place had got to both Liam and me, and we felt totally exhausted. The sun was burning hot and however many pints we drank we still felt thirsty. I tried some water from the Missouri and felt even more parched. Ahead of us lay Fort Peck Reservoir: 150 miles of still water, up to 7 miles wide, with only two very rough access tracks - one on each side. And not a single house. We were down to $10, and had very little petrol or food left. We decided it would be folly to continue. Our only choice was to get in touch with the gang.
We hitchhiked 4 miles along a tar-blistered road, trying not to think about Bill's 800 miles a day. At a little farmhouse, the owners kindly said we could use their phone. We had forgotten to note the number of the bar in Fort Benton. And the bar wasn't in the book. Feeling very despondent, we walked back to the furnace at the bridge. Then we sat and vacantly watched the Missouri - even its force seemed to be subdued, as though unable to drift in that terrible heat. The MMCRSKE was in a total fix.
At that moment, a three-man open canoe came into sight. We waved, and they pulled in. By sheerest luck, one of them was going back to Fort Benton that night. Yes, he'd be very happy to carry a message for us. Thank God for the Montanans!
We settled down to wait. Only three incidents broke the monotony. A dog had to have a fight with a skunk right right beside our tent. Unable to breathe, we abandoned camp for the afternoon. At our new chosen spot, we discovered a "prairie-dog": a squirrel-like creature that kept popping out of his hole to examine us, before popping incredulously back in. Then, just at dusk, we heard a melancholic sound wafting upstream. We found a beautiful girl playing a bagpipe lament. For a moment, time wavered and I was back on a Scottish sea-loch. But the music stopped only too soon; and it was back to camp and a hot peanut-butter dinner.
Late the following afternoon, a blue car arrived. Jim brought $50. Liam and I were a bit disappointed as we had wanted to see the boys again. Our note had however been a bit brief ("Stuck at Fred Robinson Bridge. No money, no food, and no fuel"), so I suppose we got what we deserved. But in fact, we still didn't know where to go from here. Liam just wasn't enjoying the wilderness. We finally decided to wait till the boys' first day off, and then perhaps change the team round.
We read and we slept. We slept and we read. Some of the time, I worked on the tape-recorder. Two days later, the boys arrived, exhausted by their marathon of laying concrete and hoisting aluminium sheets. Not half as exhausted as we were!
We cooked a massive dinner and invented a policy. I suggested that Liam could return to the (relative) comfort of Fort Benton, and that Bill could accompany me through the Reservoir. Everybody seemed pleased, and I announced a celebratory round of beer. The closest bar was 20 miles away; but Jim had a six-pack in his boot. Once again he had saved the day.
On Monday, 1 August, we spent ages consulting maps, arranging for extra fuel, repairing the inflatable, and loading supplies. By late afternoon we were ready. It was nineteen days since Three Forks, and I had covered 399 miles - 1 inch on my pocket atlas, and an average of 21 miles a day.
But now I had a burning determination to paddle on as fast as was humanly possible. Fort Peck here we come!
VI IN WHICH WE LOSE THE MISSOURI
A boat that cannot, on occasion, climb a steep clay bank, go across a cornfield and corner a river that is trying to get away, has little excuse for trying to navigate the Missouri (George Fitch)
At 6 p.m., Bill and I moved out into the Missouri River. It was still 90 in the shade and the current barely reached 1/2 mph. We left the last track behind, soon the last tree, and then we were entirely on our own. Looking round at the austere ruggedness, we shared a mood of mad exhilaration and fearful trepidation.
On the third day, I set off early, leaving Bill with the task of striking camp at "Soda Creek Bay". We had arranged to rendezvous for a late lunch at Devils Creek, 20 miles on. My morale was high, as the wind was for once behind me and, curiously, I detected a slight current. I headed straight on
Map 4 Fred Robinson Bridge to Poplar
for about 10 miles, counting my strokes as usual, and humming - which was less so. Beginning to suffer from the sun, I decided to come ashore for a few minutes. I canoed into a dusty drought-cracked creek.
I was halfway to some cool cliff-shadow, when my foot seemed to slip, and the surface suddenly gave away beneath me. To my absolute horror, I felt my body sinking.
Within a second, I was up to my waist in cloying, stinking gumbo mud. My legs couldn't move, and the brittle surface kept breaking beneath my hands, exactly like in a nightmare. Then I was really frightened. There just didn't seem any way out. But then I had an idea. I pulled my lifejacket off - thank God I was wearing it today. I could now feel myself slowly sinking again, but with huge breaths, I blew it up hard and placed it carefully in front of me. Using my elbows and wrists to distribute my weight, I pushed down on the rigid rubber. It held! I pushed harder, trying not to jerk it. With relief, I could feel my whole body pulling at the sticky mud. I arched my ankles, and felt less resistance in the feet miles away. Sweat was stinging at my eyes, but I was now halfway out.
I leant forward, putting even more weight onto the jacket, and began to swim in slow-motion with my lead-heavy legs. Progress was desperately slow, but eventually my right foot emerged and then I was completely free, apart from a whole mound of malevolent mud on the small of my back. Still not trusting the treacherous surface, I pushed the jacket a few inches forwards and then moved after it. I slid onto a harder patch, and continued to crawl forward as slowly as my nerves would permit. Eventually my hand reached Lochinvar's hull. Leaning on the hot fibre-glass, I stood up, very glad to hear the mud dropping off, and feeling a bit like the first Neanderthal to stagger to an upright position. And then I was in the boat, moving away from that terrible place as fast as I could go.
What surprised me after a few minutes was the gradual coming together of the two shores. I went another 200 yards to make certain, but there wasn't the shadow of a doubt: in front was just a dried-up creek. I got the map out, and deduced that I was 3 1/2 miles into "Musselshell Bay". This isn't the Missouri at all, I angrily said to myself, it's Shit Creek, and I'm up it. But at least I've still got my paddles.
As I paddled those 3 1/2 miles back, I realised that it was the wind on the surface that had simulated a current. I also understood why the name Musselshell seemed so familiar: Lewis and Clark had also had problems here. They had been virtually eaten alive by horse-flies; they had been attacked by a grizzly weighing 500 pounds and measuring 8' 7 1/2" from head to foot (they had had to kill it to obtain this information); and they had been obliged to thread their way through the putrid carcasses of over 100 buffalo chased over the cliffs by Indians disguised in wolf-skins. As I looked round at the dry landscape, I realised how much it had changed. The mountains didn't look now as if they would support a single prairie-dog.
I got back to the junction, checked the maps, and carefully turned right. I was getting pretty hungry, as I hadn't even finished my breakfast. At 4.30, I calculated that I had done the 20 miles. Dead on schedule, a beautiful lagoon of unspoilt white sand came into view. I started to wait for Bill. I reasoned that he was probably only a mile or two ahead and would surely come back to look for me. By 7 p.m. I was very, very hungry and finally admitting to myself that something had gone wrong. I climbed up a hill and scanned the horizon. Nothing but desolation. There seemed little else I could do, so I lit two huge driftwood fires as signals. I was carrying no equipment, not even a packet of biscuits. Maybe Bill's been bitten by a snake, I thought. In this hellish place they'll take a week to find him. Mercifully, my exhaustion at last caught up with me.
Dawn came up and I had to decide what to do. Basically, I could: 1) stay put, 2) paddle on, or 3) paddle back. I looked at the maps again. Something must have happened to the power-boat or to Bill - otherwise he would have come looking for me. Reluctantly, I decided to paddle back.
As I rounded each headland, I confidently expected to see him - but each time there were merely miles of nothing. Famished and depressed, I started to cross the expanse of water opposite Musselshell. Soon Lochinvar was caught by a side-wind which brought 6-foot waves crashing angrily over the hull. Twice I almost capsized, and twice my heart came into my mouth.
I arrived at Soda Creek Bay at 2.30 p.m. - to find the carefully-dispersed remains of the camp-fire. Now extremely weak, and wondering whether the nightmare was ever going to end, I headed "downstream" once more, trying to ignore the racking pains in my shoulders. Water started seeping into the rear compartment, making steering very difficult indeed. Once again I crossed the bay opposite Musselshell. Once again the huge waves crashed viciously over me. Coming into the end of the crossing, I pulled in, and baled out nearly a gallon of water. I began to wonder whether God existed and whose side he was meant to be on.
I was just on the 25,000th stroke since the last taste of food when I heard a sound like distant thunder. I tried to ignore it, but suddenly a tiny plane hopped over the hills and after a moment turned towards me. Through a haze a package dropped and at the same moment I recognised Bill at the window. Feelings of amazement, relief, and affection for my faithful friend flooded through me, but my shouts just stuck in my throat. All I could manage was a feeble wave. I sprinted to the shore, grabbed the package, and found two Mars Bars inside. A message read: "Camp is 12 miles ahead, on right bank. Will wait for you there with hot dinner. Bon voyage!"
As the plane banked steeply out of view, I pulled in once more. I scooped up some of the "gumbo" mud that had nearly killed me the day before, and carefully covered the inside of the hairline crack with it. Now we would see just how sticky it really was.
The burning fireball of the sun moved closer and closer to the varnished horizon. It began to get dark, and still camp was nowhere to be found. At last I rounded a point and saw a yellow fire in the distance. Ten minutes later, Bill was helping me out.
We were very, very pleased to see each other. He give me a large tot of rum ("for medicinal purposes") followed by a whole plateful of barbecued chicken. It was nectar and ambrosia, and for a long moment I was in the land of the gods.
Bill threw some more driftwood on the fire, and explained where he had been. He had stopped after exactly 18 miles. He tried the radio set, "on the hour, every hour", as we had agreed in case of emergency. In the late afternoon, he had decided to look for me. Just in case I had made superhuman speed, he started to go the 2 miles "downstream" to the rendezvous point at Devils Creek. But after only a mile, the engine had made a terrible noise and broken down. He paddled anxiously into shore, and walked quickly along to Devils Creek. No luck, so he had walked four or five miles back "upstream", and climbed up to a high vantage point. Still nothing.
The distance back to Soda Creek Bay by foot was about 25 miles, and would involve being out of sight of the lake much of the time (thank you again, Musselshell). So he waited, until he was worried sick. At 2 p.m. the following day, he left a note on the inflatable, and half-ran up into the burning, arid mountains. It was 10 miles to the nearest house. Nobody there - so he went on to the next one, another 5 miles. In it, a Mr and Mrs Wright had let him telephone the US Coastguard at the dam, but they were too far away to do anything. Finally he had phoned an old friend of the Wrights', and persuaded him to hire out his two-seater aircraft - for $10! The pilot landed in a field, hauled Bill aboard, and headed full throttle for the Missouri. Finally they saw something long and orange moving painfully over the surface of the sea.
My getting lost had been a terrible mistake, of course. But all the rest seemed to follow on automatically, as in a Greek tragedy. The situation had been saved by the pilot's amazingly efficient and generous action. The spirit of America is alive and well, and is to be found in Central Montana. I just hope that a copy of this book will reach him.
On the Thursday morning, we found ourselves with a difficult decision. The inflatable was dead. We were stranded in the exact middle of the hostile reservoir, and opposite the Fort Peck Indian Reservation - half a million acres of nothingness, where the once-mighty Crow Nation huddled in a handful of hamlets and drank itself to death. But we were also 1850 miles from the end of the Missouri. Very reluctantly, I decided to canoe to the end of the terrible reservoir on my own.
My shoulders were still aching, so I put off starting. The morning seemed to pass very quickly, as I sat and daydreamed. Just before lunch, I spotted a whitish bird standing idly on the shore. I gestured silently to Bill, and went to fetch the rifle. The deer had got away, but this time I was really hungry. I took one pot-shot at it, then another. It just kept on standing there, pretending hard nothing had happened. Bill reloaded, and took two more shots. I crawled towards it. When I was about 30 feet away, I took careful aim. Shot number six finally saved our honour, and I strolled casually over. I showed the bird to Bill, but now it seemed much smaller than before. To be frank, there was hardly a scrap of flesh on its miserable frame - even if we'd known how to pluck and gut it. But it did get a decent burial....
After lunch, we made a rendezvous for 10 p.m. on Saturday. Then I set cautiously off, loaded with 2 1/2 days of provisions. My friend the headwind was soon back, sending a lot of water crashing over the foredeck. After only 16 miles, I felt very weary. I cracked three eggs over some corned-beef. Settling down beside the glowing branches, I was soon sleeping like a log.
In the morning, for a moment the blue unspoiled beauty of the lake was mine. Time took a cigarette, but then brusquely stubbed it out. I looked at the map: the lake was absolutely featureless until "Hell Creek", 34 miles away - a hunting-cabin connected tenuously to the rest of the world by a rough track. Still, it looked better than the competition.
I arrived at dusk. With surprise, I discovered several large power-boats together with, of all things, an ancient and dust-covered bus. So even these infernal regions were invaded by pleasure-trippers? Devil or deep blue sea? I decided company would do me good. Clutching the water-bottle as an empty pretext, I knocked and walked in. It was full of singing and drinking. "Water? What the hell's that? There's plenty of beer though!" A throng of people were pushing food forward. I was in luck, they told me, as they only came out here once a month. I sang and danced with the best of them. Then, at twelve, my legs began to tremble.
After a good night's sleep on the back seat of the bus, my friends offered to carry me out to the mouth of the creek. Five deep-throated roars as five times a hundred horse-power leaped into action; and then we were off, bouncing over the waves in the crystal-clear air. This is the life, I thought - why can't it always be like this? For two minutes we ruled the world. Then, without warning, we sluiced through 90%. Lochinvar and I were offloaded, I shouted out my thanks, and very soon was plodding on alone.
By 8 p.m., the lights of the dam had finally come over the horizon - a wall 4 miles long and an inch high. I forced the kayak over the waves that night, driving it on and on. Even with all my bits and pieces, we were moving faster than on the Channel, but this time I knew we were going to win. I forgot about the counting, and went through my whole horrible repertoire of Edith Piaf songs.
Half-hidden behind a rocky outcrop were a jetty, boats, cars, and houses. With a shock, I realised that there was even grass and trees. I brought Lochinvar in, slowly now, trying to hold onto the precious moments. But only too soon we were there, and I had to pull the canoe out of the water. It was exactly ten.
At five past, Bill and Liam walked in. As we ordered drinks all round and talked together, I opened my heart to my two friends. Ever since Rogers, Ark., I had had a terrible fear, the fear that the miles and miles of still water would prove too much for me. But now I felt that I'd somehow gained my spurs. Even if I broke my leg or something and had to stop, I would have at least proved that my spirit was willing.
My friends understood my confession. Liam pointed out that the altitude of the river was now only about 2000 feet - and so logically I had covered half of the difficult water down to the Gulf. Emboldened by their sympathy, I went further, much further, in unloading my conscience. I took a big breath, and said that, when I started, up in the Rockies, I had never gone kayaking on a river before.
There was a shocked silence. Maybe I had gone too far this time. At least in a confessional you can always walk out. But now I was trapped. I repeated that, apart from a certain two minutes on the Thames, I had never previously launched a canoe on fresh water. "I couldn't tell you before, as you mightn't have let me out on the river." "Damned right, we wouldn't have let you out of the loonie asylum!" "Only Old Nick could do this to us. He sets off on the longest river trip in recorded history, and then calmly says he's never been on a river before." "Why didn't you water-ski the Atlantic on the way over? You'd had as much experience." "I always did wonder what he was doing, 3.81 thousand miles from the ocean in a sea-going kayak - now I think I understand." "I suppose, since he's got this far, we might as well let him carry on...."
The storm had passed, and I deftly changed the subject to the silo-gang. Liam valiantly told me they could stick it for about another ten days. I said I felt it appalling that they should have to go on working, but there seemed to be no other way. As it was, they had had to borrow $200 from Jim for the first instalment on the pick-up.
Monday morning was declared a rest period, but there was no getting away from the monster that overshadowed the whole town, as tall as a twenty-five storey building. Going for a walk along the top, we were cornered by a man and a dog. It was in fact the biggest earth-filled dam in the world! At full capacity its area was 250,000 acres! Did we know that it held back 150 miles of still water? Bill and I exchanged amazed glances. "It certainly doesn't look that big." We gave him the slip, and resumed our walk in peace.
Driving back into town, we stopped at a petrol station. A flash of blue, then a large estate car had gone past. It's the same as the Terlephs', I thought, and it had a New York plate. By this time, Jim and Anne were running towards me. They told us they had spent ten days solid looking for the expedition - we were meant to have been in Southern Kansas by now. I apologised for my tardiness, and quickly told them about the Musselshell episode, feeling pretty stupid. But Jim just said "Remember Meriwether Lewis in 1805? He went 200 miles up the wrong bit. Keep a cool head and you'll make it to the Gulf." With Bill and Liam chipping in, we talked about everything and nothing. We visited a herd of buffalo, shaggy and brown-eyed. "A bit like Highland cattle," I ruminated. "Yeah" said Liam. "All the cows in Scotland are 6 foot tall and weigh 2000 pounds...." Then Jim told us about the early explorers' descriptions of puzzled buffalo floating down the Missouri on springtime ice-floes. (Thank God I had chosen the summer!) Round the campfire we told Jim and Anne our adventures in full, while devouring a superb pioneer-style dinner. Pioneer, except for the heady Nuits-Saint-Georges washing it down. Never did wine taste so good.
On Tuesday 9th, I waved a very sad goodbye to Jim and Anne, and launched below the dam. They had given me more support than they perhaps realised.
A "River-Ranger" in "Glasgow" had told me that I could count on a five-knot current after the next bend. My maps confirmed that the Missouri flowed at speeds of up to 7 mph. I had therefore promised to make for Oswego, about 45 miles downstream. But when I got round that first bend, there was just a grudging 2 mph. I cursed the drought then, and the Ranger's ignorance of "his" river.
A few miles on, I was due to hit the Milk River. I was expecting rushing water, for various reasons. First, because the Milk came down from the Lewis Range of the Rockies, on the same longitude as California. But also because its tributaries included the "Frenchman" from Saskatchewan and it had itself zipped into Alberta before deciding where its true loyalties really lay. And finally because it became the highest point reached by a steamboat (the rather inappropriately named El Paso in 1850). But where was the Milk? I kept looking out for it. After an unhappy while, I decided that it must have been that dried-up creek a couple of miles back. Anything less milky or cosmopolitan I had never seen.
All day, I paddled as hard as I could. Just before ten, with my progress down to a depressed crawl, I was wondering if I should pull in. It was one of those nights Twain had talked about, when the river "hadn't any shape at all". But in the distance there appeared the tiny glow of a fire. I confidently yelled Bill's name, receiving a loud howl from a coyote in reply. My senses crawled. But I got to the fire, clambered up the bluff, and was very glad to find Bill there, writing hard.
I was surprised, however, not to see the pick-up; nor even the two-man tent; and there was a terrible burnt smell. Bill admitted that yes, he had had a couple of problems. First of all, he had carelessly driven the pick-up into some sand on the way back from Fort Benton. The sand - fortunately - was only 50 yards away. Also an important piece of equipment had caught fire. It wasn't the rubber boat; it wasn't the tent; it was... his yellow sleeping-mat. Showing me a shrivelled black ball the size of a clenched fist, he told me that it was worth it just for the colour of the flames. What with all this excitement, he added, he hadn't had time to put up the tent. That night, I slept on the front seat of the pick-up, which was 4 inches shorter than myself. Bill slept out under the stars.
In the morning, the current flowed much faster but it was raining hard. Reaching Wolf Point, I was very relieved to see that Bill had got the pick-up out of the mud. He told me that he was taking me out for lunch, but as we were on an Indian reservation, the hamburgers would be made from dog and snakemeat! Sure enough the faces were all bronzed and the hair long. But the food tasted good - if a bit tangy - and I never did know whether or not he was joking.
In the afternoon, the rain was coming down heavier than ever. Sitting in the pattering improvised recording studio with my coat on, I stared at the microphone and tried to recreate the sun-baked atmosphere at Fred Robinson Bridge. I couldn't.
I was away by 8 a.m. Thirty miles later, I arrived at a little town called Poplar. For once, I was in the right place at the right time. But for once, Bill wasn't. I rowed on a few hundred yards, to a point that was more accessible from the road. Ancora niente.
By 6 p.m. he still hadn't arrived. It was a fine evening, so I decided to carry on. I came to a bridge, but still there was no sign of Bill. I should have left a note - but I didn't have a pen.... As I rowed on, I expected at every moment to see the flames of a campfire glowing wanly against the brilliant sky. But soon it got completely dark, and I reluctantly pulled up on a rather damp sandbar.
I woke with a bad cramp in my legs and a beautiful butterfly in my kayak. At 1 p.m. I arrived at a little Indian town with the peculiarly Anglo-Saxon name of Brockton. It had an all-pervading atmosphere of decay, with only two modern buildings: the petrol-station and the bar. About all that the Indians had ever got out of White civilisation. Without a cent on me, I plucked up my forage cap and courage, and went into the bar. Thronged on every side by friendly questions, and soon by delicious dishes, I was struck again by the hospitality of all the Montana people, whatever their colour.
A young man called Myron Four-Bears invited me home. I really didn't know what to do about Bill, so accepted. As we walked in, I saw a very old lady gazing at me from her refuge in another room. His grandmother, Myron told me, who had lost her father at the Battle of Little Big Horn. She was now reduced to weaving the colours of the Sioux war emblem onto blankets which she would then sell on the pavement outside to tourists like me who would never understand. In her eyes I read a mixture of sadness and hostility - I must have been the first White person to enter her house and she probably had too many memories. Perhaps to compensate, Myron gave me a jacket with "WARRIORS" inscribed on the back. I was very aware then of the contrast of cultures. The lady making the blanket, the petrol-station advertising Pepsi; the proud old customs and the plastic baseball jacket. My hosts were neither fully Indian nor authentically American, but just American Indians - a protected species.
At five, Myron drove me through the Reservation and back to Poplar. No-one had seen Bill. At 8.30, we went to the "security-office". I tried to give no hint of my surprise, but the red skin and hooded eyes had so often fought against uniforms that a sense of incongruity never quite left me. The sergeant put out a radio message to all cars: a green Dodge pick-up with three orange kayaks should be located and picked up. We then drove back to Wolf Point, where I had last seen Bill. The security-office there told us he was now heading for Poplar.
We found Bill. I introduced him to Myron, he opened his mouth, and a deafening wailing noise sprang forth. We mimed to the police: had the Russians landed? They pointed to a huge notice: "All children under the age of eighteen must be at their regular domicile by 10 p.m. Officers have strict instructions to arrest offenders". A curfew in America, the haven of civil liberties? Washington must be turning in his grave.
The sirens stopped, and Bill was able to tell his story. He had driven straight along to Poplar, and straight down to the water. Lunchtime passed, and then dinnertime. In the morning, he went to explore: downstream he found ... another river! He'd been waiting on the wrong one!!
I thanked Myron for his tremendous help, and he revved noisily off. As Bill made some grape-jelly sandwiches, I took stock. It was now the 12th of August, and we were still in Montana. But we were 665 river-miles from Three Forks and my average had edged up to 21 1/2 miles a day - in spite of all the still water. In fact, as I gleefully pointed out to Bill, we were now quits, at one lost river each. Remarks about shooting up dried-up creeks could be countered with ones about waiting at muddy trickles. In other words, I could always count on a warm welcome when I arrived at camp.
And that, for me, was the essential.
VII A MONSTROUS BIG RIVER
Unwinding rivers, through shifting glades to (fall, Down through glorious meadows to the sea (Bryan Ferry)
In the morning, the bow started slipping to the left; and soon Lochinvar was slewing drunkenly over the waves. Squelching ashore, I opened the forward hatch and found a pin-prick hole, together with about two gallons of water. I cursed my careless launching, while searching round for "quick-fix" mud. There wasn't any. I thought of chipping some off the rear repair job and remixing it, but decided to leave well alone. By the time I arrived at the bridge it was very late; but Bill was there with a blazing fire; and after six eggs and six sausages, I felt much better.
Map 6 Poplar to Mobridge
We switched my equipment into Cameron of Lochiel. After several further hours of rain, it became a lovely evening. The sky went from orange to ochre to purple, and the water from pink to blue to black, with the paddles just slipping through the river like quicksilver. Suddenly I realised two large deer were staring intently at me, as if having never seen such a sight in all their lives. I drifted towards them, staring hard back. With an imitable snuffling sound and a disdainful turn of the head, they cantered elegantly off.
I saw smoke floating over the reeds and knew I had arrived. I was at peace that night. For some reason, the purple sky and limpid water I shared with Bill were to remain engraved in my memory for ever.
On the Monday morning, I phoned the American Cancer Society in New York. I gave some of our news; and they asked if I could get to New Orleans by Nov. 17, "Great American Smoke-Out Day". I told them we still had over 3000 miles to go(!), but said we would keep the date in mind.
I set off - and immediately arrived at the North Dakota border. Still recovering from the shock, I saw another landmark ahead, the mouth of the Yellowstone River, down from the National Park of Yogi Bear fame. Sitting on a hummock, I contemplated the confluence.
The Yellowstone was bringing water from a 14,000-foot source in Wyoming, like its tributary, the Big Horn, and like its tributary, the infamous Little Big Horn. This spot was also chosen - wisely - by Lewis and Clark as the one unmistakable meeting-point on their separate ways back from the Rockies. After them, the French fur-trappers started moving into the valley of the "Roche Jaune", undeterred that more than half of them were being killed by Indians or wild animals. Next rafts, flatboats, and keelboats crawled up the Missouri, powered by sweating horses and men and complicated combinations of ropes, oars, and poles.
Then, in 1832, the first steamboat struggled up. (The succeessive navigation records were clearly going to give me a negative countdown all the way to St Louis.) This epic trip changed history. There had been a long-standing border dispute between (British) Canada and the US, with everything swinging on the Indians. The chiefs dithered. King or President? Crown or Bald Eagle? Then the Missouri came alive with the big-thunder-canoe, the fireboat-that-walks-on-water. In vain did the British swear that they had canoes that were ten times as big, and others that walked on land. The Indians just didn't believe a word. The West had been won - and lost - for ever more.
Feeling a bit humbled, I climbed into my very-little-thunder- canoe and headed out towards the line. A little tug, and soon all three of us were moving on in great style.
That night I slept badly, for I knew that immediately ahead lay the second of the inland seas, called Sakakawea, after Lewis and Clark's guide. At 178 miles, it was even longer than the first.
The approaches were marked "Hazard Area", and I soon discovered why. Man had replaced a dense green forest with rows of severed tree-trunks - a withered maze without a single bird. Several times, I got lost following drowned footpaths leading into convoluted tangles of reeds. When finally I got out into an open stretch of water, a cross-wind chose this moment to blow up. Soon 5-foot waves were crashing aggressively over my bows. I couldn't even get into shore to rest, because the reeds were in the way. At times I felt like dynamiting every single dam on the Missouri.
I had been nine hours in the kayak. I was soaked through and freezing cold, I had cramps in my shoulders, and my legs felt like bars of lifeless rubber. Having beached the canoe, I tried to climb the sandy bluff in the darkness. I couldn't! But Bill was there, helping me to the fireside.
Soon I was ready for the town. The only problem was that Bill wasn't. He missed out, because I got talking to a dark-haired girl called "Barb". I chatted to her for a while, and then popped the question. "May I invite you to dinner tomorrow?" "Can I bring a girlfriend?" "Of course." "OK, then." Perhaps Bill was in luck after all?
The following day, I really flew through the water. I arrived to find Bill writing a press-release of the trip so far. It was a beautiful evening, and we profited from the clear water to bathe for the first time since Fort Benton. Beating off the myriad horse-flies, we climbed up the high butte. In both directions the Missouri River snaked away, clothed only with a little sparse vegetation. On top of each butte there was nothing but parched grass, cropped very short; with reproductions of the same set-up stretching irregularly away like newly-enrolled recruits. We drove through the dusk and over a complicated route.
Barb and friend were already there. Nervously fingering our last two ten-dollar bills, I said I wasn't really feeling very hungry, and after a short silence Bill said he wasn't either. But our two friends were, and ordered the full works, while Bill and I shared a can of "root-beer". There ensued a period of steady chomping. Then Barb and Cal's stomachs proved to be smaller than their eyes, for with a sigh they pushed their meals away. Not than ours though. We attacked the cooling debris, and soon not a single scrap was left. At nine o'clock, the conversation started up again. "Well.... It's getting kinda late.... I guess we'll have to be going.... But thanks, anyway, for a lovely evening." Cracking concrete, our faces creased into crooked smiles. Then they were gone, leaving just a crumpled paper napkin and a hint of cruel crimson.
It was too dangerous to try and drive back to the river; and so the two hoboes dossed down in a filthy layby.
We felt very lonesome and far from home that night.
We found ourselves on a thousand bare tracks, all of which led nowhere in particular. Soon we were driving up a gravelly neck of land. The pick-up started skidding - and then refused to go any further. We got out and spent ages burrowing away under the back wheels. It was no good. We were stuck.
"Fibre-glass is tougher than steel", Chris Newell had told me when he delivered the canoes. Taking the footrests out of the slalom-boats, we jammed them in under the wheels of the two-ton truck, and started the engine. The footrests oscillated like minnows, but then suddenly Bill was clear, with me rushing madly after him.
We realised that we were on the wrong path anyway, and started to head back. We soon came to another steep neck, with a sheer 200-foot drop on each side this time. Bill began to steer slowly between the ruts. He got halfway up, and then the pick-up started sliding. Bill braked to a halt, and reversed cautiously down. He tried again - with exactly the same result. We cleared all the pebbles away, and Bill gave it one last go, heading powerfully along the top edge. But he didn't even get as far as the last time before skidding to within a couple of feet of the lower precipice. We were re-stuck. We needed outside help.
I set off, and reached a little house. There was nobody there except a most unfriendly mongrel who seemed to want to take his problems of social acceptance out on me. After another two hours, I began to get cramps in my calves - the price of five and a half weeks in a kayak. But against the glare of the sun I caught sight of something small and red crawling like a fly across a painted picture. Twenty minutes later, it had become a combine harvester, with a baby fly beside it. Soon I was standing beside a shining red pick-up.
The owner's name was Haddlerland. At first, my story seemed to bore him completely; but he finally conceded that he knew the spot in question, declaring roundly that he wouldn't take his f___ing four-wheel drive down there in a month of f___ing Sundays. I pointed out that since it was Friday it was maybe worth a try. "You're a facetious bastard" came the reply as he climbed in.
As we drove over the last butte, the much-abused pick-up came into view, lying stricken on the other side of the neck. "No f___ing way am I taking my new Chrysler down there." "But with your four-wheel drive..." "Give me the f___ing keys!" Bill tried to tell him that the handbrake didn't work, but Haddlerland just brushed past.
Kicking the engine into life and swearing like a trooper, he built up revolutions till the five-litre engine was screaming like a castrated pig. "He's got guts" Bill shouted. "Either that, or lost his marbles" I cried joyfully back. At last he reached for the automatic gear lever. It crunched into "drive", the truck leaped forward with a vicious snarl; and then it started boisterously bumping over the ruts, like an escaped Jack Nicholson skiing stick-less on sloping sheet-ice. It continued making fast and noisy progress - both forwards and sideways. The bonnet was at a crazy angle - the driver couldn't possibly see a thing in front. The revs began to sound hysterical.
Just as the offside rear wheel got to the last ridge before the drop - heaven knows where the front one was - the engine slid down an octave. So did the bonnet; and the back of the truck began to fight its winnowy way along the points of no-return. Another bad-tempered rumbling and crumbling, as the pick-up headed, grumbling, directly for a big hole. Somehow, it managed to bluff its way over. And then it was skidding to a grassy halt.
Without a word, Bill and I climbed the hill. Haddlerland was sitting in the cab, smoking a cigarette. We shook him warmly by the hand. It was my hand, I noticed, that was trembling and sweating, not his. He told us to send $15 when we could.
And then he was gone, driving his red truck over the rocky plateau as if in the fast lane of the New Jersey Turnpike and two hours late for dinner. We awarded him the medal of the Spirit of America, first class.
It was early evening before we got back to the Missouri. I started lighting the fire, and then the fire lit itself, plus some of the surrounding countryside. Bill helped me beat it out, but each time we got one big bit beaten, another flared insolently up. After a minute of frantic ineffectuality, the ring of flame was getting steadily bigger; and I could imagine the dry grassland on fire for miles and miles. That would please Mr Haddlerland! Just at the moment of no-return - at least the second of the day - I had a brilliant brainwave - also the second of the day. I took our ice-box, and placed it squarely on the closest patch of flame. It worked like a miracle. Bill grabbed the lid; and soon things were back to normal. Except we had no fire. I started again using the burnt-out patches, but keeping a gallon of water handy this time.
It had been quite a day and the time lost was annoying. But over the fried chicken, we declared ourselves lucky all the same to be in the American West. We had had one or two problems, but we were surviving and learning. And that was what counted.
I soon came to a bay where the "Little Missouri" came in. She must be little, judging by the current, I decided, as I paddled gloomily on. It was Pascal ("Je pense, donc je suis") who said "Rivers are roads that work on their own, and carry you wherever you want to go". The Seine, OK; but the Missouri was definitely not working here, and nor was she carrying me where I wanted to go. Perhaps Pascal should have spent less time thinking and more time being....
Ten tired hours later, I noticed that the six-man tent was there. I gave a great shout of joy, and Liam and Tim appeared. They showed me their callouses and blisters, and told me all about their back-breaking toil. Then Liam handed over the precious pay, together with seventeen letters, which he fed to me one by one. The fourth missive contained £500 from the C.R.C. We would be able to pay Haddlerland and Jim back. We were a going concern again.
The following day, the scenery had hardly changed, and I felt I'd been fighting against still water and headwinds for all eternity. Thirty hard miles later, I thought Garrison Dam just had to be somewhere close. After the sixth negative headland, I paddled wearily ashore and asked a young fisherman if he knew where we were. He didn't - a bad sign. I sat back down in the icy pool. Suddenly I heard an engine far out in the lake. Hope blocked out reason: "Bill, Liam, Tim - whoever it is! It's me, Nick. I'm over here." The sound died away and I was left feeling a litle stupid, with the wind howling and the waves slapping against the canoe. After a couple of minutes of dismayed despair, I gave myself a good talking to. I rounded yet another headland - and saw what I had been working for as long as I could remember: a huge dam.
The wind changed direction (why now?), and started pushing me over the waves. I was surfing over one, cutting through the next: then, just as the third one arrived, making me hold my breath in icy anticipation, the kayak would burst up and over it. A symphony in three-four time.
Something caught my attention on the other side of the lake. I twisted round, saw headlights flashing on and off, and turned through 130%. Beaching the kayak, I started boldly crashing through the creepy-crawly-looking undergrowth. An anxious shout emerged: "Is that you Nicky??". Wickedly, I kept my mouth shut and my legs going. Then I suddenly leapt out with a dramatic roar, probably risking a shotgun wedding with a full-frontal destiny. A guy-rope converted me into a spastic spider. But Tim was helping me to my feet: "What kept you Nick?". I had made it.
I noticed that Liam hadn't. Bill told me that he was in "Bismarck", searching for Jim and Rick, who were meant to have been here the day before. At 5 a.m., we heard him returning exhausted after scouring the banks for miles. He hadn't found them.
At 7 a.m. I ate six eggs, six sausages, and six slices of wholemeal bread. Then Tim and Bill deposited me below the huge dam, and I set off like a rutting rabbit. I was determined to show everybody, including myself, that I hadn't been slacking.
Very soon, I came to the site of Fort Mandan, where Lewis and Clark spent the long winter on their way back to St Louis; and where they received a surprise visit from a certain Francois Larocque, a fur-trapper all the way from Quebec. He spent a year travelling round Montana, the Dakotas, and Wyoming, and then went back to Canada. He told the authorities that he had visited a wonderful new land, and that much of it was still up for grabs. But his report simply got filed in a big, dusty heap; and the United States were again able to expand unhindered.
In the morning the rain was lashing down, so Bill pointed the tape-recorder at me. At 11 a. m., the downpour slackened slightly and I set off with great relief, leaving Liam doing sterling work on a hole in the silencer which was rapidly becoming bigger than the one in our finances. In the afternoon, I paddled under Interstate 94, and into the outskirts of Bismarck. Two more bridges on, I noticed a crowd of people on the bank, including most of the North Dakota press-corps - old Bill had clearly been busy. Jim and Rick were also there, but with waves of resentment coming from our photographer. He did not give any explanation as to where they had been, or what photographs he had taken - if any.
Bill told us that the Chamber of Commerce had put the "Y" at our disposal. Remembering pathetic YMCA dances for pimply teenagers from our misspent youth, we were all a bit dubious. But when we got to the oak door, we were given six computerised cards describing us, not totally inaccurately, as "traveling salesmen". Then we found hot baths, saunas, and a sunken pool with a sexy Jacuzzi.
Feeling like we'd bought new skins, we drove to the "Village Inn", and devoured steak after steak - again courtesy of the C. of C. Over desert, Bill told us that Bismarck was named after the German Chancellor, in recognition for the help given with the building of the North Pacific Railroad. From there, the discussion came back, as it always did, to the dams. Bill pointed out that in 1943 an uncontrollable flood had done $65,000,000 worth of damage in the area. In 1952, more than 2,000,000 acres were again flooded by the violent might of the Missouri, with this time $180,000,000 of destruction. The dams, he said, meant that floods on that scale were now unlikely; each one also generated a few hundred megawatts; and finally, one of the encyclopaedias he had read claimed that they "help navigation on the river". Some help! The next morning, I knew only too well, was number three. "New Orleans in two months!" I had promised in the halcyon days before Three Forks. Now, six weeks later, I was still only in my second state. With 230 miles of dead water called Lake Oahe stretching menacingly in front of me, I couldn't even be sure how long it was all going to take.
Soon after dawn, Tim pointed pointedly at the current which, admittedly, was flowing here. He got the maps out and indicated a large and unmisssable memorial near the village of Cannonball - about 40 miles away, he said. By eight, Lochinvar was in the water, with sandwiches and water-bottle tucked in behind the seat, and "Nicky-cup" freshly washed. By nine, the helmsman himself was reluctantly in Lochinvar, and the cool morning was moving....
But I see that I must explain the "Nicky-cup" and, with it, my toilet arrangements. (The squeamish reader is invited to skip the next few lines.) The essential problem is that it is impossible to relieve yourself normally while sitting in a kayak. Hands up those who hadn't thought of the problem: you wouldn't get far! It wasn't always possible to come into shore, so I had invented the system of the cup. But one day the team had somehow guessed what was going on - and from then on, the "Nicky-cup" had become a constant source of ribald allusion.
I didn't need it for the moment, so I paddled on through a fantastic Badland succession of ravines and cliffs. (YOU CAN COME BACK NOW.) Soon the running water began to run out as the shorelines drifted wider apart. Oahe had arrived. DF//|P// ..........< By nine o'clock my legs were numb, and I was literally aching to come in. At long last the distant silhouette of a memorial came stiffly into view. I had had enough. I pulled the canoe well out of the water, and began to walk. Almost straight away, I found myself knee-deep in muddy marsh. I ploughed on through the filth: but then came to a small river completely barring my path. Sliding down into it, I began working my way across. Twice I missed my footing and twice I got completely drenched. After clambering up over several tree-trunks and through lots of brushwood, I hit another swamp - and then another river.
"What the hell is this?" I muttered, glaring at the distant memorial and feeling utterly miserable. Again I waded across the river. Struggling to the top, I scrambled through some bushes and then came to a drop. At the bottom lay... another river. I nearly wept.
I pulled my map out but it fell into soggy bits and draped itself over my hands. The moon was watching and mocking. I plunged angrily down and took the river at a raging run. At last I was through and scrambling wetly up the other side.
The first house had crumbling masonry and broken windows. Hearing movement inside, I soaked the door with an agitated knock. I was just about to go when a curtain moved. After three more minutes, the door opened, revealing an Indian face. "Is there a police-station or a bar anywhere near here?" "You's on a reservation. There's just a security office." He softened a little and offered me a lift.
A young Indian dressed in hippy style was lounging with his feet on the switchboard. I thanked my friend, and asked if anything had been seen of the boys, shivering slightly. He didn't give a damn. Then another policeman walked in. I repeated my story. Charles said "I'm going along the bank anyhow - we'll find your buddies." I was very grateful.
Twelve minutes later, a metallic voice filled the car. "Have picked up a green Dodge pick-up and a blue Plymouth Duster on the eastern boundary. Five Caucasian males aboard. Am holding them." Soon we drove along an obscure dirt-track and found two familiar vehicles, blocked nose-to-tail in the blue flashing lights. They were surrounded!
I was just yawning and settling down to bed, when Bill started telling me about this fantastic girl he'd met. I congratulated him, peeling my socks off. Then he said I was invited to meet her. No thanks, I replied, thinking of the dawn start. Oh, he said, she seems to know something about Indian canoes.... My socks were back on, my hair was combed, and I was ready.
Bill introduced me to a charming girl called Leah Grant. She proudly showed us models and pictures of Indian life from before the White man - wooden huts with thatched roofs, elaborate stockades, and sacred burial-mounds; sturdy woven baskets, racquets, and toboggans.
She herself had been at college, and was a quarter Scottish; and felt angry at the lethargy and materialism of the village. She argued that Indian cultural life had lost its driving wheel. The more intelligent and energetic members were forced into a certain compromise with White society. But they remained very aware of their history. I asked about the river in Sioux tradition; and from then on, could hardly get a word in edgeways.
The Sioux had originally been a river tribe. Since time immemorial, they had paddled painted war-canoes on their river - the Mississippi. The wood was birch, cedar, or white elm, and the frame was first interwoven like a basket, then covered with bark or buffalo skin, and finally sealed with resin from spruce trees. The finished product could be manoeuvred easily, had a small draught but a huge carrying capacity, could be portaged, and could also be turned upside down to serve as a temporary roof. It even carried a repair-kit in the shape of resin-balls.
But then rumours came from the rising sun of a powerful new tribe with blotchy faces. One fine day, the Sioux war-canoes were attacked by the Chippewa ones. They were used to this, but not to the stick-that-kills-at-a-distance. The subtle equilibrium of the tribes had been broken, and the Sioux Nation were driven off the Mississippi for ever.
They headed west across the endless plains to what they had heard was an even stronger river. The Missouri more than lived up to their expectations, and they settled happily on its banks, reconstructing their canoes and their lives. When the French "explorers" arrived, said Leah, they found pigtailed and bare-breasted Sioux maidens, confidently riding the dangerous waters, just like mermaids emerging from the sunlit waves.
She led us into the backyard and, to our surprise, uncovered a painted war-canoe. She explained that her brother used it for gathering wild rice on the marshes. He usually towed it there with his twin-engined powerboat. But once amongst the tangled reeds, it came into its own.
I already had some vague ideas about the Indian canoe, mostly filtered from school readings of Hiawatha. But this was different. I had hung on every word. Now I told Leah in turn about my own repair-job with gumbo-mud and my idea of a sail. She burst into peals of laughter. We walked over to the pick-up, and I showed Leah my slalom- and sea-canoes. They couldn't be counted descendants of the Sioux ones, for they were all based on Eskimo kayaks, and used fibre-glass, only introduced in 1963. But just as the Eskimoes are cousins of the Indians, so my boats, we agreed, had to be related to the Sioux ones - their shared lines said all.
Leah told us about the decline of the canoe. The Europeans had imported a creature that didn't exist in America, although it seemed ready made for the rolling plains: the horse! The Sioux had adapted again. The buffalo-skins were now used for collapsible tepees, and the warriors no longer knelt in canoes, but on Spanish stallions. This way of life continued well into the second half of the nineteenth century. During the age of crinolines and ironclads, Chief Sitting Bull (?1831-1890) had been roaming free over the Land of the Dacotahs.
But the White settlers had gradually taken over the Indians' land. They needlessly massacred the bison - one steamboat load consisted of 1100 salted tongues. There had been about 60,000,000 bison running wild when the White man arrived - and not a single one left in 1895. The Indians resisted the invaders as best they could - Toqueville, the famous analyst of the French Revolution, wrote that their courage, pride, and spirit of independence were unsurpassed by that of any European people. But they had ended up taking on the fire-power of the United States itself. Four thousand Sioux and Cheyennes defeated the blustering Custer at Little Big Horn (1876). But this was to be their last victory. After being repeatedly betrayed and starved out, their last great uprising took place in 1889, and it had ended when unarmed women and children were shot down at the "Battle" of Wounded Knee. Leah's grandfather had recounted the end of the Indian dream to her with tears in his eyes - he'd been there when Chief Sitting Bull was humiliated by the arrogant palefaces from the east.
We also had come from the east, virtually within living memory of these atrocities. Now even the life-giving Missouri had been dammed, and many of the hunting-grounds and burial-places were covered over with artificial lakes. A whole culture had been destroyed. No amends could possibly be made. The only way you could try to avoid adding insult to injury was by crossing the Indian heartland with a degree of awe. I vowed to Leah then that I would acknowledge my debt to her forefathers.
This book is dedicated to the men and women whose canoes mastered the rivers of North America two thousand years before Christopher Columbus was born.
At breakfast, it was back to the squalid reality of a modern reservation and a discouraged expedition. We had a heated discussion about my progress. Tim, in particular, said that my average was only 23 miles a day, and that this was not nearly fast enough. I told him that neither he, nor anybody in the back-up team for that matter, could know what kayaking on the Missouri meant. Liam then proposed that Tim paddle with me for a couple of days, so that we could test our respective theories. We both agreed, and Liam, Bill, and Rick arranged to meet us the following night 71 miles downstream, at the unimaginatively-named Mobridge (Mo (= Missouri) + bridge!).
Leah arrived to see us off, cheering us with her presence. Tim and I did the last 300 yards on foot, carrying and pushing Cameron of Lochiel over the mud and water. We transferred exactly half of the provisions, waved goodbye, and then the mini-fleet was on Oahe and under way.
Tim, paddling powerfully, began to open up a small distance between us. How embarrassing! I put on a spurt, and tucked in behind him, hoping for some sort of psychological slipstream effect. An hour later, the sky was completely wiped out by fast-moving clouds: big, black, and businesslike. We paddled wearily on through a world where everything had died: trees strangulated by the water, nests destroyed in flash-floods, featherless baby-birds hanging upside-down from the pathetic twigs. I thought of the drowned Indian villages, and felt very angry. And all the time the glowering sky was crushing the warmth from our withered world like a black blanket.
A streak of light ripped across the heavens. There was a crack like an elephant-gun, and a roar of thunder reverberated off the low, colourless bluffs. Rain began to patter casually on the fibre-glass, and then effortlessly built up its force until there were a thousand heaving table-tennis balls. Lightning speared across the sky again, and then the storm really got down to it. Tim suggested going ashore, but I pointed out that there was nowhere to shelter, and that at least our legs were fairly dry in the canoes.
The wind began to turn like a weathercock. We alternately battled against and surfed over the waves. At half past four, a hint of blue returned to the dreary sky: the drops became translucent and then disappeared altogether. Coming ashore, we soon had a three-candle-power fire going. "Shall we split the last sandwich?" I asked, baffled by the joint decision-making process.
At mile 28, I realised that Tim was dropping behind. I waited for a while, and saw a face racked with effort and fingers clenched like white claws. But there was nowhere we could pull in, so I began stopping after every half-mile to let him catch up. Then I tried canoeing slowly beside him, wiping out his pain with my Piaf repertoire. Tim's courage held, somehow.
The rain came back, less heavy, but spiteful as it drove into our faces and made the dried sweat sting. After a total of 40 miles, we came ashore. Tim tripped on a hidden rock and fell headlong into 3 feet of cold water. "Come on, come on," I wheedled, "pull me up, I don't want to get my socks wet." When we opened the hatches, however, he got his own back: my sleeping-bag was soaking but his was bone-dry.
In next to no time, Tim had transformed the tarpaulin into a rudimentary shelter. I busied myself with the fire and soon we were eating some lukewarm corned-beef. With a boom, the heavens opened once more, and the fire went out. Crawling into the meagre protection of the "tent", we huddled together under Tim's sleeping-bag.
We crawled on through a bleak, damp forest of upended trees: grey horizon, grey sea, grey sky, for tens of grey miles. At one stage, Tim admitted that he had no idea where we were; and the value of an honours degree in geography hit rock-bottom for me. The wind found us again in the late afternoon, blowing us back every time we paused. Tim really began to suffer. We inched along an endless headland. At last, the final outcrop of rock arrived, revealing the hazy outline of a very large bridge. We began to sprint for it; but the race became an exhausted marathon as the bridge came not an inch closer. Seven miles of hell had to finish some time, however. Well after darkness, a keen-eyed observer on the bridge at Mobridge might just have been able to see the whites of four exhausted eyes coming into a hungry shore.
We ate the sandwich! That night Tim wrote in his log: "The last two days have been a gruelling experience. It's tough going, one long monotonous slog. I can see now why Nick gets upset when he's pushed to leave camp in the morning."
The following day was Sunday 28 August. At some grey point we had crossed the state-line into South Dakota. The MMCRSKE had covered 1100 miles, and so was nearly halfway down the Missouri. Only at that point, for some reason, did I realise why the name Mobridge seemed so familiar: it was here that we had built our very first campfire, and that Jim had told us about the dangerous fauna. Since then, I wryly thought, a lot of water had flowed under that bridge.
I examined the maps yet again; and decided to take a rest-day. It was spent fantasising about dry sheets and coffee and croissants. Sitting Bull's grave was only a mile away, but I'm afraid I didn't give it more than a passing thought.
For a few hours I was strolling quietly through the French Quarter of New Orleans.
VIII LOST BETWEEN TWO SHORES
I fear the sea, I will admit, but all the storms and other unpleasant things I have experienced did not inspire so much terror in me as the navigation of the somber and treacherous Missouri. Steam navigation on it is one of the most dangerous things a man can undertake.
(Father Pierre Jean De Smet)
Tomorrow came only too soon and, with it, the beginning of the most difficult fortnight of the trip. It started badly, and was to finish even worse.
I saw Tim running across the headland. "Are you sure you're going the right way!?" "Any river worth the name has a current", I muttered, turning ignominiously through 18O% and stabbing viciously at the uneasy water. Still grumbling, I recrossed the bay; and then hit rolling seas. Straight away, I knew that our rendezvous at a bridge 43 miles on was, once again, wildly optimistic. It was like walking
Map 6 Mobridge to Lake Francis Case
from Liverpool up into Yorkshire with a one-in-seven gradient all the way....
As I paddled on, I remembered what Bill had told us about the area. It was here that a certain H.M. Brackenridge had observed the customs of the "Chiennes" (Cheyennes). He had started up the Missouri in 1811, only seven years after Lewis and Clark, and using the same two interpreters, Sacajawea and Charbonneau. He never says exactly how far he reached, writing at distinctly second-hand about the "ferocious, savage" Blackfoot tribe around Three Forks, but it was probably somewhere just past here. Marauding Indians were indeed the reason he turned round. But he got his own back by writing that "the world would lose but little, if these people should disappear before civilised communities". At the same time, he predicted that the Indians would remain undisputed masters of the Upper Missouri for at least a century - in other words until after 1911!
Brackenridge also says that, because of the wars, there were many more women than men, and polygamy and barter of women were freely practised. Some of Brackenridge's French-Canadian companions sold their shirts - and some of them ended up with no clothes on at all. His account also reveals the extent of the French influence on the Missouri (and elsewhere: he himself was brought up in Sainte-GeneviPve on the French-speaking Lower Mississippi). All the settlements from Saint Louis and Saint Charles upwards were Gallic, with romantic names like Cote Sans Dessein, Roche Jaune, Platte, Femme Osage, L'Isle B Cedre, Roche Percée, Oeil au Fer, RiviPre B Jaque, L'Eau qui Coure, Isle Bon Homme, and so on. The book itself is alleviated by such picturesque expressions from Brackenridge's companions as "il est aprPs ramasser des racines" [he's after picking up roots] - a little like a cross-Channel Thomas Hardy.
Bill's value-added Brackenridge kept me busy for a long time. At eight o'clock, I came to the Moreau Inlet - and reluctantly confirmed what I had suspected all along: I had only done 18 miles! I slept under my wet-suit. It lived up to its name, and if I get rheumatism at an early age, I'll know why.
It was half past one before I saw the long-awaited bridge stretching welcomingly across the river. I pulled up beside it: no trace of my friends. I rowed under the arches, and repeated the performance. I walked into the cafe, the store, and the petrol-station. No Dodge and no boys. I pushed wearily out into the lake again, and something drifted lazily into sight - a green pick-up with....
As the lake broadened postprandially out again, I thought seriously about our rendezvous arrangements. When there was a bridge, the problem was of manageable size, for it was pretty hard to go a bridge too far. But often, there wasn't, and we agreed to meet at a headland or village - frequently near a creek, stream, or river, making the situation ripe for confusion.
The main problem was that I found the Missouri a confusing sort of place. When your eyes are 2 feet from the water and bobbing up and down, and the maps are ripping into soggy pieces, promontories resemble one another and islands become indistinguishable from bluffs with creeks. So I just tried to keep a vague track of the most obvious features - bridges, sharp bends, villages - and to judge distances by means of my counting. But the Missouri was anywhere between 500 yards and 7 miles across, and my route on it kept varying, as did the speed of the current. Most of the time, in short, I had only the vaguest idea where I was.
From the team's point of view, I thought, things ought to be much simpler. Once they had found a way - any way - down to the river, our joint problem was solved - provided they got there before I rowed blissfully past. Often, however, their timing was over-optimistic. Very occasionally, I was ahead of schedule.
But most of my cold nights alone were due to rendezvous I just couldn't reach. The team, especially Tim, reckoned that they thereby made me cover the distance more quickly. They were probably right. But I was getting more and more exhausted. I just didn't know how long I could carry on.
The scenery still seemed uninspiring, so I began looking for solutions. It couldn't do any harm to agree to attach messages under the bridges. Nor could it hurt to decide on a phone-number to call in case of difficulty. But I realised it would be an uphill struggle to put these ideas across. The money problems and the slowness of the trip dominated our thinking; and so did Rick's apparent hostility to our very aims. As a result, our discussions had about as much orderliness as Dali on a bad night, and slightly less uplift than a dead dodo. Still, I gloomily concluded, I would give it a try when we were all together - whenever that was.
I awoke on Wednesday 1 Sept. to find the tent moving like a mad thing. There were white lines running across Oahe, running fast, with a gale intent on tearing them into tiny pieces.
It took me two hours to paddle 5 miles. I was just coming into the shore, wondering what to do next, when a series of side-rollers began to arrive. I was recovering my balance from one particularly vicious individual, when another swept in, and suddenly turned me right over.
Very glad that my head hadn't hit the rocks, I wriggled out of the canoe and broke the heaving, frothy surface. Retreating to the shelter of some large rocks, I waited for the wind to die down. But after an hour it became clear that it had no such intention, so I got back in and made a rather wet withdrawal from my little sanctuary.
I now had a choice. I could keep to the centre of the reservoir and be hit by the force seven as it blew across miles and miles of open water; or else I could hug the shelter of the shore, fighting the turbulent undercurrents. I chose the latter - and soon capsized again.
Sitting on the bare shore, I wondered what I could possibly do. Deciding that the "quitter instinct" was sometimes not altogether misplaced, I climbed the bluff in search of company. I found three beautiful bedraggled white mares, who first enticed me on, then kept shying away again with a sexy whinny at the last possible moment. Eventually, however, they led me to a cottage, where I explained my predicament to a kind old gentleman called Albert.
He pointed out through the back window, where the Missouri doubled back to within 400 yards of the cottage. I was sorely tempted to drag my canoe over, saving nearly 14 miles, plus possibly my life; but then I thought back to the Indian canoeists on the Missouri, and resolved to try and imitate their courage. I thanked Albert again, and set off once more. But when I got to the end of the peninsula, a terrible overpowering lethargy came over me. It was all I could do to drag myself into shore and into my sleeping-bag.
I woke up with a start, to find water everywhere and my morale at the bottom of the bag. I seriously felt like giving the whole trip up and going back to a "real" job. But soon I thought of what the Tourist Board director would have said; and realised that in any case I would have to get my vessel back to port.
As I paddled deadly on, the Cheyenne River arrived, marking the spot where Sacajawea lay buried. I suddenly felt a bit touched, I must admit, remembering Bird-Woman's loyal service to Lewis and Clark and Brackenridge. Two hours later I came back to Albert's house, and two hours after that I saw a little boat coming gamely over the waves. The occupants told me that my friends were a few miles further on. As we got talking, they showed me their day's catch: fifteen fine catfish, all fat and floundering. I asked if I could possibly have one. With a great deal of effort, we managed to stow the still-gaping fish. Two hours later I put in at Okobojo Creek. Somebody told me that the boys had been there, but were now "a couple of miles downstream". The tortoise and the hare, I thought bitterly to myself.
I opened the forward compartment. Some drops had seeped in and the crafty beast had forced his gills into them: he was still flapping, if in a near-vertical position. Guts he had, and soon water, for I poured two or three hatfuls into his tank, closing the hatch with a quick prayer. I now had an unstable canoe but the firmest of friends.
Four sloppy miles further on, I proudly introduced "Humpy" to Bill and Tim. They told me I was mad. "OK, so we don't eat him, he can be expedition mascot." It was useless. My two friends up-ended Lochinvar and poured Humpy out with a loud smack. He would never know quite how lucky he'd been.
After dinner, Rick and Jim arrived back, with something very definite on their minds. "Let's take a walk" announced Rick. I felt awful, but agreed. He said: "The expedition was all meant to be over by 'early September'. Well, today is the first of the month, and you haven't even done a third! I'm sick to death. I've decided to leave." I forgot all about giving up the trip; and swung from total surprise to a reluctant recognition that something like this had been in the air for a long time. Even Rick's photography, I felt, hadn't been up to scratch. Most of the shots were just of scenery, only a few of the kayak in the water, and not one of any real action. Even the newspaper photographers, with infinitely less opportunity, had produced much better work.
My mind switched to the rights and wrongs. I hadn't established any sort of expedition contract, but considered the venture to be such a joint one as to make it inconceivable that a member could leave just because he felt like it. If only, I wryly thought, I had something approaching Lewis and Clark's powers - they'd sentenced a deserter to run the gauntlet through the whole expedition, "each man to have 9 switches", and then to be sent to Coventry for a month.
Instead, I asked Rick if he really meant it, if there was anything at all we could do to help him change his mind. He said there wasn't. I then asked him if we could have the plane ticket back. He said the ticket was in his name, and constituted his only way of getting home. I replied that that was his problem, if he chose to leave us: the ticket belonged to the expedition, and that he had no right to use it. He said he had stayed the allotted time.
He stalked off, and I returned angrily to the dark camp. Jim told me that he too had decided to leave. I thought this fair enough, and thanked him for his support. His help with transport and money, especially at the beginning, had been vital: I told Jim that I would always be grateful for his help; and he wished me good paddling for the rest of the trip.
In the morning, Liam and I asked Rick for the remaining photographs. He said there weren't any. We then asked him for the unspent part of the £380 photographic fund. He handed over $20 and some loose change. We asked where the rest was. He said that that was all that was left. I was filled with a cold rage. I said that if he wasn't out of camp by that evening, I wouldn't answer for the consequences. Turning to Tim, I said: "I'm going for Oahe Dam." Tim (for once!) protested that it was getting dark. But I really didn't give a shit.
Once on the water, my mind began to clear. I rowed for ages, taking a bit of a beating. But it was worth it for the view I finally got: row upon row of fairy lights, all dancing and singing. I ploughed on and as had happened twice before, the wind began belatedly to swing behind me. I paddled and counted, trying to keep my mind off all the monsters there might be in the surrounding blackness. The wind proved a fickle friend, however, and began to veer. Very soon I was on an invisible flying carpet, sloping and sliding when I least expected it to.
After a few more bedlamic minutes, an extraordinary thing began to happen. First one light, then another, flickered and went out. "What the hell is going on?" I bellowed, imagining the end of the universe. Nobody replied, so I continued to nose Lochinvar through the 360% gloom, trying to remember approximately where the lights had been. Up ahead was something inkier than the rest. I paddled obliquely away from it - and the lights began to come on again. A penny dropped with a crash. The lights had been hidden by a headland....
Ten minutes later, I pulled up in the lee of dazzling white concrete. Something else didn't look quite right. The dam seemed only about a twentieth of the size it should have been, and there was a slight current tugging at my bow. I wondered if I was going crazy, remembering nightmares when everything appeared through the wrong end of a telescope, moving away from me at a terrifying speed. But then another penny clanged. I was crazy, in a sense. Ripping off the spray-cover, I forced myself out of the canoe, and hauled it roughly up onto the concrete. This was no dam; it was a spillway. If the gates had happened to open, I would have been irresistibly sucked down into the tunnel and mangled into an orange mash by the massive turbines. Still trembling at the thought, I had to sit down.
After a while, I walked shakily along to the dam, where I found an anxiously waiting Bill. When we got back to camp, Rick had gone, and Tim had prepared a delicious panful of stew, followed by masses of tinned pears and condensed milk. Across the ebbing light of the campfire, I could see shadows dancing on Liam's face. He came over and put his arm round my shoulder. "Don't worry, Nicky" he said in his soft Irish brogue. "We'll stay with you down to New Orleans." At 1 a.m., I felt more at peace with the world. The double pain of Oahe and Rick's betrayal was slowly leaving me. And now, I knew, only three "small" reservoirs lay ahead of me.
Soon it would be running water to the end.
Friday morning was a hive of activity. Liam was cleaning everything - guns, pans, and pick-up in particular. Bill was putting the final touches to his press release, making sure that there were at least twenty bits of information in every sentence, and testing it all out on anybody near earshot - but there were few takers! Tim had prepared breakfast and was poring over the maps. Because of the strain of the last few days, he "only" wanted me to canoe 30 miles.
I left at ten, in clear, free-flowing water. Almost straight away, I went past the town of Pierre, where the French had planted a lead plate in 1743, claiming the whole area for their king. But after only 3 miles of nostalgia, I was horrified to feel the current grinding to a halt. What didn't help either was that my condition matched the name of the incoming river: the Bad.
The hours seemed to pass very slowly. I was drained of energy on that infinite millpond, mute and listless under the burning heat. I felt like a sweating fly trying to climb along a sun-drenched pane.
With 15 miles to go, I knew that I wasn't going to make it. Ten miles short, I was incapable of going a furlong further, and crawled dejectedly into "Medicine Creek" (was this some sort of Roy Rogers movie?). I waited for cars to pass. There weren't any. Two hours later a motorbike picked me up.
At DeGrey, my friends were waiting for me staring across the lake, making me feel very guilty. Going for a walk with Liam, I confessed that I'd been beaten through lack of will-power. The slog was just going on and on, and I didn't know if I would be able to see it through. Liam was very understanding, pointing out that I'd already come 1200 miles and that there were only 240 miles of still water left.
The next day, Liam and I jointly ruled on a day of rest. And rest I did - getting up late, taking a long siesta, and retiring early to bed.
Monday arrived too soon, and my old tormentor Tim asked if I felt I could cover 40 miles. I groaned "not more than 25". I settled into my routine of counting, and something like my old confidence began to return. The sun was now scorching, making me run with sweat. I took off my hat, my life-jacket, and then, breaking the unwritten rule, my shirt.
Feeling as free as a bird, I thought back to my faithful friend Humpy. He was probably old enough now to have had great- grandchildren. Why, he could easily be telling them about our fellow-travelling - about the smoky orangeness of an unidentified floating object that had come down from regions where the water was as wide as 100,000 fish and formed solid blocks, and which carried me away over two suns of distance, and left me here in this very cove; where I met a shy young damsel with the most beautiful pair of fins I had ever seen and a tail whose gentle undulation still sends quivers down my backbone....
I realised I felt dizzy. Maybe I needed some sustenance? I chewed idly at a sandwich, while all the time the sun chewed insidiously at me. As I stumbled ashore, my head started turning and I lay down in a tempting piece of shade. When I tried to get up, my head spun again. I laid my head on my arms and instantly fell into a deep, drugged sleep.
Probably about an hour later, there came a familiar smell. My mind went back eons to the last time. It was on the floor at home, when I was cuddling my pet tortoise. "Yes, that's right," I thought dreamily, "he's always smelt like that." The hairs on my forearm were moving. I slowly opened my eyes; and found a large black snake slithering along my arm. Its flickering tongue and lidless eyes were inches away from my face.
Twisting and jerking as if I was sucking 30,000 volts I jumped bodily sideways. Then I was swaying on my feet as the 4-foot reptile coiled oilily over itself, bulging and contracting its nasty way towards the boulders. I felt a sudden heaving, and vomited copiously. Then I was paddling away as if a whole army of snakes were clutching onto the bow-rope.
On the morrow, my morale seemed strangely high - electric- shock treatment, I suppose. With energy renewed, I got to Big Bend Dam after a mere eleven hours in the cockpit. Only two to go, I said gleefully to my friends.
At dawn, I felt the sudden need for the calm and security of a Catholic church, where I could maybe get everything that had been happening to me in perspective. Tim kindly drove me to a tiny whitewashed chapel a few miles away for the 8 a.m. mass.
But there was just a coffin in the ill-lit gloom and a priest preparing the altar for a funeral service. After a moment of mutual surprise - I was in my filthy kayaking clothes, and he was an Indian - we got chatting. "I can't give you a mass", he said, "but what about breakfast?" I told him about what I was doing and he told me about the Sioux and the effect that the Europeans' imported religion had had on them. Although totally committed to God himself, he didn't feel sure that his tribe were any happier in the fold of Christianity than when practising their animistic beliefs. "The Sioux", he sadly concluded, "have been beaten by alcohol, the broken promise, and the Winchester."
On the way back, I carried with me his total fairmindedness, affectionate "Godspeed!", and the contagion of his warm humanity. We checked with the dam-keepers that I could launch directly below the outlet. But as I set off, I couldn't help wondering what would happen to me if any of the trillion cubic feet up there did come gurgling happily down.
As I paddled on, the water continued to produce a terrible sense of injustice. I had assumed that the Spirits of the River were playing fair and giving me some flowing water between each set of turbines. Otherwise, some of the water would be flowing uphill, wouldn't it? "Apparently not," said my alter ego, "given the unshakable stillness of the water. And just look at those forests of stark dead tree-trunks." He was right. I was incontestably on Lake Francis Case. I began to think about the magnificent possibilities of punning. You'd have to be a case to want to canoe the lake. And what would happen if I was killed on it? Would Dick Francis agree to fictionalise it as The Nick Francis Case: The Murder on the Francis Case?
This innocent pastime, together with a downriver breeze, kept me happy as far as "Chamberlain". I thought of "Peace in our time". Peace was with me here; and soon honour as well, in the shape of several competing newspaper and television teams. As usual, I kept a reserve of energy for a frothy surge into shore - and then fiddled around with my gear for ages, before speaking, a little breathlessly, to the cameras. Finally the last note had been taken and the final press-release handed out.
As a reward, we adjourned to the local cafe, where I had to do it all again on cassette. Instead of Liam stirring the campfire and Tim chopping wood, there was Bill stirring coffee and me chopping sausages. I just hope my grandchildren will appreciate it.
Two days later, the wind turned against me again, together with the tide of our fortunes. Wind, or rather gale; and I had the paranoid impression that it kept swivelling with me, even when I turned round a headland. My speed was down to a ridiculous 1 1/2 mph. I would have been better towing the boat along the shore - and better still waiting for the wind to abate. "Indeed," argued Mr A. Ego, "the US Coastguard regulations assert that 'it is dangerous to take a small boat on Lake Francis Case if the wind is more than 15 mph': the wind is three times that speed, and yours is a very small one".
I told him to shut up, arched my frame resignedly forward, and dug desperately down again on the excruciating treadmill. But however quickly I worked, Lochinvar wobbled to a sulky halt between strokes, making the next one so much harder. At the same time, I had to tighten my grip until my hands were numb - otherwise the paddles would have flown away.
My strokes became stiffer and stiffer, and my progress slower and slower. From time to time, black clouds of soil ripped off the God-forsaken shore and descended like plagues of locusts. My eyes began flowing and my mouth got all gritty, but I didn't even have a hand free to wipe away the bits. A pain developed in my side. The only thing that kept me going was the sharp bend 3 miles ahead, and the belief that if I could but reach it, the bitch would finally be behind me. I began to feel it must have been sent by a spiteful God. I started swearing at a divine being who could conspire with his representative on earth to inflict this on me after 1000 miles of headwinds and other trials. "'Godspeed!'" I screamed, "I don't even want special treatment. All I want is the same as you'd give any bleeding atheist."
After about two hours of torment, and just as my speed was converging on zero - 3 feet forward and 2 feet back - I reached the bend. I clawed my way round it, paddling on one side only, like a wall-of-death rider. Soon I powered out of it, wobbling dangerously now like a three-wheeled Maserati. And then the windy race was on.
For several miles, I zoomed over the water as the sky got darker and darker. The wind, gusting across miles and miles of open water, knocked the life-jacket against my back and flapped the hood painfully against one ear. For several more miles, I went through the motions of paddling, while Lochinvar bounced and scudded over the grey waves like an orange Valkyrie. Then the heavens were torn visibly asunder and went "Bang!"; and the rain came on as heavily as Liz Taylor. The rules of the game have changed, I thought to myself. All I've got to do is keep my nerve, and steer.
But the wind had still not said its last word. It was soon slapping the waves down like an irate schoolteacher. I was leaning back to try and maintain stability, but we were just going faster and faster, and starting to skid sideways.
Then the waves began to be blasted into flat black ice. I realised that if we didn't stop now, we might never stop again. Francis Case was a mile wide there and I just had to get Lochinvar to the shelter of the rocks. Gingerly I angled the bow towards the shore - the boat swayed dangerously as the wind tore into her side, trying to drive her over into a capsize. Side-paddling with the adrenalin of despair, I swung her round back into the heaving mainstream and then sliding the bow imperceptibly to the right I raced on and on down the centre of the lake - nudging her over - reducing the gap until finally the rocks were upon us and I floundered ashore. I dragged the boat several yards from the water, and turned her parallel to the wind. In the shelter of a sort of cave, I began to shake with cold, fright, hunger, and frustration.
The next time I looked, the canoe was dancing up and down, dying to get back. I raced out just as the bow jumped lightly into the air and the whole 16-foot canoe stepped over the shore like a dainty marionette and onto the lake. Half a second later I was in the maelstrom myself, swimming arm over arm towards her.
I nearly had the toggle when she walked again, moving another 100 feet into the reservoir. I swam even harder, and grabbed for the toggle. I missed. I made one last lunge, but the wind gusted, fibre-glass lacerated my palm, and Lochinvar began careering like a mad ballerina over the black waters. Through the tortured sea, I caught an occasional home-movie-sequence of a thin orange shape rolling and spinning, dervish-like, before disappearing again. Then I knew it was no good.
I began to turn back - and found that I couldn't. The combination of wind and current was too strong. I started to swim obliquely towards a long jutting headland. My life-jacket buoyed me up but it also restricted my movements. I swam and prayed for my very life towards that finger of rock. I knew that if I missed it, then I would stand no chance of getting back, and would have to cross the lake to the other shore, situated somewhere below the black horizon.
And then it was finished and I was retching bile and water over the shore. I'd lost one of my shoes, and my sock flapped coldly like a redundant appendage. Staggering as if drunk, I walked back along to my paddles. They'd gone as well. Giving up trying to think, I did the only thing I could do. I started walking. I walked through the driving wind and rain for two hours, and came to a small farm.
It was deserted.
After another hour, I arrived at a house with a lighted window, marked "Saltman". A woman came to the door. She looked startled by my haggard and half-shoeless state, but at last relented. After a hot shower and a hot coffee, I was finally in a condition to explain. Mr Saltman arrived, and I started again. But he cut in with: "Jesus Christ. You're the luckiest idiot I've ever met. Your English twisters can't be up to much!" "?" "You rowed through the edge of a tornado. This one's just carried off my cousin's car!" I understood then why the wind had seemed so strong....
We waited for a couple of hours, and it began to get a little less noisy. The Saltmans offered to drive me to my rendezvous. "But it's a four-hour round trip to the other side of the lake." "No problem." I gave my thanks as profusely as I could, and we set off. Miracle followed miracle as my hosts used the C.B. to contact their "neighbours" across the water. An hour later, "Rattlesnake" and "Granny-Claws" used remote control to guide "Driftwood" and a moribund "Wallflower" over the dirt-tracks and into a rendezvous with "Daisychain"! We all thanked Mr Saltman again, but he wouldn't stay, and drove off on the long journey home.
As I peeled the clothes off my filthy body, I thought back again to that terrible struggle. With one sock off, I suddenly remembered that I had turned on God and cursed him. Because of my blasphemy, it now came to me, he had thrown the wind at me and, with it, the tail-end of a tornado. I finally deciphered the message: the God that I'd met on the Missouri would not be mocked. He was on my side; but I had to believe that he was. Otherwise the Missouri River would throw everything she had at me - and on current form she had more than enough.
The other sock came off and I thought further back. The fortnight that had just finished was by far the worst of the trip - of my whole life. I began to count off the disasters that had piled up. One of the back-up team had not been able to give accounts for our money.Is this libellous? The expedition had been abandoned by that same member. I had almost disappeared down a turbine. I had capsized near rocks. I had wanted to give up the trip altogether. I had had sunstroke and been sick. A snake had crawled over my bare arm. I had had to swim for my very life. And I had lost my canoe and paddles.
If I'd known about all this at the beginning, I don't think I would have had the courage to start off. But now, with the help of a great deal of luck, the support of the team, and the generosity of the American people, I realised that I had done "a far better thing". I had run away a number of times; but I had survived, and would continue, God willing, to fight the battles of better days. At this rate I wouldn't be in New Orleans until after Christmas, but I didn't care. All I wanted now was to stay in one piece.
I slept well that night, comforted by the warm presence of my three friends, and dreaming of that fast-flowing water.
IX DOWNHILL ALL THE WAY
Lookin' f' (a) job in the city
Workin' for the man every night and day
But I never lost a minute of sleep
Worryin' 'bout the way things might have been
Big wheel keep on turnin'
Proud Mary keep on burnin'
Rollin', rollin' on a river
(Creedence Clearwater Revival)
Over a late breakfast of succulent fruit, we examined the huge lake, wondering how this passive and listless surface could have produced such violent effects. Eventually we gave up and Liam and Tim headed off along the shore to see if the canoe or paddles had been driven over to this side. I meanwhile recorded my nightmarish events - not that there was any need, for they will always remain engraved in my memory.
At 2 p.m., Liam arrived back, triumphantly waving a pair of paddles over his head. Minutes later, Tim rowed a lopsided Lochinvar into shore using a jagged piece of driftwood. There
Map 9 Lake Francis Case to Nebraska City
was a big hole in the front compartment, but I was extremely glad to have her back at all.
Bill drove me 5 miles "upstream"; and I got into Cameron of Lochiel with new resolution. Two days later, I reached the dam at the end of Francis Case. Two days after that, I awoke in a conveniently-placed cabin. The river became lighter; but not much clearer, for the banks were shrouded in an ethereal cloud wandering indolently over a silent world. I felt ashamed at disturbing the cosy little groups of beavers. Even their tail-splashing remained wetly muffled, as if still in the wisps of their delicious dreams. Somehow, only the orange hull plashing over the smoky drifting water seemed real - or was I an irruption into a deeper reality that only the Missouri knew?
The scene faded, and with it the current. From Wordsworth done by David Hamilton, I was switched to a hard-focus of Egypt by Cecil B. de Mille, with a marshy maze of bullrushes, pestilence-struck fish, and a blazing hot sun. I slaved on for another 10 miles, going from dead-end to cul-de-sac; and then was finally able to leave this involuted world to its own devious devices.
Turning a crooked corner, I saw Yankton dam, the very last one on the river. I had made it. Never again would I have to canoe on those terrible lakes....
The following day, well after lunchtime, I set off towards yet another over-optimistic rendezvous, at Vermillion. Just as I was getting into my stride, I spotted a bluff where Lewis and Clark had camped in 1804. They had held a Grand Council here with the Yankton Sioux, and it was presumably the Indians who had led them to a major find just beside: the fossilised skeleton of a 45-foot marine reptile that was completely unknown at the time. For my part, all I could see was a rusty beer-can.
A few miles later, I came to the point where the James River trickled imperceptibly in. Looking at the map, I realised that it had been so discreet as to follow the Missouri down for hundreds of diffident miles - since Bismarck in fact. Only when threatened by the Sioux River had it finally made the plunge.
The sunset, when it came, was the same colour as my destination, but its sense of timing seemed as bad as its spelling. I decided to doss down where I was. I found a disused scrapyard with an old sofa. It was filthy but dry, but so was I, so the exchange was probably fair.
Conversation at the lunchtime rendezvous soon came back to money. We were once again down to our last $20, Liam told me; but Tim had efficiently found and started work as a painter (houses not pictures). Good for him!
Another piece of news was less pleasing. There was a maniac hiding out in the woods above Sioux City and shooting at people on the river. The prospect of being a sitting target worried me somewhat, so we readjusted our schedule. I paddled another 30 miles that day, and was fast asleep by nine o'clock. In the middle of the night, Liam shook me firmly by the shoulder.
We carried the canoe down to the Missouri under a sky that looked unusually deep. Although I paddled as quietly as possible, I felt very conscious that the orange kayak stood starkly out against the jet-black water, and that each stroke produced a yellow shimmering trail behind the paddle. Listening to every rustle and creak in the dense forest above me, I only hoped that the maniac wasn't a sleep-walker as well.
A tense three hours later, I saw the glint of sun on metal... and realised that it was a statue. Just as I glided opposite, a fathomless radiating ball revealed a burning aluminium War-Chief on Horse. It was the young chief War Eagle, who had led the Sioux to victory against Custer. Awed by the strength of the figure, I remembered what Leah had told us about the downfall of her tribe. Their leader now only existed in an alien art-form, in an unknown metal, sitting on a foreign animal. But these anomalies only added to my feeling of mysterious harmony. By now the Indians were for me such a mixture of pastoral basket-weaving and ferocious marauding, Noble Savage and coldblooded cruelty, vitality and lethargy, that possibly only paradox could come near them. Whatever the reason, that burning moment on the Great Indian River moved me tremendously. For a second, my canoe and I were very close to the native spirit.
With a shock, I realised that I was coming into a low-built urban sprawl. Not all charm was broken, however, for through the calm air wafted a languorous and melancholy music, as if Fenimore Cooper had given way to Walter Scott. I rounded a corner, and saw an amazing panorama: a group of television cameramen, a man with a big golden chain round his neck, a full pipe-band - all kilted and all roundly feminine - and a small crowd of people with Liam and Bill at their head.
Once the media had had their fill, Bill introduced me to the Mayor. On the spot we were made Honorary Citizens of Sioux City, with resplendent certificates to prove it. We thanked the Mayor, and then Bill introduced me to Bob Hatfield of the ACS, the man who had helped him arrange it all. Bob told us he had got us tickets for a "football" match at the local stadium; and that he was offering us beds for the night - "yes, with sheets". There and then we confirmed Bill's promotion to autonomous advance-man and publicity-agent!
Back in the water again on the 18th, I realised that I had touched down in my fifth state. I was at present in Iowa, capital Des Moines, pronounced Dee Moinz - enough to give the French founding fathers a heart-attack! The Nebraska-Iowa line followed the centre of the river, and for a while I amused myself changing states as quickly as alternating current.
The water itself had also changed. It had been brown and silty since the last dam, but now it was smelly as well, with refineries and factories lining the banks. I thought back to our bathe before the dinner-date, and to the drinkable water up in Montana. But then I remembered the terrible inland seas, and my nostalgia disappeared. I bent hard over my paddles, thinking forward to the city of Omaha, only 110 miles away now. My cousin Toni and her husband lived there, and would be sure, I knew, to lay on a good reception.
With no sign, however, of the last £500 from the C.R.C., our financial situation remained extremely precarious. Tim's artistry would keep us afloat for a couple more days, but not more. We had decided that in fact we would have to work again - including me this time, at least for a while. We had also come to another difficult decision. Half of any money earned would go to the individual in question. The expedition would obviously lose half its income this way, but Tim in particular was understandably desperate to have some money - if only for postage to his girlfriend; and this had been the least bad arrangement we could agree on.
For 33 miles, the farmhouses were absolutely identical - regular plank fences and aluminium silos. Finally I arrived at the "Lighthouse Marina". It was pouring with rain, and Liam and Tim hadn't really felt like putting the tent up. "What about the toilets" I said in quiet desperation. They were at least dry. I grabbed pride of place between the wash-basin and the urinals, and barricading the door, we bedded down.
I was just telling Tim about the James, and he was just saying that it was in fact the silt deposits that kept the rivers apart, when we heard a shrill shriek of brakes. There came a hammering on the door, while we froze and listened to the drip of the tap. At last we heard a revving engine. Then he/she was gone, probably thinking that the guy inside had a real problem.
When I woke, there was a good fire going, but the Missouri looked how I felt - cold and grey. Liam and Tim wanted to drive into Omaha straight after breakfast. I, however, preferred a midday rendezvous - both for the company and in case anything happened to me. In the end I had to give in.
At 7 p.m., a very weary canoeist pulled in under Highway 80 (New York-San Francisco). I quickly read the mail, despite a hanger-on alias ageing groupie. And then Liam and Tim said what about a few more miles...? The current looked pretty good, so it seemed a tolerable idea. GRRRR!
After about an hour however, my arms started seizing up, reducing me to a humiliating 1 knot faster than the current. It got dark; and the water was suddenly humming and vibrating as if alive. An extraordinary clanking noise was coming from the dark distance ahead. Now a long finger of light was working delicately over the surface of the river, then another, and soon half a dozen dazzling beams were criss-crossing the darkness, like an upturned blitz - only I was the target. The humming and vibrating got louder, and I was just searching my memories of Jules Verne to see which movie I was in, when a juddering, monstrous silhouette came into view. It clunked again, and I clicked. I was meeting my first "towboat".
Rowboat and towboat seemed an unequal match, so I telemarked hard, and headed straight for the closest bit of shore. Minutes later the earth moved and the beast had come. It was enormous: twelve uncompromising-looking barges, being pushed (despite the name) against the full force of the current. Its 600 feet of hurling metal made Lochinvar look like a toy. Only the tow itself seemed a bit small and overdone, with its white ornamental layers and fancy neoclassical bits, rather like a superior wedding-cake. But it resolved its inferiority complex by means of an aggressive wash of choppy waves, with compact balls of pure turbulence searching hither and thither for playmates.
Still shaking, I decided enough was enough. What luck, an overturned rowing-boat. That night I slept like a dry log. The rest of the world hadn't, though, and I had to tip gallons of water out of my canoe. A couple of miles later, a decrepit Dodge appeared. After a huge breakfast, the suburbs of Omaha came out to meet me. The Cattle City had certainly changed since the pioneer days, I decided. Instead of mooing longhorns and gun-toting cowhands, there was now just a maze of bridges, Interstates, and petroleum- and/or molasses-processing plants. It simply went on and on. The only point of interest was the left bank: one moment Nebraska, the next Iowa, and the next Nebraska again.
Four hours later, the concrete jungle gave way to timid patches of grass. Another hour, and Bellevue Bridge reluctantly appeared in the distance. Another half-hour, and Cousins Toni and Charlie, Liam, Tim, and Bill were waiting for me - fortunately, as I could hardly climb out of the canoe.
But my tiredness was perhaps worth it, I thought, as I chatted with my friends. I had now covered 1900 miles, or exactly half of the Mississippi-Missouri. Since our last visit here, we had come a long way.
We had a magnificent celebratory dinner at my cousins'. Over desert, Bill told us about his reading on the Indian languages. The name "Omaha" meant "those who fight against the current" (brave souls), and "Missouri" was the name of a tribe who lived on the banks of the river - "lived", because the last member had long ago been wiped from the face of the earth.... Then he recited the names for the river in the various Indian languages: in Hidatsa, Mati (Navigable Stream Full of Dirt); in Mandan, Mata (Boundary between Two Pieces of Land); in Dakota, variously Minni-Shu-Shu (Smoky Water), Minnni-So-Say (Muddy Water), or Wakpa-Sose-Tanka (Stirred Up and Grandmother River). Each name brought forth resonances in my mind, and I paid hommage once more to the Indian tribes who had first canoed on the mighty river.
In the morning, Bill introduced us to a new friend: the Mayor of Omaha! For services to cancer research, four slightly hungover Britons were awarded the Freedom of the City, together with Golden Keys. Thanking him, we apologised for our unkempt appearance. Mayor Al Veys coolly replied that the early pioneers hadn't looked much better (?). As we chatted on about our various experiences, he proudly told us that this city was the birthplace of former president Gerald Ford - who was due here that very afternoon! Would the possibility of meeting him interest me? I immediately replied yes, remembering Ford's commitment to the cause we were promoting (Betty Ford had suffered from cancer of the throat).
Then we had to dash to another meet-the-press, with another pipe-band. The kilts were again filled with curvaceous feminine curves, I just couldn't keep my eyes off them. During the first interview, a young journalist asked what it was like "'floating the river'?" Missing the allusion to Twain represented by her quotes, I snapped back "I wouldn't exactly call rowing a thousand miles with a wind in your teeth 'floating' the river!" I was horrified to see two huge tear-drops welling up in her eyes. I felt awful! After apologising, I told her about some of our trials, and was glad to see her smiling again by the end.
Someone came running through the rain: there was a call from the Mayor's Office. Al Veys's news was all good. I would be introduced to "the President" at 6.30 that evening. He said I should bring our photographer. We didn't have one. But Liam offered his services, and I gratefully accepted.
At six we were there, with our exhausted exhaust announcing our presence to the world at large. We found the road completely blocked by a flotilla of shiny black Cadillacs parked side by side. Lounging against them, exactly like the guests at the Godfather's wedding, stood a bunch of strange young men. They were all dressed in exactly the same attire, apalca suits, homburg hats, and sunglasses. This latter detail seemed most curious to me as it was still raining. The sinister band appeared hard of hearing as well, for they all wore deaf-aids. I went over to the nearest one and said in a loud voice "Excuse me, Sir, are you a member of the Secret Service?" He gave a grunt that sounded like Marlon Brando on an off day. I took this to be an affirmative. "My name is Nicholas Francis. I have an appointment with the President at half past six. Mr O'Neill is my photographer". My interlocutor frowned and started to mumble into his lapel; and then he began to crackle. He listened to the left ear-lobe for a while, nodding vacantly as he did so. After a certain time, we took this to be another positive, and accordingly walked through a small gap between the motor-cars and towards the club itself. The smart entrance-hall was full of even smarter beautiful people, all suntanned with dinner-jackets and plunging necklines. But around the outside were more shiny personnel. One of them barred our passage and I repeated my implausible story. At last he gave us clearance.
We were about to go up the stairs when we were thrown roughly against the wall. A man in a glossy suit, blue this time, began to put his hands in all sorts of naughty places. "I do wish he'd stop tickling!" I said to Liam's arms, parallel to mine. Blue's colleague was wearing a worn leather shoulder-strap and a sub-machine-gun, and looked as though he'd never learned to laugh. Then I thought of Kennedy, and began to understand.
At that moment I caught sight of a familiar figure standing at the top of the stairs. It was Mayor Veys. He took me by the arm and led me over to President Ford. I was immediately impressed - both by his physical size and the aura of strength he had about him. But then I remembered that this was the man that had held America together after the Watergate debacle and given her back her self-respect. Wringing me warmly by the hand, the President said "We have a deep family interest in cancer research". He wished me the best of luck in getting to New Orleans, with Liam snapping away all the time. Soon he shook Liam's hand warmly in turn, and then somebody was asking him about "the Mayaguez Incident". The President turned slightly; and all we could hear was "I conferred with Secretary Kissinger...".
Feeling on top of the world, we walked out of the club. With twenty shades focused hard on us, we turned the pick-up's ignition: it didn't backfire, thank God. We counted our money, decided to splash it, and bought ourselves a celebration dinner - peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches!
The next day, I phoned Colin MacKenzie in Edinburgh to tell him the good news. Then I rang the British newspaper offices in New York, promising them photographs of our meeting with President Ford. As soon as I put the phone down, it rang again. It was Liam. The photographs hadn't come out, and so we had no record at all of the meeting. I felt very disappointed indeed. We were definitely not having luck with our photography....
We spent the rest of that day looking for work. On the 23rd, ditto, and then we were invited to a Ceilidh by "our" pipe-band. I remembered the shapes inside the kilts, and accepted with breathless alacrity. When we got there, it proved a bit dull, as Ceilidhs went; but we did meet a charming gentleman called Dan Murphy. He was Irish-American (no...), and promised us jobs in less than no time. Bill, meanwhile, had fixed himself up with an Anglo-American called "Rahntuttle". He was now a freelance fireplace-installer. I said I just hoped next winter wasn't too cold.
On Sunday, I spent most of the day filling a tiny hole in the front of Cameron of Lochiel, while Liam and Tim repaired a much larger one in the pick-up's sump. On Monday, we became fully-fledged stone-masons. (We just hoped next winter wasn't too wet.) And on Tuesday, I fell in love.
It was in a smart discotheque in the centre of town. She was sitting with an older lady. I crossed the floor and asked if she would like to dance. "I'd love to", she replied. When the music ended, we walked slowly back to her table. Her mother smiled as I was introduced, and asked if I would like a drink.
I learned quite a lot about Cathy that evening. She had been married to an air-force pilot, who can't have known how lucky he was, for they had divorced. She had two small children, aged three and five. About a year older than me, she still possessed childlike qualities of innocence and warmth. As we were leaving, I asked her if she would like to come swimming the following evening. "I'd be delighted", she said in all simplicity.
I met Cathy the next day. And the next, and the next. Realising that I was more proficient in a kayak than on a dance-floor, I took her canoeing on the wide Missouri. We went for meals and we went to the cinema.
Monday, Oct. 2, arrived much too soon. I realised with tremendous sadness that Bill and I had to return to the river. The Missouri itself might have waited, but the boys, still building hard, wouldn't have.
Cathy drove us to draw our wages, and I celebrated with two Milky Ways. Bill had only been paid for half his work - Tuttle said he had a "temporary liquidity problem". Bill immediately put all the pay he had received into the expedition funds, saying he would keep the other half when it arrived.
I spent most of the day wasting time - trying to postpone the inevitable rendezvous. But eventually we drove down to Bellevue, and Cathy watched as I settled into Cameron of Lochiel. I felt apathetic, stiff, and very sad. Leaning on the jetty, I gave the beautiful girl a long kiss. She was crying. I set off and paddled away, but there wasn't a bend in sight. After over a mile, I turned my head and looked back. She was still standing stiffly there, but looking very small.
And then she was hidden from view, and I was wondering whether I would ever see her again.
I ploughed on through the rain, arriving after a short while at the Platte River. The weather didn't really seem appropriate. After all, the North Platte came down from sun-baked Cheyenne and Laramie, and the South Platte, dusty Denver and Colorado. Then I remembered that the Platte meant "the flat river", and that it was regarded by the early navigators as the "Equator" of the Missouri. After eleven weeks of trying, I wasn't sure quite how positive this information really was, given that St Louis was meant to be just over the horizon. Undoubtedly more encouraging, I decided, was the fact that I had seen no sizable tributaries on the left since the self-effacing James - a sure sign that the Mississippi was throwing its weight around.
At Rocky Bluff there was no sign of a truck, but a kindly local invited me in for coffee. Bill arrived half an hour later, accompanied by three urchin-navigators who looked as though they'd just escaped from a federal pen. His arrival cheered me up, and we chatted over a blazing fire for a long time. As usual, we spoke of plans, hopes, and regrets, with the river as centre-piece for all our dreams and fears.
We got on to what we would do after the trip, and Bill reminded me that he was going to Paris. As he talked about the bars and restaurants of the Latin Quarter, I could feel my Gallic blood moving. That night, I went to bed thinking of snails swimming in garlic and strong red wine.
In the morning, I was contemplating "taking a left" past a rather pleasantly-wooded outcrop. A quick look at my map, and I lunged to the right, scraping under the overhanging branches. I had just missed going into a 12-mile-long ox-bow lake. I had dim memories of my geography teacher explaining that these originated when a river changed its mind and formed a cut-off across a loop. My other source of knowledge was Twain - but here there was information aplenty. He told stories of the farmers who owned the inaccessible and flood-prone pieces of land within the loops. They used to actually encourage the river in its whims by digging unscrupulous ditches across the necks. Once a cut-off had taken, it couldn't be stopped, by any means known to man. An ox-bow lake had formed, and the land had doubled in value. If Tim really is in such a hurry, perhaps he could arrange something....
Twain also brings his zany humour to bear on the legal consequences, which were sometimes a matter of life and death. Originally, the boundary between states had been the centre of the river. So when chunks of land switched banks, they also switched state. Given a free and a slave state, a slave could wake up one morning a free man. And vice versa! Eventually the law was admitted to be an ass, and the boundaries were fixed once and for all, no matter what happened. This now meant that bits of Iowa could be stranded on the Nebraska side. But when you're dealing with a perfidious creature like the Mississippi-Missouri, I mused, perfection is sometimes difficult to attain....
Over the days that followed, I tried to make up for the time "lost" in Omaha by paddling from dawn to dusk, and often well beyond, for the nights were drawing in. On the third night, I learned about another of the hazards of paddling unseen on a waterway designed for vessels with radar and pilots familiar with every black sandbar and treetrunk.
As was my custom, I was keeping about a quarter of the way across. I went past the flames of a huge petroleum plant, and then started cutting over to save distance on a curve. Suddenly there came the sound of rushing water. I veered away, as the bow started swinging. Then I spotted a silhouette looming right across my path - a stationary silhouette. I turned further and began paddling with all my strength, but the current just swept us on.
A pile of wood and branches came into view. Since it was too late to avoid it, I swung back parallel to the current, noticing with relief a small gap. Stabbing into the water, I managed to get the front of the kayak opposite it, and immediately had to lever my vessel awkwardly round before the current twisted it and me against the barrier. The water swept us into the gap, which seemed to be only about 2 feet wide. But then the keel ground to an unstable halt, with the water agitatedly pushing the rear of the kayak up in the air. Avoiding the side-walls, I balanced the paddles obliquely against my stomach. Then I plunged my hands into the water, and lifted some of the weight off. For an eternity, the canoe was threshing left and right, forward and aft, as I tried to anticipate the best moment to clutch onto the paddles again. But all of a sudden we were moving down a one-in-three slope of pure hell. All I could do was hold on and pray. But the faithful boat steered herself: a last nose-plunge, and we came to a heaving halt in perfect unison, like a centaur after a desperate gallop. I had met and survived my first wing-dam.
For dinner, Bill had prepared a huge plate of "bifteck aux échalottes". I'd been thinking hard, and now told my friend about a decision that I had come to: I was going to go and live in Paris as well. I wanted to plunge myself, with no holds barred, into its deepest secrets. "But what will you do?" "I'll try and put down all my hopes and dreams about the river, from the difficult beginning, through our various mishaps, and on to the end."
For the first time, all my roads seemed to be leading to a single destination. The route from Scotland to Paris, in the dream I shared with Bill, led over to an alien continent, up into its highest mountains, across its widest plains. But, whatever the risks involved, this was the shortest possible route, the safest route, the only conceivable one. If my life before this moment had seemed nothing but a series of disconnected episodes, now it was coming together into an organic whole. By day, then, I would be a writer in a cork-lined garret overlooking the Seine; and by night, Bill and I would drink rough red wine in the local bar.
Watching the frenetic busloads of American tourists, we would talk quietly of our own memories of the New World. The ages spent shooting at an innocent bird whose miserable flesh wouldn't have begun to fill our hungry mouths. The Ranger who wouldn't stop talking and who Bill had had to rescue me from. And the purple evening with the smoke of a huge campfire floating over the whispering reeds and the water full of a limpidity that you could share but never capture. A whole universe. America, our America.
Then, once the buses had loaded up and the air-conditioning had died down, we would walk slowly beside the cool flow of the Seine. We would both have the same unspoken thought: that we had seen great things together - that for us there would only ever be one river.
The Mississippi-Missouri, a world in itself, the focus of all our dreams.
X THE MISSOURI BREAKS
Roustabout ain't got no home
Makes his living from his shoulder bone.
Break a line, borrow another
Black man die, hire his brother.
All through the rest of that week, I carried on as fast as I could. One of my rewards was the arrival of two new states. I told Bill that arriving in Missouri wasn't much fun - the name was already familiar. Also, I said, Kansas seemed a step backwards after Iowa, which sounded pretty civilised (or was I confusing it with Ohio?). Indeed Kansas was positively last-frontier-like, not the sort of state you wanted to meet 1600 miles after leaving the Rockies. It had been, after all, the dumping-ground for various tribes between the 1830s and 60s, Huck Finn's "Ingean Territory". And so it had to be the back of beyond, I had winningly concluded. Bill reassured me by pointing out that Neil Diamond's hyper-southern drawl sang about Wichita (Kan.), and that Kansas
Map 9 Nebraska City to St Louis
had actually arrived after Missouri, which was opposite Tennessee, which was opposite Arkansas.... I tried to cut in, but Bill said that I should be grateful, as my shadowy, borderline existence, oscillating between states like a schizophrenic escapee or a malfunctioning transistor, would stop when Missouri occupied both banks. Then I would at least know whether inviting a twenty-year-old girl for a drink constituted an indictable offence (it did!). What was more, he pursued, the capital, Kansas City, was second only to New Orleans as the home of Jazz and Boogie Woogie. It had its own style of orchestration: a swing-like beat, amazing repeating riffs, and loads of trumpets. "Count Basie played Kansas City style. He was even Black. That sounds very southern to me, m'lud. My case rests."
"Yeah, but where did all the jazzmen go afterwards? They went to Chicago. On the Great Lakes! And look at the Interstate numbers. After six weeks, I got to 94. But I'm still only in the mid-70s, I'm never going to get it down to 0. What sort of country is this, where even the motorways are against you?"
Looking at my watch, I realised that we were late for our own press-conference. Bill turned the ignition key, producing merely a dull clunk. After trying again, we abandoned ship. The first vehicle to pass was a film-van from CBS; and it stopped. The enterprising journalist stole a march on his more punctual rivals; and the MMCRSKE arrived in rather better style than usual.
Days and days of hard slogging later, I got to St Joseph, where the original Pony Express started from. Like its rival through Fort Benton, it only lasted a few months (1860-61), and it finished $200,000 in debt. But in that short period, it became something of a legend. The best-known rider was Buffalo Bill ("Colonel" William Cody), the first man in history to claim to have ridden 300 miles without a break. Another of his reported exploits was to slaughter 4280 buffalo in less than two years; and yet another was to force peace on a whole Indian tribe by beating their chief in single knife combat. It all made quite a story!
St Joseph is also the point where some authorities believe the Missouri was first gazed upon by a White man. It was 1540, and Francisco Vazquez de Coronado was sailing up the Gulf of California. His expedition is then meant to have discovered, in fairly rapid succession: the Colorado, the Grand Canyon, the Rio Grande, and the Missouri. Since the Mississippi was first seen in 1541, this would presumably mean that the Missouri was discovered before its great rival, which would be quite a feat, given the relative position of the two rivers. It would be, if only those authorities had a leg to stand on. Unfortunately, Coronado only heard about the Missouri - and so had to be content with only three discoveries to his name. He probably died broken-hearted!
As I carried on down the river, I found myself thinking more and more about Cathy. On impulse one evening, I phoned her, reversing the charges. She sounded very glad to hear my voice, so I asked if she would like to come down for a couple of days. She hesitated, and then asked if she could bring the children. On the spot, the deal was made.
Just after passing Fort Leavenworth, the site of a last remnant of the French presence, I was again early for a rendezvous. I got talking to a towboat captain. "Would you like a tour?" I climbed the gangway and was shown the colour TV, the air-conditioning, and the spotless bathrooms.
"Things have changed since Twain's day. But the boys really do need all that, because they spend a straight month on the tow, six hours on, six hours off. Then they take a month's holiday - which they need even more!" Next on the visit was the control-room, with radiotelephone, radar, fathometer, "contraguide rudder", and automatic pilot. Again not luxuries, he told me, as they were carrying ten million gallons of petroleum - twice as much as most ocean freighters. "My twenty barges cover more than an acre. Even with all 3000 horse-power in reverse, you can't stop in less than a mile or two. So just you keep your itty-bitty kayak out of harm's way, yeah? You don't even show up on the radar. My turbines spit out whole tree-trunks - you wouldn't give them a glassfibre hiccough. And remember, the downstream vessel always has right of way. (I didn't dare ask if this stretched as far as kayaks.) Did you see that dirty big whirlpool thirty miles back?" (I hadn't - it must have been dark.) "You have to steer clear even when you have 30,000 tons going for you. If one barge goes down, then the guy up front has to be f___ing quick with the sledgehammer, otherwise they all go down, follow-my-duckling-style. D'you remember that island with the cedars on it? No? You must have been asleep. That was a steel convoy, until little Miss Missouri got hold of it. Your saltwater sailors complain if they have to work round reefs every 20 miles. Here they're every 50 yards, you have to go between them, and they won't keep still."
I had to chip in there, as Bill had arrived. My new friend asked if we would like a trip downstream. Bill said "Yes please", and I, "But how will we get back?" "That's easy. An upstream tow. You'd best bring your boat with you."
As we roared majestically along, we got a superb panorama of both banks, with the setting sun catching the tufts of the trees. "If only I always had this view," I shouted happily to Bill, "I'd get lost much less often."
Our friend seemed very glad to talk about his beloved Missouri. "The old steamboat captains knew all about its tricks, baptising it variously as Great River Road, Wild Mizoo, Great Muddy, Graveyard for Steamboats, Great Common Sewer of the West, or Old Misery. Things were different in those days - you had real characters then (I thought we had one now). When the fog came down, the whistle was the only way to find your route: you listened for the echo off the cliffs, the noise from the farms, or the chorus in the bayous. If you didn't know every log, dog, and species of frog, you were soon stuck. Often, you could just use the paddles to roll over. But sometimes you had to grasshopper instead...."
Our kaleidoscopic captain suddenly pointed to the middle distance. "The water's only ten foot there - you can see by the ripples. If the front barge gets stuck, it'll have to be hammered loose before we all get fouled up". "But what about the barge?" asked Bill in amazement. "Oh that's easy. We move into the bank, tie the others up, and zip round the far side. This tow only draws 7 feet, so we use its propeller to zap the shoal clean out of existence." Dead simple, I said to Bill, but the errant barge? By the time the two transatlantic numbskulls understood, we were well past. Most disappointing, we hadn't even scraped.
"Now where was I? Ah yes, the old days: you grasshoppered over, see? You don't? Well, it meant using poles on either side to lunge the boat a few feet forward at a time." At last, I could show off some expertise. "Oh yes," I said airily, "that's a technique I know, only I just use my hands." This time, it was his turn to stare. He looked at the Missouri, then at the kayak, then at me. Spitting "Chaw!", he turned his back on us.
We went under an old railway bridge, and Bill and I held our breath as the vibrating monster lumbered between the uprights with feet to spare. "It's on purpose of course," said our encyclopaedia, who had just come back. "The nineteenth-century bridge-builders wanted to squeeze the steamboats out of existence. The draft was already pretty small, and then with each new bridge the gap got narrower as well. In the end, one captain got so mad that he rammed one down. A young lawyer who had grown up on the banks defended the steamboat company, but apparently without conviction, and lost. His name was... Abraham Lincoln. In fact he went down to New Orleans on a raft: the vision of slavery so disturbed him that he...." But we were never to know what Abe did, for Kansas City had already hoved into view.
The captain radioed a tow at the dock and we thanked our witty and informative friend, saying goodbye very reluctantly. Then back through the night to where we had started. That day Lochinvar had done more than 120 miles.
By mid-afternoon, I was back again in Kansas City. The theory that we were getting somewhere was vindicated, for here was a brave outpost of sherry and cucumber sandwiches. But these were just the beginning of the welcome given by Mr Victor Studley, the British Consul. With Bill's help, he had spent the whole day arranging a huge press-conference in the best hotel in town - followed immediately by an even huger dinner.
As we were tucking into the lobster, Liam and Tim arrived, exhausted from all their hard work. My joy was complete when a beautiful girl who'd just driven 400 miles walked in and sat down beside me. Together, the five of us devoured more meat than in the previous five states put together. Mr Studley was unanimously voted an excellent fellow, and made an honorary member of the expedition - "non-canoeing, I hope", he quickly said.
Over coffee, he told us about a flash-flood that had hit the city only two weeks before: 12 inches of rain in twenty-four hours, making the Missouri rise by 40 feet. The death-toll was twenty-six people, flood damage in the city alone amounted to $100 million, and the State of Missouri was declared a Major Disaster Area. We had seen very little trace of all this (the American capacity for organisation again). But I couldn't help feeling how lucky for me it had been, for once, that I was behind schedule.
After dinner, Cathy and I took the children to see the lights. We finished up in a quiet little café where John Lennon's "Imagine" was playing. As we listened to the words "nothing to kill, and nothing to die for", we looked into each other's eyes. I knew that I had found someone to live for. I swore to myself then that I would take no more risks on the river.
After another perfect day, Cathy and I arranged to meet for one last evening. Then I headed slowly off. Hemmed in between the high buildings, I felt very strange in my sweat-stained leather hat.
Just after passing the Kansas River, I saw an uncompromising sign reading "Kansas City, Missouri". This gave me a nasty shock. First of all, every schoolboy knows that Kansas City is in Kansas and, secondly, I had just left it. I got out of my canoe and asked a crisp businessman where I was. No, he carefully told me, the Missouri hadn't started flowing uphill; yes this was the way to St Louis; and yes this was a different town with the same name. I thanked my patient informer, put my hat back on, and scuttled off.
Once more I was in camp ahead of schedule. Cathy and I spent a last evening together. As the grey dawn came up, we said a sad farewell; but, this time, we promised we would meet again soon. And a moment later she was gone, on the long road back to Omaha.
My eyes clouded with emotion, I returned to where we had hidden Cameron of Lochiel. But when I got there, I was horrified to find only a long stretch of flattened grass. All four of us scoured the area for ages, but found nothing but a few empty cartridges on the shore 50 yards away. I immediately deduced that the local hooligans must have put my kayak in the water and shot her to bits. Liam's theory, rather more prosaic, was that she had simply been stolen. Whoever was right, the boat was lost, together with my warmest pullover and only wet suit. I knew that, if anything now happened to Lochinvar, that would probably be that: the slalom-boats were much too unstable to use, and it would be impossible to buy another sea-going kayak so far from the ocean. In that black hour, I just wished that the culprits could have some knowledge of cancer, so as to appreciate the harm they had done.
Still seething with anger, I loaded the .22 (in case Liam's theory was right and Lochinvar proved to be in the vicinity). The surroundings matched my mood for the water was filthier than ever, and on each bank huge concrete installations had sprouted like malignant sores, trying to force the few remaining cottonwood trees to give up and search for pastures greener.
All through the week that followed, I canoed hard and long. Amongst my few diversions were the names: Jackass Bend; Napoleon, Wellington, and Waterloo (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis?); Waverly (founded by an illiterate Scot?), Sheep Nose Bend (a gentle bend, this), Miami (!), Glasgow (again?), and Dover (strictly no comment). I was not at all surprised when I came to "Lexington", the namesake of a major Civil War battle. Lexington was also where the stern-wheeler the Far West went west (cause, a snag). On a previous trip, it had been Custer's supply-boat upriver - and hospital-boat on the way back. It did the 920 miles from Little Big Horn down to Fort Lincoln in only fifty-four hours, making it possibly the most heroic feat of the whole terrible episode.
There was one final reason why Lexington had a special meaning for me: it was exactly 2000 miles from Three Forks. The tide was turning. I now had some hope of getting to the end.
A couple of days later, I arrived at Boone County, where Daniel Boone retired to in 1795, on land given him by the Spanish Governor. I had hardly begun to dream of muskets, furskin-hats, and last-ditch defences, when Interstate 70 arrived. Six lanes of fifty-ton juggernauts rumbled far over my head on their hurried way from New York to Los Angeles and back. They made me feel very small and exposed, and my reverie was lost for ever.
The only other incident was that my leather hat was stolen. A tough-looking man, who I'd just been talking to in a rough-looking bar, walked out wearing it. I felt very tired, and just let them both go.
Sometimes the weather was very muggy; but sometimes very cold - two or three times I had to scrape ice off the paddles. It was only the second week of October, but already a fully-fledged continental winter was lurking behind me, planning Southron forays, testing its icy fingers on my neck. All the same, my wild gamble in Scotland seemed to be paying off handsomely. I mentioned it to Tim, arguing that if I continued to be sweaty and numbed in equal proportions, then somehow a perfect golden mean would have been reached. He agreed, pointing out that to get the same result on a mainframe would have taken weeks of work with weather statistics, contour-lines, random-number generation, and triple integrations (by calculus and by numerical methods). The little man, we gleefully concluded, was still holding his own.
In Jefferson City, I had an unusual moment of firm resolve, over-ruled Tim, and unilaterally decided on a rendezvous at milage marker 137. As I canoed on, I thought to myself what a boon the markers had become. They simplified the rendezvous, and they also gave us a countdown to the end of the Missouri. But as 160 gave way to 159, and then to 158, I realised that the numbers were also frustrating, for a whole day's aching efforts produced only tiny changes. My 500-strokes-a-mile at least gave me some sense of personal achievement. In fact, it came to me, this very spot had to be near the million mark. I amused myself counting: one million and one, one million and two, one million and three, tum-tiderly-tum, great kayaking fun.... When you've just got Muddy Water for company, the simple pleasures are the best.
I went past a dock where a tow was holding a convoy steady while tugs weaved in and out putting yet more barges on. It seemed a very messy operation, and it made me realise I was not the only one that Old Misery caused problems for. Beside the dock was a floating shop, giving me an idea of the monotony of the rivermen's lives: cigarettes, sweets, and girlie-magazines. I would have stopped there myself, but didn't have any money....
At 7.45, a marker loomed wearily into sight. It was No. 137. "Strange," I muttered, "no sign of the boys." At 8.45, I became a little fed up. Inland lay a mass of head-high maize. After half an hour of scratches and curses, I emerged onto a little road. They weren't there.
I started to hitchhike towards some distant lights, wondering whether such an unshaven and filthy creature as myself would ever be picked up. In the event, it did prove quite a lengthy process, as not a single car passed. "Strange", I muttered again, and started to walk resignedly up the hill. The moon wasn't out and a ghostly quiet hung over the place.
Soon I rounded a corner. In front lay two parallel lines of 15-foot-high electric fencing. In the middle stood a pair of cross-meshed gates, and, stretching to a double infinity, were watch-towers with searchlights. I retreated down the hill in total confusion.
Taking a different route at random, I finally found proof that a nerve-gas attack hadn't wiped out the entire Western Hemisphere. It might only be the Soviet Supreme Command (Central Missouri), but a workshop was producing definitely humanoid noises. Inside, there was even a man welding.
I exhausted a lungful of air, then tapped him on the shoulder. He jumped like a cat, while I asked him if he could please tell me whether there were any police-officers in the immediate vicinity. For some reason, he jumped again, nearly giving me a lethal dose of acetylene. Then he began to eye me coolly. With whitening knuckles he inched the angle of the flame round, while the other hand walked towards a massive adjustable spanner. "Are you being funny?" I replied that I didn't feel in the least bit funny. We stared at each other for another while, as he spoke rapidly into a walkie-talkie. "Farm to central pen. Have alien. Request immediate assistance."
Wheels skidded, sirens muffled, the door slammed open. Half a dozen heavily-armed policemen frogmarched me into a car as if I'd just blown up the White House. The car speeded up at a building bathed in an eery white light. My neighbour muttered into his hand and the gates swung open. I glimpsed a sign marked ALGOA STATE PENITENTIARY. NO UNAUTHORIZED PERSONS. and then the gates clanged shut again. It must have been the only prison for miles and miles and I'd had to canoe straight into it - I really was in trouble this time!
A very young lieutenant was doing a very big crossword. "OK. Let's hear your story." I started on the whole lot, but he cut in: "You guys were on thee news one half hour ago! That's quite some trip you's doing. We don't often get English Men coming into the Pen. Most often, it's Americans, and they're dying to bust on out!" We were firm friends and a telepathic assistant brought in coffee and sandwiches.
I mentioned the boys, and the lieutenant swung into action. "No way will they find you!" This time he gave the instructions by phone. Then he took me on a tour. Various famous names were graduates of the place, including "Pretty Boy" Floyd who had been killed here in a shoot-out with the guards. The radio crackled. "You won't have to spend tonight in a cell after all." We drove out from the inner citadel and past the prison farm. Behind yet another line of fencing was the Dodge, basking familiarly in the glare of the spotlights. Tim grinned at me quizzically and pointed at the map. "OK, you old rogue, you win" I said. "In future you choose the rendezvous points!"
In the morning, a new set of guards were on the gates. I tried to tell them that my kayak would make an ideal getaway "vehicle". But they just ushered us into the crowded waiting-room. Without fruit or flowers or metal-laden chocolate cakes, we felt very peculiar. After about an hour, we were taken out and searched. Apart from Liam's metal comb, we were judged clean!
A few minutes later, we had found our way through the yellow maze. Prisoner No. 137 was still there, lying forlorn on the mud. Something caught my eye. A baby deer was swimming bravely towards the main current and into the grip of the Missouri. I held my breath and willed the creature on. Finally she was scrabbling shakily up the bank. I tore up my pass, and followed her out towards freedom.
Twenty-four hours later, I came to the solitary hump of Cote Sans Dessein, where the sidewheeler the Thomas Jefferson went down (snag). It was on this part of the river to investigate whether it was navigable by steamboat. Clearly it wasn't!
Soon afterwards, I saw a timber-raft at least 300 feet long being pushed downstream by a tiny tow. I remembered my own tree-felling days in Edinburgh, and then what I'd read about the early lumberjacks on the river. They used to spend most of their time jumping from trunk to trunk - herding the hundreds of thousands of logs - using their long poles to stop bunching and to bring strays back in. A moment's inattention, and an Escher-style logjam had reared up that only dynamite could heal. It was another mythical moment in the winning of the West, but an unecological one - the floods that have beset the Mississippi-Missouri system ever since are perhaps due to the destruction of the forests.
After lunch, Bill headed off for a marketing marathon in St Louis. Just before that town was the point, only two days ahead now, where the Missouri and the Mississippi finally met; and I felt a bit worried by what I'd read about it. For the Indians, the coming together of the two giants was a mystic union, one which no mortal eye was allowed to see. Black, green, and red monsters floated above the banks, and descended on all desecrators. But more terrible was a roaring demon in the water, whose mouth swallowed up any canoes rash enough to venture near him. Modern anthropologists have argued that the monsters were in fact pictures painted on the cliffs, that the roaring was really the turbulence, and that the demon's mouth was simply the mouth of the Mississippi. But these explanations only partly reassured me, given what I had read elsewhere. Twain, for instance, had talked of the Missouri as "a torrent of yellow mud boiling and surging: that savage river poured its turbid floods into the bosom of its gentler sister". Other witnesses had spoken of "a riot of entire trees, branches and floating reefs", and of "terrible standing waves, sharp and thrusting". Whichever way you looked at it, it didn't sound much fun.
To allay my anxiety, I mulled over the explorers on the Upper Mississippi. Perhaps it was just the way Bill had told it but they seemed comic and ineffectual - as if aware of more serious things in the West.
A certain Pike decided he wanted to discover the source of the Mississippi. He got terribly confused in a snowstorm; and had to enlist the help of a Frenchman with the implausible name of Rousseau and of an anonymous Scotsman. These gentlemen pointed him in the right direction; and after three months, he did get to a lake from which some of the water flowed. Leech Lake hit history.
Unfortunately, it wasn't the longest branch, and in 1823, an Italian called Beltrami resolved to put his name on the map. But then he realised that there was perhaps an unfortunate rhyme with salami, and so substituted that of his former girlfriend. (If that didn't bring her back, then nothing would.) Our intrepid explorer caught a steamboat most of the way up. For the last bit, he climbed into a canoe, and started paddling. Then he capsized. He was so unnerved that he got out and started walking up the river. And when I say up, said Bill, I mean up - and he didn't have any wellies. (Yes, they had been invented.) To cap it all, it started pouring down, but here he was prepared. Quite soon, the Indians lining the shore saw a very wet man pulling a relatively dry canoe crowned with a magnificent umbrella. (Yes, it had.)
Posterity does not record the Indians' opinion. We are therefore free to surmise that they must have either admired his courage or pitied his wretchedness. Nor do we know whether they provided him with dry socks ("Posterity, wake up!" from the back row). But they did guide him to his destination, a lake from which some of the water flowed. Lake Julia certainly sounds better than Leech Lake. One wonders, nevertheless, whether Beltrami was doing himself full justice when he compared "his" discovery to those of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci.
It still wasn't quite the longest branch. In 1832, the poet Schoolcraft found a lake. Discovering that it was already known, and called Lake La Biche, he cursed and swore. Still, the name was pretty unpoetic, and, what was more, French. If he couldn't change history, at least he could change the name. "H'm, let's think, something Red Indian would be nice." He decided to call it Lake Itasca, from verITAS CAput ("the truth head" - I kid you not); for, as everyone knows, the Indians of the day spoke excellent dog-Latin.
This time, it was the longest branch. (And thousands of tourists amuse themselves there each year by jumping over the shyly emerging tricklet.) "But you can't help feeling," concluded our resident orator, "that all three could have saved themselves a lot of trouble. The Indians knew where the furthest source was all the time, and were telling anybody who would listen...."
As dusk came down, I paddled into the town of Hermann, a small island of Germanic-ness in an ocean of Midwest. Everywhere were bierkellers, wurst-sausage, Gothic capitals, Mercedes, and buxom blondes with pigtails and rosy cheeks. Our morale was high that night. The weather had decided to stop imitating a bald weathercock and had stabilised at an un-Teutonic 90%. Also, we were just coming up to Saint Charles (of French and Lewis and Clark fame). St Louis was just around the corner, and with it, the end of the Missouri - our cursed enemy when throwing surprises at us, but our beloved friend when disappearing into the inland seas....
That was as far as I got before my head started dropping. But as I launched the following morning, I continued assessing the expedition. Affairs were dully ticking over, I knew, but also wearing down and out. The only idea in all our heads was New Orleans and National Smoke-Out Day, a mere month away now. I now thought I could make it. But at the same time, I was aware that anything could happen on a river like the Mississippi - her untamed reputation had to come from somewhere.
Stirred Up and Grandmother River must have been jealous, for I suddenly had a desire to answer nature's call. My cup wasn't appropriate, so I came ashore, and fast! I was busying myself behind some meagre shelter, when I heard a soft scraping noise. I peered reluctantly out. Lochinvar was creeping off towards Saint Charles and the sea. Springing up as if on a hornets' nest, I started running across the shore. I tripped over my jeans, and fell into the Missouri. Lochinvar nodded in recognition of the help, and proceeded to line herself up with the current. I swam towards her but got nowhere - the jeans again! Then at last I was fixing my teeth firmly on the toggle. Turning on my back, I swam awkwardly back towards the shore.
Soon I was a new man. Lochinvar was heading south once more; my pants and underpants were drying quickly on the baking hot fibre-glass; and my modesty was nicely concealed beneath the spray-jacket. I arrived at Saint Charles, much sooner than I had expected. I was horrified to see a small group of elderly people standing beside Liam and Tim, apparently part of an organised outing. Trying hard to pretend not to have seen anything or anybody, I shot straight past and hit shore 200 yards downstream. Liam and Tim soon came rushing along, only just outrunning the octogenarians. A towel and a spare pair of jeans, and the situation and I were saved. But it had been a damned close-run thing.
Three hours later, I paddled up to Bellefontaine Bridge, the last one on the Missouri, and only 8 miles from the end. Bill helped me ashore and introduced me to our hosts, a young couple called Diane and Ron Carson.
Soon we were in a red Ford Mustang, roaring towards our first home-cooked dinner for three months. Another stage in my marathon was over. After all those efforts, the unbelievable had happened. The Missouri had bent, and then finally broken.
"St Louis here we come", I said, as Diane offered me a huge cigar and a lovely smile.