In 1977, Nicholas Francis solo-paddled the entirety of the Missouri-Mississippi river system 3,810 miles from Three Forks, Montana to the Gulf of Mexico, achieving several world-records along the way. The 24-year-old Englishman assembled a support team and won modest financial backing from the U.K. Cancer Research Center to lead the expedition with the goal of fundraising for the C.R.C.
Americans would call his boat a kayak, but Francis uses “kayak” and “canoe” interchangeably, perhaps a British trait.
The expedition suffered numerous near- catastrophes, many of them self-inflicted. Forty miles from the start, Francis collided with the motor-propelled rubber dingy while attempting to facilitate photographs for a local reporter. The accident gave Francis two broken ribs, a big gash in the kayak, and a close-encounter with the propeller going over his head.
To lighten the load, Francis paddled without food or camping gear, making it necessary to connect with the support crew every night before the age of mobile phones and GPS. Half the book is about Francis and the support crew’s attempts to find each other each night, and the many nights and some days where they failed to connect. It would arguably have been easier and far safer to send gear with the boat.
Francis had several near-fatal accidents from capsizing in rapids (self-inflicted), paddling in a tornado (self-inflicted), and nearly being crushed by passing barges while paddling the Mississippi in the dark (self-inflicted).
Along the way, the crew did numerous newspaper and television interviews, helped fundraise for state chapters of the American Cancer Society, and met with President Gerald Ford and the Prince of Wales. Unfortunately, the expedition received little press back home, and the C.R.C. actually lost money on the venture.
Nowadays, people paddle the same route every year, some ending at St. Louis, and others continuing to the Gulf or paddling all the way to Florida. Some start at Brower’s Spring, the utmost source of the Missouri, and walk downstream until they can kayak or canoe the entire Red Rock-Beaverhead-Jefferson-Missouri-Mississippi river system.
I am personally interested in paddling from Three Forks to St. Louis to explore this primary segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. I had little interest in paddling the Mississippi, and vastly less after reading about Nicholas Francis’s harrowing experiences with barges and rock dams on his way to the Gulf.
The book started out slow, yet I determined to slog through it, and every page became more captivating until I’d read the entire book largely in one sitting. It is a must-read for anyone who dreams or plans great canoeing or kayaking expedition -- as well as anyone with the sense to just stay home and read about the experience.
An interesting work on a somewhat shoestring expedition to canoe the length of the river. Descriptions of long paddles across the massive reservoirs convey the scale of damming along the course of the waterway. Includes an upbeat stop at an Indian reservation, with some discourse on Native American canoes, and a brief yet impressive meeting with President Gerald Ford. Sketches not photographs, and a bit haphazard in style, but a worthwhile book.