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  • Christian VanLue

Just a canoe and my dog

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

There was a time in my childhood, from the ages of 9-13, my family and I lived in a house at the end of a dirt road a mile or two from even our mailbox. On the western edge of the Mark Twain National forest around Table Rock Lake. My brother and I spent innumerable hours out in those woods, building huts, mapping the streams, building a dam from rocks and clay in the hopes of building a pond (I returned when I was 18 to see if the dam was still there and while I left a shallow path in the middle for water to flow, it had been blocked by debris and I killed the stream. Whoops), and generally just being wild. I have a special connection to the woods and do what I can to return to them when I get the chance.

In college when I got my Pit-Shepherd Princess, I trained her in the woods of Pertle Springs to my whistle commands and taught her how to embrace her wild side. We spent many free evenings after class running through the woods till the sun was setting. She knew she could go anywhere she pleased until she heard my whistle, then the sound of rustled leaves proceeded her appearance. I could write a book on my Nova Relli, but that's not the purpose of this story.

After moving to Blue Springs, Missouri when I graduated we found a forest around Blue Springs Lake that we frequented. Plenty of trails to get lost on. And get lost we did, taking our time on a 10-mile hike in March of 2021, finishing after about 7 hours. As the summer approached, I knew me and my girl were ready for another adventure, one we haven't done, and one sure to leave an impact on us.

We planned for a 4-day canoe trip, from Vienna, MO to Hermann, MO, down the Gasconade River until it feeds into the Missouri River. Our hope was at the end of our journey, we'd meet my girlfriend Adrianna for a winery tour in Hermann. 75 miles on the water laid before us.


Day 1

On June 22nd, 2021 at 4 pm Adrianna dropped Nova, the canoe, and me off just north of Vienna at an access point. The canoe was loaded with a dry box of a few canned soups, a bag of potatoes, some cliff bars, toilet paper, a pot and pan, 12 beers, and a few gallons of water. We slid a tent and chair into the front of the canoe and laid a tarp over it. Attached a stadium chair to the back seat, grabbed a fishing pole and lifejacket for me and one for Nova, and a bag of clothes and towels. We said our goodbyes and climbed in ready for an adventure.

The Gasconade's a windy river and is much deeper than the James River I had grown up floating down. An overturn would have been costly as several long stretches of the river were at least 20 feet deep. I did my best to prevent Nova from rocking the canoe too much, but she didn't care much to stay seated in a cramped space. We stopped at several gravel bars along the river, scouting out a place to camp and playing in the water. The first three we came across, we found raccoon and deer tracks in what little sand was to be found on the beaches and knew it probably wasn't best to settle there. We passed our fourth one, though it was an island, due to it being covered in water willow, which has a higher chance of harboring snakes.

It was our 5th attempt we found the perfect spot. Just in time as the sun was beginning to set behind a cliff at the river bend ahead of us. I didn't realize this at the time but it was lucky we stopped, as there wasn't another gravel bar for several miles downstream. It was an island about a football field in length and half of one at its width and featured little vegetation aside from a small tree to which I tied the canoe. There was an abundance of driftwood and the shore had sand. I set up the tent while Nova took to patrolling the area, she had laid claim to the island and wasn't about to let an intruder into her domain. I dug us a pit for a fire and got it started without a second to spare as the night had fully set in.

I grabbed a pot and began to cook some soup. What I was to nieve to understand at the time is the smell was beginning to attract some guests. Noises of animals crossing the river, while faint over the rushing waters themselves, were enough to alert The Princess. Nova stood guard near the fire, growling menacingly into the night as my pot began to boil. I ate quickly and tried my best to encourage her to eat her food as well. She would only eat a few bites before turning sharply at movements to the south of the island. After dinner, by the light of the fire, I wrote in my journal and attempted to figure our position on the map. There was no cell service and by this point, I had only 80% battery, yet luckily I thought ahead by printing a map of the river.

I decided it was best to bring everything inside the tent, as to not have to deal with raccoons. Before finishing to pack everything inside, I sat one last time by the fire and marveled at the lightning bugs dancing in the woods. A lit city at night, for all its attempts, could never compare. I washed my dishes in the river, put out the fire, and before Nova would let me settle into the tent, she wanted us to patrol the island one last time. Sleeping came in hour spurts, waking up each time to Nova by the door of the tent with a slow but steady belly growl. Nature may be used to a domineering bravado, but The Princess insisted on showing hers nonetheless.


Day 2

We rose at 5 and collected some more driftwood for breakfast. I cut up some potatoes, realizing I completely forgot anything to accompany them. No salt, no butter, just potatoes... Boiled a pot of water and placed the chunks in. While they cooked I packed up camp and loaded the canoe, leaving only my chair and the tarp for Nova to lay on. I could tell she didn't sleep well as she snored on the tarp. I again washed my dishes and this time covered my fire in sand. "Only you can prevent forest fires."

We started off around the bend. The water was deep and smooth as silk. I rowed to a steady hum as there was little current to get us anywhere. We went on for miles admiring the nature around us. Spotting doe in the woods and an eagle overhead. Turtles swam below us, while snakes slide back to shore. The stillness of nature enveloped us, if I stopped rowing, I could hear her speak.

I cast my line a few times, hoping to find one of the big smallmouth bass the river is known for. A 5-inch crappie was the best I could do. Never been much of a good fisherman, but there's almost nothing as peaceful as throwing out a line on a cool summer morning.

Little did I know this peace and my patience would elude me the rest of the day. I put away my pole as the rapids picked up and did my best to navigate an S-curve between two gravel bars and a downed tree. Yelling for Nova to pull her weight to no avail. She looked at me as if I had lost my mind asking a princess to hold her own. I rowed head on to the east gravel bar, knowing the current would take us west. At the last moment turned us into the rushing waters and pointed us back north as fast as I could to miss the tree. The current cast us to the west bank of the river, narrowly past the downed tree, and on our way again.

We came across a ford at the next river bend, (not a vehicle, look it up.) where two others were fishing. I waved and they called out. We exchanged some good ole Ozark pleasantries. "The fish biting?", "How's the water?" Then they asked why I was loaded down. I told them I had been camping on a bank a few miles upstream, and planned on headed towards the Missouri River. They wished me luck and I was on my way again.

It was about 12 when I reached one of the Missouri Conservation access points. Pulled off and for the first time had a signal. Grabbed a beer and rested for a moment. Wasn't long before a conservation agent showed up, and started asking a few questions. He was cordial and when asked if I had been camping along the river I told him all about the island I had found. I was under the impression you could camp anywhere along the river, as it was state property, however, he told me I could only use dedicated sites. To me, that went against the whole nature of the trip, a "roughing it" experience. He pointed out a few on my map and went on his way. The nearest one was 12 miles downstream and based on the slow current, would need my full effort to make the distance before dark.

I got in and started rowing. Around the bend, the river opened up into a large pool. The wind was against me and no current underneath. I paddled like my life depended on it and got nowhere. I finally gave in to see where the water would take me and even it had no clue. The canoe spun lazily in the middle, never quite finding the current. I didn't know if I would even make it to the next site and my phone had dwindled to half its life after only a few pictures and calls. Seriously turn off your background data if you try this.

I needed a plan, I needed the canoe to head north, and damnit I needed Nova to quit rocking the canoe. My patience had run thin. But this was no time to stop rowing, keeping our head downstream and fighting the wind, which had really picked up. We strode the quarter-mile pool there for 30 minutes before finally reaching the other side. I beached on the left bank and decided I needed another beer and to make a phone call.

It took a while to get my call through, 1 bar is incredibly difficult to work with. Finally, Adrianna answered. She told me a storm was moving in and I told her about the conservationist. I didn't want to call it. This trip was exactly what I was looking for. A physical and mental challenge. A juxtaposition to my life in the city. A stoic ideal of voluntary discomfort to better appreciate my life in relative abundance. I couldn't quit 22 miles in.

I told her I would call when I reached the next conservation site, set up camp, and meet her the next day, 8 miles further downstream in Mt. Sterling and 50 hwy, since it was the last access on my map until Fredricksburg another 25 miles past. I knew I couldn't make 33 miles in a day and if I wasn't allowed to camp on the bank (which were fewer the closer we got to the Missouri River) then I wasn't going to be able to complete the journey as planned anyway.

With a plan now in place, I felt at ease. Nova and I continued on, much as we had the first day, stopping at any beach we could to get in the water. We came across a large bank and went exploring. Finding snake eggs and freshwater mussels. The western wind picked up and we decided to head on.

To my amazement my phone had only 20% battery, I hadn't used it but a few times, though I think it's a constant search for a signal drained it. I turned it off and paddled hard to make the distance. I few miles down I spotted a ramp with telephone wires running to it and across to the other side of the river. If I was ever going to get the power I needed to make a call tonight and the next day I figured this was it. We stopped and I walked on up to scout it out. There was nothing but a corn field and a random fish cleaning table with a sink next to the telephone pole with an outlet attached. I ran back to get my charger and phone, only to find the outlet no longer worked. If there was ever a moment where I was forced to eat my words, my persistence to "rough it", it was here and now.

I rowed the next 4 miles hastily as the sun began to set. Chanting songs as best as I could remember as the burns on my shoulders smoldered under the July sun. Nova looked on unamused by the sub-par words I uttered.

I finally approached the MDC site. Tied the canoe to a tree near the boat ramp and made my way up. It was 7 and the sun was resting above a hill to the west. I walked the perimeter of the site but found no place to even set up my tent. There was little more than a parking lot and outhouse. There was no way I could make it to the next one now, or even have the time to spot out a place to camp in spite of the conservation agent. I was out of options. With what little battery I had, I made the call to Adrianna. She drove through the evening, picking me up at 11. The four hours before then gave me the chance to write in my journal and unpack my canoe.

While the trip didn't go as planned, I found a piece of the river I could keep. Patience. The patience to see setbacks as an opportunity to take a step back, take it all in, evaluate the circumstance and make a sound decision. The patience to see, nature moves to a much different beat than we have grown accustomed to in our modern world. When you stop the noise in and around you, you are able to finally hear the pace at which nature hums. It is steady, it can be daunting, but it is patient.

34 miles over the course of 2 days, I realized how paramount finding balance is. How intentional I must be in planning. And finally, how to steadily move forward in the face of obstacles.


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