Editor’s Note: Over a fourteen week period beginning in August, The Progress Review published excerpts of a blog written by Thomas J. Elpel, documenting his five month trip paddling down the Missouri River in a dugout canoe he created with the help of Churchill Clark. Recently, The Progress Review had the opportunity to visit with Tom to learn more about his journey, which he named The Corps of Rediscovery. Because the series generated a lot of interest and feedback, we hope you enjoy this “Conversation with Tom Elpel” as much as we enjoyed the interview. -MW
It was a “bucket list” trip Tom Elpel had been thinking about for three or four years. With his youngest child graduating from high school, the soon to be “empty nester” set his sights on 2019 as the year for a big adventure. Initial thoughts centered around riding a bicycle across the United States, walking the Appalachian Trail or paddling the Missouri River. When the opportunity to carve a dugout canoe arose in 2018, it was the call of the river he chose to answer.
“The whole idea of carving a dugout canoe was a separate dream and when that came together, then it became obvious that I’d be paddling instead of bicycling or hiking,” Tom recalled.
To understand what motivates a man to devote five months to paddling more than 2,300 miles down the longest river in North America in a log weighing more than 500 pounds, one must appreciate the impact family members and the Montana culture of his formative years, which instilled a belief in Tom Elpel that “fences are for livestock, not people.”
After moving from California to Montana when he was in junior high school, Tom credits his grandmother for helping inculcate in him a lifestyle that is very close to nature. On daily walks in the field, collecting different herbs for tea, she would teach him about edible and medicinal plants. Those early nature walks would spark in Tom a desire to learn more, eventually developing his life-long passion for the wilderness.
“She had a general interest in survival skills and had books on the subject. She had Larry Dean Olson’s Outdoor Survival Skills. That was one of the first books on primitive skills that was around, which led me to do a 26 day walkabout with Boulder Outdoor Survival School in southern Utah when I was 16 in 1984. So, there I got my hands-on experience with flint and steel, bone drill, blanket packs and shelters, things like that. We got an introduction to the skills, plus we had to hike 250 miles in 26 days,” Tom said.
The following year, Tom and his grandmother attended a week-long program at Tom Brown’s tracker school in New Jersey, learning more about survival skills in the wilderness. From there, Tom’s voracious appetite for learning was fed by a second cousin, who taught him the art of brain tanning hides, a method of preserving animal hides using the emulsifying agents in brain matter, as opposed to harsh chemicals, to keep animal hides soft and pliable.
In the late 1980s, primitive skills gatherings, events where instructors, students and families gathered to learn about skills first used by our ancestors, such as how to start a fire using a bow drill, were in their infancy. Over the years, Tom has parlayed the knowledge and skills he has learned at such gatherings into a career as an instructor teaching wilderness survival skills. How did he do it?
“A lot of just practicing skills in my back yard here in the Tobacco Root Mountains in southwest Montana, then learning from friends and going to gatherings. So, I actually haven’t taken very many classes and I never went to college, though my botany book is used as a textbook in a number of colleges. My mom always wanted to help me with going to college but she stopped pushing that when they started using my book in colleges,” Tom stated.
Since Botany in a Day was published in 2004, the book is now in it’s sixth edition and has sold more than 100,000 copies. It’s one of several books Tom has written through his publishing company, HOPS Press, LLC, which features materials that advocate a positive interactive relationship with the natural world. Tom’s passion for the environment can also be found in his work with Green University, an adult program he established, in addition to his work with public schools via the OWLS program.
“[At Green University] we have people that come and stay with us, typically six months or a year at a time. We do different wilderness survival skills. I also work with the public schools through my other school, Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS). We have the long classes where people come and stay with us for months, but also short classes where people can sign up for a couple of weeks of botany and foraging to hone their plant identification skills,” he said.
The decision to paddle the Missouri was pretty much confirmed after Tom had the opportunity to create a dugout canoe with the assistance of Churchill Clark, great-great-great grandson of Captain William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition. Over a three month period of time, the pair transformed a 10,000 pound Douglas fir tree into the Belladonna Beaver, a massive dugout canoe. Just before work on the canoe began, Tom received a donation of a 20 year old dugout canoe, no longer seaworthy, but certainly acceptable as a museum display piece. Eyeing the trailer upon which the canoe rested, Tom eventually made an offer and purchased it, making him the proud new owner of “what may be one of the very few dugout canoe trailers in existence.”
Armed with a handmade dugout canoe and a trailer on which to haul her, it was time to plan the journey.
“I love canoeing but I’m not particularly fond of paddling. So, to me, I was interested in where does the river go. I kind of think that’s where a lot of it was like for Lewis and Clark, as well. The rivers were highways in their time. They wanted to see where does the river go. So, the entire journey, they’re getting out and exploring, doing their own botanical collections, hunting and doing geological samples and all that. The river provided access to the land and that was very much the approach for this trip, as well. It was a way to experience the land and see the heart of America,” Tom said.
When the expedition departed on June 1, Tom had the company of a handful of paddlers, familiar faces who were able to commit to several months on the river. They included Scott from Colorado, Chris from Washington (who had stayed a winter participating in one of Tom’s programs), John from Tennessee (another former student), Josiah from California and Adam from Florida.
Preparing to spend five or six months on a wilderness expedition required some degree of planning the logistics of managing the trailer that would be used to portage several dams along the journey to St. Louis and making sure necessary supplies would be available when needed.
“Having this extra heavy canoe meant the logistical issue of bringing the trailer. And that required making at least an outline of a plan so that we could predict when we could rendezvous with people at the dams. That really helped a lot. I had an itinerary with certain miles and campsites. We didn’t have to stick with that but we did more often than not. Scott would enter the GPS coordinates into his device and then we’d know how far we were going. [It eliminated questions like] should we keep going? Should we make camp? Does this look like a good camp? The few times we weren’t going to a specific point, then you get into the challenge of stopping to check out a campsite and other people paddle on by. It greatly simplified the process having a basic outline. I started mapping it just to get through the first two dams and then I just kept going until I mapped it all the way to St. Louis before we launched. Scott then uploaded the coordinates into the GPS device so we had the whole route [planned]. Of course, I spent a great deal of time reading [beforehand]. David Miller’s book, The Complete Paddler, had a lot of good advice. I was looking online at Google Earth, looking at every boat ramp, which, of course, Lewis and Clark didn’t have.
“My philosophy is whatever you bring is going to get ruined. So, you might as well bring the worst clothes you have, basically. I didn’t bring anything special. I brought some sandals and shoes that I anticipated would wear out in the first few weeks of the trip, which actually lasted vastly longer than that. I had quite a bit of extra gear- I think everybody did. We packed on the heavy side. We had dry bags and 10 gallon blue barrels with locking lids on them. Those were super nice. It’s a little easier digging in a barrel than in a bag. We put clothing in those and we had a barrel for food. We were well-stocked, we had no shortage of supplies. When we started getting near the end of the trip, however, we did pick up some additional layers at thrift stores. I’m a fair weather camper. Toward the end, there, with the colder temperatures we started getting cold hands and the cold feet. It was never dire cold, but uncomfortable at times,” Tom noted.
In addition to sustaining an ongoing camp, the Corps of Rediscovery had a higher purpose, as Tom wanted to share his ongoing journey online and with newspapers throughout the Midwest by way of his weekly blog entries. The ability to communicate with the outside world in some very remote terrain would be essential to accomplishing that mission. How did he do it?
“I’ve never owned a cell phone. I still don’t have one. I did get an iPad with a cellular data plan on it, specifically for this trip, so I could run my business and do emails and write the blogs and communicate with newspapers. It worked great, though [it was] somewhat untested beforehand. I was really worried about how long we would be out of contact. We actually had a lot better coverage than I anticipated. And usually, it was a matter of if you hike up high enough, pretty much anywhere, you can get service. In the remote parts of Montana there was no service down on the river, but if you were willing to go for a hike, which is what I like to do anyway [there was service]. The other issue was keeping items charged. The solar panel [I had] really wasn’t working that well. Eventually I got another solar panel. There were issues but, basically, paddling from outlet to outlet covered most of it. At Judith’s Landing at the middle of the scenic and wild landing here in Montana, some really nice folks turned on their car to charge batteries for us. They left their cars running for an hour or more to help us out. Once we got off the big lakes past the dams, then [we had access to] towns all the time.”
The expedition departed from Three Forks, Montana on June 1, 2019. Not only was the dugout canoe Tom piloted his creation, the paddle he used to propel it was also hand-carved. Choosing the lighter weight wooden paddle over larger, heavier ones he purchased was a decision Tom never regretted. But what was it like to pilot a massive log like the Belladonna Beaver on the river?
“The river’s not so bad. The river is providing most of the locomotion, so that helps. It steered fairly easily. As far as turning, there are a lot of different strokes you can use to turn a canoe. With the dugout canoe, the strongest stroke is the pry [The pry stroke begins with the paddle inserted vertically in the water, with the power face outward, and the shaft braced against the gunwale. A gentle prying motion is applied, forcing the canoe in the opposite direction of the paddling side]. Basically, every maneuver was a pry. And that concerned me at times. Using the strongest maneuver to do ordinary moves really didn’t leave anything if there was a bigger emergency.”
Given the size of the canoe and the length of the trip, were there any close calls?
“There was one rock in Montana just before we went under a bridge, that we were kind of sweeping up toward it and I was prying as hard as I could, as much as I could, to move over a little bit. Yeah, we just swept by that one narrowly.”
Mother Nature also forced the expedition to deal with another navigational challenge- wind.
“When the wind was blowing, there actually wasn’t much we could do. Just getting them straightened out, any of the canoes, really, [was a difficult task]. Out on the water, it was a matter of not running into the banks. We could paddle back to the center of the river but not really orient the canoes straight to go downstream. So we ended up just going sideways looking at the bank.”
In addition to the beautiful scenery the expedition enjoyed, Tom is quick to credit the people he met along the way as one of the highlights of the journey.
“I had heard the term “River Angels” but it really didn’t mean anything to me before. I was blown away by the kindness, the generosity of people we met on the river that came out and wanted to buy us dinner or bring us a big meal,” he said.
And food wasn’t the only thing his new-found friends offered along the way.
“I was worried about the lakes out in the Dakotas. I really wasn’t interested in paddling them even before we went down. I had thought about doing a motor but didn’t come up with a plan. It was Charles from Georgia who just wanted to come paddle with us for a week and he asked if there was anything he could bring. He just happened to be coming at that particular time. I asked if he had an outboard motor laying around. He actually picked one up on Craig’s List, I think, and donated it to the group. That really saved us on those lakes. Paddling the log is much slower than some of the sleek canoes out there.
“Peg at Tobacco Gardens Resort and Marina on Lake Sakakawea is sort of a step above a River Angel. She is known as River Mom. She bent over backwards to help us out. She is a good person. There were so many wonderful people we met along the way,” he added.
The Corps of Rediscovery also gained a new addition early on in their journey- a stray puppy some of Tom’s expedition mates found along the way. In the spirit of Lewis and Clark, the group named her Jubilee. How did the addition of a dog affect the group’s travels?
“It went well. I’m pretty chill about those things. I just wanted to make sure they weren’t taking someone’s dog, that it was a stray. They outlined the steps they went through to arrive at that conclusion. She was fine on the canoe. We all enjoyed having a little puppy energy around. It was fun. Chris was buying very small bags of dog food for her along the way, mostly so it wouldn’t get wet,” Tom explained.
At the conclusion of the trip, Jubilee went home with Chris to Sedona, Arizona for the winter.
“I wish we had more time to spend another month in the Montana portion of the Missouri. I would have loved to have had more time to take at sites along the way, paddling even shorter distances to explore more. I could easily have done another month in Montana. I don’t know that I would paddle the whole Missouri in Montana again, though it would be amazing. I definitely would like to do the wild and scenic river and take a month to do that 150 mile section.”
Now that the journey is complete, what will become of the Belladonna Beaver?
“I’m not entirely sure on that myself. I do want to give her a fresh work-over, sand her down, trim her down and get a fresh finish on it. I will be doing some more river trips. I don’t have a decent place to store the canoe, which is part of the problem. Churchill has his stored in museums here and there. He just loans them to the museums and they put them on display. Sometimes, people can sit in the canoes, try them out and all that. Then, when he wants a canoe, he can still go and get it. So, that’s a possibility.”
To commemorate the Corps of Rediscovery’s travels, Tom is currently working on a book that will be published in March.
“The book will feature the expanded text [of his blog entries] and close to a thousand photos. It will sort of be a blend between a coffee table book, where you have the pretty pictures to look at, but also the text of the adventure story. I’ve really been enjoying the opportunity to spend extra time processing the trip, so I’m really still on the river, working my way down the river and enjoying the experience all over again,” he said, referencing the work he is currently doing to format the book.
Finally, was the trip everything Tom Elpel hoped it would be?
“It really was, yeah. I wanted like a ‘tourist adventure’ not a ‘man against nature’ adventure. I’m not into whitewater or downhill skiing or anything like that. I think my brain just doesn’t process information fast enough for that. The Missouri is sort of like a slow-paced adventure. It was great just to go from camp to camp, get out and hike and explore, do a little botanizing and photographing flowers, looking for fossils. That’s my kind of thing- to go touring. So I was planning the adventure to not be too exciting. If all went well, we wouldn’t have too many surprises.”
Copies of Tom’s book, Five Months on the Missouri River, which will ship in March 2020, can be pre-ordered online at www.hopspress.com/Books/Missouri_River.htm
The pre-order price is just $24, a savings of $12 off the $36 cover price!