What: A six-day-long, 108-mile canoe trip down the Upper Missouri River.
Who: Three friends I've known since 1994 and me
When: June 20th–June 26th, 2016
Where: From Coal Banks Landing in Fort Benton, MT, to the James Kipp Recreation Area in Winifred, MT
Why: More specifically: Why subject yourself to six days with no beds, showers, cell phones, or any of the creature comforts of home? Why remove yourself from all contact with the rest of the planet?
Let's zoom out for a moment. If surveys are to be believed, 60 percent of Snapchat users are between 13 and 24 years old. That means most of you get to see your best friends every day in class, so what I'm about to say may be hard to process: hanging out with your friends on a regular basis won't be possible forever.
Deep breaths. The world isn't ending—you're just going to need to invest a little more time and energy into hanging out as you get older. Which is why four of my childhood friends and I set aside one week each year to take a break from our regularly scheduled lives. And so it was that, with friendship on our minds and the pioneer spirit in our hearts, we flew into Great Falls, Montana—two from New York, one from Los Angeles, and one from New Orleans—hopped in a rental car, stashed our phones in the glove compartment, drove down to the riverbank, and jumped into our canoes (two friends per canoe). This year's destination: the Upper Missouri River in Montana, to follow in the footsteps of legendary explorers Lewis and Clark.
Every camping trip is a learning experience. Here's what we found out about friendship and wilderness-survival while paddling our way down 108 miles of the Missouri River.
Rules Are Your Friends
The rules for our trip are simple: no booze, no caffeine, no technology. This trip is structured to be a detox from the lives we know and an exercise in being present. Over the years, we've run into boats filled with partyers who are out on the water for a day or two with beer, coffee, and stereo systems in tow; sometimes they even have a magical thing called "ice" that keeps your drinks cold. But we aren't playing their game—those people are vacationing. We're doing work. Soul-searching, soundtrack-less, no-coffee-having work.
Stop and Smell the Rocks
Not staring at a tiny screen all day allows your eyes to train on things further afield. As you follow the Upper Missouri's winding path through canyons and badlands, keep your eye out for possible hiking paths and pull up to shore should a certain rock face move you. When we took a lunch break one day to scale the Citadel Rock, we found ourselves with a unique vantage point from which to look back at the miles of river we'd just covered. Gazing down at our canoes from high above, as a canyon wind blew through our hair, city life felt far, far away.
Always Leave Room for Rattlesnakes
We had our diciest wildlife encounter at a campsite where we were taking an afternoon siesta in the company of a river guide. As I rolled out of my hammock to return to my canoe, I heard my friend exclaim, "Well, that's a snake!" It was then that I heard the rattling. The guide leapt out of his chair, oar in hand, and made short work of the snake. Then he gave us advice we will never forget: "If a rattler is coiled up, it doesn't want to move. It wants to stay right where it is. Just give it room."
There Will Be Mud
One lesson the Missouri River teaches you very quickly: trying to keep things clean is futile. The banks of this river are a muddy variant of quicksand, and you will find yourself covered in dirt not long after embarking. Let go of the urge to micromanage and become one with the muddiness of it all—because there's no other choice. Your next shower is about 100 miles away.
You Don't Know What You Got 'Til It's Gone
Yes, the words of Joni Mitchell and Janet Jackson may echo through your head as you paddle with dead arms, dreaming of clean sheets, home-cooked meals, and a hard roof over your head. And that, dear readers, is the rub! It only takes a few days of Spartan living to help you appreciate the things you take for granted at home; so when you get off the river for good and go back to civilization, try to keep that with you for as long as possible.
And, tempting as it may be, take my word on this one detail: don't immediately turn your cell phone back on. Let the film of your time away from the world linger on your mind as long as possible. Who knows the next time you'll have the privilege of feeling this weird?
Here are a few items I recommend bringing on a trip like this, if you want to survive.
After a long day on the water, it feels great to sneak in a little reading before bed. And while you may feel a bit ridiculous at first with one of these strapped to your head, you'll soon find it's one of the most important things in your bag.
Relaxation in a bag. Easy to set up, easy to spend hours in, drifting in and out of sleep. You will not believe how much joy a travel hammock can bring to your life.
Changing into dry clothing becomes the highlight of your evening after hours on the river, and having a cozy pair of pants to look forward to really does help you to keep paddling at the end of each day.
Paddling with blisters is no fun. These gloves help you avoid that problem—and they're breathable, so your hands will always stay cool.
These are the daytime pants you need. They're lightweight and can easily and quickly be converted into shorts.
I forgot to bring my thermos and had to spend the entire week drinking out of a rapidly degrading SmartWater bottle. Each time I took a sip, I daydreamed about this very model by Nalgene. The glow-in-the-dark aspect is actually really helpful on camping trips.
This is your new home for the next six days. Treat it kindly.