Tom Elpel was ready for an adventure.
A year ago, the Pony, Mont., man spent three months carving a dugout canoe from a tree with Churchill Clark, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Capt. William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
“The Douglas Fir is not your conventional dugout wood,” Elpel said. “It's really hard and full of knots, and the tools just bounce off the knots, but it turned out nice.”
The bow of the boat was carved to look like a beaver.
“I call it the Belladonna Beaver,” he said.
With the completion of the canoe, his trip was set — a six-month long voyage paddling the Missouri River from its headwaters in Three Forks, Mont., to St. Louis, Mo., where it spills into the Mississippi River.
Elpel and a group of friends set out from Three Forks on June 1 on what Elpel, president of the Jefferson River chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, is calling the “Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.”
Initially, the group consisted of three modern canoes, the dugout and six men. Along the way, two had to return home, but Scott Robinson of Boulder, Colo., John Gentry of Robbins, Tenn., and Chris Dawkins of Puget Sound, Wash., remain with Elpel.
The men have also added a dog — a stray Dawkins found in Wolf Point, Mont., and named Jubilee.
On Thursday, the group had reached Blair after spending two days in Decatur due to rain. With permission, the men camped overnight in Optimist Park before heading to Omaha for a couple of days. They planned to return to Fort Atkinson on Saturday for the Washington County Heritage Days.
Weather has been a major factor on the trip, Elpel said. However, until recently, they had stayed behind the flooding that has plagued the Missouri River from South Dakota and further south.
“Now, we're starting to catch up to it,” Elpel said. “We've certainly had a lot of water along the way. No shortage of that. A lot more rain than we anticipated, cooler temperatures.”
The wind has also been an issue.
“The wind was strong enough that it was hard to orient (the canoes) straight down the river,” he said. “You would drift sideways the whole way.”
During their journey, the men have met numerous people, who Elpel said have been “amazing,” “friendly” and “super helpful.” Volunteers have moved their canoe trailer further down river with every stop. They've also offered them food and even provided haircuts.
Some, upon meeting the group, can't fathom traveling the entire river.
“I had a guy that was speechless,” Robinson said. “He asked, 'What are you doing?'”
Robinson explained they were canoeing the Missouri River.
“All of it,” he said. “From Three Forks, Mont., to St. Louis.”
“He's just looking at me and didn't say anything,” Robinson said. “I ended up having a whole conversation about our trip and he was obviously absorbing it, but he didn't say anything. He was just wowed by it, I think.”
The journey has also offered the opportunity to visit tourist locations, including those tied to Lewis and Clark. Elpel said he's also discovered the beauty of the river.
“It's far more beautiful all the way down than I ever imagined,” he said. “I've heard in the past that it's not interesting once you get past Montana, but that's not true. It's been beautiful all the way down.”
Elpel, a writer, has been documenting the trip in a blog and columns, which have been published by newspapers in cities along the river. He plans to turn those columns into a book.
The men plan to reach St. Louis by Nov. 1. Elpel is unsure what will come after he finishes the journey, but he hopes to travel the country, possibly by bicycle.
“This is a stepping stone to the next big adventure,” he said.