Books

Readorama: A Kansas City man and his 2,200-mile canoe trip on the Missouri

Patrick Dobson hit a bad patch in life.

So he walked from Kansas City to Montana. Then he bought a canoe and rode the Missouri River back home. Like anyone would do.

In “Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer,” Dobson details the extreme event he undertook in response to a job and life that seemed to be flatlining.

Rather than power through the ennui, Dobson opted to act, albeit in a profoundly unusual way. He undertook a 10-week, 1,400-mile walk to Montana (described in a 2009 book, “Seldom Seen.”)

Then, as detailed in his new book, he canoed some 2,200 miles down the river.

To be fair, it had not been entirely a snap decision. Before he had left, Dobson had called various members of Kansas City-area canoe clubs, none of whom had done what Dobson had resolved to do. At least one expressed skepticism about Dobson’s understanding of the river.

On his walk west, accordingly, Dobson kept a wary eye on the water. Even at night his thoughts rarely left the river, which he describes here as “black line just out of sight on the other side of the wheat and corn.”

In Helena he encountered those who derided his plans or at least expressed reasonable concern.

“You’re doomed,” one woman declared.

When Dobson bought his 16-foot canoe in a sporting goods store, he accepted a few rudimentary lessons at the retailer’s request.

But Dobson also encountered those who didn’t find his plan strange at all.

More than once he met random fishermen who appeared almost as oracles, vouching for the river and its ability to bring peace.

Once on the water Dobson remembered a skill he had mastered on his walk to Montana: When fearing the larger thing, concentrate on smaller things. Packing his gear and securing it in his boat every morning soon became a calming strategy.

“I woke up every morning afraid to get on that river and then I had a routine where I did one little task after another until the boat was ready,” Dobson said recently. “Once I was in the river those fears diminished.

“I wasn’t facing the future, I was facing the moment.”

In “Canoeing the Great Plains,” Dobson is describing events from 20 years ago (he left on his walk west on May, 1, 1995) so there is plenty of personal perspective baked into the account.

The result is a travel memoir that duly describes the remarkable sights beheld but also makes room for an interior journey that includes lessons learned. One of those lessons, at least according to this reader: Get on with it, whatever it is you feel compelled to do, no matter the fear.

“In everything that I have done since, I have wound up doing that new thing when the fear of not doing it becomes greater,” he said.

Dobson teaches American history and Western civilization at Johnson County Community College.

He speaks at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, 4801 Main St. For more information, go to kclibrary.org.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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