COLUMBIA — Eight years ago, Janet Moreland was working her usual Saturday morning job, cooking breakfast at Cooper's Landing along the Missouri River.
She is an avid kayaker, so when she heard fellow paddler Dave Miller was on the river, she couldn't just let him float by.
"I asked him lots of questions and heard he had traveled the length of the Missouri River and was writing a book about it," Moreland, 56, said. "I thought, 'If he could do it, I can do it.'"
On April 14, Moreland will begin her attempt to become the first woman to complete a solo kayak trip down the entire length of the Missouri River, from its source at Brower’s Spring, Mont., to its juncture with the Mississippi at St. Louis.
The following summer, she hopes to continue the journey, pushing off in St. Louis and heading down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.
The 2,621-mile expedition from Montana to Missouri will take Moreland 3 1/2 months. She hopes to reach the end of the river by Aug. 1.
The journey along The Big Muddy will take her through eight states, two seasons and some of the most remote areas in the United States.
“You get an overwhelming sense of peacefulness and sense of freedom on the river,” said Moreland, a substitute teacher. “Nothing else matters. You get to reflect on life in its most natural form.”
Finding the perfect boat
Although Moreland has owned two single-seat kayaks, she quickly realized she would need a bigger, more durable boat for this journey.
She bought an Eddyline Shasta tandem kayak with an open cockpit from Bob Bellingham, an Australian who stopped at Cooper’s Landing during his own solo trip on the river. Bellingham agreed to sell the boat to Moreland at $1,800, throwing in dry bags, a life jacket and a sail.
“I’m all about reduce, reuse, recycle,” she said.
Bellingham had named the boat “Barbara May” after his wife of more than 40 years.
“I decided to rename it ‘Blue Moon,’” Moreland said. “How often do you get to go on a trip like this? Once in a blue moon.”
The journey will require high levels of endurance. But since she has been paddling the river for more than 10 years, she said she doesn’t feel the need to overexert herself with her paddling training.
When the weather improves, she hopes to kayak regularly during the last few weeks leading up to her trip. In the meantime, she jogs two miles every other day and trains on a rowing machine to build up her arm muscles.
"It'll be a nice break to actually get on the water," Moreland said with a laugh.
Getting to the river
Her biggest physical challenge will come at the beginning of the journey.
To reach the source of the river, she has to climb up the Centennial Mountains in Montana to Brower's Spring where the river is just a trickle. She must then follow the water on skis until she is able to launch her kayak.
"I'm going to have to adapt as the conditions allow," Moreland said. "That’s going to be hard for me to do because I like to know exactly what I’m doing all the time."
Once she reaches the bottom of the mountain and can slide her boat into the river, unpredictable weather conditions will be one of her biggest problems.
"You have no access to any kind of warnings about the weather," said Norm Miller, Moreland's friend and a fellow paddler. "You just have to look at clouds, and if things don’t look good, you have to get prepared fast."
Besides the weather, the journey down the length of the Missouri requires mental discipline to keep paddling after 12-hour days alone, even one stroke more.
“There will be situations where it will be mentally stressful," Moreland said. "But I think I’m ready for that. And being alone is not something I fear at all."
Packing for the trip
Moreland connected with Miller last year through a Facebook group called Missouri River Paddlers. Miller traveled the length of the Missouri River in 2004, starting in St. Louis and paddling upstream to Three Forks, Mont.
"He became my go-to person for advice," Moreland said. "I call him my coach."
Although the two have never met, Miller is guiding Moreland through the preparation phase, especially the daunting task of packing. Moreland must find a way to pack all of her gear for three months and arrange it in her kayak while still leaving enough room to sit comfortably.
A life jacket, good rain gear and a lightweight paddle were Miller's necessities on the Missouri River. Moreland is also bringing a stove, sleeping bag, two tents, a laptop, camera and journal to document her journey.
Additionally, Miller insisted she carry an umbrella.
"There's so much sun, and your umbrella is the only thing protecting you," Miller said. "It also protects against wind, and, of course, rain."
Moreland estimates her trip will cost $10,000 for food, equipment and bills back at home. Her biggest expense, however, will be the occasional hotel along the river.
She plans to take enough food to last three weeks, then replenish it along the way. Even though she will be limited to what she can buy along the river, she’s getting creative.
“I’m thinking about bringing a little terrarium to put on the back of my boat to grow lettuce,” she said, half joking.
Thanking her supporters
On her blog, loveyourbigmuddy.com, Moreland has posted a list of basic items she will need for her trip and requested donations of any kind.
She said the response has been overwhelming. During the month of January, five friends — most of whom she hadn't heard from in years — had donated money for her expedition.
“It surprised me a little bit,” she said. “A gentleman I attended grade school with was among the first to donate to the trip.”
Moreland said she needs just as much emotional encouragement as she does financial support.
In the months leading up to her trip, old friends she hasn't corresponded with have flocked to her expedition Facebook page, LoveYourBigMuddy Expedition, to root for her.
“Never underestimate your friends,” Moreland said. “Actually, you should always cherish them.”
The Missouri River Paddlers page has connected her with paddlers all along the river who have heard about her journey online.
“My river family is my biggest support,” Moreland said. “We’re very much in touch electronically and mentally. It’s a brotherhood.”
Missouri River Relief is also a big supporter of her journey. She has been involved with the organization for 10 years, encouraging members of the community to clean up and become stewards of the Missouri River.
“It’s one of the best organizations run by the best people in the world,” she said. “It is largely because of them that the river is so clean and beautiful.”
Training to be a science teacher
Moreland graduated from MU in December with a degree in education and has since worked as a substitute teacher. She is studying for the science teaching certification exam, given on April 13. She leaves for Montana the next day.
While working as a student teacher, she often played a TV episode of "Planet Earth" entitled "Fresh Water" for her students. At the conclusion of the episode, she talked about her upcoming expedition.
“They are always so shocked and ask the funniest questions like, ‘What’s a kayak?’” Moreland said with a chuckle.
Along her route, she wants to increase awareness about the importance of preserving the river. She believes education is the key to protecting nature.
She is excited to connect with the river on a whole new level and hopes to write a book about the trip.
“For those that know the river, they love the river,” Moreland said. “It’s hard to explain. It’s a heart thing.”
She also plans to start teaching at a local middle school. One of the most important reasons she decided to embark on her solo kayak trip, she said, was to teach future students that anything is possible.
“You can do anything you want if you have the desire, a positive attitude and support,” she said with conviction.