The Backstory: Rod Wellington explains the inspiration behind the Magnificent Seven Expedition
Sometimes just coming up with the initial idea for an expedition is the most difficult part of expedition planning. But then again, sometimes it’s the easiest.
For quite some time I had been trying to come up with the idea of doing a multi-stage, self-propelled expedition. I had accomplished many adventurous milestones over the years but I still hadn’t found that one expedition that would allow me to take my adventuring to the next level – a level at which I could actually earn a living from adventuring, particularly through public speaking, multi-media presentations and book sales. I was seeking a new career direction, a direction that would better reflect my passions and dreams as they relate to self-propelled exploration. Missing was the precious seed in my fertile mind that would allow this desired direction to flourish. “How can I make this happen?” The question burned bright in my mind for years. Then, while at work one spring morning in 2011, I found the answer to my quandary.
Since 2002, my principal day job had consisted mainly of cutting grass, digging holes and raking leaves for a small-scale, Vancouver, British Columbia-based landscape maintenance company. Early on a May morning in 2011 – it was a Tuesday to be exact – I was busy spooning a bowl of cut fruit and cold brown rice and into my mouth while leafing through the colourful pages of the summer edition of Coast and Kayak Magazine (published in scenic Nanaimo, British Columbia). A multi-page article (pages 6-10) detailing an 80km kayaking excursion on the Missouri River – well written by Michel Tremblay – caught my eye and I decided to digest a little dose of armchair adventure before beginning my workday. Tremblay’s descriptive account of paddling the Missouri River’s beautiful White Cliffs section in central Montana stayed with me throughout my commute to work and well into my Tuesday morning mowing routine.
My mind tends to wander while walking behind a lawnmower – actually, it’s much safer than it sounds – and by mid-morning I found myself engaged in a mental game of Missouri River Trivial Pursuit. “Is the Missouri indeed the longest river in North America?” I pondered. “Is Canada’s Mackenzie River actually longer? And what of the Missouri’s source? Where does that river truly begin?” These and a host of other questions begged for a Google search, but without the aid of an Internet connection they remained mildly vexing and fully unanswered.
I’d often thought, at work and not, about searching out the source of the Missouri and travelling its entire length as I had done with its brother river, the Mississippi. If indeed the Missouri River were the longest in North America, paddling it from source to mouth would enable me to say that I had journeyed the length of two of the world’s longest rivers. Back in 2009-2010 I had kayaked the length of the Murray River in Australia. So, technically, by paddling the Missouri, I could also say that I had paddled the longest river on two of the world’s seven continents. “Now there’s an interesting challenge.” I thought. “Paddling the longest river on each of the seven continents. Hmmm…one down, six to go.” It began to appear to me that there was a future expedition in the works. Still the questions came: Did Antarctica even have free-flowing rivers or was it simply a solid block of ice and rock? And what were the other longest rivers of the world? The list of Google searches was growing by the minute.
Then the thick-accented voice an Australian bloke who had befriended me during the Murray River Expedition drifted into my consciousness. Upon learning of my past and present river adventures he had quipped, “So, mate, where do ya go from here? Are you gonna paddle the longest river on each continent?”
I met his smirk with a smile and replied, “Not a chance!”
But on that May morning in the wilds of west Surrey, there seemed to be a persistent chance of pursuing, at least mentally, this grand idea that I had once laughingly shirked off. The inquiring Aussie had unknowingly planted a seed, a seed that had somehow escaped the sharp blades of my mower and was now being cultivated in my fertile, river-fed mind.
The adventurous extremist in me, the sleep-hating part that loves to longingly obsess over and over-expand humble daydreams such as these into full-blown enterprises worthy of conversation and collective criticism, took things to the next logical(?) level. My extremist side presented me with the (almost absurd) idea of descending the longest river on each of the world’s seven continents from source to sea. “Why just paddle the main river proper when you can also paddle its linear tributaries?” the voice in my head bellowed. “Sure, why not?” I answered with shrugging shoulders and a giggle.
“Wait! That’s it!” I shouted over the roar of the mower. “That’s the answer I’ve been looking for!”
The whole idea had come to me in a flash. It was one of those A-HA! moments that grabs you and will not let go; a realization that your consciousness has just lurched forward and planted you firmly in the unwritten unknown. Within a millisecond I knew there would be no turning back. The extremist side of me had easily triumphed. It took only a millisecond more to convince the doubtful and fearful part of myself that a new direction had indeed been wrought, a defined direction that had eluded me for almost a decade, a direction defined not only by passionate adventure-seeking but also a desire to establish a career that both reflected my self-propelled passions and my intense longing to be free from two and a half decades of unrewarding work. I knew I had worthy gifts to contribute to the world, gifts not extended through the grip of a rumbling lawnmower or the slivered shaft of a shovel, but gifts that contribute to the betterment of the world, gifts that hopefully inspire others to better themselves, to push past their imagined boundaries and cultivate the courage to take risks and to seek out happiness, purity and truth.
“This is my career direction.” I thought to myself, smiling. “To say and do the things that best enhance my life and the lives of those around me at any given moment.”
By committing to such a decision I had discovered a missing piece of my life puzzle and the discovery made me giddy. So caught up in the idea I was that I inadvertently missed cutting a whole backyard of grass, an oversight that a co-worker thankfully corrected!
Then, more questions arose in mind.
“Had it been done before? Had someone actually taken the initiative to descend the longest river on each continent?” At the time I did not know. (In fact, I still don`t know!) But I knew that I had recently read (albeit briefly) about some bloke doing what I was now proposing. Strangely, his name came quickly to me: Mark Kalch. I resolved to find out more about Mark’s project when I got home from work.
Being recognized as the first person to undertake such a lofty goal as descending the longest river on each continent was really quite unimportant to me. I simply wasn’t interested in being the first; I simply wanted to just do it. Being the first to do something will usually attract those who seek such goals. I call them “firsters”. They are similar in my mind to motorists who speed by you in their vehicles, only to arrive first at the next red light. Eventually we all surpass the firsters in one way or another. Call it a case of the tortoise and the hare. Bragging rights are fine if that is the path you choose. Personally, I prefer “truthing” over boasting and patience over promptitude.
A quick Google search revealed that Mark Kalch, an intrepid explorer in his own right, was readying himself for a source to sea descent of the Missouri-Mississippi river system beginning on May 1, 2011, which meant that his expedition was already well underway. I admit to feeling both dismayed and relieved at this discovery; dismayed because I had briefly pondered the idea of Mark and I perhaps adventuring together down the Missouri, but relieved that Mark’s intended solo descent would stay that way, and mine, whenever its fruition would come, would likely also be a solo endeavour.
Upon delving further into Mark’s website, I discovered that I shared with him similar career ambitions, at least as how they related to pursuing a decade-length expedition. His career as a competitive athlete, explorer and motivational speaker seemed successful and well established. But I held back from contacting him straight away, chalking up the fear I felt to a lack of proper preparation and a true lapse of spontaneity. I worried that he would think that I was perhaps stealing his idea of descending the great river systems of the world from source to sea. Such was not the case. If anything, I was not seeking out competition or an appropriation of his ideas. Instead, I believe I was seeking mere companionship, a planning partner or avid accomplice, one with which I could share ideas and information, and one to whom I could offer support and encouragement while he pursued his goal. I decided that contact with Mark would happen when it happened and I went about my own expedition planning and research.
Weeks later, on May 31, Mark revealed via a blog post on his website that his 2011 expedition plans had been halted. He had in fact never reached the Missouri. Nor had he even left his European home. His right shoulder, injured earlier in a whitewater kayaking mishap, now desperately needed surgery, the results of which would postpone the start of his Missouri-Mississippi River Expedition (the first of his “Seven Rivers, Seven Continents” project) to May of 2012.
“Maybe there’s a possibility of working together after all.” I thought as I re-read his post and grimaced at the image of a bloody surgery picture. “Things do happen for a reason, be they unfortunate or otherwise.”
And so, as ridiculous as it sounds, I began working up the courage to email Mark and inform him of my expedition plans. I say “ridiculous” because it seemed absurd to me that I should be, um, intimidated by such a person as Mark Kalch. And I get the feeling that he would comply with that thought. Maybe I was intimidated by his ample list of expedition accomplishments and his obvious career successes. I’m not sure. What I do know is that shyness, low self-esteem and tricks of the mind are strange things indeed. Fear can grip us tight at times when we need it not to. Sadly, we allow False Evidence Appearing Real to keep us in check. Such fears lie embedded in atrophic patterns worthy of annihilation. We are all surely better off without them.
As of this writing (July 28, 2011), I’ve yet to contact Mr. Kalch. But that will soon change. Risks, whether big or small, are always better overturned, exposed and undertaken. We must allow the searing light of forward motion to scorch the personal fears from our collective mental palette and healthily progress toward a future that embraces both courage and change. If we wish our lives to expand beyond our present conception of how we envision our lives to be, we must seek out change and be the change we seek. As American adventurer Scott Stoll so aptly put it, “Create your life or life will create you.” As I type this I’m opening an Internet browser to search out Mark’s email address. Halting progress seems futile at this stage, and that’s a good thing!
Note: On August 1, 2011, I contacted Mark Kalch via email and informed him of my expedition plans. His prompt reply was well-peppered with tones of friendliness, respect and heaps of encouragement. A formidable bridge had been crossed and the view from the opposite bank appeared to be full of good fortune.
I leave in a few days to venture to the headwaters of the Missouri River in southern Montana. If all goes as planned – which it never seems to do! – I will find the snow-free font of the Missouri River high in the Centennial Mountains and taste its sweetly pure flowing waters. And hopefully I will answer the myriad of questions regarding the types of watercraft best suited for descending the mountain tributaries.
Then, I will venture east to join the mighty flow of the Mississippi River and paddle my kayak alongside British adventurer Dave Cornthwaite as he pushes toward his goal of travelling the entire length of the Mississippi River on a stand up paddleboard. And I will find that sharing, encouraging and supporting others in their life pursuits are some of the things that I do best. And I will find that I am getting better at doing these things every day. I will follow my dreams and passions and I will find a better version of myself at the next stoplight. I hope you can follow along and join me on my journey. Your interest in my adventures makes going that extra mile all the more worthwhile. As the great musician and self-proclaimed “punk rock warlord” Joe Strummer once aptly stated, “Without people, you’re nothing.”
Thanks for taking the time to read this. Many blessings, Rod
Find out more about the amazing Mark Kalch at www.markkalch.com
And find out more about the equally amazing Dave Cornthwaite at www.davecornthwaite.com