At 5:15 p.m. Saturday evening, a weather-eyed group of Lewis and Clark enthusiasts scanned the westward bend of the Missouri River north of Haworth Park, hoping to catch a glimpse of history chuffing through the swirling, muddy waters.
“Is that she?” they asked at every white streak of wake slashing through the brown. Binoculars went up, only to come back down: “Fishing boat.” “Jet ski.” “Log.”
Nevertheless, optimism was undimmed.
“Isn’t this exciting?” said Kira Gale of Omaha, a historian and writer who has taken up the cause of Meriwether Lewis’ death in 1809 under suspicious circumstances. “I’ve never done anything like this before. I hope she’s here soon.”
“She” is Janet Moreland and she is in the very midst of attempting to be the first woman to go solo in a paddle-driven watercraft down the Missouri-Mississippi rivers from the Missouri’s headwaters at Brower’s Spring, Mont., to the Mississippi’s mighty exit out into the Gulf of Mexico.
The feat attracted half-a-dozen members of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation’s Mouth of the Platte Chapter, which has its anchorage in the metro area and champions causes like Moreland’s which, among other things, is to draw attention to the importance of the Missouri as the riparian heart of the nation.
“We look for any and every opportunity we can to remind people of the history behind Lewis and Clark’s journey and its place in where our nation is today,” said Mary Langhorst of Bellevue, who serves as secretary for the Mouth of the Platte Chapter. The group has gotten together monthly for the last 12 years and also has a weekly roundtable with amateur scholars working on grassroots research on the intrepid 19th century explorers who were the first to chart the full extent of the Missouri River basin from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean.
The expedition celebrated its bicentennial from 2004 to 2006, but Langhorst said the foundation exists to remind people that the adventure is still very much alive every day.
“You’ll still see people who say, after the bicentennial, ‘Oh, that’s over,’” Langhorst said. “We say, ‘Oh, no it’s not.’ There’s still so much we can learn about it.”
Moreland, doing the Lewis and Clark routine in reverse, is carrying with her the explorers’ journals and, at every opportunity, charting her course alongside theirs and taking stock of how the landscape has changed in the 210 years since the Corps of Discovery cut its wake up the river.
At 5:20 p.m., there she was. Hard to the Nebraska bank of the river in her 17-foot modified kayak, Moreland hailed the shore party and disembarked at the Haworth Park boat ramp.
Hauling her craft up out of the water, this does indeed look like an only slightly pared-down version of what Lewis and Clark and their crew were doing.
Moreland likes the comparison and points to the Corps of Discovery as an inspiration in her journey, which in turn, she is hoping will inspire on a wider platform.
“They had a lot to do with changing the culture in our country,” she said. “I see Lewis and Clark as a model for achieving great things. They had that mindset of success and victory. They weren’t going to be defeated.”
At 56, Moreland earned her bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Missouri in December 2012. With applications out for teaching jobs in middle school social studies, she looked at what time she had before school started and decided to do something with it.
Having grown up on the water, her thoughts navigated there. And before long, the 2,600-mile trek down the Missouri-Mississippi became her consuming drive. But it’s not just the journey for the journey’s sake.
“It wasn’t like I woke up one morning and, ‘Pow! I’m going to kayak the Missouri River,’” Moreland said. “I decided I wanted to kayak the Missouri only when I could answer the question of: ‘What kind of message do I want to carry with me?’”
Moreland devised a three-pronged plan for the trip’s underpinnings.
First, she wants to inspire her future students. Second, she wants to empower people of any age, especially women, to always be in pursuit of their dreams. And third, she wants people to remember the great national treasure held in America’s rivers, especially its lifeblood in the Missouri and Mississippi.
“I want this to have a purpose,” she said. “I want it to be inspirational and empowering. I want it to empower youth and show them they can advance their dreams. No matter what, they can be successful and independent. I want women to see that they can live out their dreams. Anything’s possible.”
As she goes, Moreland is also writing her lesson plans for a job she hopes is waiting for her when the adventure wraps up, sometime this fall.
She’ll have an object lesson, she said, that she hopes speaks to all of her students, starting with her first day on the journey back in April, when she had to ski through the Continental Divide just to get to the Missouri’s source.
“We thought it would take about seven hours, that turned into 31,” Moreland said. “It was a little adventure before the adventure.”
Skiing with a partner, Moreland didn’t have much in the way of foodstuffs and the pair resorted to making camp with just what they found around them.
“We made a shelter out of little pine branches,” she said.
“True Lewis and Clark stuff!” Gale said.
“Yeah!” Moreland responded. “We lived it.”
Moreland was back on her way Sunday. She hopes to reach her home in Columbia, Mo., later this month and be down below New Orleans and the conclusion of her journey in November. Until then, she said she keeps the inspiration alive with Lewis and Clark’s journals and her own intrepid belief in the power of the river to move the nation.
“The Missouri River has fallen out of our classrooms and it needs to come back,” she said.
“It’s the heart of our country’s history and culture. There are so many lessons to be learned, historically, ecologically. Its watershed, its power. It has so much still to tell us.”