THREE FORKS, Mont. – It was 88 days on America’s longest river. The grueling summer heat, fierce wind and dark storms coupled with pesky mosquitos lingered for three months, but the outcome was an adventure of art and encountering the unknown.
Artist Steve Snell first became interested in the Missouri River after moving to Kansas City nearly a decade ago.
He’s been exploring the river locally, both on short- and long-distance trips. But it was during a summer run in Nebraska when he met a kayaker on the Mighty Mo paddling to the Gulf of Mexico. The encounter planted a seed for the most ambitious adventure he would embark on seven years later.
On June 2, Snell packed his modified Kevlar canoe with a watertight briefcase filled with camera and art supplies. Dry bags would contain his camp gear, a small stove and clothes. He also stowed a month’s worth of food and a week’s worth of water.
His family then drove him to Three Forks, Montana, where the Gallatin, Jefferson and Madison rivers join to become the Missouri River, to launch his canoe. Snell would now paddle 2,341 miles to the confluence with the Mississippi River in St. Louis.
Snell said leaving his wife and 2-year-old son was one of the hardest parts of the journey but living on the river brought a necessary life experience and a sense of gratitude.
“There was no guarantee that that would be available in the future. That my health would allow me to or that certain circumstances would align to allow me to be away for such a long time,” he said. “I just felt grateful to be able to have that experience.”
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His days revolved around the sunrise and sunset. A hot breakfast at camp would consist of oatmeal with some dried fruit and nuts to pack calories for the arduous day ahead. But not before a cup of hot instant coffee while creating a painting would he break camp and pack up his canoe to paddle until dusk or until the weather allowed.
“If the weather were nice, I’d prioritize paddling over everything and just put in as many miles as I could because I knew that eventually, my luck would run out,” he said.
Snell would repeat this routine for the next 87 days.
Angels on the river
Along the way, he would meet a network of strangers up and downriver, offering their generosity and support.
“They want to help you succeed, and they also want to be a part of it. And I think that’s a big part of this journey,” Snell said.
Most days on the river would consist of eight to 12 hours of paddling. Snell remembers walking into the Bridge City Marina outside Mobridge, South Dakota, after a tough week and a tough morning on Lake Oahe.
“I walked into the marina hoping that they sold snacks and then thought I would go to the nearby campground to set up my tent and wait out the hot, windy weather,” he recalled.
The marina was empty except for a man sitting at a table. He stood up when Snell entered and asked if he was a paddler.
“When I said, ‘yes,’ he immediately asked what I would like to eat,” Snell said. “His elderly mother also soon showed up and asked if I had any laundry that needed done.”
The marina owners also put him up for free in one of their rental cabins with air conditioning for the next two days while he waited out the weather. They also fed and shuttled him around town to the post office and grocery store.
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“When I left a few days later, they sent me off with local beef jerky, banana bread and a frozen ribeye steak,” he said. “I cooked it that night on a small cast iron stove that I had been carrying for the past two months and had yet to use. It was the best steak I’ve ever had.”
Snell said he didn’t anticipate meeting these angels; they helped ease the isolation on the river.
Adventure art and weather
Another critical aspect of Snell’s adventure was the weather and living at the mercy of the great outdoors. Mother Nature also would hinder whether Snell could paddle or not.
“When the wind was blowing, you can’t safely get on the water. And you need to listen to what your intuition, the river and the wind is telling you and stay onshore if that’s the case,” he said.
Until now, Snell had never been more interested in what direction the wind was blowing, how fast the gusts would be or even the forecast.
“If you know two days out that they’re calling for 50-mph gusts, you’re not going anywhere,” he said. “I would try and be strategic in some cases and put in really long days to get out in front of certain systems or lay up in front of them so that I wasn’t in a potentially dangerous or uncomfortable spot.”
Without a reliable forecast and knowing when Wind Advisories post, Snell would have just been stranded on a rocky, barren shore with a tiny umbrella for shade.
His goal was to create a series of small watercolor paintings of the entire Missouri River, something he said was directly inspired by Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, who went up the Missouri River in the 1830s. Other artists like George Catlin, John James Audubon and Thomas Hart Benton add to a long history of artists going up the same river.
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To this day, Bodmer’s watercolors remain an important image of what the Missouri River looked like before the Army Corps of Engineers and the modern development that’s taken place for the last 200 years.
But Snell wanted to do something new – something he calls “adventure art.” Aside from painting 88 pieces that he hopes to one day showcase along the various states that align and border the Missouri River, another part of his concept was to create a painting show.
“Imagine Bob Ross in an adventure survival show,” he said.
Snell would set up his video cameras at his campsite on each lake or a confluence with a particular river and film himself painting. He would then narrate what experiences he encountered.
And after months of expected editing, Snell hopes to premiere the show sometime in the spring. He also posted periodic river updates on his Instagram account throughout his journey.
“It’ll be a painting show, but it’s not just a painting show. It’s really about the river, the journey and the adventure,” he added.
A new love
On Aug. 28, his wife and son greeted him along the river banks north of The Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis after completing his arduous three-month exploration.
Snell said that art and adventure have a lot in common regarding encountering an unknown. And while he feels he might have a particular concept, he’s not sure what it will become but is very interested in finding out.
Snell was awarded a $15,000 grant through the Mid-America Arts Alliance funded through the National Endowment for the Arts. He also fundraised nearly $6,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to help pay for his gear, supplies and living expenses for three months. He even received a teaching sabbatical through the Kansas City Art Institute, where he works.
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“I really appreciate the support that so many people have provided toward this endeavor,” he said. “I feel that more than the money part, really. Just knowing that others believe in this project as well is incredibly motivating and supportive.”
Snell said his work is very much informed by whatever the surrounding elements at the time were.
“Whether it’s mosquitoes or flies, wind or thunderstorms and rain, I just kept reminding myself out there that this is adventure art,” he said. “It wasn’t always the most optimal sit down and paint times, but that didn’t stop me from painting.”
Snell was often told how dangerous the Missouri River is but wouldn’t let that scare him away.
“It’s a wonderful resource that I always felt was underappreciated by so many people,” he said. “Now that I’m part of the whole thing, I love it even more.”
And if others knew how wonderful life on the river was, Snell feels there would be many more people out experiencing the beauty it offers.
“You just have to get in a boat and check it out, and you’ll have it to yourself,” he said. “And it’s pretty amazing.”