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Discover Mid-America — October 2006

A Guide to Canoeing the Missouri River: A Complete Missouri Trekking Guide from Three Forks, Montana, to St. Louis by Keith Drury; Indianapolis: Premiere Publishing, 1999 (with 2006 updates online); 144 pp., paperback, $9.99, 0966404939; entire text available online at

Travel guide makes trip possible for anyone

Travel how-tos wind up as yawners for those interested in other than “how to.” Some notable exceptions are the books of John McPherson and Gregory Davenport. Both make the reading not merely helpful to trekkers who are regular people, but also for readers looking to put back a few pages on a Sunday afternoon.

Keith Drury’s Guide to Canoeing the Missouri River inhabits the latter category. It is both a helpful guide and a great read. Methodical yet brief, the Guide includes get-ready, packing and equipment tips. He also steers the reader through the vagaries of portaging around the 14 dams that lie between the headwaters in Three Forks, MT, and St. Louis.

These are, however, not merely dos and don’ts, lists and tips. The pages of this little book are ripe with Drury’s personality.

“And what a lake it is,” Drury writes of the massive Fort Peck Lake in central Montana. “Remote, large and packed with wildlife you’ll love this wild and scenic lake.”

In a checklist of must-take items, he lists “life vest” and writes, ”I promised my wife to wear it every time I was on the water and kept my promise. I got so used to wearing it that I sometimes left it one when I went to town…the I noticed people glancing at me in a funny sort of way while in the Wal-Mart line.”

Drury’s excitement rubs off. And it’s magnified by his assumption that everyone aggress long river trips through remote places are good for people (and from experience, I know they are!). Drury’s tone reminds one of John Muir’s admonitions in Yellowstone National Park. In this brief but wonderful book, Muir advises visitors to Yellowstone to stand on precipices during storms to feel the electricity that excites and refreshes the soul. He wants visitors to look rattlesnakes in the eye and to understand their common connection with the earth. Muir wants readers to trust the outdoors: the woods, rocks and weather.

Drury wants people to do much the same. Starts the book with a short introduction in which he says that he always wanted to canoe the river, but never thought he would be able to do it. Then, he “decided the time was right” after reading Steven Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, about the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. But he ran up against the one great obstacle facing any traveler on the Missouri — little or no information exists on what to do, where to go or who to see.

So he set off with maps, a canoe with a small motor, and the things he thought he would need for a nearly two-month trip. He found out soon enough what worked and what didn’t. He made notes to himself every night on a palm-top computer, keeping a journal of the journey on the tiny computer as well.

Besides the funny, even quirky, equipment advice, Drury’s daily journal of his trip from the headwaters to St. Louis has a style and personal point of view that allows the reader access his trip. This is, after all, the story of one man’s canoeing trip. But for travel narrative to work, the reader has to come along. This is a story about what he decided to take and why, about people he met, and the things he saw. Most important in conveying that information, however, is the universality of the things he does, the feelings he exhibits, and the fears and joys he experiences.

Moreover, the reader finds that Drury made his journey easier by keeping in mind his limitations. His is canoeing, but he has a small motor to putt-putt him along. He eats rice dinner from packages, and even took a week break from the trip with a trip back to Indiana. Such things reinforce the Everyman-ness of his undertaking. By demystifying the river, he shows the reader that nothing is too hard, burdensome or dangerous for a person of decent health to do.

It’s not surprising to discover that Keith Drury is a fifty something divinity teacher at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, IL. The Guide says nothing about Drury’s distinguished scholarly career or his arm-long publishing credits. The effect says something about him and the audience for his book: He is a regular guy who looked out the window and wanted to pursue a childhood dream. People told him he was out of his mind, that he couldn’t do it, and that it was impossible.

The book is, however, definitely Drury’s experience. Most of the places he describes are of the first-impression variety, a literal “pop up out of the boat and jump back in” kind of view from the river. But this is forgivable in light of the fact that Drury has tried, and rather successfully, to make a trip on one of nation’s great public watercourses open to everyone.

Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer and Ph.D. candidate in history. He can be contacted at

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