Educator's 'adventure' offers float trips on Missouri, Mississippi rivers
We'll call him "Gumby" of the river -- a flexible river guide who can shape your experience however you'd like.
Just as the green, human-like clay figure of media fame is adaptable, Mike Clark can tailor guests' experiences along the Missouri or Mississippi rivers for St. Louis area day trips, full-moon floats, multi-day canoe campaign trips or more.
"I can be a cook and wild-eyed river guide or I can become a sage, old river traveller who understands the natural things going on out there. I work either side of the business," said Clark, co-owner of Big Muddy Adventures, a professional river guiding and outfitting company in St. Louis just downstream of the confluence of the two big rivers.
Clark can offer an in-depth view of the river ecosystem because he's a longtime educator. He teaches computer lab, science and history part-time at St. Ann School in Normandy. He's also developed annual online learning adventure expeditions.
His experiences led him to a quote attributed to Mark Twain: "Don't let school get in the way of your education."
In many ways, Clark said, a "school with walls doesn't serve the needs of all the children. ... I'm looking to reach those kids" as well as others.
Clark has taken guests as young as 2 years old and as old as 90 for a ride along the river.
"I get a whole bunch of different kinds of people. I do a bunch of different kinds of things, as far as trips. I'll go out with a group of five or six guys who want to get away. We'll go out for four days and three nights. We'll go ... maybe 130 miles on the Mississippi River, and we'll just keep traveling, expeditionary style. We'll make a camp, hang out, eat, wake up the next morning, paddle away, get out, make camp."
An alternative is a day trip with a family, for example. They'll go to an island, hike around. "We'll get a feel for the largest moving body of water on our side of the earth. It's an amazing experience."
Others are out-of-towners. He'd like to work with more repeat customers, guide them so they can go out on a canoe themselves.
Another river trip is what is called "trash bashes" by canoe "where we do eco-trips and partner up with Missouri River Relief and Living Lands and Waters where they come to town and do a clean-up, like we had just two weeks ago. ... We have an island that we have completely cleaned. There's absolutely no trash on it, as of two weeks ago. You won't find one on the Mississippi River, but we got one. We worked at it for two years. That's one of my favorites. As a business, it doesn't do well on a profit-loss basis."
It's hard to pick his favorite place on the river, but he spends a lot of time between the confluence and the St. Louis riverfront, what he calls urban waters. It has the only 11 non-commercially navigable miles of the river. "There is no commercial traffic allowed. ... They use the canal. There is this whole stretch of river with two fantastic, pristine islands where you don't see a tow boat. Very few boaters. I like that."
Another spot is south, below Memphis, from Clarksdale and Helena, Ark., to Nachez, Miss. "That's probably my favorite stretch. But I don't guide that very often. I do the middle Mississippi. I really like Ste. Genevieve to Trail of Tears State Park in Cape Girardeau. That's a fabulous, great trip," he said.
The Missouri River also has highlights. "Hermann to Washington is a fantastic, 20-mile river trip, really beautiful. The bluffs coming into play there along the Katy Trail. Some beautiful islands."
Clark sees himself as an evangelist for the river. "You can go out there. We've been doing it for 4,000 years, paddling along this river. Why people are so deathly afraid of it, I can't quite comprehend. I know people should be highly respectful of this river. You should know what you're doing before you go out there, and you should prepare to do it well, just like you do when you're going to climb mountains or hike in grizzly bear country. ... Paddling this river shouldn't be so feared."
Big Muddy Adventures conducts annual online learning adventure
expeditions retracing historic exploration routes. The adventures focus
on the natural environment and human development along America's great
Big Muddy guides collaborate with teachers and students to explore
historic sites, study the ecosystems, conduct scientific experiments,
interview experts and record the information and daily data on the Big
Muddy website, 2muddy.com . Expedition updates also include journals, photos, original illustrations, paintings and short video clips.
Hands-on workshops and presentations bring the experience of
canoe-making and river adventure to a school or large group. These
events enable teachers and students to make a connection to the
experience of river exploration.
Mike Clark, founder of Big Muddy, said his 26 years of Catholic
school teaching has served him well. This year, he noted, "we took kids
on the water with us for a day. Generally it's a virtual interactive
expeditional project where my business partner and I go out and paddle.
... We have a yearning to be out there exploring."
Clark said the adventurers can reply directly to students, responding to their curiosity.
These type of efforts, Clark said, get students away from textbooks
and are a good alternative. "I believe it can transform education."
Big Muddy Adventures will host a booth at the Wings of Spring Festival Saturday, May 12, at the Riverlands in West Alton.
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