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By Emily Bontrager
When Bill Cottrell was a young boy, he dreamed of exploring the Missouri River. On July 18, Bill turned his childhood dream into a reality.
Bill Cottrell, 70, grew up in Worth County, Missouri. As a boy, Bill always loved being out on the water, especially in a canoe.
“My first canoe experience was probably when I was 10 or 11. My two brothers and I pushed a brand new stock tank into a pond. That was our first canoe, until our dad caught us and that ended pretty quick!” Bill laughed.
After graduating from high school, Bill attended the University of Missouri. In 1974, he graduated with a degree in education.
“I started teaching Ag Ed in Farmington, IA. That is where I met my wife. She was a business teacher there and in 78 we got married. We moved back to the home farm in Worth County and in the early 1980’s, 20% interest drove me back into teaching,” Bill said.
Bill’s family moved to Scotland County, Missouri in 1984. For many years, Bill was the Ag teacher and the FFA advisor at the Scotland County school until he retired from teaching in 2006. He then worked at a few hog farms in southeast Iowa until he officially retired in 2020.
Since Bill enjoyed going out on the water so much, he decided to build a canoe for himself. This is when his childhood dream started to take shape.
“I had made a canoe out of cedar strips and after making it I thought, ‘What am I going to do now that I made my canoe?’” Bill said.
“I just referred back to my childhood days when my family would go down and visit my maternal grandmother in St. Joe. We would always make a point to cross the Missouri River bridge and I would look down and say, ‘Lewis and Clark went up this river and came down this river and that, I need to experience.’ So, I kind of put the plan together and it’s something I always wanted to do and since I retired, I thought ‘I’ve got the time to do it.’”
For two years, Bill researched to prepare himself for such a trek down the Missouri river.
Through Bill’s research, he found a Facebook group called Missouri River Paddlers. This group was a great platform for him to communicate with other paddlers who traveled on the river. Everyone knows him in the group as ‘Missouri Bill.’
To prepare for his trip, Bill started training on Lake Showme, which is located outside of Memphis, Missouri.
In December of 2021, Bill’s plans came crashing to a halt and he was afraid that his childhood dream had ended. Bill sustained an injury, and he broke his back in four places. After recuperating in 2021 and 2022, Bill decided to not quit and to continue on his journey.
On May 17, 2023, Bill celebrated his 70th birthday and began his journey near Three Forks, Montana at the headwaters of the Missouri River. Here the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers converge together, and the Missouri River begins.
Bill entered the river with a 16-foot canak, which is a combination of a canoe and a kayak.
“The more I researched it, I discovered that using an open canoe in the upper Missouri was not the thing to do,” Bill said.
Bill had to paddle his way from Three Forks, Montana and travel through miles of rivers and lakes to make it to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri.
“I would put in about 30,000 strokes per day, pulling 400 pounds of equipment through the water with each and every stroke,” Bill explained.
“I would try to paddle 30 to 35 miles per day and the longest I paddled was when I told my sister I would be in St. Joe on a particular day. I had to travel 50 miles and that was a long day.”
Bill spent around eight to ten hours a day out on the water. On the trip, Bill equipped himself with freeze dried food, energy bars, a tent, sleeping mat, a Garmin GPS device, water, and other supplies to help him along the way. He also always wore his life jacket.
At night, Bill mostly camped along the river wherever he could find a place to set up his tent.
About a week into his trip, Bill met a father and son duo who were taking the same trip down the Missouri River. The father and son were Tom and Jacob Boyko from Madison, South Dakota.
The three paddlers decided to stick together and travel across Fort Peck Lake. Fort Peck Lake is a major reservoir in Montana and was one of the most difficult challenges that Bill faced on his trip.
When Bill entered the lake, the wind was hitting his back and the water was calm, but things changed as he made his way across the lake. A storm blew in and it separated him from the other two paddlers.
“At one point, I was starting to cross to another point, basically three miles, and the wind took a shift and started coming directly at me. Before I knew it, I had two foot waves coming in,” Bill said.
As Bill paddled, the waves got bigger and bigger, but he knew he needed to keep paddling.
“I had to knuckle down and paddle harder and all of a sudden the waves were four feet, and they were spilling into my boat,” Bill recalled.
Bill was so scared, but he paddled through the storm and found Tom and Jacob again.
“We got back together on the downhill side of Peck Lake and we continued onto Williston, North Dakota together,” Bill said.
Jacob, Tom’s son, got off the river at Williston because he had some obligations to attend to. Tom could see that Bill was struggling and that he was having issues with back pain. Tom ended up talking to his wife, who offered to drop Bill off at the end of the last lake in Yankton, South Dakota. Bill decided to take Tom’s offer and after being dropped off, he continued down the Missouri River at Yankton.
As Bill got to Sioux City, Iowa, he was hoping to switch his vessel to his cedar stripped canoe. As he got in the canoe, he changed his mind because he thought the canoe would just spin him around in the high winds. Bill got back in the canak and continued his trek down the river.
As Bill headed towards the last leg of his journey, he had a surprise visitor join him on the water.
“As I finished my journey on the 18th, my youngest son who lives in St. Charles borrowed a kayak from a friend and he paddled beside me,” Bill said.
Clint, Bill’s youngest son, surprised his father and finished the last miles with him.
Bill completed his journey down the Missouri River on July 18, 2023 at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri.
Through tough storms, Bill persevered and made his childhood dream a reality. He lost around 35 pounds on his trip, but he gained so much more on his journey.
One of his favorite places he traveled through was the Gates of the Mountains in Montana. From his trip, Bill learned how wild and remote the Montana area is and just how different the river can be.
“It was really inspiring and amazing to me. As I came down into the lower Missouri from Yankton on down, the river changed within itself. With all the wing dikes and the fact that it is channelized, it created a different beast altogether. You basically have to deal with the water in that area separately than in the upper Missouri. They are just two different animals altogether,” Bill explained.
The one thing that surprised Bill the most was the generosity of people that helped him out along the way.
“It kind of restored my faith in humanity,” Bill said.
In about a month, Bill will be back out on the water with Tom Boyko as he plans to complete his own journey from Yankton, South Dakota to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri.
“When he gets down to the Washington area, I will once again team up with him and paddle the last 100 miles with him all the way to the arch,” Bill said.
Bill wants to thank his family for supporting him on his trip. He would also like to thank his church group at St. John’s Catholic Church for throwing a sendoff party before he left on his trip.
Bill is glad he was able to fulfill his dream of exploring the Missouri River. It was an experience like no other and Bill will never forget the highs and lows on the river. With his paddle and a canak he fulfilled his childhood dream and explored the vast water of the Missouri River.