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Kansas City artist makes it home after paddling all 2,341 miles of the Missouri River

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
In late August, with 340 miles to go, Steve Snell took an hour to paint the Kansas City skyline from the rocky shore at Kaw Point, the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers.

Steve Snell encountered rough weather, angry cows, swarms of mosquitoes and hard paddling. The paintings and videos that he made along the way tell the story of his adventures on the Mighty Mo.

Artist Steve Snell spent this summer paddling the Missouri River, the longest in the United States. Beginning in June, he took 88 days to paddle 2,341 miles — from the headwaters in Three Forks, Montana, to St. Louis, Missouri, where it merges with the Mississippi River.

Along the river’s gravel bars and lakes, Snell encountered rough weather, angry cows, swarms of mosquitoes and hard paddling. As he traveled, Snell created paintings and videos that tell the story of his adventures on the Mighty Mo.

"I met so many people and I made more friends, I think, over this last summer than I probably have over the last five years, which really surprised me, being alone as much as I was," Snell says.

Snell’s been back in Kansas City for about a week now. He’s been busy processing the photos and video he captured while on his trip, and says he’ll spend the next several months sifting though all the footage.

Artist Steve Snell paints the Kansas City skyline from Kaw Point

"I really took my time for that first month, like throughout Montana. I'd wake up and paint and drink coffee," Snell says. "I was poking along. But it was also a very scenic and beautiful area, and I wasn't in a hurry to get through it."

Snell painted 90 large watercolors and some 30 postcard-sized ones. While facing the elements on the river, Snell carefully packed finished paintings into an envelope to be mailed back home. He hasn’t seen many of the watercolors since the day he painted them so, as he unpacks each one, Snell is flooded with memories from his trip.

Encounters with insects on the banks of the Missouri inspired a watercolor he titled “Last Night in Montana (The mosquitos were terrible).”

“They were so thick that, like, I couldn't even like keep the brush on the paper for more than a few seconds without just constantly swatting my legs or complaining,” Snell remembers.

At the time, Snell says he was certain he’d failed to make a good painting.

“I thought, 'This is the worst painting ever because I can't focus, because the bugs are so bad.' But the next day I really liked this one,” Snell says. “Now it's one of my favorites — but it was painful to make.”

Summer mosquitoes are not a new problem on the Missouri River. In July 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition faced an onslaught of the tiny beasts. Troublesome clouds of mosquitoes drove Meriwether Lewis to complain bitterly in his diary.

"The Musquetos and knats are more troublesome here if possible than they were at the White bear Islands. I sent a man to the canoes for my musquetoe bier (netting) which I had neglected to bring with me, as it is impossible to sleep a moment without being defended against the attacks of these most tormenting of all insects."

For Snell, the paintings that are the most challenging to make are often the most remarkable.

"I think sometimes when I have less physical control, those are the paintings that I think are better," Snell says. "If there's a 50-mile-an-hour wind or like a ton of mosquitoes or a thunderstorm, somehow I'm able to make a painting that surprises me in a more interesting way."

All summer long, Snell’s progress on the river was determined by the weather. It’s not unusual for high winds to keep paddlers hunkered down for days or weeks at a time, so many of Snell's paintings from the upper Missouri River are clustered around the stormy days he was unable to travel.

“If it was a nice, calm, beautiful day, I felt that I really needed to take that time to just make as many miles as I could,” Snell says.

In late June, Snell was on Fort Peck Lake when a brewing storm sent him scrambling for shore.

“The whitecaps kicked up and it very quickly goes from, ‘I got this,’ to, ‘I need to get off the lake as quickly as I can,’” Snell remembers.

While waiting for the clouds to part, Snell painted “Storm Rolling In, Ft. Peck Lake.” Four hours later, the winds were calm and he was able to get back on the water.

Julie Denesha
The Kansas City skyline begins to take shape on Snell’s watercolor paper, painted at Kaw Point during an August stop in the area.

On the lower Missouri River, Snell's paddling became much easier. He was even able to make several paintings from his canoe.

“There was good current and long stretches of relatively straight water, so I could use my feet to control the rudder system and make a painting on the boat,” he says.

Snell's first attempt painting on the water resulted in the work “From the Canoe Near Rulo, Nebraska.” It’s now one of Snell’s favorite watercolors.

Snell says he set out to create an updated portrait of the Missouri River, showing the mark that humans have made. But once he got on the river, his interests changed. A few of his paintings feature a subtle power line or a bridge, but most show little evidence of humans.

“You're getting my point of view, and even then it's getting selected down to what am I interested in painting,” Snell says, “For me, it's the river and the color.”

Snell says this trip and the paintings he’s made have deepened his connection to the Missouri River.

“I love this river,” Snell says. “I feel like there's this lifelong bond, and I want to go back. Going through the video footage is kind of hard because you see these things, you know, like — oh! I could be there right now. I could totally go back right now.”

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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