Matt Green will never forget a particular moment that crystalized the importance of the work he and his team at Big Muddy Adventures are doing with their Mississippi River canoe trips. Like most of their outings, their journey began in the morning, on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi near downtown St. Louis, where a group of middle school students from a local school district had gathered to spend the day canoeing and learning about the area’s waterways, history and ecosystem. The trip began as expected, and at midday, they stopped for their scheduled lunch break at a sandy point he’d been to many times before. However, one of the student’s reactions made him feel like he was seeing the area for the first time.
“We pulled over to have lunch, and we stopped at a sandy beach and were just hanging out,” Green recalls. “I saw this girl, and she was crying; I went up to her and asked, ‘Are you OK? What’s the matter?’ and she said, ‘I’m just so happy. I’ve never seen sand in nature.’ It really made me tear up to think that people may have played in sandboxes, but they have never been able to experience this. And this girl may or may not ever get to travel to the ocean, but she got to experience the beach in St. Louis through her school, through us. It was very moving.
“Joe, our other guide said, ‘You know what you should do? You should take your sandals off. It feels really good on your feet.’”
As general manager of the St. Louis-based outdoor adventure company Big Muddy Adventures, Green has borne witness to the transformative power of the river on more than this one occasion. Together with the team of guides, including Big Muddy founder Michael Clark and owner Roo Yawitz, Green has helped people from all over the area connect with the region’s most important natural resource – one that so often seems out of reach or disconnected from the daily lives of area residents. He’s heard it all: Dangerous, dirty, highly-trafficked, impassable, but there’s never been an occasion on any of the canoe trips he’s been on with Big Muddy that he hasn’t seen those perceptions float away the moment paddlers get into the water and are immersed in the power and beauty of the Mississippi.
Connecting people with the river is the reason Clark founded Big Muddy 20 years ago. Inspired by his family’s move to St. Louis, Clark decided to embrace his new home by exploring its most striking feature in a big way: a canoe trip from the Mississippi River’s source through its entire length. A teacher by trade, Clark created a virtual schoolhouse environment along the journey to share his experiences with others, which eventually led to him taking people on smaller trips, first in just a two-person canoe and eventually in seven person ones as his vision grew. Throughout those trips, he witnessed the real-time changes in those who came out on the river with him – something he saw as important considering how intimately involved with the water area residents are.
Clark points out that while it may not often be discussed in polite company, all St. Louisans have a daily connection with its great rivers – through the tap water that comes from both the Missouri and Mississippi, and through the wastewater and sewer pipes that flow from homes and businesses into treatment plants where dirty water is cleaned and discharged back into the rivers.
“You can’t get more intimate than those two things,” Clark says, “but having St. Louis start to see the river, not as this force of danger and filth, is really important.”
In 2008, Clark met current owner Roo Yawitz, who would help him turn Big Muddy from a passion project into a bona fide business. An outdoor enthusiast and experienced canoer himself, Yawitz was blown away when he learned from Clark that it was possible to paddle in St. Louis rather than having to drive the several hours he’d become accustomed to for water recreation. As their friendship grew, so did Yawitz’s involvement with Big Muddy, which allowed the company to grow into a full-fledged outdoor adventure company, complete with a presence at the Boathouse in Forest Park, Simpson Lake in Valley Park, and an outdoor gear shop in the Central West End. For Yawitz, Big Muddy represented much more than a way to get people into canoes; he saw it as a way to bolster the region’s perception as an outdoor hub at large.
“We think that, independent of just paddling, we have unbelievable outdoor recreation assets in this area that we don’t talk about enough,” Yawitz says. “We’re sandwiched between two national forests, one in Southern Illinois, one in Southern Missouri. They’re both easily drivable in a day trip. And it’s just not something that people think of as being part of St. Louis. Between rivers, caves, camping, the Katy Trail, national forests, one of the best state park systems in the country, it’s basically all here.”
Natalie Rolwes, who manages Big Muddy’s rental operations, as well as its social media and marketing, sees the joy in guests as they are awakened to all that the immediate St. Louis area has to offer in terms of outdoor recreation. Whether it’s a full moon float on the Mississippi, a standup paddleboard cruise around Valley Park’s Simpson Lake, an easy kayak trip through Forest Park’s winding waterways that culminates in the Grand Basin, or even something as simple as enjoying a cocktail from the Boathouse’s patio as the water laps against the dock, she not only witnesses the spark that is lit inside people from connecting with the area’s natural beauty, she feels it herself every single time she is out on the water.
“The passion comes from a few different places,” Rolwes says. “It’s the connection to nature and being out on the islands, just being on the water, observing the wildlife, and just feeling disconnected from the city. It feels like you’re in a completely different place, but then it’s also the sense of adventure that it brings because going out on the river every time is different. Even if you’ve been out a million times, there’s always new things that you’re learning or troubleshooting or adapting to or managing. And so, it brings this sense of adventure that you don’t often get in your day to day life.”
Though Clark, Green, Rolwes and Yawitz are proud of how Big Muddy has grown over the years, they remain inspired by the company’s foundation: its Mississippi River canoe trips. Currently, they offer several different ways to get people out on the water, including a four-hour St. Louis Riverfront Adventure, which begins upstream near the Chain of Rocks bridge and ends with views of the Gateway Arch only available from the water’s unique vantage point. Other popular trips include the Full Moon float, which involves a gourmet campfire dinner, and a Downtown St. Louis Microadventure that packs area history, a short float and refreshments into a one-hour window.
“It’s such an urban place, and yet without leaving the city, we go to a wild place,” Clark says. “I mean, not just the river. The islands, everything is true river habitat and lots of things happen in that environment. Good things.”
Some of the best things that happen, according to Clark, Green, Rolwes and Yawitz, are the transformations that occur in the paddlers who come out for a Big Muddy trip. The most common emotion they see at the beginning is apprehension, or even fear, as people question the safety of going out on something so massive in one of the oldest forms of transportation. Without fail, those feelings quickly give way to awe as canoers of all ages, shapes, sizes and abilities as people see their city in a new light. For Yawitz, it’s a powerful reimagining that continues long after their canoes come to shore.
“People on our trips go through this whole series of emotions – of being nervous and scared that they’re about to go canoeing on the Mississippi, to having a really good time and wondering how they didn’t know about this, to wondering why everyone doesn’t know about it. We see that progression happen during a day, so I think the one thing I hope people get out of our trips, besides just having a good time, is wondering what else they don’t know about St. Louis. If you didn’t know that you could go paddling on the Mississippi, into the Arch, and have a great day on a beach, then there’s probably other stuff in St. Louis that you don’t know about.
“That changes your perspective on the city you live in and how fun it is – or how fun it might be if you’re willing to look hard enough.”
Join the Story
- From camping basics to cast-iron cooking, check out the latest classes and events offered at the Big Muddy Adventure Guide Shop.
- For more outdoor water adventures in the metro, visit the newly opened Dardenne Creek Blueway.
- Read the St. Louis Magazine story on how the quality of St. Louis’ water helped the region become a premier dining destination.