By Brad Reynolds
A good adventure story includes many elements – colorful characters, treacherous settings, antics and mishaps, trials and triumphs. Roland Taylor will tell you that the best real-life adventures are built of those same components. A trip isn’t memorable when everything goes as planned. If there aren’t unexpected encounters and obstacles to overcome, it isn’t
an adventure; it’s a vacation. With that distinction made, the Rojomo Expedition was no outdoor retreat. It was a laborious 800 mile river trip undertaken by two friends, chasing the ghosts of Lewis & Clark down the Missouri River.
The Adventure Begins
Well-timed humor can make or break a story, and in the case of the Rojomo Expedition, a joke is what set the whole thing
in motion. In 1993 Roland Taylor met John Licini and offered to take his new friend kayaking. After a choppy day on the water, Taylor and Licini found themselves soaking wet, drinking beer by a fire and laughing about the rough go they’d had. Undeterred by his first experience in a kayak, Licini was eager to get on the water. He even joked that the two of them ought to paddle down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. It was a silly joke.
Or was it?
Like a seed, the idea of a long distance kayak trip began to sprout into an actual plan. Taylor and Licini mapped out a course to determine how many days it would take to paddle to the Gulf of Mexico. By their estimate, it would take them over a year; they had neither the time nor money to dedicate to an endeavor of this magnitude. Well alright, they thought, why not kayak across Montana, following the Missouri as Lewis & Clark did? This was a much more reasonable enterprise. They calculated that it would take around three months. Now they just needed to find the time . . .
Years later, Taylor and Licini finally found their window: April through June, 1996.They packed their gear, coordinated with friends to drop off food and supplies at various points along the river, and set out for their launch point at the Missouri River State Headwaters Campground. Calling themselves the Rojomo (Roland-John-Mighty Mo) Expedition, they embarked on their adventure April 14, 1996.
Much to Overcome
Almost immediately, the expedition was hit with misfortune. As they began to cross Canyon Ferry on April 16, a wind storm blew in, creating three foot waves that forced them to shore. To make matters worse, Taylor had contracted some sort of food poisoning, making him violently ill. The two men rested on shore waiting for the weather and Taylor’s sickness to pass.
Weather was a villain throughout the journey. In Licini’s Rojomo Expedition journal, the April 26 entry reads, “The wind today once again tried to outdo its past performances with gusts topping 70 miles per hour. If you have ever kayaked in a tornado then maybe you understand.”
Future journal entries would echo this sentiment. At one point Taylor and Licini were forced to paddle in a blizzard. Another time, they kayaked through a hailstorm.
The landscape could be treacherous as well. On May 21 the men became separated from one another while weaving through a maze of islands near Fort Peck Lake. They did not find one another for over an hour. Another time, they were traveling a stretch of river that was nothing but muddy chop, littered with sandbars, snags, and livestock carcasses.
In fact, there were quite a few points along the trip where disgusting hindrances had to be overcome. Early on, Taylor returned from a hike covered head-to-toe in ticks and later, the men found themselves trapped in a thick swarm of mayflies. They awoke the next morning to find the bugs had laid eggs all over the shoreline. And inside their kayaks.
Some mishaps were humorous, like when Taylor erected his tent near a railroad he thought was abandoned, only to be startled awake by a train zooming by later that night. In at least one instance though, their misfortune was tragic. On May 7, the men pulled ashore near Fort Benton and went to town for provisions. While there, they picked up a newspaper among other supplies and headed back on the water. A ways down the river, Licini pulled out the paper and was startled to read that a bicyclist had been struck by a car and killed – a bicyclist whose name matched their friend’s. Later that day, the men pulled their kayaks out near Loma and Taylor walked to town to find a phone. He returned to confirm their fears; their friend was dead.
In spite of all the trials they faced, Taylor and Licini refused to give up their venture. On May 24 they were cold and miserable, run ashore by bad weather on Fort Peck. A kind stranger offered to shuttle them across the lake to the dam where they could proceed more easily on their voyage. After fighting against the wind for days, feeling like they’d gotten nowhere, the men were tempted by the offer. No one would need to know that they’d skipped part of the lake. It wasn’t that big of a deal. They’d paddled most of it; however, guilt and defeat began to sink in at the prospect of receiving a ride, so Taylor and Licini thanked the stranger and continued on the river. The weather calmed and it was all the sweeter when they made it to the Fort Peck Dam all on their own.
Characters and Kindnesses
Though they did not accept the stranger’s kindness at Fort Peck, the kindness of many others made the Rojomo Expedition a pleasing experience for Taylor and Licini. Friends would meet them at various points along their voyage to drop off food and supplies and some even joined them on the river for a time.
Taylor and Licini made many new friends as well. Some people they met on their journey offered them meals, which they gladly accepted. Others provided good conversation.
At one point the men stopped by the side of the river to explore what appeared to be an old saloon, a mile from shore. They noticed a car parked alongside it and decided to knock on the door. A woman opened it and greeted them with a German accent. To Licini’s surprise, Taylor began speaking with her in German. The woman later told them (in English) that the saloon had been built in ’86. “1886?” Licini asked. “No,” the woman replied. “My husband is an architect and he built it ten years ago.”
People weren’t the only interesting characters the Rojomo Expedition stumbled across. Memorable wildlife was met along the way as well. On June 4, at the end of their journey, Taylor and Licini came upon a lamb stuck in mud near the shore. It
was frightened of the men at first but finally settled down and allowed them to help it back on land. They were happy to assist the little creature, just as many had assisted them along their way.
Conquering the Mighty Mo
On June 5, 1996 the Rojomo Expedition pulled into Fort Union, North Dakota, the stopping point of their journey. They had successfully conquered Montana’s Missouri River.
In his final journal entry, Licini wrote that the river knew it was their last day on the water before they did. It had been particularly rough, but fighting their way into North Dakota had made the end of their trip all the more satisfying. The final words of the Rojomo Expedition journal speak of celebration; “Tomorrow we will be home for pizza and beer.”
To read the full Rojomo Expedition journal and learn more about the Lewis & Clark Expedition, visit rojomoexpedition.com.