In the Wake of York: A Missouri River Story


White-capped water churned around me. My kayak was pinned against a rock, the result of missing the downward facing ‘V.’ I was going under. With no other choice, I took a deep breath and let go.

Upside and underwater, my oxygen-deprived brain remembered my instructor’s earlier comments. I tucked my head. My hands traced the cockpit, grabbed the loop of my skirt, and pulled hard. I felt a snap as the skirt released. Gravity took over. My body dropped out of the boat, and I scrabbled to the surface, gasping for air. The Cartecay River taketh and the Cartecay giveth back.

“Good job!” a nearby voice approved. “You okay?” Who is this guy? My waterlogged brain pondered the question. Mike. His name was Mike. I nodded, my soaked locs sloshing water down my face, the skirt flapping around me like a rubber tutu. “Your paddle’s over there. Let’s…” He prattled on, dragging my water-logged boat toward the sand bar.

Why am I here?

By May 2021, my optimism that the pandemic would be a short-lived inconvenience was long gone. But with it came a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Outdoor Afro holds an annual retreat and training where select volunteer leaders can meet, hone skills and explore connections to Black history alongside outdoor professionals. I became an Outdoor Afro volunteer leader in 2020 and had yet to meet volunteer leaders from other networks in person. The pandemic canceled those plans two years in a row. But in September 2021, the not-for-profit organization would host the Blackpaddle Expedition, an opportunity to kayak 100-plus miles of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers with other Outdoor Afro leaders. I applied and was accepted.

I couldn’t wait. In just four months, I would join fourteen Black kayakers for our adventure. There were just a few teeny tiny tasks to complete first: Learn how to kayak, learn something about York, learn camping skills—or, at the very least, how to pitch my tent.

Learn Something about York
Lewis & Clark had never been more than static historical names briefly mentioned in elementary school. But Merriwether Lewis and William Clark led me to York. York, single-named, like Prince, Drake, or Nas. York, barely known and hardly acknowledged. York, the enslaved personal servant to William Clark, a Kentuckian by birth and York’s owner. They didn’t mention that in history class. I learned York went on the 1804 Lewis & Clark Expedition, officially the Corps of Discovery, commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly purchased northwest territory.

“…As the journals of the expedition testify, this first Black man to cross the continent North of Mexico played a meaningful role in one of the most notable explorations in history.”

The Corps of Discovery left with forty men from St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1804, attaining the Missouri River for hundreds of miles. The expedition ended two years later when they retraced the same route, moving downstream. They’d reduced to 31 men and gained 1 woman, Sacajawea.

Cuddled in a blanket at home, reading In Search of York: The Slave Who Went to the Pacific with Lewis and Clark by Robert B. Betts, I highlighted key points to share with my fellow Blackpaddlers. Depending upon who tells the story and when, York is either a buffoon (Caucasian writers in the 1800s) or the Black man who single-handedly saved the entire expedition (revisionist historians of the 1960s).

I struggled to admire Lewis and Clark for their epic journey, yet with York, the historical had become personal. I learned I’m angry at Lewis and Clark. Upon the expedition’s completion, Lewis didn’t include York’s name when he submitted his report to President Jefferson. Why would he?

York, this reputedly large, dark-skinned Black man, was enslaved to a White power system. Yet Clark, in particular, earned my ire. During the expedition, York had a measure of freedom no ordinary slave could have experienced. Yet Clark expected York to “assume the cloak of inferiority and subservience toward his white betters” upon returning home. He punished York for not submitting, hiring him out to a harsh master and keeping York away from his wife.

Why would I expect Clark to recognize York’s humanity? I shouldn’t expect Clark, the slave owner, to be better than his peers. Yet I was disappointed and angry that the broader context of the expedition was less known and that York remained generally invisible.

Learn to Camp
I hadn’t camped since the Girl Scouts at least 45 years ago. I wasn’t sure I’d be an asset in Missouri, but I didn’t want to be a liability either. So, I created a test for myself: Go camping overnight.

My research said backpacking and kayak camping are similar: everything you want on your journey must fit in your pack or boat. So, I set up a mini backpacking trip. I reserved a campsite at F.D. Roosevelt State Park, about two hours from my house. Had I packed too much? Could I really put up the tent myself? I’d done it successfully in my backyard, but would it work out here? I wouldn’t be able to run inside if I forgot something. Could I boil water on my little camp stove? My anxieties about Blackpaddle bubbled up in myriad questions and self-doubt.

I left in the early afternoon and parked my car at the lot nearest to my campsite. For an hour or so, I hiked two and a half miles of hills and valleys, crossed and recrossed a creek. My shoulders ached from the strain of the straps. Did I have the stamina for the goal I’d set? Would I have the stamina for the Missouri trip in another month?

Arriving at my site, I dumped the pack to the ground. I could hear the nearby creek. Within the hour, my two-person tent stood solidly—the footprint secured, the main section taut and pegged precisely, the fly sheet neatly rolled back. Using my camp stove, I boiled water and poured it into an insulated pouch with freeze-dried food.

Everything had gone according to plan. Maybe I should give myself some credit. Maybe I have the camping skills necessary to do Missouri. Exhausted, I lay down to take a nap.

You know what? You passed the test. You don’t have to spend the night—you can leave.

I couldn’t decide if those thoughts were a cop-out or sound logic. I was nervous but not scared. Physically, I was tired; I was also tired of doubting myself. But I decided to give myself credit. I’d passed the test. What would spending the night prove? Within 20 minutes, I’d started the trek back to the car.

I got this.

The Lessons Continue
I’d arranged to meet the rest of the Blackpaddle group at our starting point in Hermann, Missouri. I was celebrating my just passed 60th birthday. Standing on the boat ramp, I watched the Missouri River flow toward its confluence with the Mississippi. Throughout the town were signs acknowledging Lewis & Clark, but never York. Or, for that matter, the other Corps of Discovery crew members. A light breeze rumpled my locs. I imagined my kayak slicing into the river. The current would carry me.

The Christopher S. Bond Bridge, which crosses the Missouri River in Hermann, is 2,231.3 feet long. The river, also known as The Big Muddy (a name inspired by the enormous loads of sediment it pushes), is narrower than it was during the Corps of Discovery. Still, our trip leader used binoculars to read the mileage markers on the riverbanks, but I suspect they’re several feet wide up close.

The river sections we traversed were generally Class I, commercial and urban. Trees, grasses, and bluffs border the edges, and parts are exceptionally beautiful. There was no army of kayaks, tubes, paddleboards, or anglers. Instead, we dodged huge barges and tugboats.

Wing dams or dikes jut out approximately every 1,500 feet, an “improvement” courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers, inserted after World War I. On the positive, the dikes create an express lane, compressing the current into a narrower, deeper river than the Missouri of the 1800s. Fisherman like to drop their lines in the dike eddies. But the dikes are also a hazard that my group cautiously avoided.

Fifteen Black people paddling and camping down the Missouri draws some attention. Fortunately, the attention was benign—mostly curiosity and fascination—much like York might have experienced. The cover of In Search of York features an imagined image of the man. (There are no known photographs of him.) He stands shirtless, being examined by two Native Americans while others look on. York was a rarity wherever he went. Sometimes, I felt that way, too.

More than once, we had boaters come near us on the water. They called out, “Where are you from?” A lone Black woman walking her dog was so intrigued she told her husband about us when she got home. He sped down to the boat ramp on a bike 30 minutes later, delighted to see us and full of questions about who we were and what we were doing. Like him, strangers would inquire, “Who are you?” Who were we? The answer was complicated. We were fifteen individual Black outdoor leaders from all around the United States who had come together in honor of York.

©️ Outdoor Afro

On the second day, we stopped for lunch in St. Charles, Missouri. The Lewis & Clark Boat House and Museum beckoned. Their exhibits include a replica keelboat and pirogue built to match the vessels of the Corps of Discovery expedition. I got tired just imagining hauling those upstream.

At the bookshop, I asked, “Do you have anything about York?”
“Yes!” The shop clerk grinned at me. “Normally we have copies of the book In Search of York.”
“I’ve already got that one. Do you have anything else?”
“Umm.” She looked around. “We have this!” Delighted, the clerk held up a cloth York doll dressed in soft buckskin clothes and boots. Smiling beatifically, his hair crimped close, York held his trusty musket in one hand, a knife and a small purse on his waist belt.
“I’ll take it.”

When I showed the group my prize, my friends bought them out of York dolls.

The third day dawned bright and beautiful on the sandbar of Johnson Island, but somewhere in there the elements turned against us. The waters ticked up to Class II/III. Wearing my poncho and gloves, I fought against winds and rain that wanted to kick us upstream. Eventually, the rain stopped; we continued to paddle until Sioux Passage Park, our camp for the night. On the fourth day, we reached the confluence, where the Big Muddy melds into the misi-ziibi, or Mississippi—The Great River. The final twenty-five miles included a portage over the Chain of Rocks, a dangerous low-head dam. A few more hours, and we triumphantly hit our take-out at Gateway National Arch.

The Arch is a memorial to St. Louis’s role in the westward expansion of the United States during the nineteenth century. It commemorates Thomas Jefferson’s expansionist vision and the inhabitants of the West who helped shape its history. But it’s also a memorial to Dred and Harriet Scott, who sued for their freedom in the Old Courthouse in St. Louis. The Dred Scott case is infamous in U.S. History for the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision that, as enslaved persons, the Scotts “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

The next day, I boarded my flight. As the plane rose, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers twined through the landscape below. I could see myself in their curves and twists. I could feel their surges and draws in my bones because I had been in them and matched their strides. Since that trip, I’ve continued to kayak, becoming an American Canoe Association L2 certified instructor. For me, this trip seeded a deep connection to rivers and a love of kayaking, connected to Black history that I’d never imagined previously.

With my York doll on my lap, I imagined him too, looking back on the freedom he had experienced, if only for the two years of the expedition. Maybe he could see how things had changed since his time. Maybe he could see the path he had inspired by his mere presence in history, publicly acknowledged or not.


Guest Contributor Janina Edwards writes memoir and personal essay pieces, particularly about caregiving and her experiences in nature. She honed her writing skills in classes at Gotham Writers Workshop, the London Writers Salon, and through coaching with memoirist Marita Golden. Her work has appeared in The Ethel, Nevertheless, She Persisted (Blunder Woman Productions), Paddle Georgia 2022: Chattahoochee Journey Starts Generational Love Affair With Rivers, Happiness Between Tails and on the National Parks website. She is currently working on Be Wise: A Daughter’s Reluctant Journey with Dementia.