Mike Clark, 52, owner of Big Muddy Adventures and a computer lab, science and history teacher at St. Ann Catholic School in Normandy.
FAMILY • Married to Cathy Clark, a freelance graphic designer and art director. They live in Richmond Heights. Two children: Ben Clark, 21, a senior at Carnegie Mellon University majoring in electrical computer engineering, and Matthew Clark, 17, a senior at St. Louis University High School who is looking to play basketball in college. Mike is the eldest of four children born to Mike and Francine Clark, who are retired and living in Bella Vista, Ark. He was raised in Des Plaines, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. His father was in law enforcement and his mother was a nurse. His siblings are Mary Cardona, 50, a flight attendant in Arlington Heights, Ill.; Patrick Clark, 48, who works in the food service industry in Chicago; and Annie Cronin, 41, of Elk Grove Village, Ill. Mike has eight nieces and nephews.
EDUCATION • Maine West Township High School, 1978; St. John's University, Collegeville, Minn., B.A. in history, 1983.
When did you move to St. Louis and why?
We moved here in 2001 because my wife got a job here. I was following my wife. She wanted to get the kids out of the environment we were in in Chicago. I taught for 16 years at a very tough school there — St. Callistus — and the area was getting very dangerous for our sons.
Why St. Louis?
She got (offered) jobs in Cape Cod, California and St. Louis. Part of the reason I wanted to be here was the river. I said no to Cape Cod and California.
Were you always into rivers?
I grew up on the Des Plaines River. It was disgusting — filthy and polluted — but it was two blocks from my house and I could ride my bike there so I was always on it. I started paddling with my parents when I was about a year old. We would vacation in Wisconsin, and we didn't have any money so a lot of the vacation would be us kids and my mom in a canoe being paddled around by my dad.
When did canoeing become a serious endeavor for you?
Probably Sept. 12, 2001. I took off on a trip to paddle the length of the Mississippi on Sept. 4. I left from Lake Itasca, the headwaters of the river in Minnesota. I was with two young guys who were working for outfitters and heard what I planned to do and wanted to go along. We were out in the middle of nowhere when 9/11 happened and didn't even hear about it until Sept. 12. We were going home immediately — we were at war. But we couldn't leave. We were too far from anywhere.
What made you decide to stay?
I was teaching an online class and had 5,000 kids registered, although we found out afterward that we had something like 20,000 kids following our trip. We would write every night about our adventures of the day and when we wrote that we were going to end the trip teachers begged us not to do it. They said 'Please give them something other than 24-hour horror.' That was what we had to communicate to those kids. It changed what we were doing in that moment and it changed me.
How long was the trip?
We ended at the Gulf of Mexico on Nov. 21. We had traveled 2,361 river miles. When you do something (such as paddling) for 10 hours a day, metronomically, there's a trance you go into and now, you're meditating. It was transcendent. I had never been into transcendental meditation but that's what it did for me. I fell in love with the river and the river kept giving me gifts.
How much time have you spent on the river?
I have logged more than 10,000 miles of big river experience. I spend about 180 to 200 days a year — and a lot of nights — on the river. There are dozens, scores of outfitters on the Bourbeuse and the Courtois and the Current and the Meramec, but I'm the only one on this part of the middle Mississippi.
You partner with an outfitter on the lower Mississippi, John Ruskey, who is a legendary canoeist. How did you meet?
On that trip in 2001 we saw a guy in a canoe down near Mississippi. I hollered over to him and he hollered back and then we paddled closer so we could hear him. I asked him if he knew where we could find John Ruskey and he held out his hand and said, 'Hi, I'm John Ruskey.' We have a saying — actually we have a lot of river sayings — and one of them is "The most interesting people you meet you'll meet on the river."
What are some of your other favorite river sayings?
"The river's going to take something, thank you for not taking me." We say that to the river after a trip because you always lose something. "You never win a fight with the river," is another one we like to use. And it's true, the best thing is to just become one with the river and let it guide you. We tell people, "You will overcome your fear very quickly. You will become one with the river."
What is the best thing you've ever seen while canoeing?
I see amazing things all the time. The canopy of stars you see once you're away from the light is amazing. The curvature of the earth is always something to see. You actually see the earth's curve when you're on the river. I love all the birds. I once watched two immature bald eagles play catch with a fish hundreds of feet up in the sky. They were playing but they were practicing at the same time. I see badgers and bears, boars, coyote, fox and deer all the time.
What's next for you and John Ruskey?
Friday we are going with David Hanson, an adventure photojournalist from Seattle, on a 193-mile ring of the four rivers that make St. Louis an island. Actually, there are nine land miles that keep us from being an island but we want to raise awareness of the beauty and vitality of these rivers. We will be paddling upstream on 103 of the 193 miles. We will be teaching school the whole way and people can follow the trip on my company website, 2muddy.com
Do you do anything other than spend time on the river?
I'm passionate about basketball and like to watch my son play. I'm not a TV watcher, but I love the Jeremy Lin story. I love music and listen to a great variety — blues, jazz, some classical, classic rock, R&B.
"Huck Finn." It's the great American novel.
And you drive a...
"Junebug 1," — my 30-foot Louisiana Cypress strip canoe that I built by hand. It's seats 14 people — it's a gigantic canoe.