Self-Styled Adventure Artist

Kansas City artist Steve Snell spent 88 days last summer solo-canoeing the entire length of the Missouri River, diligently painting the surrounding landscapes as he went. (from the artist)

From Three Forks, Montana, to St. Louis, the perils and productivity of canoeing all 2,341 miles of the Missouri River

Most working artists don’t contemplate the chance of dying from their next creative endeavor.

Then there’s Steve Snell, a self-styled adventure artist and associate professor of art at the Kansas City Art Institute, who spent 88 days last summer solo-canoeing all 2,341 miles of the Missouri River, from Three Forks, Montana, to St. Louis, while diligently painting the surrounding landscapes as he went.

The then-39-year-old husband and father encountered surprises and challenges along the way, and he may have pushed his luck a bit here or there. But — spoiler alert — he made it safely back with nothing worse than a sore bottom and stiff fingers from paddling his canoe up to 12 hours a day for nearly three months down America’s longest river.

“I did take out a life insurance policy, just in case,” Snell recently recalled from the relative comfort of his Midtown studio’s intriguing “couch boat” — a couch that several years ago he turned into a boat and later back into a couch. “And I finally wrote my will.”

Although “there was definitely a risk, I read quite a bit beforehand and talked to people that had paddled the whole thing before,” he said. “There’s a great online community of fellow paddlers. Not a lot of people do it every year, but people do it.”

Snell’s own voyage — made possible by a $15,000 grant from the Mid-America Arts Alliance, pre-purchases of his river paintings, a Kickstarter campaign and a timely sabbatical from KCAI — produced more than 100 watercolor images, executed mostly at a succession of riverside campsites.

“You’re switching locations, which is nice,” Snell said. “That’s the advantage of floating a river. Every night, you’re camped somewhere else. It’s the same river, but it’s not.”

Utilizing several cameras and a mini-drone, Snell shot extensive video of his shifting environment as well as of himself sharing his evolving thoughts, whether wielding a paddle or a paintbrush. The resulting video series, “Adventure Art on the Mighty Mo: A Painting Show about Paddling the Entire Missouri River,” is planned for 11 episodes and will most likely debut this spring on YouTube.

Snell’s voyage produced more than 100 watercolor images, including “Fourchette Bay, Ft. Peck Lake,”
executed mostly at a succession of riverside campsites. (from the artist)

“Mighty Mo’s” mash-up of various inspirations and genres may be the first show of its kind.

“I’m not aware of another painting adventure show,” he said. “I did some research going into it. I kind of got to this concept because I wanted to float the river and I wanted to paint and I wanted to make a movie — and those were three separate desires.

“It’s informed by documentary. It’s informed by reality TV. I thought, okay, maybe this is something that hasn’t quite been done. It has elements of sit-down-and-paint and let-me-show-you-what-I’m-working-on. But, at the same time, let me use that as a vessel to tell a story.”

Like the river, Snell’s tale would come with its own twists and turns. He was certainly tested by the upper Missouri River breaks, where he encountered his first bad weather and “those kinds of wind gusts that were probably an unnecessary risk to take,” he said. “You learn along the way what’s okay and what’s not okay. What are my limits? I was probably pushing it as far as I could go while staying in the boat. There were like 20 spots that I wanted to stop, but I was just trying to stay upright. I was close to getting off at some point, and then the weather calmed down.”

The greatest potential danger was lake crossings, Snell said, “because there are some sections that you need to make a crossing that are like one or two miles wide — and that can take 45 minutes. And so there would be no way I would even think about getting on the lake when the weather was blowing. You hang back and just wait it out.”

Snell’s voyage produced more than 100 watercolor images, including “Fourchette Bay, Ft. Peck Lake,”
executed mostly at a succession of riverside campsites. (from the artist)

The Angry Cows Encounter

Another time, while camping along Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota, Snell’s tent came under attack. In a manner of speaking.

“I had pulled my tent farther from the water than normal, because of a severe thunderstorm warning,” he said. “It was about 10:30 at night, and I started hearing this loud snorting and kind of hoof sounds right outside. At first, I thought it was a moose, and so I stayed real quiet.

“It turned out it was just a really, really angry cow or two or potentially three. But, definitely, there was one that was right up on my tent and just moving it with its snout, snorting and kind of making groaning sounds. It lasted about 30 minutes. I think I literally was where they wanted to sleep. There were only so many flat spots, and I picked that one, and I think they were really mad that I was there.”

Snell managed to film a bit of the bovine brouhaha with his GoPro camera, but “it was mostly just my reaction,” he said. “It will make for some suspense. I was fearful that night. I got up at 4:30 the next morning and packed up my gear, before they got back.”

Despite occasionally disruptive weather and irritated cattle conditions, Snell was able to cope with navigating America’s longest river. Singing to himself helped in a way that he wouldn’t have predicted.

“It was oddly new for me, because I’m not a singer,” he said. “But when you’re out on the water with no one around but the cows for days, you get alone with your thoughts. I found that if I was quiet for too long, then my morale would dip.

“The thought that crossed my mind out there is how it could feel totally timeless. You feel connected in a way with people who have been doing this for all of human existence. I had certain modern conveniences, but at the same time I felt that very human experience that I find to be very fulfilling. Life is simple. And I felt very alive.”

What’s next for Snell? You’d never guess but hang onto your Huckleberry Finn straw hat.

Snell shot this image from the canoe, near Rulo, Nebraska. (from the artist)

“I want to build a pretzel boat,” he said. “It would lay flat, so it’s more like a raft. I’ve had this idea for a couple years. Going from Kansas City to St. Louis, I want to be the first person to float the state of Missouri on a pretzel boat.


“It just sounds like a good idea. It’s one of those things, like the couch boat. I don’t think you have to have the ‘why’ already figured out to just do it. But you do it and then you maybe discover why. At the very minimum, I could see the pretzel as being a really fun image and vessel to bring people together around the river. And so it wouldn’t just be me. I would want other people to join me on a weeklong float and travel to all these river towns along the Missouri. It would be great if people were inspired in some way to appreciate the river more.”

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

Leave a Reply