Published September 21st, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Part passion, part protest, Graham Jordison is paddling his kayak all 2,341 miles of the Missouri River, completely on his own.
On Monday morning, Jordison pulled his orange boat onto the rocks at Kaw Point in Kansas City, Kansas, just a few hundred yards from the state of Missouri’s final stretch of the “Big Muddy.”
Jordison’s journey, which set off July 18 from Three Forks, Montana, is about a week away from the finish line in St. Louis, where the Missouri River pours into the Mississippi River. The long-distance paddler is moving at an average of 35 miles per day, give or take.
Pondering the chance of storms moving into the area, Jordison paused briefly to reflect on his trip down North America’s longest river and its mission. He stood on the same bank Lewis and Clark once did, early on their 1804 expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase.
In a way, Jordison’s journey was first set in motion when he was a boy, learning to love water on the banks of Iowa’s Little Sioux River.
Fresh off a move from his birthplace in arid Arizona, Jordison’s dad purchased a boat.
“That was my first experience with a river and I grew to love and appreciate them, fish in them and swim in them,” Jordison said. “Then, when I got older and learned about the environmental impacts and how dirty some of these rivers were that I spent my life in, I had to do something to change that.”
Today, Jordison is an organizer for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, a grassroots effort dedicated to replacing coal and gas with renewable energy. This summer, he took a sabbatical to embark on the 2,000-plus mile journey, intended to inspire communities along the river.
“I hope that my journey will help spark the connection about the energy choices we make and how that impacts the land, air, water and people along the Missouri River and beyond,” Jordison said.
The Missouri River isn’t Jordison’s first long haul in the name of healing planet Earth.
In 2014, he took his kayak the length of the Mississippi River to draw attention to fracking and out-of-date coal plants in the region. The Mississippi River quest fueled Jordison, who has always dreamed of doing the full distance of the Missouri River.
And it’s been quite the trip thus far.
“Wind is not my friend, unless it’s behind me. Waves, animals — I saw a grizzly bear on my first day along the shore,” Jordison said, calling to mind a few of the challenges presented during his solo mission.
He’s been stuck in mud up to his chest, battered by huge wakes caused by barges and scrambled to find a place to sleep in parks or on sandbars at night.
The first few weeks of Jordison’s journey were marked by a stark reminder of the personal endeavor’s “why” altogether.
Even prior to the chance of documenting 10 coal fired plants along the Missouri River route, views of mountain ranges in the distance and the sky above were darkened by smoke and ash. Montana’s summer wildfires called to mind the consequences of climate change.
Jordison’s kayak continued down the river.
The 2,341-mile trek will take Jordison past 10 coal plants across five states, belonging to seven different utility companies.
According to data from Toll From Coal, the plants combined contribute to 328 premature deaths and the release of 50,551,915 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air, annually. A byproduct of burning coal, the greenhouse gas that absorbs and radiates heat is a main contributor to climate change.
Locally, Jordison paddled past Kansas City Board of Public Utilities’ Nearman Coal Plant in Kansas City, Kansas, up the Missouri River to the northwest. On the Missouri side, Jordison earned a river view of Evergy’s Hawthorn Coal Plant, not far from the East Bottoms.
Each year, the Kansas City plants emit 1,402,793 and 2,973,081 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, respectively. In a state-by-state breakdown, Toll From Coal estimates an at-risk population of 29,062 people (8,552 children) within three miles of Nearman and 35,296 (10,764 children) in the same radius surrounding the Hawthorn plant.
The data shows people of color living in each three-mile radius at 46% and 44%, compared to the state averages of 21% and 18%, respectively.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, in addition to CO2, emissions from burning coal include sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which cause acid rain and smog, and can cause respiratory illnesses and lung disease in humans. Neurological and developmental health issues can arise from heavy metals released in coal burning.
“These 10 power plants are scheduled to operate through 2040 and that’s not acceptable,” Jordison said, adding that many locals may not even be aware of area plants and harmful pollutants.
“You don’t really recognize just how big and massive and vast these plants are and how many of them there are until you’re on the river in this little boat paddling past them.”
“What can we do? It’s whatever we can. Whatever moves you,” said Sierra Club Missouri Chapter Conservation Program Coordinator Billy Davies, who welcomed Jordison to Kansas City, along with Kansas Sierra Club representative Ty Gorman.
The pair of local Sierra Club activists joined a network of environmentalists who have met with Jordison along his route.
While the kayaker has set up a Go Fund Me fundraiser, hoping to raise a dollar per mile for the Sierra Club during his journey, Jordison said it’s the conversations with members of the community who care about learning more to protect the natural world that can make a lasting impact.
In Kansas City, Davies and Gorman have been paying close attention to the development of the city’s Climate Protection and Resilience Plan.
Adopted in May 2020, the plan lists a goal to reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2025 and 50% by 2030, with a goal of being climate neutral by 2040. The goal calls for a 100% reduction for emissions related to electricity consumption by 2030.
A multi-pronged approach, another key goal of the Climate Protection and Resilience Plan is to develop plans to combat climate change in a “transparent and inclusive stakeholder process.”
It’s this key goal that encourages activists like Davies and his Sierra Club counterpart Gorman. They see Jordison’s story and his journey as a beautiful and simple stand against energy consumption that is harmful to the environment.
“The city wants folks to speak out and to hear their stories,” Davies said.
“We encourage folks to speak out, or if you want to get creative to draw attention — every bit is important and it’s what’s brought us this far.”