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River Evangelist Mike Clark Makes Waves

The Richmond Heights resident says the Big Muddy is a great teaching tool.

resident Mike Clark took a lifelong passion for canoeing and turned it into an enterprise.

His 10-year-old company, Big Muddy Adventures, takes people on trips down the Mississippi River. What some see as a fast-moving, log-transporting hazard, Clark sees as an ecological wonder with the power to transform people's lives.

"It is high adventure in that it's the largest body of moving water on our side of the earth," Clark said.

From Chicago streets to a Missouri waterway
Clark didn't want to move to Richmond Heights. More specifically, he didn't want to move to the suburbs.

Consider his background. Clark taught seventh grade in the City of Chicago for 16 years. Getting all of his students to attend class daily was his top priority. He even set up a mini-infirmary in his classroom for sick students.

Clark and his wife, Catherine, have two sons, Ben and Matthew. Their friends came over regularly for meals. Many of them didn't have this simple routine in their own homes. The Clark boys were used to it.

But Catherine was tired of the grind of city life, and their sons were now old enough to be threatened. Four major gangs were involved in the neighborhood where Clark taught.

"We had fought a good fight," Clark said.

The couple decided to move to St. Louis. Clark pushed for a home in the city. They looked at several locations in Tower Grove.

One day, while Clark was still in Chicago, his wife called to inform him that she had bought a house in Richmond Heights.

Clark blew his stack. He told his wife he thought he would die in the suburbs.

The family moved into their home on Moorlands Drive in January 2001.

Personal journey inspires business
While the transition proved tough for the Clarks' sons, the family adjusted to life in metro St. Louis. The boys made friends, as did Catherine Clark.

Mike Clark went straight to the river.

He wasn't teaching at the time, so he took 92 days to travel the length of the Mississippi. In the past, he had gone on canoe trips to escape the urban reality of Chicago.

The first 15 days proved hard, physically and spiritually. Ten or 12 hours out of each were spent doing what Clark calls the "metronome of paddling." The grueling routine forced him to turn his focus from his surroundings to his mind. He meditated and found it healing.

From there, Clark said, time seemed to speed up. In the following 50 to 60 days, he became addicted to the experience.

Along the way, he taught roughly 10,000 students around the world as part of an online class. He shared his experiences from the river and asked them to do research on what he had seen.

The experience showed Clark what he considers a good teaching methods. Why ask kids about the dates of Louis and Clark's expedition, he asks, when you could be teaching them how to find that information efficiently?

From partnership to personal venture
In 2002, Clark returned to the Mississippi with expedition partner John Ruskey and a homemade dugout canoe.

They spent 90 days traveling the river, making their own fires and sleeping on the ground.

"We lived an explorer's life, in an old-timey way," with modern equipment, Clark said.

Ruskey had been outfitting and guiding people on outdoor trips since 1998. He saw that the river could help people explore their curiosities and overcome their fears.

He talked Clark into helping him give tours to people. Eventually, the two began working with school groups.

By 2006, Clark had become a professional river guide. No one was providing the travel opportunity offered by he and his partner.

Ruskey, who operates Quapaw Canoe Company, encouraged Clark to start his own business.

Clark did. He began in 2007 with one two-seat canoe, taking one person at a time on a daylong trip for $25.

In 2008, he bought eight- and nine-seat canoes. Every dime he earned from the business went back into the company.

He realized the business had become a social enterprise. He aimed to help people, and he was doing so not as the owner of a nonprofit but as an entrepreneur.

And Clark, a former college basketball player, is a competitor. He wanted to know what it would be like to be a businessman.

Overcoming fears, transforming lives
For 10 years, Clark said, the marketing line for Big Muddy went something like, "Try my service: you won't die."

Now, his line is: "Are you kidding? You don't want to try this?"

Sure, he and his customers have experienced some challenges. Once, a storm cell with 60 mile per hours winds hit an island on which they were staying.

But Clark has lots of experience and plenty of training. He tries to mitigate any risks. He has swum the width of the Mississippi as part of rescue training, and he said he volunteered to get a risk-management assessment from the National Outdoor Leadership School that made his company better.

For many customers, the experience is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It's something on their bucket lists. Clark hopes others come back annually.

Regardless, once they meet him, strap on a heavy-duty life jacket and push out into the water, many of their fears dissipate. Many don't realize how fast they're going because of the river's great size.

"The experience is so powerful," Clark said. People contact him frequently to tell how a trip changed their life. But he credits the river, not himself, for providing that opportunity.

"I'm a bit of an evangelist for the river," he said.

An environment to protect
Most people don't learn by reading, Clark said. Instead, they learn by experience. He illustrates his point by referencing that 2001 trip on the Missisippi that started his journey.

He'd describe things he had seen along the river and ask the students to learn more about them and report back. He does the same thing on journeys today.

Being on the Mississippi sharpens naturalist intelligence, Clark said. People may have a hard time seeing how their 12 m.p.g. Escalade is affecting the planet. But it's hard to miss the trash that piles up on islands in the Mississippi.

He illustrates his point this way: Suppose a person throws a plastic bottle into the stream that runs near community center. The bottle will be carried into Deer Creek, and then into the River des Peres, and then into the Mississippi.

Repeat the process and you have the trash mound on Mozentine Island. Caught among a driftwood pile the size of The Heights is enough garbage to fill three or four waste-management trucks, he said.

The problem, he said, is enormous.

Teaching in two environments
Clark is teaching again. He works two days a week as a technology instructor at St. Ann Catholic School in Normandy. He speaks highly of the students he works with and his co-workers.

He spends the remainder of his time on the river he loves. Two years ago, he began working with River Kids, a group of students at New City School that is dedicated to stewardship of rivers.

The hands-on learning environment allows students to become experts in a variety of areas. When that happens, Clark said, "we have just transformed the learning process to something that's empowering.

At home in the river
The river gives Clark an opportunity to engage the customers and students with whom he works. It also provides plenty of exercise. He played basketball for 38 years, and it took a toll on his body. But canoeing doesn't hurt his joints, and he enjoys taking swims in the river.

Revenue is doubling each year for Big Muddy, as is the number of customers who travel with him, Clark said. He hasn't spend a dollar on advertising. People find out about him through word of mouth and media reports.

He can't think of a better way to do the things he likes than by spending time on the river and teaching.

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