God has watched over Bob Koch’s every step.
When he nearly planted a foot too close to a rattlesnake during his 2,200-mile hike through the Appalachian Trail, he felt it. He felt God with him when a ruptured ulcer took him away from his monthslong journey through the mountains, and when doctors helped him recover and he returned to finish the trek.
He felt it while standing in an open field atop a bald mountain during that 2015 adventure, where his horizon-spanning view of the countryside below inspired him.
“To me, this is one of the God moments,” he said. “I just felt like, gah, why don’t I do something? This is all me here on this trip. Why don’t I do something that means something?”
In the midst of his adventure, he called Bo Bowman back home in Greenwood. Bowman was a pilot for Mercy Flight, which provides aerial medical transport, and Koch wanted to start a fundraiser where people pledged money per mile he traveled along the Appalachian Trail, to donate to Mercy Flight.
By the end of Koch’s journey, they had raised $8,000 in donations.
Now, at 69 years old, Koch plans to paddle from St. Louis to New Orleans along the Mississippi River, and he’s raising funds for The Boys & Girls Club of the Lakelands Region at the Starz24 Teen Center.
“Bob and I are very good friends. Probably best friends, but I won’t speak for him,” Bowman said. “He’s wanted to do this trip down the Mississippi a long, long time. I wasn’t surprised when he said we’ve got to find a charity to do this for.”
It was a close decision between the Boys & Girls Club and the Pathway House, Koch said. He values how both organizations work to build a better life for the people they serve, by helping them reach for greater opportunities.
“I look at my career and the people I’ve met, the ones who have been successful had a clear vision of what they wanted to be and people who showed them how to do that,” Koch said. “The Boys and Girls Club does that. To me, that’s an even more important thing than the whole trip.”
Sabrina Miller, executive director of the local Boys and Girls Club, said she was thrilled by Koch’s commitment, and by the learning opportunities his trip provides. With about 50 children enrolled in the after-school program and students getting more comfortable with the plethora of activities and resources available at the teen center on East Cambridge Avenue, she said she hopes to use progress reports from Koch’s trip to teach students about geography and history.
“I thought it was a truly selfless act. I was honestly shocked when I found out he was considering something like this,” she said. “It will be an adventure as we follow him, so we’ll find lots of interesting ways to integrate that into lessons.”
Bowman is organizing the fundraiser and coordinating donations for Koch. To find out how to donate, contact Bowman at 864-992-8998, or by email at email@example.com. To find out how to get involved with the Boys and Girls Club, call Miller at 803-609-1427, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Preparing for adventureThe start of Koch’s trip might be one of the most challenging parts.
Koch will be paddling the entire length of the Mississippi River in a canoe, using a kayak paddle for a bit more control and finesse. The St. Louis harbor he’ll be casting off in will share the waterway with tugboats and barges the size of football fields.
In researching the bay, Koch has read that some of these boats have wakes that can produce 6- to 8-foot waves. The pictures and videos he’s seen of the harbor, however, seem less tumultuous than that.
Koch needs to practice capsizing. Behind his lakeside home in Greenwood, he said he’ll be taking his canoe out and intentionally flipping it, so he can practice recovering and crawling back into his boat. His supplies will be packed and loaded onto the canoe, tied to it with rope so he doesn’t have to search to recover them if the canoe flips.
“If you’re capsized in a canoe out there in the bay, you’re not going to be able to swim,” he said. “You can’t have your canoe upside-down for an hour.”
There are 500 miles of the Mississippi that are uninhabited, he read. He’s been reading guides on paddling the river that detail about 1,000 locations along the river to keep an eye out for. His research will help him navigate and plan stops and campsites.
“The Mississippi is a lot like a lake, except it’s moving faster. At spots, it’s 4 miles wide, so you can’t even see the other side,” he said. “They say all you see is johnboats and barges coming up the river.”
On a river, everything changes. Landmarks his book noted might be eroded, flooded or otherwise damaged based on the river’s flow, boat traffic or human intervention. Koch has to plan ahead, but stay flexible in case things go awry.
And things can go wrong. Koch said he’s thought about what might happen if he’s bitten by a rattlesnake or water moccasin while he’s in the wilderness.
“My sister wrote me a note and said ‘You’re crazy,’” Koch said. “I don’t know, you do things that are adventurous, you love nature. You plan ahead to make things safer. There are things that can happen to you on the river, but I don’t focus on that.”
He overcame near-misses with snakes on the Appalachian Trail and a medical emergency where he had to hike to an ambulance. These are moments of clarity and grace, he said.
“The things that happen to you, you know God is with you on the trail,” he said. “When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you think a lot. You actually talk to God — how often do people actually have a conversation with God? I really feel like he’s been with me in everything I’ve done.”
Koch wants to drive up to St. Louis on May 1 with his two sons, then disembark the next day, with his sons driving the car home for him. He expects it to take about 30 days to reach New Orleans.
In the meantime, he said the trip wouldn’t be possible without the love and support from his very understanding wife, Becky. Being apart is tough, but he said she understands his need for adventure; these trips are bucket-list items for him. When he hiked the Appalachian Trail, he had a few “zero days,” where he made no progress. Bowman flew in from Greenwood to wherever Koch was, bringing his wife and Becky along so the two couples could have dinner together.
“She knows it’s very important to me,” Koch said. “I’m a very goal-oriented person, and it’s something I’ve talked about for a long time.