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River story

Telling the Missouri's story

Denver men kayak length of river for documentary film

BISMARCK, N.D. — At 8 years old, Joe Zimmerman stood on the banks of the Yellowstone River watching a stick he had thrown into the current drift slowly out of sight.

Zimmerman said he asked his father where the stick would end up. The ocean, was his father's simple response. He said that innocuous act formed a vision in his mind that stuck.

Zimmerman, a former banker from Denver, and his partner Nick Caiazza, a filmmaker, also from Denver, are finding out first hand about the journey of that stick.

Much as that stick may have done, the duo drifted through Bismarck-Mandan last week on kayaks as they work their way down the entire length of the longest North American waterway, the Missouri River.

The two men, both 25, began their journey June 5 in Brower Spring, Mont., and hope to reach the Gulf of Mexico sometime in October, an odyssey that will take them some 3,800 miles through 14 states.

Much like Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery 210 years ago, it is a journey of discovery and enlightenment not only for Zimmerman and Caiazza, but they hope for others as well.

The expedition will culminate with a feature-length documentary about specific ways in which the nation's food production system impacts the waterway — from source to sea.


The film and the men's team bear the same name: "Blackwater Drifters." They adopted the name for two reasons. First, they like the Doobie Brothers song of the same name from 1974.

Second, it's a spin from the term graywater, or wastewater from showers or sinks that can be treated and reused. The next level is blackwater, indicating it contains human waste.

The two met as college students at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Caiazza was a film major while Zimmerman studied anthropology.

Zimmerman, who gave up a promising career in banking, said he always has been absorbed by the examination of people — past and present — and how societies interact among themselves and with their natural surroundings.

"I didn't really get my questions answered in college," he said. He became disillusioned with the prospect of graduate school and went into banking instead.

Later, he contacted Caiazza about shooting some video of him as he embarked on the trip.

"I told him sure, if I could go on trip with him," Caiazza said.

Zimmerman is an experienced kayaker, while Caiazza hadn’t done much at all prior to launching their 16-foot Hobie sit-on-top kayaks.

The boats themselves weigh around 80 pounds and with their own weight, the men pack along an extra 125 pounds of gear that includes food, water, tents, sleeping bags and camera equipment.

Zimmerman said he took the experience he gained in banking to formulate a proposal to pitch to sponsors like Mountainsmith (tents/sleeping bags), Sachtler (camera), Powertraveller (solar panels) and others.

The pair can cover about 40 miles of water a day paddling or pedaling eight hours a day while on the river portions of the Missouri, less once they get on the reservoirs like Sakakawea and Oahe.

They reached Bismarck-Mandan on Tuesday evening — roughly a third of the way to their destination.

One of the essential parts of planning was mapping out locations they could stop to resupply and recharge their batteries and themselves.

Zimmerman said he spent about six months researching and planning their route to locate stopping points with public areas like libraries that were close to the water so they could recharge their electronics and maybe get a hot meal.


Most nights Zimmerman and Caiazza pitch their tents on shore, but they took advantage of a rest day in Bismarck-Mandan to visit a farmers market, stop at the post office and take care of other errands.

Caiazza said until they hit the boat ramp under the Grant Marsh Bridge, they weren't sure where they were going to camp.

Running down the west side of the river, they happened by Captain Freddy's where they were greeted by customers enjoying beverages on the patio.

"It was awesome," Caiazza said. "Everyone was looking at us and waving ... they knew with all our gear we weren't just paddling down the river."

Caiazza said they pulled into the dock and talked to the owner and told him their story.

"He said we could camp right there," Caiazza said. "The whole staff was amazing."

During their stops, they accept rides to places like grocery stores and elsewhere, but as far as advancing their journey down river, they don't.

"We're committed to doing this 100 percent human-powered," Caiazza said.

They crossed the Garrison Dam last Sunday, pulling up by the intake on the lake side, and hauling their kayaks on two-wheel carts across the dam to the boat ramp near the Tailrace — a two-hour portage.

Garrison is just one of 16 dams the pair has to cross and they have already done portages of 11 and 15 miles before getting to North Dakota.

Carrying along a solar panel helps keep cellphones charged in case of emergency, but it doesn't provide enough power to run other electronic gear.

About once a week, they stop to add an entry to their website ( and blog which includes a GPS map tracker that shows their location.

Caiazza said they have encountered some unexpected things so far, like fences across the river that have to be crossed and a moose calf in their path, but nothing major — although there were three days of high winds that set them back some while crossing Fort Peck.

They said as far the unexpected, people were the "wild card."

One blog entry stated that most everyone they met at Wolf Point, Mont., said people might shoot at them as they floated by.

They said they found the warnings were just hype.

Caiazza said the random people encountered along the way have been very hospitable, including a group of Filipinos who invited them to join their picnic in Great Falls, Mont.

Take away

Both Zimmerman and Caiazza said when their documentary is completed, they hope it gives people a new perspective on the critical issues facing America's waterways.

The goal is to show the evolution of the Missouri River from its source to its end, and how human activity has affected one of our most basic needs — a clean and safe water supply.

As a filmmaker, Caiazza said it will be his first work as a director and producer from start to finish.

He said the duo want people to draw their own conclusions from what they see in the film.

"The river is the thread, the story," Zimmerman said. "The river itself is the main character."

Caiazza said he hopes to release the film at independent festivals in a way that avoids a "journal-like" portrayal of their journey.

He hopes people will take away a better understanding of how things — like the food we consume — get from "Point A to Point B" and also just how far one's hands and feet can carry oneself.

For Zimmerman, he hopes people will more closely examine their everyday choices and consider how their decisions affect the world we all share.

That, and to let people know it’s OK to follow their dreams, he said.

"For me, doing this was not an easy decision," he said. "We should follow the passions that guide us."

From Zimmerman's blog: "We tell our kids to follow their dreams, but at a certain point we say they need to buckle down and get serious. Whether from their own settling or outside influences, the idea of 'living the dream' doesn't seem real to most people. Then when they get older and have kids what do they tell them? Follow your dreams."

Reach reporter Brian Gehring at 701-250-8254 or


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Related to this story

Joe Zimmerman and Nick Caiazza of Denver made a stop in Bismarck-Mandan while kayaking the length of the Missouri River. Filming a documentary…

Joe Zimmerman and Nick Caiazza of Denver made a stop in Bismarck-Mandan while kayaking the length of the Missouri River. Filming a documentary…

Joe Zimmerman and Nick Caiazza of Denver made a stop in Bismarck-Mandan while kayaking the length of the Missouri River. Filming a documentary…

Joe Zimmerman and Nick Caiazza of Denver made a stop in Bismarck-Mandan while kayaking the length of the Missouri River. Filming a documentary…

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