With temperatures hovering around 40 degrees and dark clouds looming overhead Thursday, March 14, Joe Reidhead paddled his canoe steadily down the Missouri River.
Originally from Augusta, Joe Reidhead began a 1,000-mile journey Feb. 17 in Omaha. Reidhead’s trek along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers is to raise funds and awareness about autism spectrum disorders.
By the time he reached Washington, Reidhead was a little more than halfway through his trip, which will end in Memphis.
“I’ve been wanting to do a river traverse of Missouri for a long time,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years now. During that period, I had a nephew and a niece diagnosed with autism. I also have a couple of cousins who have been diagnosed.”
Reidhead said he wanted to redirect the attention from such a trip to something that has had a significant impact on his family.
“As I’m doing this trip, I’m really realizing that it’s very symbolic of the challenges that families with autistic children and the children themselves and adults with autism face,” he said. “They face daily challenges and even good days are bad days a lot of times. It’s constant.”
Reidhead said even the weather, which has been on and off rain, snow and high winds, is symbolic of his trip.
When light rain began falling, Reidhead wasn’t fazed.
“The most challenging day was the day I got basically blown off the river in 50-mile-per-hour winds,” he said. “I’ve battled single digits. I’ve had so much ice on my boat that I’ve had to break it off. You get used to that.”
Reidhead takes the worst days off, including during the two recent snowstorms.
“But I still got hit with a bunch of snow before and after that. A lot of my campsites were on snow. Weather forecasting is like alchemy,” he said laughing. “It doesn’t work.”
Although this is his longest paddling trip, Reidhead is not new to adventure or nature. He is a rock climber, conservationist and outdoorsman.
He also owns a small book publishing business with a focus on adventure and exploration.
Reidhead said the number of children being diagnosed with autism is evidence that it deserves attention, even though resources are limited.
Statistics are 1 in 88 children are being diagnosed with autism, he said. The number is higher for boys, in which 1 in 54 are on the autism spectrum.
“The voices of autistic people are often hidden behind layers of social inabilities. This makes it difficult for those of us not living with autism to see that autistic people too need a clean natural world to bring balance to their lives,” he said. “My goal is to bring more attention to autism, the environment, and the intersection of the two.”
Another goal, Reidhead said, is to educate people on water safety for those on the autism spectrum.
“People with autism are attracted to water,” he said, noting that his niece and nephew are intrigued by nature. “I have seen the importance of the natural world in bringing balance to their lives.”
He suggested that those with autism take swimming lessons.
“There have been incidences of drowning. I’d like to spread that message, so if they do wander they’ll be able to swim,” he said.
Upon his arrival, standing at the riverbank in Washington was Reidhead’s mom, Mary Ann Reidhead. She waited with a hot sandwich and a warm drink, fully supportive of her son and his endeavors.
“I feel in awe of him, to be honest,” said Mary Ann Reidhead. “At first it was a little scary, but I watched him during his training and I was really impressed with the way he handles himself on the water.”
Reidhead said he is thankful for the support not only from his mom, but from communities along the way as well.
“You can’t do something like this without support in some form. You’re going to need help along the way,” he said. “That relates to autism. Families who have children with autism need so much support from the community.”
Scott and Liz Reeves also stood at the riverbank, chatting with Mary Ann Reidhead like they’ve known each other forever. In reality, the couple met Joe’s mom just a few minutes prior.
Scott Reeves, a special education teacher in Springfield, had heard about Reidhead’s journey and wanted to spend a day on the river with him.
“My experience the last several years on the Missouri, it can get lonely out there, even if you have just a couple of people,” Reeves said. “I was going to help out in any way that I could and this week is my spring break.”
Reeves told his special education students about Reidhead and the students created encouraging pictures and notes for Reidhead. Reeves presented the pictures to Reidhead at his stop in Washington.
“The best part of the trip has been the support along the way,” Reidhead said. “The paddling community has come out and helped me and given me a place to stay along the way and given me food.”
For more information about Reidhead’s trip, people may search 1,000 Miles for Autism on Facebook, or visit Reidhead’s blog, pursuitofexploration.wordpress.com.
Reidhead’s goal is to collect $5,000 to benefit autism. Thus far, about $2,700 has been raised.
All donations will benefit Autism Speaks, which is dedicated to increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders, to funding research into the causes, prevention and treatments for autism and to advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.
To donate, people may visit http://fundraise.autismspeaks.org/Markslist/campaign/display/profile.do?campaignId=1667.
Through a spot tracker page, people can follow Reidhead on his journey. To track Reidhead, visit http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=082CEnvbRpms.
Links to all of the above pages are on Reidhead’s blog, under the “1,000 Miles for Autism” heading.