A lot of people would enjoy a getaway from the daily strains of modern life, maybe by going camping or escaping to a faraway destination. But a small group of amateur rivermen decided to go above and beyond the average vacation by retracing the path of famed pioneer William Ashley by horseback, canoe and keelboat.

Keelboat Muskrat, a 30-foot wooden boat reminiscent of the riverboats used by mountain traders and fur trappers, landed Wednesday at the Franklin Island access point on the Missouri River outside Boonville. The crew came to pay their respects at the gravesite of the man who inspired their journey.

Three years ago, Jack Mitch had the idea to follow Ashley’s path while studying the pioneer’s life, then roped in Gerry Messmer and the rest of the crew — Scott Amish Staggs, John Robert Harvey, Captain William Bailey, and Ron Schrotter.

For a few, the journey started in Green River, Wyoming. Some have joined along the way for the trek that will end on the riverfront in St. Charles.

On Wednesday they took a brief rest under the shade trees near the river with a few men who’d come to see them safely to shore before loading into pickups to drive several miles to Ashley’s gravesite in the Lamine Township of Cooper County.

The crewmen reverently approached the stone burial mound and kneeled for a moment of silence at the foot of the marker which reads “Explorer, soldier, statesman.”

Mitch said it was hard to describe the feeling of finally reaching Ashley’s grave.

“This has been a heck of a journey, and he is obviously our inspiration retracing this trail,” he said. “I kind of didn’t know for a while if we were going to be able to make this site. So it’s real humbling to be here. The man has such a history with the rendezvous system of the West.”

William Ashley — miner, land speculator, territorial militia officer, politician, frontiersmen, trapper, fur trader and hunter — was the co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He was born in 1778 in Virginia but made his home on land that would become part of Missouri after the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803.

Ashley became wealthy manufacturing gunpowder before becoming a brigadier general in the Missouri Militia during the War of 1812. When Missouri became a state, Ashley was elected its first lieutenant governor in 1820.

While he was serving the state, he also operated the fur company, sending men known as Ashley’s Hundred up the Missouri River for several large scale fur trapping expeditions from 1822 to 1825 in the Rocky Mountains. Ashley created the rendezvous system used by trappers, traders and Native Americans to exchange goods, which helped open the west. After his time in office, he explored the land that would become Utah and Colorado.

Ashley sold the fur company in 1826 and spent several more years in politics before running unsuccessfully for Missouri governor in 1836. His health deteriorated after the loss and he died of pneumonia 1838 at the age of 59.

Mitch, Amish and Messmer laid on the marker an “Ashley Return, 2019” coin in honor of the pioneer and their journey. The crew then lifted their rifles and pistols, loaded a round of gunpowder and fired a salute to Ashley.

The Muskrat crew is retracing the route of Ashley’s 1825 journey back from the fur trappers' rendezvous known as “Ashley’s Return.”

“I thought that no one has ever done a return from the rendezvous, everyone always rode into the rendezvous,” Mitch said. “A little while later, we thought, ‘Man it would be cool to have a keelboat along the way, just like Ashley did,’ and Bill [Captain William Bailey] said, ‘I’ll build that boat.’”

Bailey is a fur trade historian who also works restoring cabins, barns and other farm buildings. He previously built a buffalo skin boat and a St. Louis horse cart modeled after Alfred Jacob Miller paintings. The Muskrat project began mid-2018 in Savery, Wyoming, where he constructed the frame before taking it with him to Fort Morgan, Colorado, where he was hired to restore a barn. The keelboat was completed in his driveway in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, where a couple friends helped him install the legally required modern lighting system.

Dozens of people also contributed to the project through GoFundMe donations, and more than 1,000 people have tracked the keelboat’s progress on the Journey of the Keelboat "Muskrat" Facebook page.

The crew set off on horseback for about 500 miles to the Bighorn River before taking canoes and a bull boat 525 miles to the confluence of the Yellowstone River. They then boarded the keelboat for the 860-mile third leg of the expedition down the Missouri River toward their final destination in St. Louis.

The crew spent Wednesday morning navigating through dangerous debris containing pieces of the 103-year-old Norfolk Southern Railroad bridge that was washed away the prior evening near Brunswick by a large log jam.

At this point in the expedition, the crew consisted of Bailey, Mitch, Messmer, Scott Amish Staggs, Ron Schrotter and John Robert Harvey.

“We’d been coming through that [log jam] all day,” Harvey said.

The crew already experienced a scare when the Muskrat narrowly avoided crashing into a low railroad bridge in Atchison, Kansas.

“We shot across the river as best we could and managed to get the boat to shore or we would’ve been swept down and underneath the bridge and lost everything,” he said.

Not all members of the crew who landed in Howard County have been on the journey from the beginning, Harvey said.

“We have a rotating crew, people have been coming on and off," he said. "Three of these men started in southwestern Wyoming, and Captain Bill built this boat himself [in a year].”

They landed in the early afternoon at the nearest safe place, having reviewed information about potential landing sites sent the previous day.

Bailey said they can’t go blind into a landing site. The river is narrower, deeper and faster than it was in Ashley’s time. It can be very dangerous, especially for inexperienced rivermen. The jam made for a “white knuckle” morning of avoiding large logs, Bailey said, but adapting to conditions is one of his favorite parts of the trip.

“We aren’t rivermen, and we’ve got a lot left to learn, but we’ve learned a lot of survival things,” Bailey said.

When they stopped to visit Ashley’s grave, they were about 170 river miles from their final destination at the Blanchette Landing in St. Charles.

People have helped the crew along the way, offering supplies and places to camp, which is especially important because the crew isn’t traveling with a support vehicle.

“We’ve had 30 to 50 people give us food or fresh water, which is important on the Missouri River,” Messmer said. “We’ve had everything from antelope meat to elk meat, it’s been great.”

Amish said his highlight of the trip was teaching children along the way about pioneer life, like how to light a fire with flint and steel, load a flintlock rifle or make horsehair fishing line.

“To me, you’re reaching out to the public or the children, and maybe they’ll remember us and talk about us for a long time,” he said. “Maybe it will make an impact to where maybe they want to try something like this.”