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Paddling the upper section of the Missouri National Recreational River.

Paddling the upper section of the Missouri National Recreational River.

“Passed the mouth of the River Que Courre (rapid R[)] on the L. S. and Came to a Short distance above, this River is 152 yards wide at the mouth & 4 feet Deep Throwing out Sands like the Platt (only Corser) forming bars in its mouth, I went up this river three miles to a butifull Plain on the upper Side where the Panias once had a Village this river widens above its mouth and is devided by Sand and Islands, the Current verry rapid, not navagable for even Canoos without Great dificulty owing to its Sands.”

—William Clark, September 4, 1804

Fort Randall Dam marks the end of the Great Moat across South Dakota, just a few miles shy of the Nebraska border. Fellow boatman Tom Muenster drove two hours from his home to help us portage us around the dam. We afterwards sent the outboard motor home with him for storage, thrilled at the prospect of paddling free-flowing water!

The return to the river begins the beginning of the upper portion of the Missouri National Recreational River, one of the few river segments outside Montana still more-or-less unchanged from the days of Lewis and Clark. The Missouri flows southeast, marking the border between South Dakota and Nebraska. Flowing with the river current, it was satisfying to be propelled without a propellor.

Warm hues of orange-tinged chalky limestone bluffs line the river, topped by cedar woodlands intermixed with a smattering of green ash, burr oak, and Russian olive. We enjoyed a lovely float down to Sunshine Bottoms Landing on the Nebraska side. Feeling like a great explorer, this was the first time I ever set foot in the state. Nebraska always seemed so distant from my Montana home, yet it took us less than four months to get here.

The Missouri River is much as I imagined it, big and full of water. Yet, this year is unlike any known prior year. Lewis and Clark traveled upstream against a shallow, braided river, struggling to find deep enough water to keep their 55-foot keelboat afloat. Even with dams to store spring runoff, the Missouri should be shallow and full of sandbars by now.

Instead, the Missouri is running at minor flood stage six months after spring runoff began. Total runoff for the year nearly matches the devastating floods of 2011, yet more evenly distributed throughout the spring and summer. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uses it’s system of dams to hold back the surges, metering out water as much as necessary to make room for future precipitation. With so much water in the reservoirs, big releases and minor flooding are necessary to prevent major flooding later.

Paddling past riverfront homes in Verdel, Nebraska, most remained dry, while some were temporarily abandoned and surrounded by shallow water.

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We found dry land to camp in a small coulee behind a cattail swamp. The guys caught five nice small-mouth bass for a delicious fried fish dinner and breakfast. Dusk brought the nearby tremolo of a pair of screech owls, followed shortly afterwards by the hoo-hoo of two great-horned owls. Coyotes followed the chorus, as if our little coulee was the local amphitheater for the nightlife. Crickets maintained the ambient forest sounds to lull us to sleep.

Approaching the Niobrara River, the Missouri thickens into a maze of sandbars and swamps. William Clark recorded the name “River Que Courre” from French, for the “River That Runs.” Today’s Niobrara is a corruption of the Omaha-Ponca name Ní Ubthátha khe, meaning “The Wide-Spreading River.” As Clark noted, the river throws sand into the Missouri, forming a morass of sandbars.

A “bomb cyclone” in March dropped heavy rain and snow on frozen ground over the Great Plains. Unable to penetrate frozen soil, water flowed overland, covering half of Nebraska in standing water. Flood waters washed out Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River. An eleven-foot wall of water swept away farms and livestock, washed out bridges, and flooded the town of Niobrara.

A few miles below the Niobrara River, the Missouri National Recreational River is interrupted by Lewis and Clark Lake and Gavins Point Dam. This is the last dam on the Missouri, and the reservoir is only fifteen miles long.

Like all reservoirs, sediment settles out as the river turns to lake. With the Niobrara throwing so much sand into the river, Lewis and Clark Lake is already 30 percent full, forming a jungle-like maze of sandbars with miles of head-high phragmites, or common reed grass. Thanks to the high water and incoming river current, we were able to negotiate the maze through larger channels, only once dragging the heavy dugout canoe over a submerged sandbar.

We camped at Sand Creek Recreation Area, then paddled the remaining thirteen miles of open water to Gavins Point to portage the dam. Lewis and Clark Lake is exceptionally scenic, lined by beautiful cliffs of chalky limestone.

Local river angel Jarret Bies met us with the canoe trailer and helped us portage around the dam. He generously loaned us his car the following day to navigate the nearby town of Yankton, South Dakota. Scott and I toured the “Journeying Forward” exhibit at the Dakota Territorial Museum. It was a traveling exhibit created by American Rivers for the bicentennial celebration of the 1803 - 1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition, later gifted to the Yankton County Historical Society.

In the morning we walked to the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center overlooking the dam, trying not to miss anything important. And finally, we launched down the river. With the dams behind us, we can look forward to flowing river all the way to St. Louis!

Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Montana. He is the author of Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about Tom’s books and the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.

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