Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #34

Camp Dubois

We toured the reconstructed fort at Camp Dubois, now well weathered and in need of re-reconstruction.

“We left our establishment at the mouth of the river du Bois or Wood river, a small river which falls into the Mississippi, on the east-side, a mile below the Missouri, and having crossed the Mississippi proceeded up the Missouri on our intended voyage of discovery… The day was showery and in the evening we encamped on the north bank six miles up the river. Here we had leisure to reflect on our situation, and the nature of our engagements: and, as we had all entered this service as volunteers, to consider how far we stood pledged for the success of an expedition, which the government had projected; and which had been undertaken for the benefit and at the expence of the Union: of course of much interest and high expectation.”

—Patrick Gass, May 14, 1804


The Lewis and Clark Expedition started a year before it began. Meriwether Lewis immersed in crash courses in Philadelphia for medicine, botany, zoology, and surveying, plus he learned how to take celestial observations necessary to determine latitude and longitude. He oversaw construction of the keelboat and engaged in the biggest shopping trip in then-American history. Lewis and Clark independently recruited men for the expedition and migrated slowly westward. However, they were not allowed to cross west of the Mississippi, since the Louisiana Purchase had not yet transferred from Spain to France to the United States. The expedition wintered over at the starting gate, building a small fort named Camp Dubois on the Wood River in today’s Illinois, officially launching the Corps of Discovery from there on May 14, 1804.

While they sat at the starting line, our Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery stalled near the finish line, camping for three days in St. Charles through a storm. We took the opportunity to tour Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site on the east side of the Mississippi in Illinois with my friend Larry Kinsella.

Cahokia is the largest pre-Columbia archaeological site north of Mexico. The city covered six square miles, including about 120 earthen mounds constructed to different sizes and shapes. The mounds were solid, used as platforms for ceremonial houses, burials, sacrifices, and home sites for city leaders. 

Cahokia Mounds Painting

We toured Cahokia Mounds, illustrated here as a bustling pre-Columbian civilization, now consisting of rounded, grassy mounds.

Building all the earthen mounds required an estimated 55 million cubic feet of soil, mostly hauled in woven pack baskets by thousands of laborers over many decades. The largest mound rises 100 feet high. It’s base is of similar size as the Great Pyramid of Giza. At its peak around 1100 A.D., Cahokia was home to up to 20,000 people, bigger than London at the time. 

Cahokia fits a common theme among horticultural peoples worldwide. Surplus food led to population booms and idle citizenry.  Building mounds, temples, and pyramids for purported religious purposes was an effective jobs creation program to keep people occupied and maintain social order. 

Our civilization is not so different. We portaged around several great earthen mounds as dams on the Missouri River. Interpretive displays at the corresponding visitor centers touted the benefits of building the dams, including flood control, irrigation, hydro-electricity, and “to create jobs,” the raison d’etre always tacked onto the end of the list. Thousands of workers were employed building the dams, our society’s means of keeping people occupied to maintain social order.

Cahokia declined for unknown reasons around 1300 and was abandoned by 1350. William Clark visited the northern edge of the city on January 9, 1804, where he noted an Indian fortress consisting of nine short mounds in a circle and “great quantities of Earthen ware & flints.”

Cahokia Stone Axes

Caches of stone axes were found near Cahokia Mounds.

Larry Kinsella has volunteered at Cahokia Mounds for more than forty years, working on archaeological digs, reconstruction projects, and interpretive displays. He made some of the stone axes and knives featured in interpretive displays, which is how I know him, through our mutual background teaching Stone Age living skills. 

We also toured the Mastodon State Historic Site south of St. Louis. While mammoths lived in grassland steppe habitat near the glaciers, mastodons lived in forests farther south and ate woody browse, the distant cousins having vastly different teeth from each other. Larry helped excavate a mastodon tusk on display and he made a series of spear points displayed there to illustrate the flintknapping process from start to finish.

Larry Kinsella at the Mastodon Site

Larry Kinsella flintknapped the spear points in this interpretive display at Mastodon State Historic Site in Missouri.

Scott’s girlfriend Margie flew in from Colorado and joined us for dinner with Mark Fingerhut. Mark also paddled the Missouri River this year, starting upstream where the Madison River exists Yellowstone National Park. He paddled by Three Forks, Montana two weeks ahead of our launch, so we were behind him all the way.

Bedded down in our tents below the Boat House Museum, people passing by wouldn’t have known we were there. However, someone encountered a friendly puppy and dog-napped Jubilee as a lost dog. Chris spent the following day at a coffee shop searching lost pet notices online and fortunately got her back. She was dog-napped again a day later, only minutes after being released to run off some puppy energy. Chris had to pay $35 to retrieve her from the pound, this time adding a dog tag and phone number to her collar. 

Scott Robinson and Margie Grant

Scott’s girlfriend Margie joined us on the river for a day.

Margie joined Scott in the canoe as we paddled out of St. Charles, doing an easy 25-mile day to Columbia Bottom, only 3.5 miles from the end of the Missouri River where it joins the Mississippi. 

We offered tobacco to the big rivers on behalf of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa of North Dakota, whom we met at their community pow wow at Trenton Lake back in early August. Brett and Anita Williamson sent the tobacco pouch with us containing the community’s prayers for the river and our journey. We added our own prayers for special people we met along the way, and gave final thanks to the river at our last camp of the journey. 

Canoeing on a frosty morning.

We awoke to heavy frost for our final day of the trip.

Our final day of paddling was largely symbolic. We awoke to heavy frost, a sure sign to wrap up the trip. We paddled out into the chilly morning, soon reaching the confluence where the Missouri joins the Mississippi. There isn’t any significant turbulence where the waters merge, just two great rivers flowing together like a slow-moving lake. 

The original Corps of Discovery continued fifteen miles down the Mississippi to end their 28-month expedition at St. Louis on September 23, 1806, where William Clark reported, “We Suffered the party to fire off their pieces as a Salute to the Town.  we were met by all the village and received a harty welcom from it’s inhabitants.”  

Gateway Arch

The 630-foot tall stainless steel Gateway Arch is the symbolic end point for Missouri River paddlers.

We followed their lead, paddling to the Gateway Arch, the iconic symbol of St. Louis. Conceived in the 1940s and completed in 1965, the 630-foot-tall stainless steel arch was created as a “memorial to the men who made possible the western territorial expansion of the United States, particularly President Jefferson, his aides Livingston and Monroe, the great explorers, Lewis and Clark, and the hardy hunters, trappers, frontiersmen and pioneers who contributed to the territorial expansion and development of these United States.” In today’s more politically correct terms, that would make it a monument to colonialism and the subjugation of Native American peoples. 

That’s the great challenge in celebrating American history. Thomas Jefferson and William Clark both owned slaves, and Meriwether Lewis supervised slaves on his mother’s plantation. All three men helped bring about the subjugation of Native Americans, especially William, who continued the work of his elder brother George Rogers Clark to ethnically cleanse Indians from all lands east of the Mississippi. We cannot and should not bury our history, but we can own it and re-interpret it. 

I grew up with Montana history where General George Custer was slaughtered by wild Indians at the Custer Battlefield National Monument, otherwise known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” In a re-appraisal of our history, Congress renamed the site as the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 1991. The revamped park includes a memorial to the Indians who fought and died there, as well as a telling of their side of the story. Piece by piece we are telling a more authentic narrative of our history, and that is an achievement to be appreciated and honored.

In St. Louis, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was renamed Gateway Arch National Park in 2018. We planned our arrival for Sunday, the least busy day to mingle with the big ships in the Port of St. Louis. First we paddled over the notorious “chain of rocks,” submerged so deeply below flood waters that the river flows over the obstacle as a smooth wave. 

Canoeing into St. Louis

We were joined by “Big Muddy” Mike Clark for the final gauntlet through the Port of St. Louis.

Shortly thereafter, we were joined by Mike Clark of Big Muddy Adventures for the final gauntlet through the port. Headwinds kicked up turbulence, aggravated somewhat by passing barges, but manageable overall. We paddled to the Arch, tied off the canoes, and ascended the stairs with our arms and paddles outstretched in victory at the conclusion of our five-month descent of the Missouri River!

That was the fantasy anyway. But waves threatened to batter the canoes against the flooded stairway, forcing us to abort the landing. We paddled another quarter-mile downriver to the boat ramp, while our greeting party and Channel 4 News crew raced to their cars to catch up. We completed our journey on November 3rd, five months and three days after we launched from Three Forks, Montana. John Gentry, also from our group, completed his journey two weeks earlier, having paddled ahead from Nebraska. 

Television interview

At the conclusion of our trip, Scott and I were both interviewed by Channel 4 News in St. Louis

Many people are under the illusion that we worked hard and suffered greatly on our expedition. I would describe the experience as akin to turtles drifting down the river on a log. John, Chris, and I all had extensive prior expedition experience. Scott seemingly gained the most from the journey, transitioning from an office cubicle to canoe to a new life of adventure. For all of us, it was a great privilege to paddle through the heart of America, see beautiful scenery, study our history, and meet some of the nicest people on the planet. 

With little fanfare, we loaded the canoes and bid hasty goodbyes. Scott and Margie rushed home to Colorado while Chris, Jubilee, and I enjoyed Mike Clark’s hospitality for two days while awaiting a ride back north. 

The Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery joins a surprisingly short list of all known Missouri River expeditions since 1962, maintained as a database by Norman Miller of Livingston, Montana. Thanks for reading along and being part of the journey!

Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Montana. The full story of the Missouri River expedition, along with hundreds of photos, will be published as “Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe,” available from www.hopspress.com in March 2020.

Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe.



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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #33

Missouri River and train

Looking downriver from Jefferson City, Missouri.

“About 2 oClock P. M we arrived at Saint Charles, where we passed the Evening with a great deal of satisfaction, and chearfulness, and all our men appeared to be in good spirits. We shall waite here for Captain Lewis, who is to meet us from Saint Louis;—  Saint Charles is a Village settled by French Inhabitants.    It is a handsome situation, laying on the North side of the River contains about 80 Houses, built in the french fashion, and has a small Roman Catholic Chapel.”

—Joseph Whitehouse, May 16, 1804

Advance to St. Charles

“Nice canoe. Did you make that?” Yeah. I carved it out last summer with Churchill Clark, a direct descendent of William Clark. “Oh wow, it’s really beautiful. What kind of wood is it?” Douglas fir. “Douglas fir? How much does that thing weigh?” At least 500 lbs. I haven’t weighed it yet. “It’s really beautiful. Where are y’all paddling to?” St. Louis. We started from Three Forks, Montana.  “Yeah? Wait. What? You’re paddling from where?!?” We’re doing the whole Missouri River from Three Forks, Montana to St. Louis. “That’s a long way. How long you been on the river?” We left home June first. “June first! That was a while ago… what, like three months?!?” Five months. “Five months?!? Let’s see, June, July, August, September, October… oh my, oh my, that’s a long time… how can y’all afford to take so much time off work?”

Drifting down the river in canoes

We’ve been asked many times how we managed to take five months off work to drift down the river.

We’ve answered variations of the same questions nearly every day of the expedition, that last question usually preceded by a look of confusion and bewilderment—as if we came from another planet where people don’t have jobs. For us, the answers are all different, yet united by a common theme. Chris works as a carpenter to save up money, then leaves to go on big adventures. He’s taken the last two years off work. Scott worked as a mechanical engineer making medical devices for the past fifteen years. He quit his job to join the expedition, planning a major life transition afterwards. 

John, who finished the river ahead of us, does wilderness therapy work with troubled teens. There are few expenses when camping with kids for weeks at a time, so it’s easy to save up thousands of dollars, then quit and live off the savings. 

Most of my friends are homeless, hopping from one adventure to another in quests of exploration and enlightenment. Owning a house makes me the anomaly. If I want to dismiss the employment question quickly, I say I’m an author and I’m writing a book about our river trip. People like that answer. It fits cultural expectations that perpetual work is necessary. The actual answer is more complicated, but readily evident in quaint rural towns along the river.

Hermann, Missouri

The lower Missouri River is lined with quaint historic towns, here a street in the town of Hermann.

With warm weather growing scarce, we took advantage of a nice day to paddle forty-five miles from Jefferson City to charming riverside town of Hermann. We pitched our tents in the city park and joined river angels Gary and Marcia Leabman for a lovely evening of homemade pizza and local history. 

Historic towns along the lower Missouri were built on bluffs, taking the high ground for flood protection. Brick houses are common, intermingled with wood frame structures. When Deb gave us a tour at White Cloud, Kansas, she pointed out modest, but solid houses that were selling for $8,000 to $10,000. In Weston, Missouri, Wendy told us how real estate prices were reasonable, but shot up as the town became a tourist destination. Hermann has also been discovered, driving up real estate prices.

Most people buy an expensive home near a job, but houses are vastly less expensive where jobs are scarce. It’s not difficult to cut expenses long enough to save money and pay cash, typically $20,000 to $50,000 for a modest house in urban and rural communities throughout the United States. 

In the lifelong game of Monopoly, people tend to invest beyond their means, starting out with properties like Marvin Gardens, Pennsylvania Avenue, or Boardwalk, which are too expensive to develop. My favorites were always the violet-purple properties of Virginia Avenue, States Avenue, and St. Charles Place, where houses and hotels were affordable, yet brought a decent return on the investment.

Blowing a glass ornament

Thru-paddlers are invited to stop by Astral Glass Studio in New Haven, Missouri to blow glass ornaments.

Passing by New Haven, we stopped to visit Lance Stroheker and Gary Rice at Astral Glass Studio. Gary moved the business there after being priced out of California. A few years ago Lance and Gary paddled the upper half of the Missouri River. Now they invite fellow thru-paddlers to make glass-blown Christmas ornaments and sign their wall. Lance bought several acres of cheap land nearby, and he is preparing to build his own home.

That’s how I started out in the early 1990s. My then-partner and I worked part-time in wilderness therapy,  then bought land, lived in a tent, and paid cash for building materials. Our combined income was only $10,000 to $12,000, but we gained $50,000 in annual value through property improvements and avoided mortgage interest. Living debt free with few monthly expenses, there was no need for a 9-to-5 job, providing ample time to pursue a writing career, raise a family, and go on great adventures. 

Down the street from Astral Glass, Shane Camden is fulfilling his entrepreneurial dream in a warehouse he bought from city for $1 and his pledge to renovate the structure. He launched Paddle Stop New Haven, where he produces beautiful hand-crafted wooden canoes, kayaks, and stand-up-paddle boards. 

Scott and his partner Margie have telescoped down from mortgaged houses to renting and will transition to a van after the expedition, giving up life in a cubicle for a life of adventure, supplemented by part-time work to pay minimal bills while incubating their own entrepreneurial ideas. Scott has done it before, landing on Free Parking every time around the board. It’s a great way to save money quickly to invest in adventures or assets. A monthly gym membership provides a convenient place for showers and exercise.

Paddling to Washington, Missouri we found another booming tourist town, where river angels Bruce and Marvis Templar and their friend Ron treated us out to dinner, eager to hear our stories from the trail. And finally we advanced to St. Charles, a short twenty-eight miles from the confluence where the Missouri River joins the Mississippi. Here our triumphant race to the finish line was waylaid by another major storm. 

Boat House and Museum

We camped for three nights beneath the Lewis and Clark Boat House and Museum in St. Charles, Missouri.

For the original Corps of Discovery, St. Charles was the last town of substance before heading upriver. They camped for five nights while awaiting Lewis’s arrival from nearby St. Louis. We camped for three nights while the storm dropped heavy rain that gradually tapered off to drifting snowflakes.

The Lewis and Clark Boat House and Museum kindly let us pitch our tents in the sheltered, open-walled lower level of the building, where they keep a replica keelboat and two pirogues. While Lewis and Clark were on the cusp of starting their great adventure, we were equally close to finishing our own.

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.

Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe.


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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #32

Fall Colors on the Missouri River

Fall colors on the lower Missouri River.

“At 8 ms. passed the mouth of a Creek Called Saline or Salt R on the L. Sd. this 〈Creek〉 River is about 30 yds. wide, and has So many Licks & Salt Springs on its banks that the Water of the Creek is Brackish, one Verry large Lick is 9 ms. up on the left Side    the water of the Spring in this Lick is Strong as one bushel of the water is said to make 7 lb. of good Salt.”

—William Clark, June 6, 1804

A River Relieved

Paddling the channelized Missouri River provided a leaf-by-leaf transition into fall colors, starting with isolated pockets of reds and yellows way back at Sioux City. The colors gradually increased downriver, then stalled and began rewinding towards summer greens as we raced southward. But the cold front that overtook us slowed our advance while accelerating the advance of changing colors. Our southern migration halted when the Missouri turned east at Kansas City, allowing fall colors to engulf us from the river banks. 

Fall colors here are not like the brilliant carpet of gold I know at home, where uniform forests of cottonwoods turn bright yellow along the rivers. Colors here are more diverse, reflecting the diversity of trees, but also more muted, like the daubed brush strokes of an impressionist painting. A thousand shades of yellow, orange, and red mingle with a background of lingering green, subdued by intermingled grays and browns. Here the cottonwoods seem to drop their leaves without a color phase. 

Fall colors on the Missouri River

Fall colors are rich and varied, daubed onto the landscape like an impressionist painting.

We were told the channelized river would be boring, “every curve the same” for 750 miles. But with the swift current and ever-changing leaves, we enjoyed front row seats to the best show on fall TV. The addition of limestone bluffs made this scrolling painting one of the most scenic parts of the Missouri River.

Downstream from Glasgow, we passed near Boone’s Lick State Historic Site, a mile northeast of the river.  The lower Missouri was already well known to settlers before William Clark noted the abundance of salt licks. Just one year later, Daniel Boone’s sons Nathan and Daniel Morgan Boone partnered with James and Jesse Morrison to commercialize the area’s largest salt spring.

Salt production was very labor-intensive prior to industrialization. At Boone’s Lick salt works, workers heated brine water in iron kettles to steam off the water, leaving crystallized salt behind. Cooking off 250 to 300 gallons of brine water produced one bushel of salt. The business grew to employ twenty men laboring over sixty kettles. They produced thirty bushels of salt per day, which was shipped downstream to St. Louis via keelboats and sold for $2.50 per bushel. 

Belladonna Beaver

We took a layover day at Cooper’s Landing and toured nearby Columbia, Missouri.

Evening brought us to Cooper’s Landing, a “must-stop” marina and campground on the Missouri River where Churchill Clark carved two dugout canoes from a single cottonwood tree prior to carving Belladonna Beaver in Montana.  Normally a lively place, Cooper’s Landing was in recovery from earlier flooding and in transition to new ownership. Unusually chilly weather and cancelled music venues kept the crowds away, but site manager Rodney invited us to dine with him for a delicious spread of baked catfish. 

Friend Michael Morgan reached out and offered to chauffeur us around nearby Columbia. At the University of Missouri we toured the Museum of Anthropology, which includes the Grayson Archery Exhibit of bows and arrows from around the world. The Museum of Archaeology in the same building took us off-theme to explore Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and other European artifacts and art. Although the museums are small, and lack signage outside the building, the collections are of the highest quality.

Headed back to camp, we enjoyed a lovely hike to the Eagle Bluffs Overlook, exploring trees and shrubs along the way. I saw my first-ever sassafras tree, whose roots were the original source of root beer flavoring. Michael pointed out the unique leaves with three different shapes, like a “football, ghost, and glove,” as he teaches it to children. 

Sassafras Leaves

Sassafras has three different leaf shapes, including a simple football-shaped leaf, a three-parted trident or “ghost,” and a lobed, mitten-shaped leaf.

We stopped along the road to check out the base-ball-sized, brainy-looking Osage orange fruits, which smell slightly citrusy. Originally eaten and distributed by megafauna, such as mastodons and giant ground sloths, the trees have substantially lost territory since the oversized herbivores went extinct after the last Ice Age. Several species of Osage orange went extinct without their co-evolved companions. 

Saline seeps and falling leaves are not all that enters the river. A small trail of litter peppers the Missouri all the way from Montana, growing visibly worse below population centers such as Kansas City. I plucked a floating water bottle from the river, imported from Fiji, nearly 7,000 miles away, the non-degradable container now littering this beautiful river. Flood waters exacerbated the trash problem, picking up random goods and trash from every private and public parcel along the way.

Fiji water bottle trash.

I plucked a floating water bottle from the water, imported from nearly 7,000 miles away to pollute our beautiful river.

A half-day of paddling brought us to Wilson’s Serenity Point opposite Jefferson City, the capitol of Missouri. Here we connected with Missouri River Relief, the premier nonprofit organization working to benefit our nation’s longest river. MRR offers river ecology classes to students and teachers and hosts three or four major river clean-up days each year. Here they worked with 200 dedicated volunteers to spend the morning collecting trash from ten miles of riverbank on the east side of the river. 

Rain was settling in when we arrived, dispersing most of the volunteers. We joined the remaining crew to sort recyclables from trash. The clean-up gathered 254 bags of trash, plus boatloads of beadboard insulation, 41 tires, a chemical tank, and a whole slew of propane tanks, hot water heaters, mini-refrigerators, chest freezers, and coolers. Crews found not just one message in a bottle, but ten of them over the ten-mile clean up. The waste more than filled the rented construction dumpster, the excess bags stacked until an additional dumpster arrived.

Missouri River Relief river clean-up

Volunteers collected numerous boatloads of trash during a river clean-up hosted by Missouri River Relief.

My impression from nearly five months of paddling is that far more trash enters the river than is readily visible along the banks. There is likely a steady stream of garbage tumbling along the river bottom to the Mississippi and down to the Gulf of Mexico.  I visited Padre Island National Seashore in Texas two years ago, awed by the amount of trash heaved onto the beaches from the swirling currents of the Gulf of Mexico. It is estimated that 40 percent of the trash in the Gulf comes down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. 

We unintentionally contributed litter through 2,000 miles of paddling, leaving behind a small trail of missed hats, sunglasses, lids, silverware, and even a fishing pole that disappeared over the side of a canoe. However, we more than offset our footprint by picking up trash, occasionally finding useful gear along the way, such as sunglasses and a fishing net.

Solving the litter problem requires a complex, multi-faceted approach that addresses everything from disposable containers to new setbacks along flood-prone waterways. But that isn’t an excuse for individual apathy. There wouldn’t be a litter problem if each person simply picked up more garbage than they dropped. It is easy to blame the schmucks who litter. Yet, equally to blame are those who dismiss litter as someone else’s responsibility or beneath their dignity to clean up. The world’s problems are immense, yet readily manageable if each person contributes to the extent readily within their means to do so.

From Serenity Point I enjoyed a walk across the bridge to visit Lewis and Clark Trailhead Plaza near the capitol building. We camped overnight with the Relief crew, enjoying the warmth of good company and a hardwood fire to dry our damp clothes even during continued sprinkles. 

Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Montana. The full story of the Missouri River expedition, along with hundreds of photos, will be published as “Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe,” available from www.hopspress.com in March 2020. 

Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe.


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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #31

Lexington Riverfront Park

Lexington Riverfront Park was closed due to flooding, but locals drove through six-inch-deep for several hundred feet water to reach the parking lot and boat ramp.

“Set out after a heavy Shower of rain and proceeded on the Same Course of last night    passed a large butifull Prarie on the S. S. opposit a large Island, Calld Saukee Prarie, a gentle breese from the S. W. Some butiful high lands on the L. S.    passed Som verry Swift water to day, I saw Pelicans to day on a Sand bar, my servant York nearly loseing an eye by a man throwing Sand into it.” 

—William Clark, June 20, 1804

Taste of Freedom

Lewis and Clark often referred to their crew as “the men” or “a man” without specifying names. Clark didn’t elaborate why a member of their expedition threw sand in York’s eyes near today’s Lexington, Missouri, but it was apparently an intentional act. The Corps of Discovery consisted of white men, many raised in the South within the culture of slavery, who may have tormented York for entertainment or because they resented having an African American on the expedition. Barely a month into the journey, the crew wasn’t wholly disciplined, and hadn’t yet grown together as a team.

Over time, however, York played a role equal or greater than that of the other men. Although slaves were prohibited from using firearms at home, York carried a gun on the expedition and proved to be a successful hunter. He worked side-by-side with the men and joined them in celebrations and dancing. York played a critical role in diplomacy with the tribes, impressing Indians who had never seen a black man before. Lewis and Clark honored York by naming a group of islands after him near Townsend, Montana. And when the co-captains polled the crew regarding a location to build a fort for the winter of 1805, they counted votes from both York and Sacagawea. 

Having enjoyed a taste of freedom and equality, York requested release after the expedition, which William Clark denied. The two men had grown up side-by-side as playmates, albeit with one as slave and the other as master. Their post-expedition relationship soured, and after several bitter years, Clark finally caved to York’s request. 

The issue of slavery divided the United States from the outset, with unresolved issues boiling over into the Civil War of 1861-1865. Lexington, Missouri was the site of one early conflict in the war. 

We paddled into Lexington Riverfront Park in our continuing journey of rediscovery. The site was closed due to flooding, but locals drove through six-inch-deep for several hundred feet water to reach the parking lot and boat ramp. Flood debris provided the aura of disorder, as if entering the aftermath of a minor battle. After setting up camp, Scott and I walked into town to visit the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site. It was evening, but we had the good fortune to arrive when the museum was open for a meeting, and we were allowed to tour the exhibits.


Missouri State Guard troops pushed wet hemp bales up the hill for protection as they advanced on the Union position.

In September of 1861, Colonel James A. Mulligan and 3,500 Union soldiers took the high ground, building fortifications around the Masonic College. A natural spring provided water, but inadequate to meet the needs of all the men and horses.  They were surrounded by Major General Sterling Price and 15,000 soldiers of the Missouri State Guard, who largely waited while the hot sun and insufficient water wore down Union forces. On the third day the State Guard used wet hemp bales as mobile breastworks, rolling the bales uphill for protection as they advanced on the northern army’s position. Mulligan surrendered, bolstering optimism and support for the Confederate cause.

During the battle, one of Price’s own regiments hit a column in the county courthouse with a cannonball, immediately across the street from his headquarters. Although the cannonball fell out of the hole, it was later permanently affixed in the column for posterity.

Cannonball in Lexington Courthouse

A cannonball lodged in a column of the county courthouse.

The Union lost the battle, but ultimately won the war. Traumatized veterans from North and South streamed up the Missouri River to form blended communities in the goldfields of the Montana Territory. The former mining town of Sterling, not far from my home in Pony, was likely named after Major General Sterling Price, while nearby Sheridan was named after the Union’s General Philip Sheridan. My great grandfather Raymond Thomas Beam followed later, moving from Missouri to Montana in 1906.

While the Union victory forcibly held the United States together, the underlying issues and political divisions remained. A century after the South surrendered, the nation was still clawing inch by inch through desegregation and other civil rights issues. Today’s political divide largely follows 150-year-old fault lines. America remains shrouded in the fog of war as deeply entrenched sides hurl scathing insults at one another across social media.

Paddling through fog

We woke to a heavy blanket of fog.

We awoke to a different kind of fog, dense and heavy on the river, delaying our departure until we could perceive trees silhouetted against the opposite bank. In our longest day of the journey, we paddled fifty-five miles to the small town of Miami, Missouri, greatly aided by the swift river current. 

A few miles shy of camp we encountered a heavy barge pushing upriver. Conditions were ideal, with calm waters, no wind, and ample room to steer clear of the behemoth watercraft. The initial wake gently rolled across the river in predictable fashion, easily handled by aiming our canoes into the oncoming waves. 

A half-mile below the barge, however, we encountered the rear waves. The tow boat pushing the barge dug into the river, creating a massive watery hole followed by a rising, almost fountain-like wave that settled into huge rollers aimed downstream, lifting us several feet on each swell to come crashing back down again. 

A mile behind the barge the rear waves merged with the side waves echoing off the banks to form turbulence matched only by that of our politically-divided country. We heaved up in the air on gridded, egg-carton-like peaks of nonlinear waves, crashing into pockets that threatened to swamp the canoe at any moment. Two miles behind the barge we were still fighting substantial turbulence. By the time we reached camp, damp and chilled in the last moments of light, the barge was at least five miles upstream, yet the river had not fully regained it’s glassy calm.

A change to windy weather necessitated a layover day. River angel Rob Kalthoff generously loaned us his truck to reach nearby Marshall to do laundry, restock supplies, and buy warmer clothes for the chilly weather. A half-day of paddling then brought us to Glasgow, where we camped in the park and celebrated Chris’s birthday with delicious pizza at Muddy Mo Pizzaria. 

Benjamin Lewis Library

Librarian Amanda Haes offered a tour of the historic Benjamin Lewis library in Glasgow, Missouri.

I visited the Lewis Library, funded by Benjamin Lewis, who earned his fortune raising hemp and tobacco before the Civil War. A personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, Lewis donated money to the Union cause and voluntarily freed his slaves, hiring anyone who wanted to stay. In 1864 he was captured and tortured by outlaw rebel Bill Anderson who considered Lewis a traitor to the southern cause. 

 Lewis miraculously escaped after being severely beaten and trampled by a horse, but died from the injuries two years later, according to librarian Amanda Haes. Such is the price of liberty and freedom. In his will, Lewis provided funds to build the stately library, which opened in 1867. It has become the oldest library in continuous operation west of the Mississippi. 

Thomas J. Elpel is a resident of Pony, Montana and the author of numerous books on nature and sustainable living. His mother, Jan Elpel, authored Berrigan’s Ride and two sequels based in the mining camps of southwest Montana in the post-Civil War era, available from www.hopspress.com.

Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe.

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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #30

Kaw Point Park

Lewis and Clark camped for three days at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers, now Kaw Point Park in Kansas City.

“Set out from the Kansas river ½ past 4 oClock, proceeded on passed a Small run on the L. S. at ½ Mile a Island on the S. S. at 1½ me.    Hills above the upr. pt of Isd. L. S.    a large Sand bar in the middle. Passed a verry bad place of water, the Sturn of the Boat Struck a moveing Sand & turned within 6 Inches of a large Sawyer, if the Boat had Struck the Sawyer, her Bow must have been Knocked off & in Course She must hav Sunk in the Deep water below.” 

—William Clark, June 29, 1804


The untamed Missouri formed a minefield of sawyers or snags, dead trees anchored to the bottom. Colliding with a sawyer could have sunk the keelboat and ended the Lewis and Clark Expedition at any point on the Missouri. The rise of steamboat technology soon led to a commercial boom up the Missouri River, but it remained a treacherous journey. Between boiler explosions and sawyers, steamboats rarely survived for five years. An estimated 400 steamboats sunk on the Missouri before railroads provided a safe and economical alternative in the late 1800s. 

Navigating today’s channelized river is vastly easier, although it does have its own challenges. We hoped to camp in the middle of Kansas City for easy access to town. Helpful folks on the Missouri River Paddlers Group on Facebook offered eighty comments with pros and cons regarding safety and legal issues for potential camping options near the city. With the forecast calling for a good day followed by a windy day, we opted to paddle through the city and catch a ride back. Wendy Maupin joined us for half a day, exiting the river to work in town.

Kansas City is technically two separate cities, one in Kansas, the other in Missouri, separated by the Kansas River that marks the boundary between the two states. We stopped briefly at the confluence at Kaw Point Park where Lewis and Clark camped June 26 – 28, 1804 for respite and to repair their boats. 

River angel Bill Fessler graciously invited us to camp at his recreation cabin downstream at Orrick, in spite of extensive flood damage there. During the height of the flood, Bill kayaked through his own cabin. Now the water was down, and the grass was green, yet mucking out the house remained a daunting project. Nevertheless, Bill fired up the barbecue grill and greeted us with hamburgers. We enjoyed a lovely evening around the campfire with Bill and friend John.

Steamboat Arabia Paddlewheel

The reconstructed paddlewheel of the steamboat Arabia turns in the museum lobby.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum was a must-see in Kansas City as we toured the town with Bill. The Arabia was headed upstream in September of 1856 with 130 passengers and 220 tons of cargo when it hit a sawyer and sank. Fortunately, the upper decks remained above water, allowing rescue of all passengers. Whiskey kegs and other cargo on the lower deck were swept away with the river, but everything in the cargo hold was preserved in a watery time capsule. The boat continued sinking deeper into the muddy riverbed for years, until the river shifted course, leaving the Arabia forty-five feet below ground in what later became a cornfield.

The approximate location was retained over time, but accessing the ship below ground and below the water table stymied early recovery efforts. In 1988, amateur treasure hunters Bob Hawley and sons obtained landowner permission to excavate the Arabia, partnering with friends Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell on the enterprise. The ship itself was largely beyond salvage, the upper decks having been ravaged by the river, but they recovered the engine, boilers and paddlewheel core. The real treasure was the merchandise in the cargo hold, originally destined for resale in frontier towns. 

Treasures from the steamboat Arabia

The cargo hold of the steamboat Arabia was filled with merchandise headed to frontier towns.

The team salvaged the world’s largest collection of pre-civil war artifacts, totaling hundreds of thousands of items, including saws, axe heads, hinges, dishes, silverware, beads, and clothing. Vegetable fibers, such as cotton, degraded over time, but animal proteins, such as leather and wool, survived in like-new condition. Although the team intended to sell the artifacts, they were inspired by the treasure trove to create the Arabia Steamboat Museum and keep the collection together. Thirty years after excavation, the family-run operation is still cleaning and preserving artifacts for display.

Driving through Kansas City, we stopped in a forest park to shake some wild persimmon trees, easily identified by their dark, cubical bark. Four small persimmons fell to the ground; three were still firm and astringent tasting, the fourth mushy and sweet.

Rolling back the wheel of time, we toured Fort Osage National Historic Landmark downriver at Sibley, Missouri. William Clark noted the bluff overlooking the river in 1804, returned from the Pacific Ocean in 1806, then led a team back to establish Fort Osage as a trading post in 1808. 

Fort Osage National Historic Landmark

We toured Fort Osage National Historic Landmark at Sibley, Missouri.

The U.S. government ran a series of trading posts like Fort Osage to undersell private traders who charged Indians extortive prices and often sold alcohol, inflaming relations on the frontier. The town of Sibley was named after George C. Sibley who ran the profitable operation for the government. 

Fort Osage was abandoned in 1822 as the Osage Indians ceded land and migrated west ahead of white settlement. The site was rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1940s and subsequently rebuilt based on the foundations aided by surveys and drawings produced by William Clark.

Back at Bill Fessler’s house, we were joined by Bill Nichols of the Sierra Club, who brought barbecue dinner with him. Bill recently led a group on a week-long canoe trip down the Jefferson River Canoe Trail in Montana, one of the three rivers that come together to form the Missouri. Bill provided a detailed break-down of their experiences and challenges and an estimate of the tourist dollars the group contributed to the Montana economy.  From Lewis and Clark to the Steamboat Arabia to newfound friends around the campfire, we are all connected by the great Missouri River.

Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and author of Participating in Nature and numerous other books about wilderness survival, botany, and sustainable living. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about Tom’s books and the expedition fundraiser for the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe.

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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #29


The weather turned cold on us, with many miles yet to go.

“A verry warm day (worthy of remark that the water of this river or Some other Cause, I think that the most Probable throws out a greater preposn. of Swet than I could Suppose Could pass thro: the humane body    Those men that do not work at all will wet a Shirt in a Few minits & those who work, the Swet will run off in Streams).”

—William Clark, July 6,1804

Cold Front

“You’re lucky you weren’t here a few days ago when it was 95ºF and humid,” Deb said, echoing the conditions Lewis and Clark experienced while ascending this stretch of the river in mid-summer.

Our last storm at Indian Cave State Park brought only light rain, but temperatures dropped precipitously in its wake. We were at the southern edge of a cold front that brought heavy snow and frigid temperatures up north, including two feet of snow in my hometown of Pony, Montana. We’ve been migrating south, trying to stay ahead of the changing seasons, but near-freezing temperatures and cold wind announced the end of summer vacation.

We paddled away from Indian Cave with a strong tailwind, largely ameliorated by heavy tree cover along the banks. Less than ten miles later we hit a treeless stretch with a side wind that blew us against the only patch of dry ground on the flooded river. Taking shelter for the rest of the day, I started and nearly finished reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The book details the Indian Wars from the perspective of the conquered, rather than the conquerors. It should be required reading for all students of American History.

Foot warming sack

A hot water bottle in a reflective sack kept my bare feet warm on a chilly morning.

Paddling conditions were vastly better by dawn. A hot water bottle in a reflective sack kept my feet warm through the chilly morning, and the afternoon was comfortable enough. Local river angel Deborah Bryan tracked our progress online, greeting us at the boat ramp moments after we arrived in White Cloud, Kansas. Deb invited us to stay in the old general store she is restoring on Main Street. She is working on several buildings and leading the effort to revitalize the community. We enjoyed hot stew from the crockpot, and Deb gave us an extensive tour of the area. 

Wooden Indian

Deborah Bryan is working to restore and revitalize the town of White Cloud, Kansas.

Her great-great-great grandfather was Chief Ma-Has-Ka, or White Cloud of the Iowa Tribe, who signed a treaty with William Clark in which the Iowa, Sac, and Fox tribes moved west of the Missouri River, peacefully granting lands on the east side to white settlement. Deb hopes to meet Churchill Clark, who helped me carve the dugout canoe. As the fourth-great grandson of William Clark, the two descendants could shake hands in a renewal of peaceful relations for another generation.

River conditions greatly improved below White Cloud, with fewer breaches in the levy system. I relaxed for the first time in days, comforted by the sight of nearly continuous dry ground on both sides of the river channel. Light motorboat traffic hinted at functional boat ramps for access. A pleasant day of paddling brought us to St. Joseph, where river angels Emma Gossett and Derrick Boos waved us into town, generously treated us to dinner, and showed us around the town. 

Deb had arranged permission to pitch our tents at the port, which was a great campsite, providing easy access to downtown St. Joseph. However, we returned to find three inches of water in the dugout canoe, thanks to a passing sand barge. Sand is dredged from the river bottom upstream for a concrete plant located a short distance downstream. I bailed out the canoe, hoping it wouldn’t happen again.

Pony Express Museum

We toured the Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri.

We stayed long enough in the morning to tour the home where Jesse James was shot and killed in 1882, meeting up briefly with Bicycle Dan, who has been riding parallel to our route. We also toured the Pony Express Museum, learning about the legendary mail service that employed 120 riders, 184 way stations, 400 horses, and hundreds of additional employees to provide fast and reliable communication between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California. The Pony Express opened in April of 1860 and closed eighteen months later, eclipsed by nearly instant telegraph service.

All packed up and ready to leave town, we stood on the riverbank while the sand barge passed by, it’s massive wake riling the canoes into bucking broncos on the water. Chris’s dry bag bounced off into the river, and he sprang into action, diving flat onto the canoe, then over into the roiling waters to catch the bag. I bailed six inches of water out the canoe while he put on dry clothes. An otherwise pleasant day brought us to Atchison, Kansas, where we obtained permission through the police department to pitch our tents on the narrow strip of grass between the road and the boat ramp.

Bicycle Dan showed up in the morning with Wendy Maupin of Weston, Missouri, who recognized Dan in town from our online posts. Wendy previously visited Montana while our mutual friend Churchill was staying at my house, and now we were in her neighborhood. We toured the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum on the bluff above town. Looking out over the river, I wondered how much that aerial view inspired Earhart’s interest in flying. 

Kayaking the Missouri River

Dan and Wendy joined us for a day of paddling on the river.

Wendy and Dan brought a kayak and joined us for an almost-warm day on the water, flying downstream at 6 mph. Local river angel, Larry Caster invited us to camp at his riverfront cabin. The structure was built on pylons above the ground, but spring flood waters still ran several feet deep through the house. Larry and wife Annette laboriously cleaned up the mud, but haven’t fully refurnished the building. The access road was washed out by a new channel cut through a breach in the levy system, rendering the cabin inaccessible except by boat. 

We enjoyed a lovely afternoon around the fire before Larry, Wendy, and Dan all headed downriver, and we sought shelter inside, grateful for solid walls against the cold breeze. 

Paddling to Bee Creek at dawn, Windy picked us up for a tour of historic Weston. We later paddled another fifteen miles, tied the canoes at the river bank and caught a ride back to her house to sleep. The chill of autumn nights is more than offset by the warm hospitality of folks all along the Missouri River. After four and half months living as vagabonds, we are ready for some civilized comforts.

Thomas J. Elpel is the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about Tom’s books and the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.

Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe.


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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #28

Firing the cannon at Fort Atkinson

A re-enactor fires the cannon at Fort Atkinson.

“The Situation of our last Camp Councill Bluff or Handssom Prarie appears to be a verry proper place for a Tradeing establishment & fortification    The Soil of the Bluff well adapted for Brick, Great deel of timbers above in the two Points.    many other advantages of a Small nature.    and I am told Senteral to Several nations    Viz. one Days march from the Ottoe Town, one Day & a half from the great Pania  village, 2 days from the Mahar Towns, two ¼ Days from the Loups Village, & Convenient to the Countrey thro: which Bands of the Soux hunt.”

—William Clark, August 3, 1804

Water World

William Clark’s vision for a fort at Council Bluff was realized fifteen years later when Col. Henry Atkinson led an expedition of 1,120 men to build a string of forts up the Missouri River. Their trial steamboats floundered against the river’s currents, sandbars, and snags, making Council Bluff the terminus of the expedition. The soldiers constructed a substantial, but short-lived fort in the woodlands below the bluff. Severe winter conditions contributed to scurvy, claiming the lives of 160 men, followed by record high spring runoff that flooded the fort and necessitated reconstruction on top of the bluff, per Clark’s recommendations. 

Fort Atkinson served as the gateway to the fur trade, becoming the first military post west of the Missouri River, the largest in the country. Westward colonization brought an end to the fort by 1827. It was reconstructed in the 1980s and 90s as Fort Atkinson State Historical Park. 

The Missouri River long ago shifted three miles east of the fort, while ongoing flood conditions made landing impossible, so we paddled downriver to Omaha and caught a ride back to the fort. 

Finding a dry and legal place to camp near Omaha proved problematic. Our friend Dan bicycled ahead of us to research possible sites downtown, but without success. Chris, Scott, and I stopped to assess our options by Freedom Park, a Naval museum featuring a ship, submarine, jet and other military hardware. Unable to locate any place to camp legally, we ultimately pitched tents within the park, which was otherwise closed due to flooding.  Scott called it, “the coolest campsite ever.” I hid my green tent between two green army trucks grown over with grass, vines, and brush, as if hiding out in a post-apocalyptic era.

Camping among army equipment

I pitched my green tent between two green army trucks grown over with grass, vines, and brush, as if hiding out in a post-apocalyptic era.

John, meanwhile, paddled onward, bound for the finish line in St. Louis. I was sorry to lose him from the expedition, but he was urgently needed back home. The rest of us hunkered down for another major thunderstorm, which dropped a couple inches of rain, but thankfully tapered off by morning. We hiked uptown and caught a ride to Fort Atkinson with Mary Langhorst of the Mouth of the Platte Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Mary is part of a small army of volunteers who offer living history demonstrations at Fort Atkinson one weekend per month.

Although Fort Atkinson was a military post, it’s location far from civilization necessitated self-sufficiency, and most soldiers were employed tending crops and livestock. Re-enactors fired the canon, skinned and processed a bison, demonstrated blacksmithing, tinwork, and Dutch oven cooking, among dozens of activities. Scott and Dan jumped in on the pie-eating contest. Local survival instructors Doug Carlson and Rod Vanhorn joined us in the afternoon and later gave us a ride back to Omaha.

Dutch oven strawberry pie

Re-enactors cooked strawberry pie in Dutch ovens to share with park visitors… delicious!

Hiking down the railroad tracks past homeless camps towards our riverside hideout, I too felt homeless. Hiding out in the bushes like fugitives gnawed on my nerves. Did anyone molest our tents or canoes? Would we get in trouble for camping in the closed park? Wading through the flooded access road and mud to get to our mosquito-infested camp amid the flood debris, I wondered if conditions might continue like this all the way to St. Louis.

In the morning we paddled down to Riverfront Marina, which was also closed due to flooding, but parked our canoes and climbed over the fence to tour the town. We enjoyed a short visit next door at National Park Service headquarters for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Dan arranged a Lyft to the Western Historic Trails Center on the Iowa side in Council Bluffs, the city having been named after Clark’s bluffs at Fort Atkinson. Keith Bystrom of the Platte Mouth Chapter LCTHF met us there and gave us a royal tour of the area, plus lunch at a lovely Mexican restaurant. Lewis and Clark Park provided a great view over the Missouri River, including Interstate 25 below us, which was recently closed due to flooding.

Overlook from Council Bluffs, Iowa

Lewis and Clark Park provided a great view over the Missouri River, including Interstate 25 below us, which was recently closed due to flooding.

Back on the river, we paddled to Haworth Park Campground by Bellevue, which was entirely flooded except for half the parking lot by the submerged boat ramp. We pitched our tents on the asphalt. The nearby Children’s Lewis & Clark Interpretive Art Wall tells the Corps of Discovery story in hand-painted tiles created by school kids grades 3 through 6 from communities along the trail. It is a fantastic mural. 

The morning sun brought the local police to investigate our tents in the closed campground, but they accepted our need for a safe campsite and wished us well. Flooding is widespread, but not deep enough to wash houses off their foundations into the river. A few small outbuildings and some campers moved short distances, lodging in adjacent trees, but mostly the river is lined with houses and campers  on tiny islands surrounded by water, or at worst flooded a foot deep on the lowest level.

I can imagine folks cleaning up after spring flooding and putting their lives back together, but it’s been six months of repeated flooding with no end of sight. Early snowfall on saturated soils across the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains hints at more flooding to come. Rather than a post-apocalyptic world, it seemed like a pre-apocalyptic glimpse of the new normal in a climate-changed world.

Riverview Marina State Park at Nebraska City was completely underwater. We tied off at the grain elevators in town and caught a ride with Keith Bystrom back to his house for a fabulous steak dinner and camped in his yard. We toured the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center in the morning, which featured a great exhibit about fishing on the Expedition.

A day of paddling brought us to Brownville, where the bridge has been closed since March due to flood damage to the access road, severely impacting business in town.  We haven’t seen any boats on the river in days, not because it is particularly dangerous, but because there is no means to get boats on or off the river when every boat ramp and marina is closed due to flooding.  It is safe enough to paddle down the channel, giving wide berth to breaks in the levees where swift currents exit or enter the main channel. 

Walking down a flooded road

Scott walks down the flooded road at Indian Cave State Park, back to our canoes at the boat ramp.

Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel a constant state of mild anxiety paddling through this flooded world, with the river six feet above flood stage. The boat ramp at Indian Cave State Park consisted of another parking lot surrounded by water. The park manager said we were crazy, sloshing down the flooded access road through to ask her about camping. But she instructed us to paddle around to a bay and up to the perfect campsite to weather yet another storm. 

Hiking up to a scenic vantage point, I saw for first time that the river extended two or three miles beyond the river channel. I’ve been wondering if we should have followed John’s lead and paddled like crazy for the end. But at Indian Cave there were great trails to explore and a whole new ecological zone dominated by sycamore trees, shagbark hickory, at least two species of oak, and paw-paw trees everywhere.

Canned paw-paw fruits

Paw-paw fruits have a banana custard-like flavor. We ate many fresh fruits, and I canned four jars for the journey.

As a botanist-forager-survivalist, finding ripe paw-paws has been a highlight of the journey. The raw fruits have a taste and texture similar to banana custard. I canned four quarts of fruit, wishing I had sufficient time and resources to can fifty quarts to bring home to Montana.  For me, it is experiences like this that make the whole trip worthwhile.

Thomas J. Elpel is the author of Participating in Nature and numerous other books on nature, wilderness survival, and sustainable living. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about Tom’s books and the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.

Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe.


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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #27

Woven willow drag for catching fish.

The Corps of Discovery wove stiff willow nets they dragged up the creeks to catch fish.

“I went with ten men to a Creek Damed by the Beavers about half way to the Village, with Some Small willow & Bark we mad a Drag and haulted up the Creek, and Cought 318 fish of different kind i’e’ Peke, Bass, Salmon, perch, red horse, Small Cat, and a kind of perch Called Silverfish, on the Ohio.”

—William Clark, August 15, 1804

Fish Stories

We blew out of Sioux City with the wind, or rather, against it, facing a stiff headwind as our only opportunity to move downstream before yet another storm rolled through. The headwind made it near impossible to steer the canoes. Front-heavy Belladonna Beaver turned perpendicular to the river and wouldn’t turn back. Chris and I drifted along sideways staring at the riverbank while Jubilee whined about the wind and waves. Scott’s canoe also drifted sideways, while John’s shorter, wider canoe drifted backwards, none of us able to paddle except toward or away from either shore.

Canoe drifting sideways in river.

We drifted sideways down the river in the wind, unable to orient the canoes downstream.

Ten miles south of Sioux City we passed by Fish Camp, where the Corps of Discovery camped August 13-19, 1804 to invite the Otoe an Omaha Indians to council. In their spare time, the men wove willows together to make a stiff net and dragged it up the stream, catching 318 fish one day, and nearly 800 fish the next day. Using a similar method along the Beaverhead River in Montana a year later, they caught 512 fish. I wonder if that method would work today, or if fish populations might be lower now.

Some native species are now endangered, while many new fish have been introduced, including multiple species of carp. Although carp are disdained by Americans, they are considered a delicacy in other parts of the world, and often served as a Christmas dish in Eastern European countries. I hunted carp with a fishing bow and arrow the first week of the trip, anticipating carp all the way downriver, but never saw another suitable place to hunt.

Scott and John have been the serious fishermen of the trip, catching mostly small mouth bass, northern pike, goldeye, walleye, and perch. They had great success on Fort Peck Lake in Montana followed by long lapses as we’ve moved downstream. The high water year seems to be a factor, as other fishermen were also striking out. 

I anticipated eating fish almost daily on this adventure, and I was worried about cumulative mercury and PCB levels due to fish consumption advisories. Mercury contamination comes from coal-fired power plants, mining and industrial wastes, batteries, and household waste. PCBs (polychlorinated bipenyls) were used in lubricants, coolants, ink, and paint until banned in 1977, but remain persistent in the environment.

Lewis and Clark actually brought mercury as medicine. Prior to germ theory, medical philosophy emphasized removing bad humors or morbid elements from the body. Mercury was one of the ingredients in Rush’s pills, a powerful cathartic otherwise known as “thunderclappers.” Mercury was also injected in the penis or anus to treat venereal disease and other ailments. The Corps of Discovery consumed enough mercury that archaeologists can verify Lewis and Clark campsites by testing for mercury in the soil from their latrines. 

I expected to get a Lewis and Clark-sized dose of mercury by eating so much fish this year, but fortunately we had no such luck. Instead of fish, we’ve eaten store-bought beef, pork, and chicken, ensuring a well-rounded diet of growth hormones and antibiotics to complement the mercury and PCBs. Add nitrates from a lifetime worth of summer sausage, and we are models of healthy living in the twenty-first century.

With the river flowing at 5 mph, we made good time downriver. An afternoon lull in the wind allowed us to orient the canoes and paddle with the current, attaining 7 mph. A forty-mile day brought us to Decatur, Nebraska to camp at the Beck and Busse Memorial Recreation Area.

Decatur, Nebraska Bridge

Scott paddles into camp below the Decatur, Nebraska bridge.

Receding flood waters hatched a legion of mosquitoes to torment us. The campground flooded three times this year, according to the park manager, with recent flooding evident where the grass was still muddy brown. He advised us to move our tents onto the concrete slab inside the group shelter on the highest part of the property to wait out the latest deluge.

Here we met Dan Hurd, who is taking three years to bicycle the lower forty-eight states to promote suicide awareness (www.ridewithdanusa.com). Nebraska is state number thirty-three after nineteen months and 14,000 miles traveling north and south with the seasons. 

Lewis and Clark Keelboat Replica.

Lewis and Clark State Park in Iowa is home to a full-size replica of the 55-foot keelboat used by the Corps of Discovery to ascend the Missouri River.

Dan joined Scott and I the following day to hitch a ride across the bridge to Lewis and Clark State Park in Iowa. The park houses a full-size keelboat replica as well as two wooden boats or pirogues, one white and one red, hypothetically like those of the expedition. Coming from Montana, where the Corps of Discovery consisted of eight dugout canoes, I never truly grasped the scale of the expedition until I stood on the keelboat. It was a real ship! Another large keelboat is used on the lake within the park, but was already dry-docked for winter.

The rain subsided after two nights in Decatur, raising the flooded river by nearly a foot. We paddled downstream to the town of Blair while Dan bicycled ahead of us. By the time we arrived, he had obtained permission for us to camp at the Optimist Park, plus he called the local newspaper and a television station from Omaha to report on his story and ours. 

Carp sandwich

We ate dinner at Kelly’s Fish Market in Blair, Nebraska. I ordered the “carp sandwich.”

Local river angel Steve Stodola saw our canoes and drove by to offer whatever assistance we needed. He gave us a ride to Kelly’s Fish Market for dinner. I ordered the carp, having never seen it on a restaurant menu before. Proprietor Mike Kelly caught it himself on the Niobrara River. His batter-fried carp was truly gourmet! Thinking back to Lewis and Clark, they brought 2,500 fishhooks for gifts and trade with Native Americans, sometimes even bartering hooks for fish to eat. They bought fish for dinner, and so did we.

Thomas J. Elpel is the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about Tom’s books and the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.

Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe.

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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #26

Gavins Point Dam Spillway

Judging from the raging torrent of 80,000 cubic feet per second pouring out of Gavins Point Dam, it seemed like we might be in for a wild ride down the Missouri

“We Came to [to] make a warm bath for Sergt. Floyd hopeing it would brace him a little, before we could get him in to this bath he expired, with a great deel of composure, haveing Said to me before his death that he was going away and wished me to write a letter—  we Buried him to the top of a high round hill over looking the river & Countrey for a great distance    Situated just below a Small river without a name to which we name & call Floyds river, the Bluffs Sergts. Floyds Bluff—we buried him with all the honors of War, and fixed a Ceeder post at his head with his name title & Day of the month and year.”

—William Clark, August 20, 1804

Channeling Floyd

Judging from the raging torrent of 80,000 cubic feet per second pouring out of Gavins Point Dam, it seemed like we might be in for a wild ride down the Missouri. Yet the current settled down to a mild 4 to 5 mph by the boat ramp, one mile downstream from the dam. Here began the 59-mile lower portion of the Missouri National Recreational River, one of few remaining fragments of the lower river that are largely unchanged since the time of Lewis and Clark, aside from all the houses, anyway.

Paddling flood waters can be highly dangerous back home in Montana where narrow, winding streams turn into roiling rivers, but the Missouri is so big it is like a slow-moving lake. Minor flooding makes it a bigger slow-moving lake. The storm that dropped two inches of rain on us back at Lake Sharpe hit southeastern South Dakota with a whopping nine inches of rain, causing major flooding on the James River, which pours into the Missouri downstream from Yankton. Fortunately, we missed all the big trees coming down, and water levels were already receding. 

Paddling the Missouri National Recreational River

Paddling the Missouri National Recreational River is like paddling a slow-moving lake.

Paddling a slow-moving lake has its own challenges. Think of a canoe and paddle as analogous to a car and steering wheel, providing the illusion of control as you travel down the highway. When paddling, however, the road itself is moving. That’s easy enough if the river is narrow and the current moves predictably downstream. But the Missouri is so wide that the current snakes back and forth unpredictably within the river, sometimes doubling back upstream right in the middle. 

Looking ahead at a big cottonwood snag mid-river, it seems apparent that we will coast by on the right. Allow a moment of distraction, and now we are aiming past it on the left. We can paddle the entire time, thinking we are headed one direction while the river takes us another. At the last moment, we might be flowing rapidly sideways towards the only tree in the river. Add a breeze, and there are four variables of motion: river, current, paddling, and wind. Dodging a snag is easy enough with a few quick paddle strokes, but control over our overall trajectory is illusionary. Life is like that sometimes.

Hiking trail in Ponca State Park

Strands of the eastern deciduous forest follow the river north through the prairie, creating an oasis of bur oak trees, black walnut, hackberry, mulberry, and linden or basswood.

We completed the recreational river in two days, arriving at Ponca State Park in Nebraska. Strands of the eastern deciduous forest follow the river north through the prairie, creating an oasis of bur oak trees, black walnut, hackberry, mulberry, and linden or basswood, with a rich understory of diverse eastern vegetation. One old oak tree has been growing since at least 1644. A scenic overlook allows a view of Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa. 

The channelized river begins below Ponca State Park, where the Missouri has been narrowed, deepened, and straightened all the way to St. Louis. The river has been shortened by nearly 200 miles since the time of Lewis and Clark. Despite expectations of swift current, the river still runs at 3 to 5 mph. Intermittent mile markers track the remaining distance to Saint Louis.

Missouri River Mile Marker

Mile markers on the channelized river track the remaining distance to St. Louis.

The channel is admittedly much easier to paddle than the natural river. Stay away from any wing dams, wooden pylons, and submerged trees along the bank. Stick to the middle and drift or paddle with the current. Strange boils rise up out of nowhere, like underwater geysers that send out circular currents to deflect the canoe one direction or another. The sudden turbulence and crashing sound of water is unnerving, but apparently harmless.

One day’s paddle brought us to the Missouri’s confluence with the Big Sioux River, marking the border between South Dakota and Iowa. My friend Chuck Hopp gave us a great tour of the town. In the evening we played a game of Wildlife Web at a fast food joint in town. 

Sioux City in Iowa is joined by South Sioux City in Nebraska and North Sioux City in South Dakota to make a modest conglomerate city bridging three states. Sioux City was founded by Theophile Bruguier, a trader with the American Fur Company who married two daughters of Chief War Eagle of the Yankton Sioux and built a cabin there in 1849.

Sargent Floyd Memorial

The Sargent Floyd Memorial is a 100-foot-tall sandstone obelisk completed in 1901.

Sioux City is also the burial place of Sargent Charles Floyd, who gained fame largely by keeling over of “bilious colic,” which medical experts now theorize was likely appendicitis. Floyd’s accomplishment is aggrandized by his being the only member of the Corps of Discovery to die on the expedition. While there were many near-death accidents and some tense stand-offs with tribes along the route, nobody died except Floyd, and his death was pre-ordained by a medical condition for which there was no cure. It is a good reminder that we never really know when our time is up.

Lewis and Clark buried Floyd on a hill and named it Floyd’s Bluff, along with the nearby Floyd’s River, and then they proceeded on with their journey. I like the simplicity of that, and if I were to keel over, I would prefer that the crew bury me on a bluff along the river. Just wrap me in a wool blanket and include my hand-carved paddle and maybe some books from my floating library to read in the afterlife. It’s not like I need those items, but it would be a good way to show respect before finishing the journey and paddling Belladonna Beaver to St. Louis.

Sadly, we’ve made the modern world so complicated that it would be near impossible to continue the journey if I, or anyone, died. There would be a police investigation and coroner’s report, and no way they would release the corpse for burial along the river. 

Even poor Floyd hardly gets any rest. His grave had been disturbed, possibly by wolves, before the Corps of Discovery revisited the site on their 1806 return trip, so they refilled the hole. By 1857 the shifting river began to erode his grave, so concerned citizens dug him up and reburied him 200 yards away. The publishing of Sargent Floyd’s journal in 1894 inspired folks to dig up his remaining remains and bury them in urns under a marble slab. Then he was moved again while the Floyd Memorial Association upgraded his grave to a 100-foot-high sandstone obelisk, completed in 1901. 

Sargent Floyd at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City.

Sargent Floyd has been reincarnated in silicone and silicon at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City.

While his remains were sitting around during construction, helpful citizens weighed, measured, and photographed his bones and even made a plaster cast of his skull. With the aid of modern forensics, visitors can now see an approximate reconstruction of Floyd housed in the Sargeant Floyd Museum and Welcome Center aboard the dry-docked motor vessel, the M.V. Sergeant Floyd. It is a really nice museum.

The adjacent Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center went one step further, channeling Floyd from beyond the grave as a silicone and silicon animatronic member of the Corps of Discovery, sharing reflections about his life and untimely death. 

At least he isn’t alone. Thomas Jefferson is there to welcome visitors, while Lewis and Clark stand over his coffin in the back room, chatting about good old Floyd. When Floyd whispered his dying words that he was “going away,” he probably never imagined that he would keep coming back. 

Thomas J. Elpel is the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about Tom’s books and the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.

Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe.

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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #25

Canoeing with a dog

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

Throwing Sand

Fort Randall Dam marks the end of the Great Moat across South Dakota, just a few miles shy of the Nebraska border. The canoe trailer beat us there, thanks to Cliff Jager, who watched our last launch and offered to drive the trailer downriver. We were then helped by Tom Muenster, whom we first met at Gates of the Mountains back in Montana. He was leading a two-week expedition by pontoon boat, exploring segments of the upper Missouri portion of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Tom graciously volunteered to help us with the portage around the dam. We afterwards sent the outboard motor home with him for storage, thrilled at the prospect of paddling free-flowing water!

This point marks 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. The MNRR is administered by the National Park Service in cooperation with the two states. Flowing with the river current, it was satisfying to be propelled without a propellor. 

Chalky limestone bluffs along the Missouri National Recreational River

Warm hues of orange-crusted chalkstone bluffs line the river.

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.

Field corn grows on one side of the access road and beans on the other. Weeds fill in the neglected gaps at the edge of the road and fence lines, including weed itself. We first noted a feral patch of pot back on Lake Sharpe, which then became a common sight along Lake Francis Case. This far south, marijuana is abundant and fully integrated into the ecosystem. 

Would the Corps of Discovery have smoked pot if it grew here two centuries ago? Probably, given their lust for alcohol and tobacco, which were hauled across the continent and metered out to the crew as rewards along the way. However, we theorized that this was probably hemp, a variety of Cannabis useful for its fibers more than for any psychoactive properties.

Missouri National Recreational River

The Missouri is much as I had imagined it, big and full of water… which isn’t how it is supposed to be.

The Missouri River is much as I imagined it here, 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 the 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. Moving closer for a better look, John paddled through yards and over lawns. 

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.

Fishing the river

Reeling in a small-mouth bass.

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.

This year’s flood cycle started with a “bomb cyclone” in March that dropped heavy rain and snow on frozen ground over the Great Plains. Unable to penetrate frozen soil, water flowed overland, covering half the state 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 39-mile upper portion of the Missouri National Recreational River is separated from the 59-mile lower portion 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 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. 

Colorful cliffs at Lake Lewis and Clark.

Lake Lewis and Clark is lined with colorful cliffs of chalky limestone.

For our crew, paddling the short lake was sufficient reminder that we really don’t like paddling lakes. There are fifteen dams on the Missouri, including five in a row that are necessarily portaged as one at Great Falls, Montana. Of the remaining ten reservoirs, we paddled six and motored four. Gavins Point Dam was the final obstacle.

Local river angel Jarret Bies met us with the canoe trailer and helped us portage to Chief White Crane Recreation Area below the dam. He generously loaned us his car the following day to navigate the nearby town of Yankton, South Dakota. After completing essential errands, 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. 

Journeying Forward Exhibit

We toured the Journeying Forward Exhibit at Yankton, South Dakota.

In the morning we hiked up 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 is the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about Tom’s books and the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.

Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe.

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Filed under Missouri River Expedition