“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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.