“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.