Category Archives: Missouri River Expedition

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 ( 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 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 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 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 #24

Reflections of trees on water.

Lake Francis Case is the most scenic of the three big lakes in South Dakota.

“George Shannon who had been absent with the horses 16 days joined the boat about one oclock.  he informed us that the reason of his keeping on so long was that he see some tracks which must have been Indians.    he to[ok] it to [be] us and kept on, his bullets he Shot all away & he was with out any thing to eat for about 12 days except a fiew Grapes, he had left one of the horses behind, as he Gave out, only one horse with him    he had gave up the idea of finding our boat & was returning down the river in hopes to meet Some other Boat, he was near killing the horse to Satisfy hunger, &C. &.C—    he Shot a rabit with Sticks which he cut & put in his gun after his Balls were gone.”

—Sargent John Ordway, September 11, 1804

Sour Grapes

Of the three big lakes that comprise the Great Moat across South Dakota, Oahe, Sharpe, and Francis Case,  Lake Francis Case is arguably the most scenic. The surrounding terrain is more hilly, and in places angular, rugged, and much of the lake perimeter is richly forested. Like all the artificial lakes, the waves lapping at the shore undermine the hills until they cleave off into the water. Before and after Chamberlain these cleaved faces resemble limestone cliffs, but seem to consist largely of dense shale.

Cliff face along Lake Francis Case

Like all the artificial lakes, the waves lapping at the shore undermine the hills until they cleave off into the water.

Ten miles downstream from Chamberlain, the aptly named White River enters the reservoir from the west, it’s chalky-muddy waters briefly restoring the “Big Muddy” character to the Missouri, readily visible even on Google Earth. But soon the sediments settle out in the lake, and the water regains its semi-transparent greenish hue.

Bull Creek enters the lake a mile farther down on the same side. Originally named Shannon Creek by Meriwether Lewis, George Shannon stayed there for several days subsisting on nothing but wild grapes. 

On August 26th, 1804, Shannon and George Drouillard hiked overland in search of the Expedition’s missing horses. Drouillard came back the following morning after walking all night. He hadn’t seen Shannon or the horses. John Shields and Joseph Field went after Shannon and found his tracks headed upstream, but couldn’t catch up with him. Shannon was headed upriver desperately trying to catch up the Expedition that was still behind him. Getting separated from the group is a tricky problem. How do you determine if the boats are upstream or downstream? 

Shannon was eighteen years old, the youngest man on the expedition, and a bit of a greenhorn. Although he recently killed an elk for the Corps of Discovery, Clark wrote, “This man not being a first rate Hunter, we deturmined to Send one man in pursute of him with Some Provisions.” John Colter returned a couple days later and hadn’t been able to catch up with him either. 

Shannon shot away all the lead balls for his muzzleloader, then resorted to carving wooden bullets to kill a rabbit. He otherwise subsisted on sour wild grapes for most of his escapade. He finally gave up the chase and waited by the riverbank in hopes of meeting a boat traveling downstream, giving the Expedition a chance to catch up with him from behind. 

Two men and a dog.

Even with the outboard motor, we consumed six weeks navigating all the lakes of the Dakotas.

While the original Corps of Discovery moved upstream, our goal was to migrate downstream ahead of the changing seasons. Even with the outboard motor, we consumed six weeks navigating all the lakes of the Dakotas. We became focused on the end goal, seeking the shortest route from point to point without taking time to explore side bays or truly appreciate the scenery. 

Scott and I took turns at the helm. On my days off, I sat upfront to read books, write, nap, or practice the harmonica, re-assured that the drone of the motor was loud enough to drown out my tedious lessons. With a brief lull in the wind and waves, we made a run for the dam and almost made it. High winds forced another layover day fifteen miles from the end. 

As a wilderness survival instructor, I’ve often wondered how I would have fared in George Shannon’s situation. If need be, I could provide for most of my needs in a survival situation with a knife or without one. I’ve built and slept in warm shelters without blankets or a sleeping bag. I know how to start a fire by rubbing sticks together, and I know most of the edible plants in the U.S. 

Like Shannon, however, my hunting skills could be better. I’ve successfully hunted rabbits, squirrels, and grouse with sticks and rocks, and sometimes they are patient enough to allow multiple throws. I’ve used wooden spears and deadfall traps for porcupines, muskrats and ground squirrels. I know how to catch fish with my hands or make a fish hook from thorns and line from plant fibers. Yet, I am primarily an opportunistic hunter, which requires the luck of being in the right place at the right time. 

Shannon had a muzzleloader rifle, which could be used to shoot game and start a fire. He also likely had a knife, but anything beyond that is conjectural. He would have been fine as long as he could shoot game, drink out of the river, and sleep by a fire. In comparison, I have no experience with a muzzleloader, leaving me more dependent on wild food foraging.  

Taking a layover day to explore the lands Shannon roamed, there are some additional wild edible plants beyond sour grapes. Hackberry fruits are edible and tasty, just not very fleshy. Crunch through the shell to eat the small nutmeat for protein and oils. Wild sunflower seeds are small, but highly nutritious, and they were grown as a crop by the Mandans. Cattails rhizomes are rich in carbohydrate starches. There are also a great many crickets and grasshoppers which are totally edible.

Foxtail millet grass seed.

I harvested foxtail millet grass seeds and added them to my bread.

Grass seeds are also edible, although not always readily processable and many new species have been introduced after Shannon’s time. I harvested foxtail millet seeds, which I added to my fry bread. Considering the possibilities, I might have eaten more, yet been just as hungry for meat as George Shannon. 

One of his best sources of sustenance was the horse, which he considered killing. Optionally, he could have tapped a vein and drank enough blood each day to stay well-nourished without killing the horse. 

They say hindsight is 20/20, and I’m sure Shannon later learned many tricks that would have helped him survive more comfortably. His skills at age eighteen were likely better than mine at the same age. Moreover, Shannon never spent a teenage day lazing on the couch watching television or playing video games. He likely learned to work hard and endure difficult situations long before his survival ordeal. In a survival situation, shear will to keep going is perhaps the most important skill of all.

When the wind finally settled out, we arose before dawn and made the final push to Fort Randall Dam, thrilled to be finished with all the big lakes and relieved to be done with the outboard motor.

Thomas J. Elpel is the author of Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills and producer of the Art of Nothing Wilderness Survival Video Series. Go to to learn more about Tom’s books and videos 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 #23

Dog looking towards land.

We had an easy day on Lake Francis Case from Big Bend Dam down to Chamberlain.

“This morning set out at an early hour, and come too at ½ after 7 A. M. on the Lard. Shore 1¼ miles above the mouth of a small creek which we named Corvus, in consequence of having kiled a beatiful bird of that genus near it  we concluded to ly by at this place the ballance of this day and the next, in order to dry our baggage which was wet by the heavy showers of rain which had fallen within the last three days, and also to lighten the boat by transfering a part of her lading to the red perogue, which we now determined to take on with us to our winter residence wherever that might be; while some of the men were imployed in this necessary labour others were dressing of skins washing and mending their cloaths &c.”

—Meriwether Lewis, September 16, 1804


The waters of Lake Francis Case back up to the boat launch below Big Bend Dam and Lake Sharpe, so there is no free-flowing river between the two lakes. Having dismantled the Contraption to portage the canoes, we now lashed it back together to tackle this next section of the Great Moat across South Dakota. There were a dozen bystanders waiting to see us launch by the time we finished tying all the knots. We enjoyed an easy eighteen-mile day down to Chamberlain, where we took a layover day to tour the town.

Chamberlain is home to St. Joseph’s Indian School, established as a boarding school in 1927. Like most such institutions of that time, St. Joseph’s was founded on the ideology that it was necessary to suppress native language and culture to “help” their indigenous students assimilate into western culture. Children were punished for acts such as speaking Lakota in school. 

Times have changed, and St. Joseph’s has too. It is a residential-style school where children live in small family-sized groups in well-kept apartments. Native language and culture are included as part of the daily curriculum, bringing dignity back to the Lakota people. Parents can enroll their students in the school at no cost, providing opportunities they may not have in their hometowns. 

Plains Indian diorama

Plains Indian Diorama at the Akta Lakota Museum in Chamberlain.

St. Joseph’s hasn’t been without controversy, but it is apparently appreciated by families of the two hundred children enrolled there. We toured the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center at the school, which was exceptionally well done for a small museum.

It was also thrilling to see the Dignity sculpture at the rest area by the interstate highway. “Dignity of Earth and Sky” is a fifty-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture of an indigenous woman in Plains-style dress with her arms outstretched, receiving a star quilt. Dignity seems to welcome travelers, as if to embrace all who come to South Dakota. 

Dignity Sculpture

“Dignity of Earth and Sky” is a fifty-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture of an indigenous woman in Plains-style dress honoring the Lakota and Dakota people.

From the American Creek Campground, it was a 2.5-mile hike up to the sculpture, or 4 miles by my original route in the dark without a map, taking a “short-cut” through the grassy hills and junipers. I knew the general direction  as I pushed through chest-high weeds, back-tracked around swamps, stepped over minor crevasses to scale an old slumped hillside, skirted around the cemetery, and finally dashed across the interstate and climbed the grassy hill past the warning sign about poisonous snakes. I made the special trip to see the sculpture lit up at night, then returned by day with Scott to see it again and to tour the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

Dignity isn’t a specific woman, but a composite of three different South Dakotan models honoring the Lakota and Dakota people of the state. It was created by South Dakota artist laureate Dale Lamphere and funded by Norm and Eunabel McKie of Rapid City. 

I am glad to see the Lakota and Dakota peoples properly honored after two centuries of oppression and cultural suppression. I hope up and coming generations will grow up with pride in the dignity of being Native American.

Our tour of the interpretive center on September 16th coincided with Lewis and Clark’s arrival on the same date, narrowly missing them by just 215 years. They camped on the opposite side of the Missouri near the present day town of Oacoma, taking a layover day to dry and repack their gear. 

Axes and pipe tomahawks.

Axes and pipe tomahawks at the I-90 Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

We were doing basically the same thing, drying wet gear, resupplying and organizing our food supplies, doing laundry, and hiking about the countryside. We ultimately took an additional layover day due to windy conditions on the lake. Where Lewis and Clark went out hunting big game, I hiked nearly four miles out of town hunting for an ice cream cone, then hitch-hiked a ride back to camp, having walked more than twenty miles during our short stay in this lovely small town.

On the 18th, Lewis and Clark proceeded northward on their Journey of Discovery, while we proceeded southward on our Journey of Rediscovery. We made it out of camp before sunrise, trusting the weather report that the winds would abate. I piloted the Contraption while Chris rode shotgun, or rather bail bucket, continuously bailing water for an hour until the wind and waves finally settled down. 

Passing below the Interstate 90 bridge seemed a noteworthy milestone. The last time we saw I-90 was four miles upriver from our initial launch point at Missouri Headwaters State Park near Three Forks, Montana. After three and a half months of traveling north, east, and finally south, it is reassuring to see that we are making measurable progress in our attempt to migrate ahead of the changing seasons. 

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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 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 #22


Chris, Scott, and Tom at The Sunset

We toured The Sunset, the only functional paddlewheel boat still operating on the Missouri.

“The head chief the Black Buffaloe, Seized hold of the cable of the pearogue and Set down. Capt. Clark Spoke to all the party to Stand to their arms   Capt. Lewis who was on board ordered every man to his arms.    the large Swivel loaded immediately with 16 Musquet Ball in it    the 2 other Swivels loaded well with Buck Shot, Each of them manned. Capt. Clark used moderation with them told them that we must and would go on and would go.    that we were not Squaws, but warriers.    the chief Sayed he had warriers too and if we were to go on they would follow us and kill and take the whole of us by degrees or that he had another party or lodge above this and that they were able to destroy us.”

—Sargent John Ordway, September 25, 1804

The Good River Encounter

The Missouri River bisects South Dakota as it flows south across the state. Known to South Dakotans as East River and West River, the wetter, more fertile eastern part of the state supports extensive croplands, while the larger western part features open prairie dominated by ranching and dryland farming. The two unequal halves are connected by six bridges with three additional roads crossing over dams. From our perspective, progressing from Lake Oahe to Lake Sharpe, the Missouri isn’t so much a river, but a Great Moat ruled by tempestuous winds. 

Pierre, the quaint small-town capitol with a population of 14,000, sits on the east side a few miles downstream from Oahe Dam, near the geographical center of the state. This central location helped bring voters to the polls to out-compete larger towns for the capitol designation when South Dakota joined the Union in 1889.

Bone knife and sheath

Bone knife and sheath at the South Dakota State Historical Society Museum.

River Cities Public Transit shuttled us from our campsite into town for a nominal fee on a pre-scheduled pick up. We enjoyed visiting the State Historical Society Museum, touring the town, and shopping for books and groceries. I bought a new spark plug for the outboard motor.

Mulberry trees in town and a sycamore tree at the campground, plus new and unfamiliar bird calls, were all welcome signs that we are indeed migrating southward, albeit at a turtle’s pace.

John solo paddled ahead in the morning, while Scott, Chris, and I paddled just six miles to Fischers Lilly Park at the Missouri’s confluence with the Bad River in Fort Pierre, on the west side of the Missouri. This was the site of Lewis and Clark’s “Bad River Encounter” with the Teton Sioux or Lakota that nearly brought an early end to the Corps of Discovery. Clark and the chiefs managed to defuse the bad situation without violence. The standoff, however, was not the source of the name “Bad River.” The Lakota previously named the river after a flash flood wiped out an Indian village.

For us it was the Good River Encounter because we met Caleb Gilkerson, captain of The Sunset, a diesel powered sternwheeler and the only authentic paddlewheel boat still operating on the Missouri River. Caleb was prepping the boat for an evening float, but invited us aboard for a tour and sodas. 

Side view of The Sunset sternwheeler on Lake Sharpe.

The Sunset is a sternwheeler with two diesel-powered paddle wheels on the back of the boat.

Originally named the The Spirit of Cincinnati, the boat was built in 1964 and in terrible shape when Caleb bought it in 2016. Piloting the vessel down the Ohio and up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers turned into a six-month ordeal of endless repairs. Thirty thousand people followed the journey on Facebook. Caleb noted that his posts were few and far between, as he didn’t often have good news to report. Sometimes the ship drifted miles backwards when the engines failed and they couldn’t stop the boat. Finally reaching Gavins Point Dam, he had to cut the top off the boat to portage it the remaining distance via highway to Pierre and Lake Sharpe. With a great deal of TLC, Caleb refurbished the boat, renamed it The Sunset, and now plies Lake Sharpe with guests and parties (

With yet another storm brewing, we took time to lash the canoes back together and fired up the outboard motor to tackle Lake Sharpe. Thanks to the river current flowing into the lake, we blew out of town at 7 mph, which feels astonishingly fast compared to our normal speed of 4.5 mph. We caught up with John ten miles later and clipped him on behind the Contraption, then did seven additional miles to camp, twenty-three miles for the day. We set up our tents just ahead of the first drops of rain.

Tree skeleton in Lake Sharpe

Lake Sharpe is full of drowned trees and a minefield of old tree stumps that barely break the surface.

Despite the motorized advantage, our lives are dictated by the wind. We advanced only six miles the next day, thwarted by monster waves that loomed over our little ship. Like many places we camp, De Grey Recreation Area was posted “No Camping,” yet there seems to be a widespread exception for canoeists, since it would be unsafe to send us back out into the roiling waters. 

It rained two inches overnight. Chris was flooded out of his tent within minutes and moved into mine. We took a layover day while the storm blew itself out. Hanging out provided a good opportunity for a botany walk. The guys recognized small flowered gaura as a member of the Evening Primrose family by its four-parted stigma. They are greatly improving in their plant identification skills!

Harvesting Russian olives.

I harvested the semi-sweet Russian olives, squeezing the pit out of each one as I picked them.

Tasting the Russian olives, I noted that the slightly yellow fruits are much sweeter than the grey, astringent ones back home in Montana. Squeezing the pit out of each one as I picked, I filled a 20-ounce bottle with processed fruits in 1 1/2 hours, then made fry bread consisting of Russian olives, wild plums, and flour. Not bad, but I think I could cook something more exciting.

Extensive windbreaks planted as “State Game Production Areas” help replace forest habitat drowned under the artificial lake, here featuring ash trees, chokecherries, wild plums, burr oak, junipers, honey locust, and lilacs. We were delighted to see thousands of monarch butterflies, apparently starting their great migration back to Mexico. 

Monarch butterflies resting in a tree.

The trees were filled with thousands of monarch butterflies, apparently starting their migration back to Mexico.

We continued our own migration when the weather finally broke, taking two days to navigate around the Big Bend of the Missouri, where the river takes a 25-mile loop before nearly coming back upon itself. William Clark walked over the narrow neck, noting the shortcut was about 1 1/4 miles across. 

Monarch butterflies passed overhead in ones and twos across the lake. It’s hard to believe any creature so small and delicate could migrate so far, yet they were moving far faster than we were. 

In another good river encounter, Mike and Terri Mehlhaff and son Johnny of Pierre very kindly drove the canoe trailer from Oahe Dam to Good Soldier Creek Recreation Area to help us portage around Big Bend Dam, one more major hurdle out of the way!

Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Montana. He is the author of Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams. Go to 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 #21

Lake Oahe fossils.

A fossil baculite, squid, and the imprint of a clam shell, snapshots of a watery world from 135 million years ago.

“Saw great numbers of goats or Antelope on Shore… in the evening I discovered a number of Indians on each Side and goats in the river or Swiming & on Sand bars, when I came near Saw the boys in the water Swiming amongst the goats & Killing them with Sticks, and then hauling them to the Shore    those on Shore Kept them in the water, I saw 58 Killed in this way and on the Shore, the hunter with Cap Lewis Shot 3 goats   I came too and Camped above the Ricara Camp on the L. S.  Several Indians visited us duereing the night Some with meat, Sang and were merry all night.”

—William Clark, October 16, 1804

The Hunted

Pronghorn, a.k.a. American antelope, or “goats” to Lewis and Clark, are the fastest land animals in North America, capable of running at speeds up to 55 mph in short bursts. Before firearms, people hunted with whatever weapons they could improvise with their own hands, aided by skill and a great deal of opportunistic good luck. The Sahnish people, better known as the Arikara—whom Lewis and Clark referred to as the Ricara, Stararee, Rickarree or Rees—herded pronghorn into pens where the animals could be slaughtered, or in the instance above, caught them crossing the river.

Like the pronghorn, we are also vulnerable in the water, our little ship bobbing around in the waves of the lake that drowned the river. We are the hunted, living a game of cat and mouse with the wind, scurrying from one protective cove to another when the wind is momentarily absent. We boldly bolt across the open lake when the wind is asleep.

Cornfield at Lake Oahe.

The grassy prairie hills remain unseasonably green, the flatter portions plowed into corn fields that extend to the water’s edge.

The grassy prairie hills remain unseasonably green, the flatter portions plowed into corn fields that extend to the water’s edge. Corn-fattened deer actively graze in the evening light. I took several shots with my camera, but without a proper zoom, the shots went wide, and the deer escaped unscathed.

We camped on the sandy beach at State Line Resort one night, then lingered half the next day hoping for a break in the wind. Finally we puttered across the border from North to South Dakota, trying to outrun the wind on our tail. We could handle the breeze where the lake was narrow and the waves small, but the open waters of Pollack Bay magnified the swells higher than any we’ve encountered. Yet, these were surprisingly gentle big waves, and our principal challenge was the forward and back lurch of John’s canoe in tow.

John progressively tied his canoe closer and closer to the Contraption to reduce the tail wag effect, yet the wind and waves still sent him lurching into the back of our ship. Scott moved the line to the outside of his canoe to protect the outboard motor, but the swells provided enough lurching momentum to repeatedly snap the 550-lb. rated paracord. After several failed tries, plus a loop back to retrieve a lost paddle, we finally motored ahead to a protective bay to wait while John paddled to catch up.

Fossil baculites littered the lake shore, plus I found a small squid fossil and the imprint of a large clam, all snapshots of an even more watery world from 135 million years ago. We finally got our break when the wind settled down in the evening, and we made a run for our campsite, setting up tents just before darkness. 

Margie Grant and Scott Robinson

Scott’s girlfriend Margie flew out to Mobridge, South Dakota to join us for the weekend.

Another day on the water brought us to Mobridge where we met up with Scott’s girlfriend Margie, who flew in from Colorado for the weekend. With the aid of Margie’s rental car, we toured the Sitting Bull and Sacagawea monuments, the Klein Museum, and the local cuisine. A country drive took us through corn fields, sunflowers, and a few bean fields, all traditional crops previously grown by the Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara tribes. 

Deborah Barnes from the Chamber of Commerce was super helpful to find us a campsite on a busy weekend. She volunteered her husband Dana to wave us onshore. Debs even brought her scissors out to camp and gave John a haircut while Chris and I borrowed her electric shears to trim our beards.

Campsite hair cut.

Debra Scott from the Mobridge Chamber of Commerce was super helpful, even coming out to camp to cut John’s hair!

Our attempt to leave Mobridge was stymied by the cat stalking the lake. We’ve learned to monitor hour-by-hour wind forecasts to seize opportunities as they arise. With late afternoon wind projected to switch from southeast to northwest, we slipped though the gap and covered fifteen miles in four hours, salvaging the day. We camped very near the halfway point of the Missouri River, approximately 1,170 miles upstream to the headwaters at Three Forks, Montana, or downstream to the river’s confluence with the Mississippi at St. Louis.

Moving south, the land becomes softer, the grassy hills rounded and tree cover largely absent. This is more what we imagined the Dakotas would look like, albeit, not so green. A morning start was cut short when the cat blew by, sending us scurrying for a protective bay. With no shade and nowhere to go, we hung out in the sun and wind all day waiting for a break, gaining a few more miles in the evening.

An outboard motor should make the journey easy, but we only gained 3.5 miles the next day, windbound until night. Finally we got a calm day and made a run for it. Ten miles later the propeller stopped turning.

Fixing outboard propeller.

We cut a new pin for the propeller from the handle of my stainless steel Zebra pot.

Paddling to shore, we neophytes disassembled the propeller and noticed the broken pin that connects the propeller to the shaft. We rummaged through our gear for a reasonable substitute. The wire handle on my stainless steel Zebra pot exactly matched the diameter. In less than an hour we completed our redneck repair. We were still congratulating ourselves on our resourcefulness when John pointed out two spare pins conveniently attached to the bottom of the motor. We covered eighteen more miles, arriving at Sutton Bay early enough to enjoy a relaxing evening.

We saw fifteen pronghorn in the prairie hills, making a total of thirty since we left home 1,200 miles ago, paddling through some of the richest wildlife habitat in North America. 

It is believed there were once 40 million pronghorn in the West, plummeting to 20,000 by 1900. Today the population has rebounded to an estimated 85,000 pronghorn, or 2.5% of their original numbers. Reading the journals of Lewis and Clark and the massive herds they encountered, I cannot help feeling that all the animals were somehow vacuumed up, like so many bugs in a rug. 

Strangely, we saw one lone bison by the lakeshore, almost like a ghost animal. Does it belong to a public or private herd? Up to 60 million bison once roamed the continent. Only 325 animals survived the great culling. Today there are an estimated 200,000 bison, or 0.33% of their former numbers.

With one day of good weather, followed by a forecast for wind and rain, we raced for Oahe Dam at 4 miles per hour and covered 40 miles in one long day. We then took a layover day in a sheltered bay to wait out the storm. 

Our final day of Lake Oahe consisted of grey skies, temperatures in the mid-50s, blustery winds, and waves lapping over the sides of the canoes. We finished the lake damp and chilled, immensely grateful for help from Jesse Roebuck of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who took time out of his Sunday to trailer us around Oahe Dam. 

Thomas J. Elpel is the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, nature, and self-reliant living. Go to to learn more about the Missouri River trip, 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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Filed under Missouri River Expedition