Category Archives: Missouri River Expedition

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.


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Books I’ve Read on the Missouri

Book and canoe.

I am enjoying reading great books on our Missouri River Expedition!

One of the rewards of paddling the Missouri River is that we have a great deal of mostly uninterrupted reading time. Turning pages is just as satisfying as covering miles down the river. Sometimes there is an opportunity to do both together.

When possible, I prefer reading books more or less “on location,” so this year’s adventure is the perfect setting for catching up on some Lewis and Clark-themed books that have been on my reading list for a long time. Now, having read everything I brought, I’ve started buying a book in every town, trying to stay in theme with the area we are paddling through. Here are the books I’ve read so far, mostly in the order I read them:

Colter’s Run by Steven T. Gough (2008)

The author gave me a signed copy of the book nearly ten years ago, and I finally had the opportunity to give it the attention it deserves. Colter’s Run is a work of historical fiction about the life of John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition who spent the next several years trapping beaver in what later became Montana. He was the first westerner to see the thermal features of what later became Yellowstone National Park, and he had several harrowing encounters with the Piegan Blackfeet near present-day Three Forks, Montana. I read this book first because we launched from Three Forks. It was a good read, written in first-person narrative form. It is challenging to get into the mind of someone who has been dead for two centuries, so I was occasionally distracted with debating whether or not it was an accurate portrayal of Colter’s character. I think it would be difficult to write a book of historical fiction like this that is 100% convincing, but Steven Gough did exceptionally well. Ever since he published the book he has been working to get the story picked up as a motion picture. It may yet happen!

John Colter: His Years in the Rockies by Burton Harris (1952)

There are very few historical references about John Colter’s life, but this book compiles the available information into one comprehensive work. This text was obviously the source for much of the factual information behind the narrative in Stephen Gough’s Colter’s Run. Gough’s book is easier to read, and I probably would have gotten lost with Harris’s book if I hadn’t read the other first. It was enlightening to see the connections between fiction and nonfiction.

This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back by Ken Ilgunas (2018)

I learned of this book shortly before our launch. Freedom to Roam is a topic I am very passionate about, and I’ve written some essays about it as well, so the book jumped to the top of my reading pile. It was the best read of the expedition so far, and I wish it were required reading for all Americans to better understand how we all formerly owned the right to roam the open countryside. I could easily buy this book by the case to gift to friends and family. In any case, I just started reading it a second time.

William Clark and the Shaping of the West by Landon Jones (2004)

This was an exceptional and riveting book, which introduced the backdrop of William Clark’s life  through the exploits of his older brother George Rogers Clark. While I am fairly well versed in the history of the West, I feel more ignorant of American history east of the Missouri River. In particular, Landon Jones details the many act of Indian removal to systematically displace Native Americans from eastern states, sending them West of the Missouri. Jones shows how William Clark the Clark family were deeply involved in Indian removal, even when William was otherwise friendly to the natives. The book lays out the facts without judgement right up to the very end where Jones simply points out that in today’s world, William Clark’s actions would be considered ethnic cleansing. It’s a gut-wrenching read, but an essential one to better understand American history and the dark side of some of our greatest heroes.

The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo (2014)

As the author of Botany in a Day, I am always picking up plant books. Although there were a few interesting tidbits about unusual plants, I wasn’t greatly impressed by it, and I concluded that the author doesn’t have a botanical background.

The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend By Bob Drury and Tom Calvin (2014)

This was the first book I bought on our journey, having picked it up in Fort Union. It is a fascinating read about Red Cloud and how he defeated the U.S. Army and made the United States abandon the Bozeman Trail and all the military forts along it, which Red Cloud burned to the ground. The book deals more with Wyoming history and the Powder River Basin, than the Missouri, but it was a really great read.

Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn (2015)

I bought this book at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in North Dakota. Elizabeth Fenn wrote of the confluence of the Heart River with the Missouri as the heartland of the Mandan people, which happened to be about one hundred feet from my tent when I started reading. That was very location relevant, and the book greatly helped fill out my understanding of the Mandan people. It was very helpful to be in the midst of the earthlodge villages referred to in the book to help fit it all together. I thought it was an excellent read.

Eclipse: A Novel of Lewis and Clark by Richard S. Wheeler (2002)

Richard S. Wheeler was a Montana author who died just this year. I was unaware of his work until Norman Miller suggested it to me. Eclipse is a work of historical fiction about Lewis and Clark. I brought the book from home, but didn’t crack it open right away because I’ve heard the Lewis and Clark story so many times that I wasn’t ready to go through it again until I ran out of other books to read. Then came the pleasant surprise, the story actually starts right at the end of their expedition to the Pacific Coast and back. I found it immediately entrancing, and read the entire book in a couple days. The book is written in first person narrative form, switching back and forth between Lewis and Clark. Like all historical fiction, I found myself debating the accuracy of the portrayal, but still considered it a great read.

Sister to the Sioux by Elaine Goodale Eastman (1930s)

I bought this book at the Klein Museum in Mobridge, South Dakota, opposite from the Standing Rock Reservation. Written in the 1930s, Elaine Goodale recounts her experiences as a young woman when she left home in the northeast on a mission to educate the Sioux people to western ideology. Unlike other reformers who advocated taking children away from their parents to go to distant boarding schools, Goodale believed in bringing schools to the people. She embraced the Sioux people, lived with them, learned to speak Dakota, and preferred wearing moccasins. She and a similarly young gal worked among the Sioux largely unchaperoned right at the close of the frontier when the West was still truly wild. Goodale later married a western-educated Sioux named Charles Eastman, leading to multiple collaborative books between them, which I would also like to read.


That’s all so far. I just picked up a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, so that’s my next read! To learn more about my own books, please visit: Thank you!

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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #20

Chris and Jubilee on the Contraption

We lashed the canoes back together for lake travel and fired up the outboard motor.

“At 6 miles passed the mouth of La Bullet or Cannon Ball River on the L. Side about 140 yards Wide, and heads near the Black Mountains   above the mouth of this River, in and at the foot of the Bluff, and in the water is a number of round Stones, resembling Shells and Cannon balls of Different Sises, and of excellent grit for Grindstons—    the Bluff continus for about a mile, The water of this River is confined within 40 yards.”

—William Clark, October 18, 1804

Aloha Oahe!

After a pleasant week paddling the Missouri River near Bismarck, North Dakota, we came face-to-face with Lake Oahe. While the name sounds Hawaiian, “Oahe” is actually a Sioux word meaning “a foundation” or “a place to stand on.” Christian missionaries established the Oahe Indian Mission among the Lakota Sioux near Pierre, South Dakota in 1874. The mission was salvaged, moved, and later restored when Oahe Dam was constructed in the 1950s. 

At 230 miles long, Oahe is considered one of the most hazardous lakes for small watercraft on the Missouri. Mostly less than two miles wide, it is easy to cross the lake, except for the risk of sudden, severe winds. Submerged trees reportedly bob up and down in subsurface currents, sometimes lurching unexpectedly up out of the water. And when the reservoir is drawn down in late summer, a person may slog through a hundred yards of mud to reach shore. 

While I admire those who have the gall to battle wind and waves for three or more weeks to conquer the lake with a paddle, that’s not our mission. From the outset I envisioned our expedition like a car camping trip, touring national parks. We substituted canoes for cars and float down the river, stopping to see sites of natural or historical interest along the way. For Oahe, we lashed our canoes back together to reform the Contraption and fired up the outboard motor to traverse the lake. 

Lady’s Thumb flowers at Lake Oahe.

The shallows of Lake Oahe were overgrown with a floating flowerbed of water smartweed.

The upstream end of the lake is shallow and typically a quagmire of sandbars that are difficult to navigate. However, with high water this year, GPS maps indicated we were boating right over sandbars, our path inhibited only by great patches of smartweed standing erect in the water. It was a floating flower garden with dark green leaves and spikes of little pink flowers. We could have paddled straight through with individual canoes, but the more cumbersome Contraption required zipping back and forth across the lake in search of open water. 

With a windstorm moving in, we puttered into the mouth of the Cannonball River and found a nicely protected campsite within the bay. The “cannonballs” Clark referred to in the journals are sandstone concretions, formed almost like pearls as minerals build up in layers around a small nucleus. Most of the cannonballs are now hidden under the waters of the lake. Although harmless, the site has a charged history.

Cannonball Bay at Lake Oahe

We found a nice campsite at Cannonball Bay on Lake Oahe.

The Cannonball River marks the northern boundary of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. It was here, immediately north of reservation lands, that Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) chose to route the 30-inch Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River. The pipeline connects the Bakken oil fields we encountered in western North Dakota to oil ports in Illinois. 

Members of the Standing Rock tribe gathered and protested the pipeline project, concerned that it might leak and contaminate the Missouri River. There were also charges of environmental racism, that ETP routed the pipeline by the reservation to avoid more politically-connected white settlements near Bismarck.

As the protest gained national and international attention, outsiders showed up in droves and “NO DAPL” became a symbol for the need to end our dependence on oil and take serious action to halt global warming.  However, the $3.78 billion pipeline was already 75% complete, and the end was a forgone conclusion. ETP started the project without all the necessary permits in hand, knowing that nobody could stop the project once started.

The United States functions as a corportocracy where corporations pay lawmakers to write laws, and law enforcement is required to enforce those laws. Such is the influence of corporations that lawmakers granted the power of eminent domain to ETP to route their for-profit pipeline through private lands with or without landowner consent. 

With law enforcement enlisted to protect corporate interests, and out-of-state protestors agitating the situation, the focus of the protest shifted from pipeline to police, degenerating into a “he said, she said” confrontation, each side hurling accusations of misconduct at the other. I heard it all from friends on both sides of the political divide.

Prairie Dog hole at Lake Oahe.

A prairie dog town has re-asserted itself around the drill pad where the Dakota Access Pipeline dives under Lake Oahe.

We took a layover day due to high winds on the lake, so I hiked up to the pipeline to get a boots-on-the-ground perspective. Like battlefields of the past, the site is eerily quiet except for the blustery wind. The pipeline route across the hills is visible primarily by the different hues of grass used to revegetate the land. A prairie dog town has re-asserted itself around the drill pad where the pipeline dives under Lake Oahe. Although pipelines are considered safer than rail transport for oil, the Dakota Access Pipeline has already leaked several times, thankfully not yet into the Missouri River.

In another matter, we haven’t seen Josiah in weeks. He twice paddled ahead to work odd jobs in towns along the way, this last time missing the rendezvous point after Williston. He shuttled ahead to catch up with us at Bismarck, but ran into friends traveling east and ended up in Minnesota. The Corps of Rediscovery is officially comprised of four men and a dog. 

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.

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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #19

Tom Elpel at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

Touring a reconstructed earthlodge at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.

“The Main Chief Big White & 2 others i e the Big Man or Sha-ha-ca and [blank] Came early to talk, and Spoke as follows, after Smoking, Viz… We were Sorry when we heard of your going up but now you are going down, we are glad, if we eat you Shall eat, if we Starve you must starve also.”

—William Clark, November 1, 1804

Forts and Villages

With his words of welcome, Chief Sheheke invited the Corps of Discovery to winter near the Knife River Mandan villages, north of today’s Bismarck, North Dakota. French traders dubbed the chief “Big White” due to his size and complexion. Without the friendship and hospitality of the Mandans and other tribes along the journey, it is doubtful that Lewis and Clark would have made it to the Pacific Ocean and back. 

Our Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery has also benefited from the tradition of friendship and hospitality as we retrace their route and move backwards through the journals to 1804.

Stormy weather greeted our return to the free-flowing river. Grey clouds turned to dripping rain as we paddled downstream from Garrison Dam in search of Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. Lacking clear access from the Missouri, we docked our canoes at a boat ramp and walked down the road in the rain, not sure if it was public or private land. The landowner drove up moments later and rolled down his window. We explained our mission, and Bill Marlenee offered a ride, then told us about this guy he knew named Churchill Clark who carves dugout canoes. Such is the serendipitous nature of our journey that we would stumble into an unknown friend nearly a thousand river miles from home. 

The Knife River site was settled around 1525. Lewis and Clark found two independent Mandan villages and three independent Hidatsa villages totaling up to 5,000 citizens. The Mandans and Hidatsa spoke different languages, but shared similar cultures and often lived near each other for mutual defense.

Inside look at earthlodge at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

A look inside the earthlodge provides an enchanting glimpse into life in an earthlodge village.

French Canadian trader Toussaint Charbonneau and his Shoshone-born teenage wife lived among the Hidatsa in Awatixa Village. Lewis and Clark hired him as an interpreter, bringing Sacagawea and her newborn son along as the newest and youngest members of the Corps of Discovery. 

A reconstructed earthlodge at Knife River is outfitted with the furnishings of the day to provide an enchanting glimpse into life in an earthlodge village. Gardens feature the “three sisters” of corn, beans, and squash that complimented each other and provided the main staples of these horticultural tribes.

Bill drove us to nearby Fort Clark Trading Post State Historic Site, where interpretive signs mark grassy mounds of long-gone structures. The fort was built by the American Fur Company in 1830 beside another Mandan village. The steamboat St. Peters docked there in 1837 carrying passengers infected with smallpox. The subsequent epidemic killed at least 17,000 Indigenous people along the Missouri River, in some cases wiping out entire villages. The village was abandoned as survivors joined the Knife River Villages, and all soon migrated north to form Like-a-Fishook Village, which now lie beneath Lake Sakakawea.

Bill and Debra Marlenee kindly invited our unexpected entourage to stay in their cabin, a greatly appreciated gesture on a cold, rainy night. Hot pizza for dinner and a hearty big breakfast of eggs, sausage, hash browns, and rolls didn’t hurt either. How can we repay such kindness everywhere we go?

A solid day of paddling brought us to Washburn, where we found courtesy camping in the waterfront city park. Renewed hunger brought us to the Ice Burg for burgers, fries, and chocolate shakes, as if we have completely forgotten how to cook for ourselves.

Fort Mandan

Scott and I toured the reconstructed Fort Mandan near Washburn, North Dakota.

Spending two nights and a day in town, we toured the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and the reconstructed Fort Mandan. Having built my own home, it is difficult to conceive how the Corps of Discovery managed to construct the substantial fort in a matter of weeks, let alone make it livable to survive severe winter weather with temperatures dropping to 45ºF below zero.

The original fort burned down before their return in 1806, and the river has since washed away the site, so the replica fort was constructed downstream. Our tour guide and interpreter, Shannon Kelly, remembered buying books from me at a Lewis and Clark event years ago while still a teenager. She brought a pumpkin cake out to our camp in celebration of Lewis’s 245th birthday. 

We found our way back to the Ice Burg numerous times, where we were served by Kirsten Olson. She gifted us her amazing homemade bacon and breakfast sausage for the trail. 

Wild grapes at Cross Ranch State Park

Wild grapes at Cross Ranch State Park

Seven miles later, we camped at Cross Ranch State Park to hike the extensive park trail system. One huge “grandfather” cottonwood tree was alive and growing even before Lewis and Clark passed by. Wherever we go, we’ve enjoyed snacking on ripe chokecherries, buffalo berries, and now wild grapes. I cooked a batch of wild grape syrup for our pancakes.

We also stopped at Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site, so named for defensive earthworks built around earthlodge communities featuring a wooden palisade surrounded by a dry moat to deter attackers. As the population declined, the ditch was reduced in size, leaving two visible defensive ditches. The site was abandoned after a smallpox epidemic decimated the population in 1781. Ground squirrels are now the primary inhabitants, dragging scraps of bone, pottery, and flint to the surface as they tunnel through old waste middens.

Preparing to get back on the water, we were approached by three guys on a pontoon boat, who shouted out, “Are you guys the Corps of Rediscovery?”

“Yeah, you found us,” I replied, assuming they were tracking our progress online. But they had not heard of the expedition; it was just a lucky guess made in good humor. Shortly thereafter, we pitched our tents on the lawn at Clete and Lesley’s riverfront home, joining them and guests Bill and Alexander from Montana for a big steak dinner with fresh corn, mashed potatoes, and a big green salad. 

Clete drove us around Bismarck in the morning to catch up on errands. We hoped to get Jubilee into the vet for puppy shots, but no openings were available. However, Clete’s next door neighbor happened to be a retired veterinarian. John gave Jubilee a courtesy distemper/parvo vaccination just before we piled back into the canoes. Chalk another one up to serendipity. 

Paddling into an afternoon headwind gained us only four wet miles. We camped on a protected beach on a willowy island waiting for the wind to abate.

Infantry post at Fort Abraham Lincoln

Infantry post at Fort Abraham Lincoln

Six miles in the morning brought us to the Missouri’s confluence with the Heart River at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.  We camped for two nights as another storm front rolled through. Established as an infantry post named Fort McKeen, the fort was later renamed after Lincoln and expanded to include a calvary post, led by General George Custer before he marched his forces to their doom against the Sioux at the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana.

The park includes On-A-Slant Indian Village, established in the 1500s and inhabited by the Mandans until the 1781 smallpox epidemic killed most of the population and survivors moved north to join the Hidatsa at the Knife River site. Reconstructed earthlodges provide another glimpse into the lives of these horticultural peoples. The main ceremonial lodge seems small outside, but huge inside.

Finally back on the river, we paddled to Sugarloaf Recreation Area. Glenn, the park manager, was super helpful in giving us a good campsite. His wife cooked up a big lasagna in anticipation of guests that didn’t arrive, so they gifted it to us. We are surely the most spoiled group to ever paddle the Missouri River!

Thomas J. Elpel is the author of numerous books and president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Go to to learn more about the Missouri River trip, Tom’s books, and the expedition fundraiser for the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #18

Crossing Lake Sakakawea

With optimal lake conditions, the Contraption could maintain a steady speed of 4.7 mph., here motoring towards the rising sun.

“We […] hoisted both the sails in the White Perogue, consisting of a small squar sail, and spritsail, which carried her at a pretty good gate, untill about 2 in the afternoon when a suddon squall of wind struck us and turned the perogue so much on the side as to allarm Sharbono who was steering at the time, in this state of alarm he threw the perogue with her side to the wind, when the spritsail gibing was as near overseting the perogue as it was possible to have missed.  the wind however abating for an instant I ordered Drewyer to the helm and the sails be taken in, which was instant executed and the perogue being steered before the wind was agin plased in a state of security.   this accedent was very near costing us dearly.”

—Meriwether Lewis, April 13, 1805

Chronicles of the Contraption

Powerful east winds enabled Lewis and Clark to sail up parts of the Missouri River that now lie at the bottom of Lake Sakakawea. Winds we encountered were not as strong, yet still challenging for our little canoe craft. We previously clamped an outboard motor on the tail of the dugout canoe, then lashed Scott’s canoe beside it to make the conglomerate “Contraption,” towing John in a third canoe. 

With optimal lake conditions, the Contraption could maintain a steady 4.7 mph. It was a thrill to watch the scenery blow by at faster-than-walking speed. And with oil wells on shore, there was something oddly appropriate about motoring down the lake burning petrol. 

Although motorized, the Contraption retained the limitations of her component parts, necessitating protective harbors from wind and waves. The lashed poles bounced up and down like the whole thing was going to fly apart at any moment, and big waves threatened to fill the canoes. Taking shelter in a bay during one thundershower, we pitched our tents in the green, flat-bottomed wash, only to have the runoff fan out as a creek under our tents.

Small bay on Lake Sakakawea

We sought refuge from a passing storm in a small bay, here seen after the rain.

Lake conditions were never particularly severe, however, and while we hunkered down for survival,  people with real boats were cruising back and forth on the lake having a party.

Lake Sakakawea is largely vacated on weekdays and incredibly beautiful. The surrounding terrain features badlands characteristics with soft earthy hues composed of more silt than clay, overlain with rich, fertile prairie. Up a coulee by camp we explored a pocket of midwestern forest featuring oak, ash, box elder, aspen, willow, dogwood, wild plum, chokecherry, Virginia creeper, raspberry, and wild grapes. 

Peg Hellandsaas at Tobacco Gardens had sent two big bags of gourmet beef short rib leftovers from her restaurant, providing several top-notch meals. For one dinner I fried ribs with onions, sow thistle greens, and buffaloberries. The Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery has eaten well!

Charles departed at Four Bears, bound for home and work in Georgia. We were sorry to see him go and hope he returns for another section of the river. On the way, he shuttled the canoe trailer from Tobacco Gardens down to the dam. 

Earthlodge interior.

We camped in the earthlodge village at Four Bears, grateful to have dry shelter in yet another rainstorm.

At the Four Bears earthlodge village, we met Darian Morsette, tourism director for the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (Sahnish) Nation, otherwise known as the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation. Darian gave us the grand tour of the earthlodges and cultural center. I showed him pictures of an earthlodge I built for our wilderness survival programs back home. Darian invited us to camp overnight, and we moved into the cozy shelters moments before another storm rolled through.

Placid conditions allowed us to putter thirty-three miles closer to the dam the following day. Exploring a coulee during lunch, I found petrified tree stumps, apparently dawn redwoods (Metasequoia) from the 55 million-year-old Sentinel Butte Formation when the area was a coastal floodplain. 

At camp I harvested giant horse mushrooms (Agaricus arvensis), which we fried for breakfast. I wish we could explore every coulee along the lake, yet we have already noted individual leaves showing red and yellow fall colors. Snowberries are beginning to ripen, reminding us to keep moving as the Missouri has finally begun to swing south. 


In a pasture with horses I found a nice bunch of giant horse mushrooms, which were delicious.

A strong tailwind pushed us forward, but blew so hard that John’s tethered canoe rammed the back of the Contraption and knocked the motor off. We saved it, thanks to Scott’s quick hands and redundant cords wrapped around critical components. We later remounted the motor and puttered into Dakota Waters Resort, welcomed by Amber Kimball who graciously offered a courtesy campsite. 

Seeing John eat out of a tin can, our neighbors unloaded a pile of gourmet barbecue buffalo wings, stuffed green peppers, baby baked potatoes, and roast beef which they they would otherwise “toss in the dumpster.” That was moments before we joined Amber, Thomas, and Christine for an amazing dinner of ribs, fresh corn, and baked potatoes.

Bacon-wrapped stuffed green pepper.

Gifts from neighboring campers. We’ve eaten well on this trip!

Calm waters allowed us to reach Lake Sakakawea State Park the following day where we dismantled the Contraption back to her component canoes. We consumed five gallons of gas in 100 miles of lake travel.

River angel Nate McCleery and his father Mike, owners of the Sakakawea Sunset Lodge, helped us portage us around Garrison Dam. Portaging turned into a detour to their lodge for plush courtesy rooms, hot showers, and gourmet dining in their restaurant. We were floored by everyone’s kindness and generosity.

Mike and friend Bob Willcuts helped us launch in the morning, and since Bob was driving south shortly, he offered to transport the trailer to the next dam and find a suitable place to park it. Paddling downstream, we all agreed that North Dakota is the most hospitable state in the nation!

Thomas J. Elpel is the director of Outdoor Wilderness Living School LLC (OWLS) and the author of multiple books about nature, wilderness survival, and sustainable living. Go to to learn about Tom’s work and the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.

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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #17

Tobacco Gardens Resort & Marina

Peg Hellandsaas at Tobacco Gardens Resort & Marina is known as “River Mom” to bedraggled paddlers who wash up on her beach.

“Set out at an early hour this morning. about nine A. M. the wind arose, and shortly after became so violent that we were unable to proceed, in short it was with much difficulty and some risk that I was enabled to get the canoes and perogues into a place of tolerable safety, there being no timber on either side of the river at this place.  some of the canoes shiped water, and wet several parsels of their lading, which I directed to be opened and aired    we remained untill five in the evening when the wind abating in some measure, we reloaded and proceeded.”

—Meriwether Lewis, April 23, 1805


There were no lakes on the Missouri when Lewis and Clark ascended it in 1804 and 1805. Now there are fifteen dams creating 700 miles of reservoir, nearly one-third the total length of the river. That’s like paddling from Seattle to San Francisco on a lake, except that, like the ocean, big lakes are seldom calm. The wind ceaselessly blows from one direction or another. For an expedition of small canoes on big water, we depend on angels to carry us through.

I knew we could handle Fort Peck Lake. It was Lake Sakakawea (178 miles) and Lake Oahe (231 miles) that really concerned me during the planning phase. If our goal were merely to paddle, then we could push forward inch by inch, stabbing at the water with our paddles an estimated 135,000 times to get across Sakakawea and more to overcome Oahe.  However, there seemed little to gain from the experience beyond repetitive stress injuries. I mulled over various alternatives, but never came up with a plan beyond hoping for Divine Intervention.

Diane and Rod Gorder

River Angels Diane and Rod Gorder helped us move the dugout canoe trailer down the river.

We’ve been helped by many Angels on the journey, notably my mother and sister and aunt and uncle, who helped with our initial dam portages, plus my friends Jeff and Becky Blend who brought the trailer across Montana to help us portage around Fort Peck Dam. There we moved beyond my network of family and friends into the arms of River Angels who graciously help long distance paddlers. The first were Rod and Diane Gorder, who made a six-hour round-trip drive to deliver the canoe trailer to Tobacco Gardens Resort and Marina on Lake Sakakawea. 

Another Angel came in the form of Charles Tatch, who drove up from Georgia to join the expedition back at Trenton Lake. He’d read some of my books and followed the expedition with great interest. He asked if there was anything we needed. I couldn’t think of anything at first. He asked again, and I offhandedly asked if he would happen to have a gas or electric outboard motor laying around…

Charles Tatch and Tom Elpel

Charles drove up from Georgia to join the expedition for a section of the river. He brought us an outboard motor to help get across the big lakes.

Charles brought both, plus mounting hardware, gas cans, a battery charger and a big solar panel, dried fruit and nuts, fresh Georgia peaches, and more. We left the motors in his truck while paddling down the river and the first twenty grueling miles of Lake Sakakawea to Tobacco Gardens.

There we were greeted by proprietor Peg Hellandsaas who has a soft heart for the bedraggled paddlers who wash up on her beach. Tobacco Gardens is the make-it or break it point for a lot of paddlers, she explained. Slaying the Lakeness Monster back at Fort Peck is totally achievable. It’s the reward of taking on two more beasts back-to-back that overwhelms paddlers, especially if they hit Sakakawea during stormy weather. 

Much to our astonishment, Peg provided courtesy cabins, showers, and meals for the crew. More than a River Angel, she is known as River Mom. She catered to our every need or wish while we were there. Her crew drove Charles back upriver to get his truck and the outboard motors.

We clamped the 4-cycle Honda motor to the back of the dugout canoe and did a test run in the bay. It worked! The electric trolling motor went on Scott’s Old Town canoe, which worked, although not nearly as powerful as the gas motor.

Peg drove us up to the Birnt Hills Overlook, where interpretive signs describe how Lewis was shot in the butt by a near-sighted crewman who mistook him for an elk on their 1806 return trip to St. Louis. 

In the morning, we signed Peg’s paddler guest book and wrote a note on her paddles. It was fun to read the notes of fellow paddlers who have preceeded us over the years. 

The Contraption

We clamped a gas motor on the back of the dugout canoe and lashed it together with the Old Town to create a new ship we named the Contraption.

To keep the fleet together, we used driftwood and para cord to lash Scott’s canoe to the dugout like an outrigger, then tied Charles’s solo canoe on back for towing, manned by John. Scott named our new ship the “Contraption.” It was mid-afternoon by the time we launched, the worst time of day to be on the water. 

We motored into a headwind, the rolling waves funneling up between the two canoes and sloshing over the gunnels. With the motor doing the work, we traded paddles for sponges, attempting to keep up with the incoming waves. Scott and Chris improvised a dam between the canoes with a tarp and heavy dry bags, stopping most of the incoming water. Charles and I discovered we could steer by ruddering with the paddles, rather than constantly micro-adjusting the motor. 

We sped along the lake at 1.8 mph, the fastest we could plow into a headwind without swamping the canoes. After an eternally long time at sea, we motored into a protective bay and pitched camp all of three air miles from our launch at Tobacco Gardens. The Contraption proved herself minimally sea-worthy under poor conditions. We could only do better from there, as long as we have Angels to guide us.

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.


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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #16

Missouri Breaks North Dakota

Lewis and Clark repeatedly noted immense numbers of wild game along the Missouri River.

“The whol face of the country was covered with herds of Elk & Antelopes; deer are also abundant, but keep themselves more concealed in the woodland.   the buffalo Elk and Antelope are so gentle that we pass near them while feeding, without apearing to excite any alarm among them, and when we attract their attention, they frequently approach us more nearly to discover what we are, and in some instances pursue us a considerable distance apparently with that view.” 

—Meriwether Lewis, April 25, 1805

Bones and Oil

Hunters of the Corps of Discovery primarily conserved lead and gun powder for big game to feed the most men with the least resources. During the 28-month expedition they killed and ate 1,001 deer, 375 elk, 227 bison, 62 antelope, 35 bighorn sheep, 43 grizzly bears, 23 black bears, 113 beaver, 16 otters, 104 geese and brant, 46 grouse, 9 turkeys, 48 plovers, a number of horses and dogs, plus 18 wolves, of which they only ate one. 

Although the men were voracious predators, the impact of the expedition was negligible compared to the predator that followed in their wake: commerce. In exchange for trade goods, Whites and Indians systematically trapped every beaver, muskrat, and other marketable fur they could obtain. Meat was often discarded as a by-product in the quest for furs.

There was also a market for buffalo hides, primarily used as belts for machinery in the emerging industrial revolution.  Buffalo meat, however, had zero value since there was no practical means to transport it to market. Whole bison were left to rot on the prairie, killed only for their hides.

Railroads brought more commerce. Railroad companies encouraged passengers to shoot bison to prevent their blocking the tracks. They advertised bison shooting as a sport, much as people still shoot ground squirrels and prairie dogs for entertainment.

Cattlemen sought to eliminate bison to make room for livestock, and the U.S. Army favored culling bison to eliminate the primary food supply of the Indians, forcing them onto reservations. Millions of bison were left to rot on the prairie, their bleached bones later collected and ground up for sale as fertilizer. 

As a beneficiary of the market economy, I am keenly aware that commerce provides unprecedented innovation and material wealth. We are privileged to choose our own paths in life, even having the opportunity to paddle the river.

Oil well near the Missouri River

Oil well near the Missouri River.

That’s the irony of it, that the forces that allow our Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery to exist are the same forces that plant oil wells along the Missouri River here in western North Dakota. 

As seen from the water, the roads and pads are not visible, so the oil wells seem to sprout from the land itself. Like mushrooms popping out of the soil, there are oil rigs everywhere, lining the riverbank, sprouting from hay fields and badlands, or silhouetted on the rim against the sky. There are traditional oil rigs and newer square columns that look eerily suggestive of Easter Island statues, the classic symbol of a culture that overshot its resource base and collapsed. 

Oil pumping towers.

Oil pumping towers line the rim of the Missouri River basin, eerily reminiscent of Easter Island statues.

At nearly every oil pad is a flame, burning off natural gas to separate it from the oil. It isn’t that the gas isn’t useful, but like tens of millions of bison carcasses on the prairie, the resource has zero value in the absence of any infrastructure to bring it to market.

Saudi Arabia previously torched enough natural gas to supply the world for 400 years because they lacked the means to bring it to market. On a smaller scale, North Dakota flares off enough natural gas to heat millions of homes. Although western North Dakota is rural, the light of so many flares makes the western part of the state as bright as Chicago at night when viewed from space. Wherever we paddle, wherever we hike, we are encircled by oil rigs and gas flares, some flames reaching 50 to 100 feet in height and audible from three miles away, like a passing jet engine that never actually goes anywhere.

Natural gas flare

Natural gas is vented and torched as a by-product of oil production, here creating a plume nearly 100 feet long.

With all the rain this year, the land remains as green as spring. The random intermingling of prairie, hills, hayfields, oil wells, and gas flares creates a peculiar illusion, like some kind of video game. Where else would you see fire randomly spouting from the hills, but in a video game full of sorcerers and magic?

Gas pipelines are slowly being installed to capture natural gas instead of wasting it, yet no oil company is going to cease operations and stop flaring in the meantime.

As a young man, I was drawn to the work of Amory Lovins, once described as the “top five of the top ten energy experts in the world.” Lovins demonstrated that we could avoid global warming at a net profit by investing in conservation measures for less than it cost to produce energy. Market forces can be harnessed to make the world a better place, a model I have subscribed to through my personal life and career. Applying a conservation ethic is one of the main reasons I can afford to follow my dreams in life, including spending six months paddling the Missouri. 

Thus it is a shock to witness such flagrant resource waste, emphasizing the fundamental unsolved problem of the market economy, that the future has no value. There is no incentive to conserve resources for the next generation or even ensure that there is a next generation. Like the statues of Easter Island, the oil rigs overlooking the river could easily become monuments to yet another culture that overshot its resource base and collapsed.

Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the author of Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams. Go to to learn more about the Missouri River trip, Tom’s books, and the expedition fundraiser for the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

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