The Last Lake on the River – Lewis and Clark

Getting caught up after making it to Omaha and couch crashing at a generous river angel’s high rise condo overlooking the downtown area.

Waking up at the North Point Campground, I didn’t have a solid plan as to how I was going to portage my boat and gear the 2.5 miles to the put-in below the dam. I had the phone number of the superintendent of the state park where I was camped and was told he’d probably be able to help me. I was going to wait until after 8am to give him a call. Around 7:30, I saw a truck driving through the campground with kayak racks on the roof. Sure enough, Jon Corey pulled up to my campsite and offered to drive me down. I packed up my gear then we loaded my boat onto his convenient rollers on the roof of the truck. He drove me down below the dam, where normally there’s a hopping campsite, but it hasn’t even opened this year after the flooding earlier in the spring.

As I paddled into the main channel from the boat ramp, I was delighted to once again be in moving water. My boat moving without me paddling? Wonderful. I paused to take a look back at Fort Randall Dam:

I had a fairly relaxing day, letting the current do a lot of the work.

Around 4pm, I paddled up to the Verdel boat ramp, tucked in among some modest vacation homes just out of reach of the high water. I sat in the shade cooling down from the afternoon heat. I decided to go ahead and push on another 10 miles to get close to the town of Niobrara. I also reached out to a river angel named Jarett Bies who lives in the area. He told me to look for a gentleman named Bob when I made it to the Running Water take out. I made the last 10 miles at a good pace, having to navigate some shallow water, sandbars and braided channels where the Niobrara River joins the Missouri. Just upstream of here on the Niobrara in the spring, the Spencer Dam was totally destroyed by ice flows and high water, which also took out a highway bridge. As I passed the mouth of the Niobrara, I saw the cranes a few miles upstream where they are working furiously to reconstruct the bridge.

I pulled into what I thought was the boat ramp at Running Water, no Bob to be found. I walked up the gravel road to the main road and the next car to drive by pulled over and introduced himself as Bob Foley. He’s a member of the local South Dakota Canoe and Kayak Association, a pretty active group of paddlers in this area. I had actually pulled out at the old ferry landing, rather than go a few hundred yards further to the boat ramp. Ah well, we loaded my gear into Bob’s car, got the boat secured to the roof, then drove up the road where Bob treated me to a good greasy dinner and some cold beers. He then drove me into the nearby town of Springfield, where Jarett had arranged for me to set up my camp inside a screened in porch of a friend’s riverside cabin.

The next morning, Bob picked me up, drove me to his hometown of Tyndal, SD, where he took me to the local bakery for some snacks and then breakfast. He knew pretty much everyone we saw and introduced me as kind of a local celebrity, the guy paddling the whole river. After a quick stop in another town to grab some jerky from a local meat shop, we hit the river. Bob was going to paddle with me for the day. We put in and immediately had to navigate some pretty confusing channels as the Missouri starts braiding out as it enters the top of Lewis and Clark Lake.

Many of the big lakes on the Missouri have the issue of silting: As the typically muddy river enters the upper end of a lake, the current ceases and the silt in the water will tend to settle to the bottom. Constant settling build islands, sandbars and mudflats and creates new channels where the river meanders before hitting the open water of the lake. Many of the lakes are so large, that the mudflats stretch for perhaps a few miles before open water. But Lewis and Clark Lake is today only about 25 miles long. As Bob and I paddled among the islands and mudflats, he told me all of this was open water just 25 or 30 years ago. The lake is filling up from the back end and it’s a big problem. It’s estimated that possibly within 100 years, the entirely of Lewis and Clark Lake may be fully filled with silt. Nobody really knows what would happen if that occured. The Army Corps of Engineers, who control the river, lakes and the dams, are looking at some solutions to the issue, including possibly dredging and pumping mud and silt to the river below the dam. Another solution is to completely re-engineer the dam at the end of Lewis and Clark Lake to allow silty water to pass through. Any solution will be costly both financially as well as environmentally, so it will be interesting to see what happens.

Bob and I eventually emerged into the open water of Lewis and Clark Lake. We pulled in at the Navritil boat ramp – where we walked up the road to a local bed and breakfast, Cogen House, where Bob of course knew the owners. We visited with the owners briefly before they dropped me back at my boat and drove Bob back to his car. I battled some pretty big waves for another 6 miles to get to the Tabor boat ramp. The road into Tabor had been impassable since the spring so I encountered a vacant and slightly overgrown campground, but it was perfect to pass a windy, rainy evening.

There were still waves in the morning, but I was excited to finish the final 8 miles of non-moving water I would encounter on the entire 2,450 mile trip. As I passed around the point the dam is named after, Gavin’s Point Dam came into view, and I paddled by the crowded campgrounds full of people just getting up for the day.

I pulled into the marina at the dam and met Kasi who asked around for someone who could load my boat up for the short ride below the dam. I celebrated finishing the lakes with a cold beverage, even if it was only 9:30am. I got a ride from a manager at the marina, Heath, on a flatbed truck to the put in on the swiftly running water below the dam. I decided to go ahead and paddle (or pretty much float in this case) the short 5 miles to the town of Yankton.

There are 810 miles of river between the final dam on the Missouri River and its confluence with the Mississippi just above St. Louis. Every mile of this river is moving and it’s moving faster than it normally does, with water levels being higher. Things are about to get faster, indeed, but also muddier and more challenging to locate a decent spot to stop or camp. I know the last few weeks of my trip will go quickly, so I will be savoring every minute and every mile. I am approaching the home stretch.

mf

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