After saying goodbyes to family in Sioux City, it was back to the high, fast river. Below Sioux City is really where I started seeing a lot of evidence and damage from the floods that started in the spring and kept up until recession of some of the really high water in the last few weeks. I had rain off and on all day, and I wore a jacket as I’m not sure the temperature climbed much above 65 degrees – on July 31st! I’d get out the golf umbrella I carry with me for the heaviest downpours, usually only for about 10 minutes in length, and just drift with the current and watch the millions of drops hitting the muddy water, kind of mesmerizing.
I passed what would be the last Native American reservation land I’d encounter on this trip, the Omaha Reservation that starts just below Sioux City and ends just short of Decatur, NE. I paddled by a group of young men fishing on the banks and waved. They asked me where I was going. Replying St. Louis, they told me good luck and gave encouragement. One guy exclaimed in pride – Native Omaha! I pumped my fist and gave them thumbs up, a welcome encounter as opposed to some of the nerve racking experiences further up the river.
After about 43 miles, I paddled under the bridge at Decatur, NE and pulled onto shore to camp at the nice riverside campground. The water was high here, but not high enough to damage the campground. A friend shared an article with me that explained how the bridge over the river here was built sometime in the 1950s and was actually built over dry land! The story was that the Army Corp of Engineers, who control many aspects of the river including channelization, had plans to shift the channel of the river, so the bridge was built over the anticipated path of the new channel. However, after the bridge was completed, priorities shifted, funds were diverted and for years, the bridge sat unused as the river crossed the road a few miles away. Finally, the ACE circled back to the project and shifted the channel to pass under the Decatur Bridge. Today, it provides an efficient (yet noisy when one is camped under it) crossing to those passing between Nebraska and Iowa.
The next day, I covered roughly 43 miles again and made it to Blair, NE. Along the way, I encountered a lot of evidence of the flood. Massive deposits of driftwood along the shores, vacation homes or cabins that either were sandbagged successfully to save them from flooding, or obviously given up to the rising waters and muddy aftermath. I was exchanging messages during the day with a member of the Missouri River Paddlers group who had their cabin flooded along the river on this stretch. When I encountered the string of cabins and campers she indicated, I saw some pretty devastated sites:
Then, of course, in the true sense of resilience and suggested debaucherousness of a recent visitor or resident, encountered this heartening message. America!?!
I pulled into the riverside park at Blair later in the afternoon and decided to set up my tent behind some piles of sand that were either part of the flood prevention, or perhaps the result of the cleanup. They provided some good cover from the procession of cars that would pull into the park, face the river for about 20 minutes, then pull back out and leave. I didn’t expend any amount of energy or thought on what the hell these people were doing there. I took a short walk over to the Blair Marina – which I learned was no longer a true functional marina, but still a pretty amazing restaurant. I opted for the 4 piece fried chicken dinner which was substantial to say the least. After polishing it off, I got to talking to the owner of the place, Steven. He gave me the rundown on the history of the place, how there was at one point an inlet that led to the marina, but had been filled in over the years. He gracioulsy picked up the tab for my meal, while I paid for my beers, then offered to drive me back to my tent at the park. Wonderful hospitality in Blair!
The next morning, I packed up and paddled around 6 miles downstream to the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. A former 7-mile long oxbow lake (more on oxbows and river channelization in a separate post), the wildlife refuge also contains the site of the recovery of the Steamboat Bertrand. I pulled off the river and walked the mile to the excavation site. The story of the Bertrand involves the steamboat running into a snag on a bend in the river near here in 1865. A tree hidden below the water busted a hole in the hull. The captain was able to get the boat to the shallows and offload all the passengers safely, before it sank. Fast forward around a hundred years, the wreck and its location was pretty much forgotten (among the roughly 400 wrecks up and down the river – no wonder train travel quickly replaced the risky, yet romantic steamboat industry). A couple archaeologists/researchers theorized the location where the wreck might be and started taking samples. They located the wreck below dozens of feet of mud and began the painstakining recovery process. Much of the material on the boat was well-preserved under all the mud, so they managed to recover almost everything except for the original hull of the boat, which they left submerged under a pond and a few layers of preserving sand:
The visitor center for the DeSoto Wildlife Refuge apparently houses the recovered items from the steamboat, but I opted not to walk the additional 3 miles to get there. I was back on the water and headed to Omaha!
Approaching the outskirts of Omaha, I planned to stop and camp at Dodge Park, what would otherwise be a nice campground and marina just north of Omaha. Upon arriving, I encountered a muddy mess. Water still covered the parking lots, the docks were twisted and broken. I paddled between submerged park benches and light posts and pulled my boat up into a (car) parking spot. I got out and walked around. The campground was a muddy pit, rusty fire pits littered the ground, the roads and camping pads were barley visible. The only patch of decent grass I found under a nice shade tree was covered in duck/goose poop. I was the only person around for a mile. Once again, it was the depressing aftermath of devastating floods. I got back in the boat and headed into central Omaha.
Omaha airport is nestled into a large bend in the river, and I was somewhat disappointed that no airplanes flew directly over my head as I paddled by the very beginning of the runway. I passed by another flooded park/campground, the Narrows, before covering the final couple miles to get to downtown.
There is a small “marina” downtown, otherwise a small parking lot for boats that had been closed and fenced off due to the flood. I stealthily parked my boat, tied her up and grabbed essential gear before hopping the fence. I rolled my eyes at the sign saying the charge for parking a boat overnight was $50.
A few minutes later, river angel Scott Redd walked down from his downtown office at Union Pacific to retrieve me. I stayed in Scott’s beautiful 7th floor condo overlooking the river and the rest of downtown.
After we grabbed dinner and a few beers nearby, we hit a popular ice cream stand, later learning that Bill Murray and Warren Buffet stopped in for a scoop and I’m sure some pretty riveting conversation a few hours before Scott and I. Back at Scott’s condo, he baked me a loaf of fresh bread and some hummus to take with me on the river the next day. We talked about his pursuit of sailing, not only as a hobby, but potentially someday a lifestyle, taking his Laka Manawa, Iowa-based boat all over the world.
After a groggy morning thanks to a couple Scotch nightcaps, I packed up, took some of my gear back to my parked boat then visited the nearby regional National Park headquarters/Lewis and Clark visitor’s center. I guess I expected a more substantial museum, but turns out this is just a pretty small visitor’s center as opposed to a full-fledged museum. In terms of Lewis and Clark history and artifacts, nothing I’ve encountered yet holds a flame to the museum in Great Falls, MT, although Sioux City is a close second. I spent the next few hours ripping around downtown Omaha on one of them Lime scooters – really the first time I’d experienced one. After hearing about horror stories of scooter injuries from careless riders, I was very nervous about the prospects of having to postpone or cancel my trip after falling off a damn scooter and injuring a body part critical for paddling. I luckily avoided any calamities and checked out the Old Market area as well as doing a lap around the baseball stadium where the College World Series takes place. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in hunting down a Nebraska-shaped decal to add to my kayak after completing the state.
Around 1pm, I was back on the water and passed under a train loaded with wind turbine blades crossing the river as I made my way out of town.
My next city of significant size: Kansas City in my home state of Missouri!!!