The Straightening of the River and Weird State Borders

I got this text from my wife as she was tracking my progress:

“Can you explain what’s going on with the border there?”

In talking with my parents who visited me in Sioux City and stopped for a night in Omaha on their way, they remarked that they stayed in a hotel that was near a neighborood that was west of the Missouri River, but a part of Iowa (Carter Lake).

How about the lower Mississippi – ever seen that mess?

Why, in the 1980s, did a group of 5 guys spend 4 months digging up a steamboat wreck from the 1850s in the middle of a cornfield?

What’s going on here? Well, here is your answer. (Thanks for sending this my way, Anna Wenger.)

Over thousands of years, rivers, especially ones that generally flow over flat, muddy ground, will shift channels. The river constantly cuts through dirt and mud to form a new channel, obeying the laws of gravity to find the most efficient path towards lower ground. Banks erode. A horseshoe bend develops, then over the years, the river cuts into the start of the horseshoe until it erodes the bank completely, cutting off the horseshoe bend from the main channel and forming a lake – often called a horseshoe or oxbow. Left unchecked, a river like the Missouri will meander all over the plain between its bluffs, cutting a new path with each high water or flood event.

Certain portions of the Missouri I’ve paddled are still free-running, natural states of the river. The Missouri River Breaks section in Montana is the most natural and closest to its original state, then a few stretches of river between some of the larger dams and lakes, and a 50 mile stretch below the last dam on the Missouri, Gavin’s Point. Sioux City, Iowa generally marks the beginning of the channelized lower portion of the River. From Sioux City all the way down to St. Louis, the Army Corps of Engineers works to maintain a navigable, stable, 6 to 9 ft deep channel for barges and other watercraft. They do this by reinforcing the banks of the river with wooden piers driven into the mud, tons of crushed rock piled on the banks to prevent erosion, or wing dikes also made of crushed rock that point out into the river and ensure a fast current and prevention of sediment settling that would cause shifting in the channel of the river.

In the 1950s and 60s, in addition to building the 13 dams on the Missouri, the ACE also worked on shortening the main channel of the river. Where there may have been a long, curvy bend in the river, they simply dug out the shortcut between the start and ends of the bend to eliminate the extra miles for boat traffic. In doing so, they shortened the total length of the river by 72 miles!

One other result of the shifting of river channels was its effect on the geography of state borders. In many cases, the river acts as the border between states. When state borders were originally drawn, the river was in its natural state, and thus, continued to shift until channelization and stabilization occured. The borders did not shift with them. So a farmer farming his land on the East side of the river in Missouri may tomorrow be farming land on the west side of the river, but still in Missouri.

Today I got the chance to tour the Steamboat Arabia museum in Kansas City. Similar to my story of the Steamboat Bertrand in Nebraska, the Steamboat Arabia wrecked just upstream from Kansas City in the 1850s, then was recovered from the middle of a farm field in the 1980s, under 50 feet of mud and sand and a half mile from the river.

River channelization and meaures to control the flow and natural tendencies of the river vary in their success. Recent years have seen 100 to 500 year floods occuring with shocking regularity. Engineers designing dams, levees, dikes and other control structures on the river based their calculations on data that was 50 to 100 ears old and prior to the extreme effects of climate change. It seems the more we try to control the river, the less control we really have. I am certainly of the belief that the river be allowed to retain or in some cases, revert to its natural state when feasible. I don’t advocate for the destruction of the dams on the river, or letting all floodplain farmland be once again consumed by the river. But seeing the rampant development that’s occuring on floodplains just in the St. Louis area is very scary. The Missouri River is alive, it is powerful. It may live in its man-made channel today, but it will not forever.

I am certainly new to the issues surrounding the river and a big reason for taking this journey was to learn more. I hope to continue to do so, and also to educate others around these issues.


To Omaha

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!!!


From Yankton, SD to Sioux City, IA

After covering the 5 miles from Gavin’s Point Dam to the boat ramp at downtown Yankton, I spent the rest of the day having a few beers at Ben’s Brewing while catching up on some blog posts, then went around the corner to Cheers/the Blue Pig for a New York style pizza. Of course I couldn’t say no to adding my new favorite ingredient on to the pizza, sauerkraut. I talked with the owner for a few minutes about my trip, and his story about being a Wall Street guy who moved to South Dakota after the 2008 crash to open a NY pizza joint because there was none here was pretty interesting itself. I then got a message from another local paddler, Chuck, who picked me up, then had me join him and a buddy for a late dinner and sharing of river stories. Chuck dropped me back at the riverfront as the sun was setting, and I stealthily erected my tent behind the outfield fence of a baseball field among some trees. I’m pretty sure camping is not allowed there, but I took my chances.

After getting nailed with the sprinklers from 5:30 to 6am, I packed up and got on the water. As I was getting ready to paddle away, I heard someone calling to me. Turns out it was Jarett Bies, who had been coordinating river angels for me the past few days. Coincidentally, he was at the boat ramp helping his boss do some repairs to his boat. We talked and made tentative plans to meet up later before I took off. It was a warm day but I made good miles on the flowing river. I was getting close to Ponca State Park in Nebraska and exchanging messages with Jarett. I paddled on past Ponca until about 7pm to make 53 miles on the day and take out on the South Dakota side of the river where Jarett could easily reach me. He brought my boat and me back to his house where him and his wife Laura offered food, a shower and some cold beers.

With only about 20 miles left to reach Sioux City, IA, I slept in a bit at Jarett’s then enjoyed a good breakfast from my last SD river angels. Jarett and his wife are frequent paddlers and organize two races on the Missouri – the Fort to Field 50 and the South Dakota Kayak Challenge. Although next year is the last year he will be organizing the SD Kayak Challenge, I hope to come back to do one or both of these races in the coming years.

Being a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the 20 miles of river to Sioux City was packed with rec boaters, pontoon boats and wave runners. The river was a little wavy as a result, but not a big deal. I stuck close to the shore to avoid any close calls, and made crossings when I had plenty of clearance. As I got closer to town, there were some massive houses built on the shore, apparently unaffected by any flooding this year. Looking at the map, there was one last tiny strip of South Dakota, where the Big Sioux River joins the Missouri and which forms the border between South Dakota and Iowa. I stopped to get a picture on it:

Sioux City was going to be a rest stop for me – taking 2 full days off. My sister and two nephews were coming to see me as were my parents. I arrived in Sioux City a day before I had been projecting so the first thing I did when arriving at the marina around 4pm was to call around to a few hotels. My sister Lynn and two young nephews Henry and Clayton were going to get in late Saturday night after the delay of tire problems and the long drive from Peoria, IL. I found a relatively basic hotel downtown and walked over. After a shower, I got a quick dinner and had a nice chat with interesting local Sioux Citian and juvenile probation officer, Moon. He gave me a few ideas for how to spend the next couple days with fanily around town.

As I was winding down for the day in my nicely cooled hotel room, my sister and the kids arrived around 11pm. Two young boys after 7 hours cooped up in a car – wow! Their rambunctiousness could hardly be tamed but eventually they settled down.

The next morning, we headed over to the Sergeant Floyd River Museum then next door to the very cool Lewis and Clark Museum. The Sergeant Floyd Museum is on an old riverboat and has many cool aritifacts from early civilizations, the exploration of the river and the west, the steamboat era and modern uses of the river. The highlight for the kids (and me) is going to the captain’s bridge where you can ring the bell on the top of the boat.

The Lewis and Clark Museum right next door to the boat was excellent as well, complete with animatronic likenesses of Thomas Jefferson, Sergeant Floyd, and Lews and Clark. The museum does a good job catering to kids as well, allowing them to collect various stamps in a mini-passport as they hit different exhibits.

My parents arrived in the afternoon. After a nice lunch as it started to rain a bit we went to a different hotel on the east side of town. I had my kayak tied up securely at the marina. They told me it would be $15 a night to keep it there. I paid for the first night and told them I might make alternate arrangements for the other two nights. I thought I might load the boat on my sister’s or my parent’s vehicle but decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. (Eventually when I departed SC on Tuesday, the marina was closed, so I unfortunately couldn’t pay the balance…sorry guys, I.O.U.)

The kids got to enjoy the hotel pool, then later in the day we all drove up to the nearby Sergeant Floyd Monument. Sergeant Floyd was a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition who got sick 98 days into the trip. Eventually, he died near present day Sioux City. He was the only fatality on the entire 3-year journey, which is pretty amazing itself. It’s likely he died from a ruptured appendix, untreatable during the early 1800s. The sandstone obelisk sits on the bluffs above Sioux City and provides some pretty nice views of the town and the Missouri River valley:

The next day, we all drove out to Stone State Park just north of Sioux City, checked out a couple overlooks and hiked a trail around a nice lake. We then went to War Eagle Park – where a beautiful statue pays homage to a Sioux Chief named War Eagle who as ‘friend of white man’, ensured good relations between early explorers and settlers and was generous enough to offer two of his daughters in marriage to an early fur trader. Please, enjoy my daughters.

Back to the hotel for more fun at the hotel pool with Henry and Clayton, then we had plans for my birthday dinner then a Fingerhut family vacation tradition – go to the local minor league team’s stadium to watch a game. I learned that there was a nearby establishment that was, get this, a combination toy store/bar and grill all housed in the same building, which turned out to be a medeival castle for some reason. The kids loved the toy store and it was hard to pull them away so we could head next door to eat. The bar and grill portion was pretty underwhelming, but we enjoyed all being together and catching up.

Afterwards, the minor league game was entertaining, with former Cardinal Jeremy Hazelbaker making his Sioux City Explorers debut, and flamethrower Pete Tago throwing a complete game shutout 3-hitter for the Explorers. Henry and Clayton were delighted to run the bases after the game.

The next morning we said our goodbyes. Lynn and the boys dropped me back at my boat at the marina where I loaded up my gear. I had found a baseball where I had camped behind the field in Yankton a few days ago and had that in my kayak. Of course the kids found it and wanted me to autograph it for them. Wow – their hero Uncle Mark, doing an amazing paddle journey on the Missouri River – sure I’ll autograph the baseball. But, wait: “Uncle Mark, could you sign Jeremy Hazelbaker so our dad thinks we got the ball from the game???” So of course I signed Jeremy Hazelbaker’s name on the ball. Disaster was averted after Clayton dropped the ball off the dock into the water which I then retrieved as I paddled out.

I left the marina cove and hit the open water of the Missouri and was on my way once again. I couldn’t resist exploring a tunnel before leaving town:

A few more days of paddling would get me to Omaha. More updates to come.


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.


Lake Francis Case

After spending the evening at the downstream campground at Big Bend Dam, I was ready to get an early start on Lake Francis Case. As I opened my eyes very early as it began getting lighter, there was a crack of thunder and soon it was raining pretty hard. I rolled over and went back to sleep for an hour or so. The early morning downpour let up a bit and I emerged and started packing up. My campsite was equipped with a weird wooden half-shelter that covered part of the picnic table, so between that and my umbrella, I was able to pack up and sip my coffee in relative dryness. About 100 ft away, there was a group of fishermen huddled under a shelter who had put their boats in the water, ready for a long day of fishing on the lake, but were apparently opposed to going out in the rain. The rain would slow down, they’d walk over to their boats, then the rain would pick back up, then they’d go back to the shelter. This happened 2 or 3 times as I was getting ready to go, and I found it a little bit funny.

I timed my shove off with the completion of the rainstorm and the plan was to paddle around 18 miles to Chamberlain, SD. Chamberlain was my halfway stopping point when I drove from St. Louis to Montana to begin this trip. The meandering nature of the Missouri means that Chamberlain is a lot more than halfway on the river vs. on the road. I had gotten wind that the riverside campsites in Chamberlain had been flooded recently and may or may not be operational. I messaged Norm Miller in the morning and got him on the case. As I paddled to Chamberlain, I was receivng updates on what was open, what wasn’t, where I should paddle to and where I should avoid – the wonder of technology and a virtual ground crew…

I paddled up to American Creek campground around 2pm. The boat ramp I landed at generally delineated the half of the campground that was open vs. the half that had been flooded and was still in the process of being drained and cleaned. Even a site 18 miles downstream from a dam has to deal with the unpredictability of flooding, as the ordeal of managing flows, floodwaters and prioritization is a massive challenge up and down the Missouri. Volumes could be written about this challenge and all the factors that go into the decision making, and it’s quite controversial. In order to save certain spots along the river, others must be flooded. Who suffers, who gets saved, who loses business, who loses crops, houses, livelihoods – it’s generally up to the big boss at the Army Corps of Engineers who sits at the master controls of the 13 dams up and down the river.

I met Brenda, one of the owners of American Creek and she pointed me to a nice shaded spot next to the boat ramp where I could put up my tent for the next two nights. It had been a while since I took a day off, and Chamberlain was a good place to do just that. I spent the rest of the day relaxing, picked up a package of more dehydrated food that my wife sent to the local post office, then had dinner at the local watering hole and restaurant at the marina – the Smoking Mule. I ordered the chicken gizzards – I generally will eat anything and the deep friedness of these was good, but damn they were gross.

My goals for the next day were to rest my arms, shoulders and back, catch up on some blogging and journaling, and then keep an eye on Scott Hite as he biked into Chamberlain. The ever-impressive Missouri River Paddlers Facebook group turned me on to the journey of another paddler – Scott. He paddled the Missouri to the Gulf in 2015, and has done a ton more paddling on the Mississippi, Illinois River, and extensively around the Gulf, Florida and the Everglades. He’s an all-around interesting dude. I learned that this year, his adventure was bicycling from Michigan down to St. Louis, then up along the Missouri River to the source in Montana.

I had Scott’s Garmin tracker and I watched him get closer and closer throughout the day. While I blogged and drank coffee at a local sexily-named shop called Tranquil Desires, then grabbed lunch at The Anchor then browsed vintage books and baseball cards at and antique shop topped off by a McDonald’s sundae on a hot afternoon, Scott was getting closer. Back at camp, I sat in the breezy shade and read for a few hours. Sure enough, Scott rolled into camp around 7:30. We chatted as he set up his tent. Through his journey, he’s raising awareness and money for Scott started a hotline aimed at those who are contemplating a mass-shooting. Similar to a suicide hotline, it gives those ready to do the unthinkable a chance to talk to someone before they go through with it. I had so many questions. He told me about me about how the Colorado theater shooter explained in an interview after the act that he had called a mental health hotline prior to the shooting, only to get no answer. Scott carries three cell phones with him and answers calls 24/7, should someone call. His main priority for this trip is to get media attention and spread awareness for his hotline. He hopes to get national exposure at some point along the way. It’s also critical he stays within areas where he has cell phone reception on this trip, which dictates his route to a degree.

Scott and I returned to The Smoking Mule, where we enjoyed some food and drinks and volleyed river stories back and forth, his vast experience dwarfing my short, uneventful time on the river so far. Back to camp, we sat around in the dark getting chewed up my mosquitos, telling more stories before retiring for the night. It didn’t last very long. At 5:30am, the tornado sirens blared. I peaked out into the faint light of the early morning, it was windy, the waves were big on the lake, and the cottonwoods above us were bending. I turned on my phone to check the radar: storms moving in but not an obvious tornado. Scott and I got out of our tents, secured some of our gear, then decided to walk over to the bathroom/shower building for shelter. Lots of other campers left their RVs to do the same. When the front hit, we got inside the women’s bathroom, groggily acknowledging the other campers and waiting for the storm to pass. The wind raged and the rain poured down. After a good 45 minutes, we emerged and walked back to our camp. Branches were down everwhere. It didn’t look like there was significant damage. Arriving at our tents, Scott’s was leveled and sitting in 3 inches of water.

My tent held, but was misshapen with bent poles. I helped Scott relocate and re-erect his tent in a dry spot and we went back to sleep for a couple more hours in the not-quite-as-strong wind and rain.

After I packed up, Scott and I bid our farewells, him continuing on the road north and me on the river south.

The lake calmed down quite a bit after the violent storms of the morning and I cruised southeast. It was much cooler than previous days, a cool front moving in with the storms. I paddled straight through to around 5:30, pulling up at Elm Creek ramp. I set up my tent in a nice shady spot near the ramp, talked with a gentleman arriving to do a little fishing and set up a bonfire to keep the bugs away. I had a dehydrated dinner and went down with the sun.

My goal for the next day was to meet up with friends from St. Louis – Doug and Shelly were starting their vacation by driving up to meet up with me. By around noon, I had made it to Snake Creek, where a bridge crosses over the lake and where there’s a real nice bar and grill where I enjoyed a burger and couple Busch Lights, even grabbing two for the road to go along with some of their homemade jerky. I paddled 10 more miles in some intermittent rain then into the Platte Creek Cove where I was greeted with calls of “on on”, the standard directional confirmation of the hash house harriers, the source of my friendship with Stinky and Swallow. I pulled up on to the muddy shore of their campground, gave some big hugs then enjoyed a cold beer they’d brought me.

We relaxed and caught up on the events of the summer, Stink made some fantastic porksteaks, a staple of summer barbeque in St. Louis, then we enjoyed a good driftwood bonfire well into the night.

I bid farewell to Stink and Swallow the next morning as they continued on their journey to the Badlands, Black Hills, Colorado and beyond. I had about 32 miles to the end of the lake, which I was content to split into 2 days. However, I soon learned that this was probably going to be the absolute best day on the river I’d yet to experience. The wind was nil, the water was glassy, and temps reached a high of about 75 during the day. Several times throughout the day, I simply set the paddle down, looked around and just absorbed everything that each of my 5 senses was feeding me – pure bliss. The lake was about 2 miles across all day, and I made several crossings with no problem whatsoever. Later in the afternoon, I turned on my phone and got a little reception – seeing that Norm had posted in the South Dakota paddlers group that I was nearing Fort Randall Dam. The first message was from a lady named Jackie who said she wanted to come and paddle but couldn’t make it, but would let friends know who were boating on the lake that day to keep an eye out for me. I shit you not, I looked up from my phone and saw a pontoon boat about a quarter mile ahead. As I approached, the guy called out. It was Jackie’s friends, Dave and Eileen. They waved me in for a chat and a cold beer. As I crossed the lake again, the next boat I came across was a group of retirees who also waved me in, asked me what I was doing and plied me with beer. South Dakota hospitality at its finest.

The day was too nice not to keep paddling, so I continued all the way to the dam – doing about 32 miles. I pulled up at North Point campground and got a good spot right on the water. After an uneventful evening, I was again in bed with the sun and slept well. Another lake bites the dust.


PS – To save you a wikipedia click, Francis Case was apparently a US Congressman/Senator from South Dakota from 1937 to 1952. I don’t know that he did anything noteworthy, yet he gets a pretty nice lake named after him, go figure.

Lake Sharpe

After leaving the gracious hospitality of the Kuhls at Oahe Dam and Pierre, SD, it was time to tackle Lake Sharpe. Lake Sharpe is 81 miles long and its main feature is a massive 21 mile bend, where after making the big loop, you end up about 1.5 miles from where you were 21 miles ago. Jack dropped me off at the downstream boat ramp at Oahe Dam. I called to inquire about a dam tour at Oahe, but they confirmed that you do need a car to take the tour – I ran into the same issue at Fort Peck. Due to security, you have you drive your car into the powerhouse following a tour guide. Those who are on foot, or kayak in my case, are apparently out of luck unless you find an accommodating fellow tourist’s car to ride in. This time I let the terrorists win and skipped the tour and went ahead and shoved off.

The water was swift, cold and clear. The city of Pierre, capital of South Dakota, is around 6 miles downstream of the dam.I passed by without stopping, enjoying the underside of an old rotating railroad bridge and well as the lovely Framboise Island. The muddy Bad River joined on the right adding some chocolatey sediment. As the river turned east, I got a pretty good tailwind, strong enough that I put up my umbrella, set down my paddle and sailed for a good 2 or 3 hours. I was moving just as fast as if I was putting in a pretty good effort paddling. With an opaque golf umbrella, I would just have to lift it every once in a while to ensure I was moving in the right direction.Pretty soon the current slowed, then stopped completely and I was into Lake Sharpe proper. There was some wind around, but not too strong, so I continued to make miles. Around 5:30, I was around 30 miles in and approaching DeGray boat ramp. I pulled in to the rocky boat ramp and settled on a small patch of grass next to a gravel parking area for camp. The flies were pretty bad, but I got set up and made a dehydrated dinner and enjoyed a good sunset. I woke up several times during the night as a mild storm rolled through. A bit of thunder and lightning and some rain, but nothing too rough, enough to ensure I packed my tent away wet the next morning.

The plan for today was 32 miles to get to the western side of the Big Bend, where there was a pretty good campsite with good facilities. It was a fairly calm and uneventful day. It did get very hot in the afternoon, and I stopped several times to fully immerse myself in the cool lake water. I passed many herds of cattle who had the same idea as I, taking a mid afternoon dip. I can’t help but practice my most accurate moos as I pass them, knowing I’m doing a pretty good job if the entire herd happens to stop and stare at me.

As I approached the bend, I had a bit of a headwind. But as I made the turn north, then eventually back west, the wind was now at my back and I did a bit more sailing. The campground came into view and I made the last few miles among some wave-running kids. The campground looked pretty packed with RVs and vacationing families. There was a sandy swimming beach with cabins on the left. The far left cabin looked unoccupied and there was a good bit of shaded, mowed grass next to the cabin. So I pulled in and quietly erected my tent on the far side of the cabin, out of the view of the main campground and any officialdom that might make their rounds.It was a long, hot day, so after a nice shower in the ‘comfort station’ of the campground and a quick dinner, I was asleep. Not for long, storms rolled in around 11:30 and lasted pretty much the rest of the night. Now an expert at thunderstorms of the northern plains, I judged from the coordination of the frequent thunder and lightning that this was not a direct-hit storm. It was very windy with heavy rain and I was lucky to have a bit of shelter in my tent, next to a wood cabin and some stout cottonwood trees, but I know we weren’t getting the absolute brunt of this storm. At one point, probably 2am, I got up and made sure my boat was still out of reach of the big waves on the lake, it was. I later learned this this same storm spawned 60 to 80 mph winds in nearby towns that flipped over a few trailers.

Come 6am, the storms seemed to be strengthening and I could tell by sound that the waves were bigger. Once again, I ventured out of my tent and walked over to my boat. This time I was not so lucky. The waves were crashing over the back of my boat. The back hatch was no longer on my boat; water, sand and seaweed was swamping my back hatch, which still held some of my gear. Shit. I quickly and with much difficulty pulled my boat all the way off the beach and into the grass. I gave a quick silent thank you to Jim Emanuel, who early on in my trip insisted I attach my hatch covers to my boat with 550 cordage. Without his sage advice, the rear hatch cover would have been halfway to Pierre and I would have been an awful situation having to find an alternative way to enclose my hatch on a custom boat. Jim, cheers to you!

After a few more hours, the rain died down and I got to work draining the water, sand and other detritus from my boat. Eventually I took off and crossed directly across to the very northern edge of the bend. Once I went around the top of the bend, I decided to make another crossing to the eastern edge of the bend to save a few miles of paddling. I was getting close to the end of the lake – Big Bend Dam. Quite hot again today, I stopped for a quick swim/cool down. I made one final long crossing and arrived at the boat ramp at the dam. I didn’t have a plan for portaging my boat down below the dam. At the ramp, there was a young Native American couple trying to get a wave runner to start. I relaxed in the shade for a few minutes, seeing if they’d have any luck. Luckily for me, they did not and started to load it back on their trailer. I approached and asked if they might be able to drive me down to the campsite below the dam. Ken was very nice and willing to help. He unhooked his trailer with the wave runner and left that with his lady friend. We loaded my kayak into the bed of his pickup, somehow tying it down and jamming it in somewhat securely. A 20 ft kayak in a short-bedded pickup means even at an angle, it will be hanging out quite a bit. Ken carefully drove across the dam, with the back of my kayak about 6 inches from the guard rail. He dropped me at the campsite just below the dam, about 100 ft from where I’d put in on Lake Francis Case in the morning. I slipped him 20 bucks for his troubles. Lake Sharpe was complete.

I grabbed an open campsite near the boat ramp and happened to set up next to Ron and his wife, the campground hosts. Campground hosts are people hired by the campground owners, in this case the Army Corps of Engineers, to just kind of watch over the camp, help people out if they need anything, police the area a bit and act as host for all campers. Ron offered me a cold beer as I was setting up, then after I had made a good meal of dehydrated taco meat on tortillas, invited me back over to sit and talk with them as the sun went down. Ron and his wife spend the summers here at this campsite, then spend the winter down in Port Aransas, Texas, their entire year in a huge RV. Sounds like a pretty good life to me. He told me stories of flooding, massive storms and his interactions with familiar thru-paddlers from years past. Into my tent I went, ready to take on the next lake in the morning.


Completing Lake Oahe

After an evening of cold beers, a great burger and good conversation with fellow camper and proud South Dakotan Russ at the bait shop at West Whitlock State Park, he generously brewed me some fresh coffee back at his camper to fill my thermos to get me started on the right foot the next morning. I awoke to a nice sunny day, but winds from the South. I immediately crossed over to the South side of the lake and for about 8 or 9 miles was able to paddle in the shelter of the shore in fairly calm water. I enjoyed passing under the very long route 212 bridge over the lake. When the lake made its turn South, I was once again paddling into the wind. I made some hard miles before things calmed down later in the afternoon. I passed a boat ramp around 4 but kept going, as I wanted to tackle Little Bend the next day and wanted to get as close as possible that night. I made about 6 or 7 more miles before finding a pretty nice beach in a partially sheltered cove. I had a lovely view of the sunset to the West, even though it was pretty warm and my legs were targets of the biting flies.

There was a bit of wind and rain overnight, but nothing too bad luckily, as I has absolutely no shelter or windbreak on that beach. I packed up my damp gear and was on the water early. Slight winds from the North, mostly at my back for the moment, I crossed from the East to the West side on the approach to Little Bend. At Little Bend, Lake Oahe makes a hard West turn for around 8 miles before doing a complete 180 back to the East for another 8 miles. A massive U-turn that some have actually portaged up and over the thin spit of land at the neck of the turn, but I was there to paddle. I crossed over once again, aiming for the very end of the bend. I encountered strong winds from the North and pretty large waves. I surfed may way across and landed on a beach to collect myself and ensure no leakages from waves crashing over my hatches. A couple more miles and I was out on the end of the bend, with the waters of Lake Oahe for nearly 270 degrees in every direction:

Once around the bend, I was once again sheltered from the wind and paddling in calm water. Sure, the wind is can be tough to paddle in and make for rough waters, but at least it keeps you cool. The Southern end of Little Bend was hot, so I stopped at Little Bend Conservation Area ramp for a quick swim to cool off. I made one last crossing for the day in glassy waters to Pike Haven Resort, where I was given a nice spot to pitch my tent overlooking the lake. I grabbed a shower in the spider-infested shower house, then settled into their nice bar/restaurant for a few cold ones and a nice steak. I emerged from the coolness of the bar just as the sun was setting in order to avoid the evening heat and was greeted with one of the nicest sunsets of my trip so far:

From Pike Haven to the end of Lake Oahe is around 32 or 33 miles. I planned to tackle it in 2 days, stopping about halfway. Pretty quickly after getting out on the water, I saw a distant boat coming towards me. Normally, if I am facing a boat coming my way, they turn off well in advance of any kind of close calls. This boat kept coming, I nervously watched it approach. As it got closer, the driver cut the engines and drifted up to me. Jack Kuhl introduced himself as my host for the end of the lake and Pierre. I had gotten Jack’s contact info early on, and was planning to contact him when I got to the dam, but Jack was able to locate me on the lake via my tracker and decided to come out to see me. After discussing plans to meet, he went off to do some fishing and I continued on with relatively calm conditions. As I approached two resorts that I had contemplated stopping at later in the afternoon, Jack returned. He suggested I paddle on a few more miles to Peoria Flats, where he could load me up on his trailer and drive me 10 minutes to his house where I’d have all the comforts of River Angeldom.

Approaching Peoria Flats, I saw Oahe Dam in the distance. Ensuring the forecast was not expected to be very windy the next day, I decided to leave the last 6 miles of the lake for then. Jack backed his flatbed trailer all the way into the water and I paddled the kayak right up onto it, tied it down, then off we went – by far the easist offloading of my boat so far this trip. Back at the Kuhl residence, I met his wife Sue and cooled off with a beverage and shower followed by an amazing meal of freshly caught Walleye and corn on the cob. Jack had paddled the entire Missouri River in 2015, so we exchanged stories and notes, I think Sue might have been a little bored listening to us go on. But we also talked about our travels, with the Kuhls being pretty wordly travellers themselves.

The next day, Jack dropped me back in the water at Peoria Flats and I paddled the last 6 miles of the lake. There was some wind and waves but not too bad. I also did a Facebook live video during this stretch. While it worked fairly well, I don’t think my reception was super clear, as the video kept dropping. Still, a lot of people joined, said hello and asked me some questions. At the dam, I cruised back onto Jack’s trailer, then we located a nearby rock, under which resided a small stash of keepsakes and treasures left there by previous through-paddlers. I checked out what was there, including some bug spray, a head lamp, a buff, some energy bars, a (sought after) purple hat awarded to those who have paddled the entire river – which I left in the stash. I also found a small baggy into which someone had left a nicely rolled joint, still smelling pretty nice and potent. Alas, the ziplock bags of the stash were no match for mother nature, as water had seeped in to soak everything and make it all pretty nasty. I added a few stickers that I collected along the way on my trip so far, nestled in next to the soggy joint. I also nominated Jack for another summer project: clean up and place the stash in a more weatherproof container, so that perhaps the next paddler coming through could actually enjoy the wonderful generosity of previous paddlers and maybe even a few puffs of the sticky-icky.

After the short day of paddling, Jack graciously showed me around nearby Pierre, SD, including the site of Fort Pierre, the South Dakota Heritage Museum and the Verendrye site – a big hill overlooking the town where in 1913, a few teenagers discovered an engraved lead plate planted by French explorers way back in 1743. The plate itself is stored in the museum, where they also had a pretty cool exhibit on Minuteman missiles, which have played a big part in the history of the Dakotas. After a quick stop into the local Wal-Mart to load me up with fresh cherries, which have become my preferred snack while paddling, back to the Kuhl residence for another amazing dinner.

The next morning I was loaded back up and ready to begin the next lake – Lake Sharpe. I thanked the Kuhls for their generosity and for being wonderful River Angels.

To summarize Lake Oahe: I spent 10 days paddling this 231 mile long beast of a lake. I took 3 rest days – 2 at Bridge City Marina in Mobridge and 1 at West Whitlock State Park. The reputation of Lake Oahe is that it can be unbelievably rough and dangerous based on the weather conditions. I’ve heard many stories of paddlers being stuck on the shore for days at a time – 10 days in one case. Jim Emanuel had to take shelter in a shower house last year as 100mph winds came through, flattened tents and brought down an electrical pole at the campsite. Folks have been caught out on the water as massive storms appeared almost out of nowhere and stirred things up. My Oahe experience was luckily not as exciting. I consider myself extremely lucky to experience the weather and conditions I did. Other than that one terrifying storm in the middle of the night that I weathered in my sand-covered tent near Cannonball, I didn’t have a ton of overly challening conditions. I was also lucky to have my awesome boat from Timber Longboard Co., which I confidently paddled into (up to) nearly 20mph winds and the waves that were whipped up by them. Peck, Sakakawea, Oahe – the big three lakes on the Missouri. I’ve now completed all of them. I am hoping that within another week of paddling, I will descend past the last dam of the Missouri at Gavin’s Point/Yankton. From there I’ll hit the fastly moving water of the lower Missouri and begin the real home stretch.