November 4, 2014

A Great American River

Tim and I had been following the Missouri River for some time, but we still had a lot to learn about the river itself.  We’ve been somewhat surprised with what we’ve seen so far.  For example, I never realized that the river is lined with high bluffs along its banks.  Just north of Chamberlain the bluffs are so high that there is a runaway truck ramp on the descent into town.  

When we left Chamberlain, South Dakota, on October 14, we continued to follow the river and the Lewis and Clark Trail on our way to the Missouri National Recreational River, which is a unit of the National Park Service. This seemed to be a likely place to find out a little more about the “Big Muddy,” the Missouri River’s nickname.

Our route led us past Fort Randall Dam and the historic Fort Randall Military Post, established in 1856.  This historic site features the exposed foundations of many of the original buildings, as well as the partially restored ruins of the chapel.  In 1875 soldiers stationed at Fort Randall built the stone chapel, which also housed a library and Independent Order of Odd Fellows meeting hall.  The chapel became the social and intellectual center of the fort.  It must have been a beautiful building.

The Chapel at Fort Randall Military Post

We settled into a great campground operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Gavins Point Dam just north of Yankton, South Dakota. Once again, we snagged a site directly on the water where we could watch the sunrise, if we ever decided to wake up that early.  

Another Great Campsite at Cottonwood Campground

I Peeked Out the Back Window to Watch the Sunrise - I Didn't Get Up!

The Missouri National Recreational River preserves two free-flowing sections of the Missouri River along the Nebraska-South Dakota border. The National Park Service does not have its own visitor center, but partners with other federal and state agencies to interpret the resource. The visitor center in Ponca State Park in Nebraska was our first stop, and here we really began to understand the history and different facets of the Missouri River.

The Missouri is North America’s longest river and was the original highway to the west.  We were already familiar with the Plains Indian tribes that made their homes along the river, as well as Lewis and Clark, whose mission it was to explore the Missouri River to its source in order to find a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean.  One of my favorite parts of the Lewis and Clark exhibit was the panel about the plant specimens collected during the journey.  Even Lewis and Clark prepared herbarium sheets.

A River Highway

Has This Herbarium Sheet Been Cataloged?

One Way to Paddle the River

We learned just how wild and unpredictable the Missouri River was during most of its history.  Numerous sandbars, shifting channels and powerful currents that brought trees into the river and caved in riverbanks made navigation of the river difficult.  Yearly floods impacted the communities along the banks.  A series of three devastating floods in 1943 provided the impetus for the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1944.  It was this law that led to the most significant and lasting alteration of the river basin.  

A series of dams was constructed along the Missouri from Montana to South Dakota, and a chain of reservoirs was created.  Indian reservations on both sides of the river were flooded, and families were displaced.  The Missouri ceased to be a wild and untamed river.  The dams and reservoirs have created hydroelectric power generation and flood control, as well as irrigation and navigational support.  Untold recreational opportunities are now available, and Tim and I have enjoyed our campsites along these reservoirs.  However, the taming of this once-mighty river is also sad. Luckily, two free-flowing stretches are protected by the National Park Service, and these remnants of the historic Missouri continue to flow as nature intended.

Gavins Point Dam

Although we didn’t get out on the Missouri, we were able to see what the river may have looked like during the time of Lewis and Clark from the Mulberry Bend Overlook.  

Sculpting the Landscape

Mulberry Bend Overlook

On the way back to our campsite, we stopped in Yankton to walk along the riverfront and see Dakota’s territorial capitol.  We also stopped by the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center at Gavins Point Dam one day, and it was here that we were finally able to find the DVD of Ken Burns’ “Lewis and Clark.”  Finally, I’ll get to watch it.

Dakota Territorial Capitol

Along Yankton's Riverfront

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