A river does not run through it

During the night, I was awakened by at least three coyotes (that I could hear at the same time), an owl, bats, swifts, a louder-than-stupid-loud Harley with straight pipes down on Hwy 12, the horse camped across the creek, and some prairie dogs(?). Lewis and Clark recorded their first encounter with prairie dogs three days after passing the Niobrara. They called them barking squirrels.

But in the silence just before dawn, the only thing I heard was the flowing of the river below camp.

This is Mormon Canal, a by-channel of the Niobrara, whose main channel is dry, and composed mainly of fine white sand. Walked up back up the road to a nearby overlook to get a better view up the Niobrara. On the way I saw a half dozen deer, some pheasant, and a flock of wild turkeys. On the way back I saw the lovely Niobrara.

I set up breakfast,  and DAMMIT my new coffee thing fell onto the concrete pavilion floor.

It’s camp breakfast day one…we CANNOT be having coffee trouble, people!

But then I looked out again unto the Niobrara,  breathed deeply, released all contingency, recentered my existence, and and came to the realization that the double-walled Bodum coffee press has an inner wall which was still undamaged.

Trip’s back on.

I headed back out onto Nebraska 12 northwest, past Randall Dam and its Lake Francis Case, about 35 miles upstream from the mouth of the Niobrara, which is about the same distance upstream from Yankton Dam.

For Lewis and Clark, the impending encounter with the Sioux in this area was a critical time in the mission to open the Missouri to fur trading, and the Sioux were the key to success. They controlled access by eastern traders to the Mandan villages and trading posts upstream. The Expedition’s first encounter was with the Yankton branch of the Sioux, but the “meaner” Teton branch of the Sioux had already restricted movement of furs north of the Niobrara. They were in business with the British, and it was Lewis’s job to change that. The captains and their crew were charged with asserting American sovereignty and power. They accomplished this–their journey on the upper Missouri was tense and fraught with confrontation. But the Corps proved their mettle and, as De Voto explains, met no further resistance from any upper Missouri tribes the following year between Mandan and the Continental Divide.

Also in this area, on August 27, George Shannon got lost upstream while hunting ahead of the party. He thought he was behind, and so pressed on ahead for 15 days before he rejoined.

Hilly 12 follows the Niobrara and then Ponca Creek into South Dakota, where it becomes SD18, to the town of Gregory. The route was more river valley bordered by hillside pasture and hilltop agriculture. At Gregory, I found one of the cleanest, quaintest rest stops ever.

I turned north on 47, leaving the Pine Ridge escarpment, crossing the White River and entering the Missouri Plateau before reaching Big Bend Dam at Fort Thompson.

As I mentioned in a previous post, this is not a trip about dams, but this river is dammed for more than a third of its length. That’s a good excuse to make time on the roads which bypass these still waters. After all, the roads, trails, and lands that have been inundated are lost forever.

I followed 47 to 34 west, where the route indicated with green dots alongside the Lower Brule Sioux reservation wasn’t really that scenic at all, unless wheatfields and gigantic radiating transmission lines and straight roads are your thing. However, before long the river returned to the roadside at the base of this bluff just east of the state capitol, Pierre:

This was the site of the first permanent fur trading post in the Louisiana Purchase, founded by Registré Loisel in 1802, one year before Louisiana became the property of the United States. Lewis and Clark arrived here on September 22, 1804.

In Pierre, I grabbed a sandwich and headed north on Hwy 1804, renamed in honor of the Expedition.

The wheat was in harvest and most of the corn was burned. The sunflowers were dried and ready to harvest.

In choosing this side, I missed crossing the Bad Teton, Cheyenne, and Moreau rivers, all of which flow into the Missouri/Lake Oahe from the west. On Oct. 7, 1804, at the Moreau, Clark reported seeing the tracks of a grizzly bear (“white bear”), saw the largest doe he had ever seen, and the party shot its first badger. The road nearest the river on its west is named Hwy 1806, the year of their return. But these roads are no more scenic than US 83, which runs parallel to 1804 and a few miles to its east. However, 1804 does go past Oahe Dam just north of Pierre.

Oahe Dam (no, I’m not sure how it’s pronounced) impounds Oahe Lake, which extends all the way to Bismarck, ND, a distance of 231 river miles (about 180 miles as the crow flies). It covers 370,000 acres and its max depth is over 200 feet. It has over 2200 miles of shoreline, almost three times as much as California, and 50% more than Fort Peck Lake mentioned in a previous post. It also contains transplanted Pacific Chinook salmon along with walleye, smallmouth, and northerns. And, of course, catfish. But you can’t drive alongside it very much. And this is not a trip about dams. So I headed for 83 and crossed the lake into the mountain time zone at Mobridge, and turned north on 63 toward North Dakota.

I crossed the Grand River, which is a trickle in the bottom of its 200-meter-wide wash. Rollling into North Dakota (which is “legendary,” according to its welcome sign), I turned onto ND 24, which follows the water (and a line of green dots in the atlas) pretty closely on its western shore. It was a scenic 50 miles to Mandan, ND, where I expected to cross the Heart River just south of Bismarck. I headed for Abraham Lincoln State Park in Mandan, just across the river and downstream from Bismarck. I pulled into a campsite next to the water. It was the Heart River.

The Heart River was the home of the Mandans when they were first seen by the French explorer Vérendrye in 1738. According to De Voto, cultural decline, Sioux aggression and the smallpox epidemic of 1782 forced them to move upstream to the Knife River, ceding the area around the Heart to the Sioux. Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-05 at the Mandan village at the Knife. I set up and got dinner going, pitched tent and sat down near the rocky bank of a small channel about 10 meters wide, directly across from small point along a large sand bar in the main river channel (the river is still officially Lake Oahe at this point, just a few miles from Bismarck).

Just as I was cleaning up dinner, a gigantic mercury street light flashed on directly above my tent! At first I decided to move the tent to a darker spot. While I pondered this, a couple walked past and we wondered together if the far channel of the Missouri was flowing. I said I didn’t think so, judging by the speed of upstream-bound boats and the lack of apparent movement.

Tom and Annette from Wisconsin

We ended up chatting for about 30 minutes about Lewis and Clark, about the Missouri, and their travels between Oregon, Wisconsin, and Kansas, and a mutual acquaintance at KU. They were headed east from Oregon, and had spent the previous night at Fort Peck State Park, which they highly recommended as “an oasis.” With a description like that, I was reconsidering my southern Montana route.

I bid goodnight to the Goltzes and turned back to my book, deciding the light might be useful while I was awake and wouldn’t bother me in my tent. A shooting star streaked for a few degrees across the sky in the NE, and I thought about South Dakota, the land of reservoirs and power lines.

475 miles in 9 hrs today. Lewis and Clark spent 52 days traveling from Niobrara to Mandan.


In the land of the Sioux

Monday I set out from Lawrence to the Missouri River. It ain’t too far.

The Corps arrived at the confluence of the Missouri with the Kansas on June 26, forty-three days after departing Camp River Dubois at the mouth of the Missouri.

Bernard de Voto’s edition of the journals skims the passage from Westport to the Nodaway River. (However, on the 1806 return trip, the party arrived back at the Kaw, and described the area surrounding the confluence while standing in the middle of modern downtown Kansas City.) They have their first sighting of beaver near Leavenworth and a 4th of July observance featuring a fusillade from the swivel gun and a rattlesnake bite for Joseph Fields near Atchison. And, of course, as it was mid-summer, “the Mosquitoes and ticks are noumerous and bad.”

There is a pavilion in Atchison, just south of today’s Independence Creek, and their 4th of July camp at White Clay Creek (renamed from 4th of July 1804 Creek).

I stuck to the river road northward, until just a few miles before the Nebraska state line, I saw a gent cleaning his gear after a catfish cleaning bonanza.

I was looking for the Four-state Lookout. Chris told me it was right up the bluff from where we were standing. Chris was kind enough to inform me that the White Cloud tribal police were sticklers for the speed limit all the way to the border, and that in Rulo, I’d need to detour over to the main downtown street because of a bridge project. Also, stop and eat downtown. But first, the lookout.

Visible R to L from this spot in northeastern Kansas are Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri

So at the orange cones, I turned left from the river road and up one block on Rouleau St.  There was some eats.

Cheeseburger and homemade fries served by another Chris, then it was back out to US75, where the entire world is under construction!

Mariana did her best to explain that the way around was 15 miles over to Humboldt while apologizing for her poor English. She is taking classes. “How many miles are you going?” she asked in Spanish. “Twenty-seven hundred,” I replied in my pidgin Spanish. “And then back.”

There was another flagger after 5 more miles, then another. I wanted to see the confluence with the Platte, but this was sucking. At the next opportunity, I crossed over to Iowa and headed north to Sergeant Bluff to see the grave of the Expedition’s only casualty: Sgt. Charles Floyd.

Over to I-29 for what I hoped would be one of very few interstate jaunts, passing through Council Bluffs, site of the Expedition’s first meeting with the Ponca, Mahar, Omaha, Oto, and Sioux, in the hope of bringing peace and establishing a foothold in the fur trade with all these nation and thereby cutting the French and British out of the lucrative and burgeoning industry. The Sioux were the strongest nation in the region, having been displaced westward by the even more aggressive Chippewas. Gaining trust and peace with the Sioux was key to the fur trade.

On the way from Kansas to SD, the Expedition suffered its only casualty: Sgt. Floyd was stricken with appendicitis, and died just south of today’s Sioux Falls, IA, There is an obelisk overlooking the Missouri on the east shore. I made good time to Sergeant Bluff, arriving around 3:30.

Sgt. Floyd died of an apparent burst appendix (“bilious colick”) on Aug. 20, 1804, and was buried near the river about 200 meters west of this obelisk. However, by the 1850s, the Missouri had eroded the bluff and threatened to wash away the grave. A group of Sioux City citizens organized a committee to move the grave to the current site. Construction began on Aug. 20, 1900, the anniversary of his death. Here’s a view to the southeast from the obelisk pavilion:

I headed across back into Nebraska to Hwy 12 along the south side of the river, past Yankton Dam and Lake. The landscape is rolling and scenic, with hilltop views any lover of the Kansas Flint Hills would appreciate. Wheatfields and rangeland predominate, with a wind farm along the way.

I reached Niobrara State Park about an hour before sunset, plenty of time to fix dinner and relax before darkness. My view from Monday night’s camp:

Looking east toward the west end of Yankton Lake. The bridge to South Dakota is visible at center right. Water’s on, tent’s pitched, and it’s almost time for dinner.

Roughing it

424 miles today. The Expedition took 68 days to travel from KC to the Niobrara. I did it in 9 hours.

Until the next wi-fi hotspot!

River Horses

In 1999, William Least-Heat Moon published “River Horse,” the logbook of his own journey, by boat and by portage, in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. It was an excellent follow-up to “Blue Highways,” his 1982 travelog in which he describes his circumnavigation of the United States by backroads. Bernard de Voto’s edition of “The Journals of Lewis and Clark,” and Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage,” a fascinating examination of Meriwether Lewis’s personal journey as leader of the Corps of Discovery, were both also among my early literary touchstones and inspirations for my journey.

I’ll be traveling on the 2000 BMW R1100RT shown above, ready for the road. I’ve owned this bike for a little over three years, and I’ve done a few trips of 1000-2000 miles between the Mississippi and the Rockies and lots of backroad explorations that I’ve never been inclined to make in a car. It is one of seven bikes I’ve owned since 1983, and it is my favorite highway machine of them all. The 2-cylinder, 1100-cc boxer engine generates about 90 hp, gets around 45 mpg at 80 mph, and will travel 300 miles on a tank of gas. An adjustable windshield and heated air ducted from the oil cooler keep it quiet and comfortable. It weighs just over 600 lbs, and I’ll be adding another 85 lbs. of luggage and gear: each of the cases and the duffel weighs just a little over 20 lbs. loaded. I also have a small bag on the tank for stuff I want to get at while in the saddle–water bottle, snacks, spare gloves, etc. I also have my camp kit: tent, sleeping bag and pad, stove/fuel, water filter and mess kit. As for my gear, I use a modular helmet with a chin bar that flips up so I can converse face-to-face, or eat/drink on the go. Modular helmets are also very nice for glasses wearers like me–I can don and doff a modular without removing my glasses. Little things, but they add up when you like to talk and eat as much as I do. I also have a heated jacket liner and gloves, which plug into a 12V socket on the bike, for temps below 40F or so. I am prepared for the cold and rain of most typical early fall weather between the Plains and the Pacific, but I will detour around any storms having the possibility of anything more than light snow. Right now, there is a chance of snow in central Oregon and in northern Utah on my return, but I have alternate routes planned.

Lewis and Clark had three main vehicles: the 55-foot keelboat constructed in Pittsburgh, PA, and two wooden pirogues, flat-bottomed craft with a single mainsail and seating for oarsmen, one red 40-footer made in Wheeling, WV, and another, slightly smaller white one purchased in Kaskaskia, IL. They obtained additional canoes by trading and by making their own when suitable trees were available.

Wait…what? Make my own vehicle ON THE WAY? Out of whatever material I have on hand out in the middle of nowhere? Ummmmm…no, thanks.

Replicas of the keelboat and the white pirogue. The red pirogue was slightly larger than the white one.

A replica of the keelboat is moved into the Camp River Dubois museum in Hartford, IL. On May 14, 1804, Lewis wrote, “The mouth of the River Dubois is to be considered the point of departure.”

The keelboat on display in Hartford. This is a great exhibit just a few miles north of St. Louis. Imagine paddling, poling, or towing this craft upstream.

William Least-Heat Moon began his trip in New York Harbor and journeyed farther than any river traveler had ever gone in the U.S. His boat was a v-bowed, flat-hulled c-dory he named “Nikawa,” an Osage name meaning “River Horse.” It was built in 1995 in Seattle, WA, and powered by two 45-hp motors. He also had a 17-foot aluminum canoe with a small motor.

William Least-Heat Moon at the mouth of the Columbia aboard Nikawa.

The Expedition was a military enterprise.

It was also a scientific one. 

Lewis and Clark were soldiers, scientists, leaders of men, explorers, adventurers. Their expedition altered the course of American and world history. Having purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1803, Thomas Jefferson realized the need for the young United States to establish claim to the vast lands beyond the Rocky Mountains to which Louisiana extended, and which, under control of a weakening Spanish rule, were vulnerable to exploitation by the British and the French. The French problem took care of itself when Napoleon decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and agreed to sell Louisiana to the U.S. for $15 million, or 3 cents per acre. Jefferson wasted no time in setting a course for the immediate further expansion of the interests of the U.S. Obviously, this would require 600 pounds of grease, 50 kegs of pork, and 18 kegs of whiskey.

In my bags are 20 freeze-dried meals, ranging from bacon and eggs to jambalaya to spaghetti and meatballs. I also have some Clif Bars and granola bars, 20 servings of quick oatmeal (my main breakfast item), a Camelbak with 1.5 liters of water, a collapsible gallon jug for more water, enough clothing for two weeks with one visit to a west coast laundry figured in, tools and an air pump for most minor repairs or flat tires, books by de Voto and Ambrose, a large atlas, and a laptop. I plan to buy lunches and a couple of dinners when I’m not camping.

I am a-flutter with anticipation of tomorrow morning’s departure. The weather looks pretty good all the way to Oregon for the next week. I will post up here as time and access permit. Now if I could just decide on shoes…

“Attached to the enterprise and anxious to proceed.”

Jonathan Carver’s 1778 map of the Mountains of Bright Stone and the unknown.

The Corps of Discovery spent 18 months reaching the Pacific. They were seeking a “direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce with Asia,” as President Thomas Jefferson had directed them. Lewis and Clark led their expedition of 33 persons in a 55-foot keelboat and two 40-foot wooden pirogues, which they sailed, paddled, poled, and towed from Pittsburgh, PA, down the Ohio River, up the Mississippi and continuing up the Missouri to their camp with the Mandan villages in North Dakota. From there, they took the pirogues and made new canoes as needed, portaging the Great Falls and the Continental Divide and running the rapids of the then-wild Columbia to the Pacific ocean. Then they turned around and came back, a journey that lasted another 12 months.

I plan to complete the trip in a little over two weeks via their route westward, then returning through UT and CO, picking up the Arkansas River at its headwaters in Leadville, and following it out of the Rockies, down to the prairie, finally returning home to Kansas on US 50.

It’s not as though the Corps didn’t have roads to follow. Native Americans had inhabited these areas for over 10,000 years; French and British fur traders’ routes criss-crossed the northern plains extensively in the last part of the 17th century; and news and information from lands far and near traveled up and down the busy river. Many of the Corps’s routes of western Montana, including their crossing of the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass, were already well-established highways of foot and horse traffic. Lewis described the Lemhi road, which linked the Blackfoot and Shoshone nations, as “a large and plain Indian road,” which followed today’s Trail Creek to the Missouri’s spring source a few hundred meters above Lemhi Pass. (Side note: modern definitions place the utmost origins of the Missouri at an intermittent source almost exactly 100 miles to the ESE of Lemhi Pass, at the head of the south fork of Hell Roaring Creek, 3/4 mile SSE of Brower’s Spring and 1.75 miles SW of Sawtell Observatory in eastern Idaho.)

Extent of Euro-American routes in 1800, from emersonkent.com.

I’m looking forward to seeing some parts of the Missouri that remain largely undeveloped, unchanneled, and undammed. The nation’s reliance on the Missouri as a commercial highway in the middle of the 20th century led to massive dam and rechannelling projects to ensure shipping channels were kept open. However, since the 1960’s, commercial traffic on the Mo has declined to the point that the tonnage of grains, oil, sand, and other commodities shipped on the Missouri each year is equal to the amount shipped on the Mississippi in a single day. Today, the 15 dams along the Missouri’s length control flooding, generate electricity and provide irrigation and recreation. They have also created, instead of the roaring river that once crashed into the Mississippi near St. Louis, a series of large reservoirs totalling over 75 million acre/ft and stilling one-third of the river’s length. Rechannelling has shortened the overall length of the river by 200 miles.

For a river road traveler, reservoir lakes are less interesting because they tend to be bypassed by through routes as the blufftop and valley roads found along or near flowing rivers give way to roads which are often far from the water. In Montana, Lake Fort Peck, behind a five-mile long dam, is 130 miles long, and has more coastline than California, but there are few paved access points there are no stretches of lakeside roads except near the dam at the northeast end of the lake.

Yes, we have no Lake Shore Drive.

So “following” a modern river like the Missouri means making compromises: while many excellent views and interesting sites are on the shores of these lakes, I won’t be making many detours from the pavement just for the sake of staying close to the water. I also won’t be pulling any boats up the Missouri or hunting deer in order to eat.

Not that I don’t like dirt and canoes and barbecue–I do. And I’m certainly not in a hurry. My average daily mileage will be around 350, a little more than the distance from Lawrence to St. Louis, to leave time for some sightseeing, picture-taking and maybe even a few hours of camp lounging, but I will want to keep rolling. Besides, I’m meeting Paige in Oregon, and I don’t want to be late!

Prologue: beyond the headwaters

As long as I don’t have to make my own canoe.

The Louisiana Purchase. 828,000 square miles. Three cents an acre. Well played, Mr. Jefferson.

Have you ever wanted to take a motorcycle trip across the northern Rocky Mountains? Or follow the route of Lewis and Clark? Or explore the history of the people and places they saw?

Well, you can’t come. But you are cordially invited to follow this mini-travel blog for updates, historical notes, moto musings, and photos from the Louisiana Purchase to the Great Plains, the Rockies and beyond. Check back or like it on FB.