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.
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.
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.