Dark, ominous clouds boiled up on the western horizon, quickly overpowering the last golden shards of a spectacular Plains sunset. The approaching storm sparked a sense of dread among our little party of explorers camped on a bit of sand along the banks of the Missouri River where it divides South Dakota and Nebraska.
As night quickly enveloped our surroundings, the dark mass to the west devoured the stars, slowly at first, then with a rapidity that was an all-too-familiar pattern to those acquainted with nasty summer thunderstorms. I silently prayed that our featherweight tents would stay put on the sandy escarpment, let alone keep us dry.
Sitting in my tent, waiting for the storm to strike, I felt like a member of the "Corps of Discovery" led by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their journey up the Mighty Mo' and into the uncharted lands west of the Mississippi. Their strategy for exploration was simple: plan for the expected and hope it's enough to get you through the unexpected.
That thought was precipitated by the knowledge that Lewis and Clark could have been camping on this very same spot during the early part of September 1804. That was when their expedition passed through this section of the Missouri River just west of Yankton, South Dakota, in the quest to find an all-water route between the Missouri and the Columbia River.
Although they didn't find the hoped-for all-water route, they did blaze a trail that would open the West to the millions who followed in their footsteps; a trail that also brought their party back down the Missouri and past the site of our camp two years later on the return leg back to St. Louis. They, too, could very well have been securing tents and canoes while keeping a wary eye on a thunderstorm rolling in toward them from the prairies to the west.
Like the Lewis and Clark expedition, we were explorers using the shallow, rather slow-moving Missouri as our highway to the unknown. But there the similarities stopped.
Their party numbered near 35, ours but five. Their first time on that stretch of river in what was known at the time as the "Territory of Louisiana" found them laboring to pole, paddle, or drag a slow, heavy wooden keelboat and two crudely made, flat-bottom, canoe-type craft called pirogues upstream. We, on the other hand, paddled downstream in fast, lightweight canoes. They were stocked with provisions for a journey of months, maybe years; we were supplied with enough food and drink for only two days.
They had no idea of the dangers or mysteries that lay ahead of the next paddle stroke, the next step, or around the next bend. We knew exactly what to expect, save for the weather - and even that was not an unknown, because weather forecasters using satellite imagery predicted that.
Their journey would take them more than 4000 miles one way while our journey would take us less than 40. But in those few miles we saw some of the same sights they did, and for a few moments in time, all of us could feel the same awe that Lewis reflected in his daily logs upon seeing this territory for the first time.
The storm we'd been eyeing hit around 10:30 p.m. My wife and I huddled close in our tent while our three companions and hosts for the trip - Mark Kayser, Chad Coppess and Lonnie Garland - "battened-down the hatches" in their tents a few yards away. The occasional lightning bolt and ensuing thunderclap shattered the rain-filled darkness, but it was the gusting winds that gave us some cause for concern. An hour later the sky cleared and the stars shone even more brilliantly than before. Sleep came effortlessly.
Earlier that day we had launched our small flotilla into the swift, cold tailrace waters flowing from beneath the dam and stroked our way downstream. The adventure had begun. It wasn't long before the Missouri's wide, shallow riverbed slowed the water and showed its true colors. Eagles soared overhead and an occasional beaver edged its way along the steep red clay banks. Civilization disappeared. Quiet and natural beauty reigned supreme.
"This section of the Missouri that forms the border between South Dakota and Nebraska is about the only remaining area where the scenery and the river is exactly like it was when Lewis and Clark came through," Mark said early on during our first day on the water. "You are canoeing through a few pages of history."
We paddled for hours following the river, picking our way around sandbars, over shallow flats, and along banks thick with cottonwood. As we glided downstream, it was hard to imagine that, around the turn of the century, this same river was the highway for paddlewheelers making their way from St. Louis to Yankton, Pierre, and all the smaller burgs that were linked by the Missouri.
At one point in late afternoon, Mark guided us to some chalk cliffs on the Nebraska side of the river. We landed the canoes and did a little exploring. We found bones embedded in the red clay banks near the white cliffs that probably came from buffalo the Sioux Indians herded over the edge during hunting seasons a century before. Mark indicated that arrowheads and other artifacts are regularly found throughout the region as the area was (and still is) home to the five tribes of the Great Sioux Nation.
With all the water, the subject of fishing came up. Fishing can be fruitful, with an abundance of white perch, walleye, catfish and smallmouth bass inhabiting the river system; the lakes are loaded with the same, plus trout, salmon, and a variety of other species. When Lewis and Clark were here, they might have been dining on antelope, elk, and plates full of fish. Our paddles dipped into the river early the next morning, not long after the sun bathed the opposite shore in a warm, golden glow. The river kept its steady, slow pace.
By and large, it was an exceedingly serene trip. Once in a while we'd spot a lone coyote watching us from a sandbar, or a deer creeping into the woods. At one point we were paddling silently along one of the numerous side forks of the river when we came upon a muskrat remodeling its riverbank home. We watched its antics for a long time before it tired of our intrusion and slipped under the water's surface and into the safety of its lair.
As we neared Niobrara, Nebraska, some 30 miles by river from the put-in point, the current picked up the pace. We knew the trip was drawing to a close when we rounded a bend and saw a monstrous bridge towering across the river. It was still under construction and when completed will cut a hundred miles off the commuting distance between Niobrara and Running Water, South Dakota, on the opposite bank.
We beached our canoes on the rocky bank and prepared for the trip back to Pierre. If we'd continued following the Missouri River along for a few more miles, we'd have been in Lewis and Clark Lake. But that was just another lake.
It was the river, running unimpeded between the two dams that captured the true spirit of what the great explorers saw when they opened the door to the West. It is that section of the Missouri that beckons modern day explorers to sample a little bit of history -- and it can't be done any better than by paddling along in Lewis and Clark's wake.
Reprinted by permission of Camping Life magazine.