A bald eagle searches for food on the upper Missouri River.
Canoe Trip on the Missouri River Sparks the Imagination
The cool morning air motivated me to slip on my jean jacket. It was the perfect temperature to start my daylong journey down the upper Missouri River. The chilly air was unusual for Nebraska in July. Additionally a wind blew from the northwest, a gift to help push me down the river.
Mother nature seemed to smile on me.
I drove my small green truck into the empty parking lot of the Randall Creek Recreation Area below the Fort Randle Dam. The state park is situated in South Dakota near the border with Nebraska.
It was early on a Wednesday. I had hoped for some solitude and found it. My only companion was a shore bird who seemed to bob his head up and down with approval of my impending journey.
I had never canoed any of the Missouri River. It seemed time to check this off my bucket list given the amount of time I have spent with various other rivers around the world.
Two pelicans take flight from the upper Missouri River.
The section of the river below the Fort Randle dam is beautiful. The water is clean, when you looked at the river you could see rock and sand bars in the shallow waters and occasionally a fish swam by.
My relationship with the Missouri River is based more on the muddy waters that run from Sioux City IA to Omaha NE. All I knew of the Missouri was a river that runs wide, deep and not to be trusted.
What I set my canoe on this day was different. It was clear, clean and shallow at times. The deeper sections of the river ran with a swift current. Of course it depends on how much or how little water is released from the dam.
This day the water output was low because of higher water down stream. I wore a life jacket just to be safe.
Starting the trip down the upper Missouri River below the Fort Randall Dam.
For a couple of hours I paddled past the Karl E. Mundt National Wildlife Refuge. The 1,085 acres has the largest concentration of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states, with over 200 eagles often spending the winter on the refuge.
What attracts eagles to the area is an abundance of fish and a variety of ducks, geese, reptiles, all of which are a part of their normal diet.
As I paddled along the edge of the river, the screeching call of eagles would cut through the quiet air. Often a hidden eagle perched in a tall Cottonwood Tree would reveal itself once spooked by my canoe and fly away.
Occasionally I got lucky. The adult eagles would fly away and leave behind a juvenile. The young Bald Eagles would stare down on me like some great bird God from above.
A juvenile bald eagle looks down at my canoe on the upper Missouri River.
The shallow river exposed gravel and sand bars normally submerged well below water. On one bar I noticed what at first looked like a dead branch from a tree. I paddled the canoe onto the gravel bar, stepped out and discovered it was an ancient buffalo skull.
The find filled my head with questions. “How old is this? How long has it been since buffalo roamed this part of the world in large numbers?” I left me feeling the past may not be as distant as it seems.
Part of my interest in the Missouri River is linked to it’s past. The Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery followed the Missouri on their mission to the Pacific Ocean. This day I paddled in their wake.
Along this stretch of the river is a famous landmark called Old Baldy, also known as the Tower. This hill is located near the village of Lynch, in Boyd County.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition visited Old Baldy on their way up the Missouri River in 1804; it was here they discovered for the first time, a colony of prairie dogs. According to historians, the location has changed little since 1804.
As the canoe floated down river, I looked up at Old Baldy. My imagination filled with images from their expedition of people running around attempting to catch a prairie dog. And for just a brief moment, my canoe not only floated me down river, but also back in time.
Old Baldy as seen from the upper Missouri River.
A buffalo skull bakes in the sun on a gravel bar of the upper Missouri River.