The good river encounter
“The head chief the Black Buffaloe, Seized hold of the cable of the pearogue and Set down. Capt. Clark Spoke to all the party to Stand to their arms Capt. Lewis who was on board ordered every man to his arms. the large Swivel loaded immediately with 16 Musquet Ball in it the 2 other Swivels loaded well with Buck Shot, Each of them manned. Capt. Clark used moderation with them told them that we must and would go on and would go. that we were not Squaws, but warriers. the chief Sayed he had warriers too and if we were to go on they would follow us and kill and take the whole of us by degrees or that he had another party or lodge above this and that they were able to destroy us.” – Sargent John Ordway, Sept. 25, 1804
The Missouri River bisects South Dakota as it flows south across the state. Known to South Dakotans as East River and West River, the wetter, more fertile eastern part of the state supports extensive croplands, while the larger western part features open prairie dominated by ranching and dryland farming.
The two unequal halves are connected by six bridges with three additional roads crossing over dams. From our perspective, progressing from Lake Oahe to Lake Sharpe, the Missouri isn’t so much a river, but a Great Moat ruled by tempestuous winds.
Pierre, the quaint small-town capitol with a population of 14,000, sits on the east side a few miles downstream from Oahe Dam, near the geographical center of the state. This central location helped bring voters to the polls to out-compete larger towns for the capitol designation when South Dakota joined the Union in 1889.
River Cities Public Transit shuttled us from our campsite into town for a nominal fee on a pre-scheduled pick-up. We enjoyed visiting the State Historical Society Museum, touring the town, and shopping for books and groceries.
Mulberry trees in town and a sycamore tree at the campground, plus unfamiliar new bird calls, were all welcome signs that we are indeed migrating southward, albeit at a turtle’s pace.
John solo-paddled ahead in the morning, while Scott, Chris, and I paddled six miles to Fischers Lilly Park at the Missouri’s confluence with the Bad River in Fort Pierre, on the west side of the Missouri. This was the site of Lewis and Clark’s “Bad River Encounter” with the Teton Sioux or Lakota that nearly brought an early end to the Corps of Discovery.
Clark and the chiefs managed to defuse the bad situation without violence. The standoff, however, was not the source of the name “Bad River.” The Lakota previously named the river after a flash flood wiped out an Indian village.
For us, it was the Good River Encounter because we met Caleb Gilkerson, captain of The Sunset, a diesel powered sternwheeler and the only authentic paddlewheel boat still operating on the Missouri River. Caleb was prepping the boat for an evening float, but invited us aboard for a tour and sodas.
Originally named the The Spirit of Cincinnati, the boat was built in 1964 and was in terrible shape when Caleb bought it in 2016. Piloting the vessel down the Ohio and up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers turned into a six-month ordeal of endless repairs. Sometimes the ship drifted miles backwards when the engines failed and they couldn’t stop the boat.
Finally reaching Gavins Point Dam, he had to cut the top off the boat to portage it the remaining distance via highway to Pierre and Lake Sharpe. With a great deal of TLC, Caleb refurbished the boat, renamed it The Sunset, and now plies Lake Sharpe with guests and parties.
With yet another storm brewing, we took time to lash the canoes back together and fired up the outboard motor to tackle Lake Sharpe. Thanks to the river current flowing into the lake, we blew out of town at 7 mph, which feels astonishingly fast compared to our normal speed of 4.5 mph. We caught up with John 10 miles later and clipped him on behind the Contraption, then did seven additional miles to camp, 23 miles for the day. We set up our tents just ahead of the first drops of rain.
Despite the motorized advantage, our lives are dictated by the wind. We advanced only six miles the next day, thwarted by monster waves that loomed over our little ship. It rained two inches overnight. Chris was flooded out of his tent within minutes and moved into mine. We took a layover day while the storm blew itself out.
Hanging out provided a good opportunity for some botanizing. Extensive windbreaks planted as “State Game Production Areas” help replace forest habitat drowned under the artificial lake, here featuring ash trees, chokecherries, wild plums, burr oak, junipers, honey locust, and lilacs. We were delighted to see thousands of monarch butterflies, apparently starting their great migration back to Mexico.
We continued our own migration when the weather finally broke, taking two days to navigate around the Big Bend of the Missouri where the river takes a 25-mile loop before nearly coming back upon itself.
Monarch butterflies passed overhead in ones and twos. It’s hard to believe any creature so small and delicate could migrate so far, yet they were moving far faster than we were.
In another good river encounter, Mike and Terri Mehlhaff and son Johnny of Pierre very kindly drove the canoe trailer from Oahe Dam to Good Soldier Creek Recreation Area to help us portage around Big Bend Dam, one more major hurdle out of the way!
(Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Mont. He is the author of “Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams.” Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about Tom’s books, the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery, and the expedition fundraiser for the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.)