Floating the Missouri River Trail

On Saturday morning the Missouri River was filled with boats. Eighty-seven people from four states and many locales, and two dogs – Sparky and Emma – launched kayaks and canoes and other non-motorized crafts at Mulberry Bend south of Vermillion, and paddled eleven miles to Bolton, also known as Chaney's Landing, west of Elk Point. Thus the Missouri River Water Trail was officially inaugurated.

Actually we were a few millennia late. Presumably people have moved themselves and their goods up, down and across the great river for thousands of years. And when Lewis and Clark followed the water trail from St. Louis to its head in the Rocky Mountains in 1804, the river was already a major thoroughfare for people of many Native tribes, as well as for Euro-American adventurers, trappers and traders. The August 29 trip down the river was merely the initiation of the newly-designated canoe and kayak trail, mapped by the University of South Dakota-based Missouri River Institute, the National Park Service and several private organizations.

It was fitting that the float trip began on the Nebraska shore and ended in South Dakota; the Missouri forms the boundary between the two states for over 100 miles. Seventy-eight of those miles are the still-free-flowing stretches of river from Fort Randall Dam to Running Water and from Gavins Point Dam to Ponca State Park. The 59-mile segment below Yankton was designated a National Recreational River and added to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 1978.

Perhaps never in the history of this stretch of river has the Missouri seen so many boats at one time. The majority were one-person kayaks, sharing the river with two-cockpit kayaks, canoes, foot-peddled kayaks, even a home-built sailboat, crafts of every imaginable shape, color and size. But all were people-powered, aided by current and wind. Voyagers enjoyed a crisp late summer morning filled with songbirds and a blue sky punctuated by great blue herons and a bald eagle.

The idea of developing a "trail" on the Missouri, including identified launch and take-out points and primitive campsites, has been the dream of river enthusiasts for years. With cooperation of the National Park Service, the Missouri River Institute and the Vermillion-based Living River Group of the Sierra Club, the trail is now official. Besides these organizations, trail sponsors include South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, Nebraska Game and Parks, Missouri River Futures, the South Dakota Canoe and Kayak Association, the Izaak Walton League and the City of Yankton.

At 2,320 miles, the Missouri is one of North America's longest rivers. But most of the upper Missouri has been converted to reservoirs by six huge dams, and the river has been straightened and channelized for barge traffic from Sioux City to St. Louis. As the longest remaining natural stretch, our piece of the Missouri has unique protection by the National Park Service, a place where outdoor enthusiasts of future generations can experience a river not so different from that plied by Lewis and Clark and by countless generations of Native peoples.

More information and maps of the National Recreational River and the River Trail are available at the Web sites of the National Park Service, the Missouri River Institute and the Living River Group of the Sierra Club.

Read more of Jerry Wilson's observations of nature along and near the Missouri on his blog, coyotescall.wordpress.com.

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