Trail News/ What's New?

Return to Travel Stories

 Lewis and Clark Trail "Re-live the Adventure"

Travel Books
Name Author  
Lewis and Clark Field Study to South Dakota Nathan N. Nelson You are Here

Field Study to South DakotaAfter some well wishes from our parent group, we rolled out of the parking lot only ten minutes later then planned. The efficiency at which our students packed their gear was a good sign. Our group was made up of six high school students, one college student, and three teachers. This was to be the third leg of a long-term project by the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley, Minnesota to explore the major sections of the Lewis and Clark Trail. In previous years we had rafted 80 miles of the Yellowstone River and canoed 115 miles of the Missouri River in Montana. Our plan for July was to canoe downstream 50 miles on the Missouri River from Yankton, South Dakota to Ponca, Nebraska and then meander our way back to the Twin Cities.

After the drive across Minnesota we set up camp at the Pierson Ranch below the Dam at Lewis and Clark Lake just outside of Yankton. Our first activity was a trail ride in the bluffs overlooking the lake. This was in the vicinity of where young George Shannon, in August of 1804, became lost on horseback for 16 days from the main Lewis and Clark expedition. We have a tradition of consciously looking for ways to hike, or canoe, or ride horses in the same locales as the Lewis and Clark themselves. Looking at maps and displays in freeway rest stops gives the traveler factual information but it does not enhance a physical or emotional connection to Lewis and Clark. Do 21st century high school students really know what the original corps felt like? Usually the answer is no, but for occasional interludes, two centuries of time are erased, and our groupís sore shoulders, hungry stomachís, and meandering thoughts might have been remarkably similar to those of the original Corps of Discovery.

As our group was leaning up against the fence posts mother and daughter from the "Czeck it Out Ranch" were sizing us up in temperament and body type looking for horses which would match our peculiarities. Just as I had hoped there was a nice breeze blowing off of the bluffs that whipped around the buildings and chickens and cooled our sweaty backs. The slow gait of the horses and intertwining circles we did on the ranch land had a nice meditative effect as we gazed towards Calumet Bluff on the river and tried to imagine Lewis and Clark holding council with 60 Sioux Indians.

Our canoe outfitter was another family affair. Wanting to pay for college for eleven children, "DJís" has all of the kids involved in their business of outfitting canoe trips and providing trailers for camping. Even their two year old holds a water hose to clean off canoes and trailers.

We learned from a ranger with the national park service that there was a controversy regarding water depth in the designated "wild and scenic" section of the river. In the news all summer was a chess match of sorts played out in the courts between environmental groups and downstream freight and barge interests. At issue was the depth of the Missouri River. The down stream freight businesses needed a high water level for their barges but high water floods out habitat essential to rare and endangered species.

On the River

As a leader you have to try and remember many things Ė all essential. Months of planning leads up to the few hours when you have to make sure you have made all the right contacts and have everything you need. Once you are in the water everything gets easier. If you forgot anything itís too late. Your focus is reading the water as you canoe, watching the other canoes, and looking for a spot to pull off for camp.

Shortly after we entered the river near Yankton we noticed a series of vertical poles standing upright in the water. Every so often we also saw old rusting cars ready to fall into the water. Our students were skillful and fluid paddlers. Pulling off the river would be the first real test of their skill level. The Missouriís current is fast enough that if you donít pull to shore at the correct angle you will float right by. This group did fine at our first landing and helped stabilize each others canoes as they came to shore.

Late in the afternoon we pulled off on the river and met a man who was hanging out with his wife and teenage daughters. He had no shirt, a pony tail, lots of tattoos, and he never met a curse word that didnít fit into his regular vernacular. Oh yeah, he could tell a story or two. He said the Vermillion Bridge was just around the corner but it was miles away. He also said the current of the river was fifteen miles an hour although it was five. One of this manís other claims was that he was building a semi-permanent camp on one of the larger downstream islands. A few hours later we spotted the Sportsmanís Landing and decided to pull off the river and set up camp. The Sportsmanís also includes a few residences and a Steakhouse.  After we set up the tents the owner of the Steakhouse came over and was slightly miffed that we were camping on his property. The courtesy of our students pleased him very much and he decided to let us camp wherever we wanted. He also gave us a tour his buildings and told us how the management of the river can impact business and recreation in a myriad of ways. It became apparent that there was a unique culture that lived, worked, and recreated on the river. The people on this section of the river, somewhat isolated until the construction of the Vermillion Bridge, have their own unique world view shaped by the river. The politics of property rights are always worthy of discussion along the river. There is concern that there are actual "squatters" on some of the islands. With so many government agencies parceling out influence on the river, if you are the "get government off my back" type you could wake up angry and be angry all day. Yet there are many local residents who appreciate the various government attempts and protecting the natural resources of the area.  After a pleasant and restful night we were back on the river. By late afternoon my fellow instructors Steve Meyer and Shelley Kilgore were ahead looking intently for a camp site. They pointed to a beach and said "howís that look"? I shouted back across the water, "looks like a swamp". Fortunately they ignored me because what I thought were swamp reeds were actually beautiful little cottonwood trees on a peninsula of white sand. After swimming and dinner we explored the area and exchanged theories on how the sand dunes were deposited. As the sun set we enjoyed studying the intricate patterns and formations in the sand.

On the third day we noticed that the Nebraska side of the Missouri was becoming hillier and more forested. We also observed the river with its big turns starting to look more like a series of long lakes. At times there was a macabre quality to the river. Large toppled large cottonwoods carried downstream would fill with debris which, in certain light, made them appear like large animals stuck and dying in the mud.  Our last stop of the canoe float was near the big turn to the south at Vermillion. We pulled off on a pile of rocks in a little cove and had the last of "Ma Nelsonís Corp". I caught a little cat nap on the rocks. After a few hours of canoeing we saw the large suspended pipe across the river at Ponca and we knew we had done it.

Museums and Potable Soup

The rest of the trip was a very pleasant drive along the Missouri River north to Pierre before heading east back to Minnesota. We stopped at excellent museums in Chamberlain and Pierre. At Farm Island State Park near  Pierre we enjoyed the expertise of a ranger who let us sample the Lewis and Clark staples - rabbit berries (agreeable) and potable soup (disagreeable).

Throughout the journey our students continually showed curiosity in Lewis and Clark. We read from the journals every night and whenever we could we pretended to be explorers. On one bright afternoon as residents ducked in an out of main street stores to escape the summer heat, we used Clarkís original  questions on culture, customs, and ritual to study the community of Onida, South Dakota. Our group did an outstanding job throughout and to be in their company was always a pleasure. We made a connection with Lewis and Clark that will hopefully stay with us for years to come.

Explore the Missouri National Recreational River >>