Archive for the ‘Missouri River’ Category

Flood waters cover a highway between Nebraska and Iowa.

It’s pretty hard not to focus on the Missouri River right now in light of the historic flooding going on in Lewis & Clark country. Many of Lewis & Clark aficionados dream of floating on the river and recreating parts of the journey, and some, like the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, have even done it. But look at it now:

Brad Williams’ amazing photographs of the flooding near Council Bluffs

The River and I, by John G. Neihardt (1910)

A fascinating account, more poetry than travelogue, can be found in John G. Neihardt’s slim volume, The River and I, first published in 1910. Neihardt was in his mid-20s at the time that he and two friends, whom he identifies only as The Kid and Bill, hiked from Great Falls (the nearest railroad stop) to Fort Benton, where they planned to assemble a homemade boat and then float the river from Fort Benton to Sioux City, Iowa. From the beginning, it is captivating to imagine the young men’s journey as they hike through sagebrush and prickly pears in a country almost unchanged from the way it appeared to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark a century earlier.

Neihardt’s description of the Great Falls of the Missouri, still undammed at the time of his adventure, adds another dimension to the awe felt by Lewis in 1805:

A half-hour more of clambering over shale-strewn gullies, up sun-baked watercourses, and we found ourselves toiling up the ragged slope of a bluff; and soon we stood upon a rocky ledge with the thunders beneath us. Damp gusts beat upward over the blistering scarp of the cliff. I lay down, and crawling to the edge, looked over. Two hundred feet below me — straight down as a pebble drops — a watery Inferno raged, and far-flung whirlwinds all but exhausted with the dizzy upward reach, whisked cool, invisible mops of mist across my face.

With the dubious help of skeptical locals, the young men establish their “navy yard” at Fort Benton and proceed to build a light gasoline-powered boat that proves no match for the brutal whims of the capricious Missouri. And as for supplies in Montana, they soon learn not to rely on the “towns” labeled on the map:

At a point about fifty miles from the “town” so deeply longed for, a lone cow-punch appeared on the bank.

“How far to Rocky Point?” I cried.

“Oh, something less than two hundred miles!” drawled the horseman. (How carelessly they juggle with miles in that country!)

“It’s just a little place, isn’t it?” I continued.

“Little place!” answered the cow-puncher; “hell, no!”

“What!” I cried in glee; “Is it really a town of importance?” I had visions of a budding metropolis, full of gasoline and grub.

“It guess it ain’t a little place,” explained the rider; “w’y, they’ve got nigh onto ten thousand cattle down there!”

Though only 80 pages, The River and I is not a quick read, but a book to savor, full of youthful philosophy, poetical descriptions of the river as it existed 100 years ago, and a fair dash of humor and adventure. History buffs will enjoy as well the differences between then and now, including Neihardt’s enthusiastic ruminations on what it means to be a man (with strong echoes of Teddy Roosevelt and The Strenuous Life) and the near-obsession, common to the period, of carefully documenting the ethnicity of everyone involved and attributing their character traits to their race. Who knew being a Cornishman could be so significant?

John G. Neihardt in later years

John G. Neihardt went on to become a significant man of letters in the West, authoring epic poems and interviewing dozens of participants in key events such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Named the poet laureate of Nebraska in 1921, he held the post until his death in 1973. His most famous work is Black Elk Speaks (1932), a narration of the visions of Lakota holy man Black Elk. Neihardt worked with Black Elk for several years in the early 1930s to record his life and philosophy, earning the Lakota name Flaming Rainbow. The book is still in print and was especially popular in the 1960s, when it greatly influenced changing perceptions about Native American wisdom and the beginnings of the “new age” movement.

More great reading: Montana Yesterday (where I first learned about this book)

John G. Neihardt (great information from the Nebraska State Historical Society)


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The ongoing flooding disaster along the Missouri River in the Great Plains and Midwest is a sobering reminder of man’s tenuous relationship with nature. Despite all our engineering feats and illusion of control, the earth still conjures up torrential rains, ice packs and snowmelts that make our levies and floodgates look pretty puny indeed.

A home is taken by the flood in Minot, North Dakota, June 2011

A home is taken by the flood in Minot, North Dakota, June 2011

The evacuation and inundation of Minot, North Dakota – just the latest community to go under – calls to mind the horrific Missouri River flood of 1993, which destroyed more than ten thousand homes, killed fifty people, inundated millions of acres of farmland, halted river and rail transport, and resulted in billions of dollars in damage. As the flood and its consequences roll downstream, we may be looking at an awful repeat.

For some perspective on the 1993 flood and some background on the more recent state of the Missouri River, I recommend a thoughtful book called Rivers of Change: Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark, by water resources consultant Tom Mullen. (We had the pleasure of meeting Tom on a Lewis and Clark trip along the Columbia and Snake Rivers in 2005, where he was the guest historian.)

Rivers of Change by Tom Mullen, Roundwood Press (2004)

Rivers of Change by Tom Mullen, Roundwood Press (2004)

Around 2002,  Tom returned to the United States after years of helping developing countries set up water systems overseas. As a way of easing his “reentry” into life in the United States, Tom went on a six-month, cross country odyssey – following the rivers that Lewis and Clark traveled, the Missouri and the Columbia.

Along the way, Tom talked to dozens of people who live and work along those rivers: farmers, waitresses, small-town historians, freight boat captains, ecologists, Native Americans, Fish and Wildlife employees, dam operators. As the context for his conversations, Tom asked the people about the floods of 1993 and 1997 that devastated the areas along the Missouri River. He also asked them how the building of dams in the 50’s and 60’s had changed their lives.

The result is a fascinating picture of the effect on lives and ecosystems when man attempts to harness nature. What Tom found out is that we have made terrific strides in using the power of the rivers for energy production, literally making it possible to “make the desert bloom.” On the other hand, dams and levies have tamed wild areas of the river along the Lower Missouri, making river channels deeper and more consistent, the current faster, and commerce more predictable – but also making for fast rising waters in times of flood. Development and dams further up the Missouri have provided power for residents but destroyed unique wildlife habitat along the rivers, with surprising consequences. They have also cut Native American tribes off from an important part of their culture.

There are tradeoffs everywhere, and one of the most refreshing things about this book is that Tom does not attempt to moralize. Reading this book is like taking a rambling road trip with a friend. You might not think of water management as a fascinating topic, but your eyes will be opened by the effect of the great rivers on the communities that live along them. Especially at a time when the devastating power of water and our inability to control it is all too evident.

I-29 in Corning, Missouri, June 2011

I-29 barely above water in Corning, Missouri, June 2011

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The Missouri River flooding in Omaha, Nebraska. That is Interstate 29 underwater. Photo by Larry Geiger.

Though we usually don’t cover current events on this blog, no Lewis & Clark aficionado can ignore the incredible scale of the flooding now taking place on the Missouri River. In the past few weeks, the upper Missouri basin has received nearly a year’s worth of rainfall. In addition, the forecast snow melt runoff is 212 percent of normal across the upper portion of the river system. The result has been massive flooding across Montana, the Dakotas, and now Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri. The Gavins Point Dam floodgates near Yankton, South Dakota, are pouring out enough water to cover a football field with 156 of water every one minute.

For more of Larry Geiger’s photos of the incredible flooding, please visit his slideshow page.

The Great Missouri Flood of 2011

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