by Nia Thomas
As we packed up our tents at Ponca State Park in Nebraska on 1st October we all knew we’d be saying goodbye to something special. Something we’d spent over 2 months getting to know…The unchannelized Missouri River. Just like an old friend, we had come to know the river’s secrets - we knew that the outside of its many meandering turns weren’t always where the fast water flowed, and that sand bars could be run aground on at any time. We’d enjoyed countless nights camped on its banks, gazing up at the stars with no streetlights in sight surrounded by the sounds of the natural world.
From this point on we’d be paddling on a different type of river, a river that was no longer free. Its twists and turns would be constrained and straightened through countless hours of work from the Army Corps of Engineers. The reason for this disruption to its natural flow – barges.
We were nervous of this next step. Not because the channelized Missouri would be harder to paddle; in fact the opposite would be true. But we were nervous of how much the river we’d come to love would change. Would the sandy, vegetated banks become cement walls? Would all of our remote camp spots be gone? Would we feel like our wild river had become urbanized and ugly? As with nearly every aspect of this trip, we didn’t know what to expect.
As we paddled downstream that morning the rip-rap of rocks along the shore became a constant feature instead of an occasional blemish and the wing-dykes made their first appearance, stretching their bird-like protrusions far into the water from the inside of bends. But above the rock the shoreline was still green and full of trees, and the concrete gully that I had feared failed to materialize. In fact, as much as we hated to admit it, we were quite enjoying ourselves. The current had picked up to a swift 5 miles an hour, aiding our paddling efforts no end. We had now upped our daily average from 30 miles per day to 40 or even 50!
Over the next few weeks we discovered that our wild river hadn’t been lost. Changed; definitely, but its roots and rugged essence still remained. There may be a little more rock on the shoreline and the sandbars are all but gone but the riparian trees are still out in force and glorious camp spots are still there for the taking, if you look a little harder.
As we paddled into Mid-October those tree covered banks came alive with colour, their leaves every hue from bright green to deep red. We looked around in wonder as we paddled, excited to be in the middle of one of nature’s great displays, straining our eyes to see if the next hillside could possibly look better than the last. And it did, an incredible fiery apex coaxing us towards the winter months. One final show of colour until next year.
So we continue down the lower, modified Missouri, on the next chapter of our river adventure; and although we hear the honk of trains and hum of riverside industry a little more often, we still hear the hoots of owls and the howling lullaby of coyotes as the sun sets and we crawl into our tents. Our wild Missouri river, although changed and constrained, still feels remote and beautiful and adventurous.