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The Missouri River

Changed By the Hands of Man

Join Us in 2010! Celebrating our 7th season of offering safe, professional and fun guided Missouri River canoe & kayak tours. Perfect for beginners, families and couples. Make memories of a lifetime! Float through Life... Paddle through History!

By Brett Dufur

Excerpted from his book Exploring Lewis & Clark's Missouri, available from Pebble Publishing, Inc.

The river has evolved both naturally and more dramatically by the hands of man. In a world that covets control, order and progress, the Missouri was a wild card. It was moody, erratic and unpredictable. It crept out of its banks and served no purpose for commercial navigation. So the Corps of Engineers built a new river where the Pekitanoui once flowed.

The Corps of Engineers began snag removal as early as 1824, with Congress appropriating funds specifically for Missouri River improvement beginning in 1881. But it was the Missouri River Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project, authorized by Congress in 1912, that established the beginning of a century-long project to create a permanent channel for navigation from St. Louis to Sioux City, Iowa.

The Corps started by removing snags—hundreds upon hundreds of them. Then they found that they could draw a straighter line on a map than a meandering river could cut. The Corps removed oxbows and straightened out the river, shortening the river by 57 miles just within the state of Missouri and a total of more than 125 miles before reaching Sioux City.

One of the most effective ways of channelizing the river was the building of wing dikes and piers into the river to divert the current away from the eroding shoreline. These structures increased the river’s velocity, loosened sediment and deepened the channel. The Corps of Engineers shored up the banks with rock and they dredged. They built an amazingly efficient channel nine feet deep and 300 feet wide that now scours itself.

Yet, our country’s progress quickly outpaced the slow transport offered by water. We moved on, building highways and creating cities away from waterways. With railroads and 18-wheelers, commerce on the river is now limited primarily to grain and fertilizer. Although river traffic never reached even a fraction of the projected amount, more than 1.5 million tons of commodities are moved by barge annually on the Missouri River—a drop in the bucket compared to the bustle found on the Mississippi River.

It seems that now more people are paying attention again to that silent blue ribbon that wraps across the middle of the state. Many travelers are hoping to travel in the footsteps of Lewis & Clark, to envision a river as the explorers first saw it.

There is much to be enjoyed there even today and the bicentennial also allows us a moment to reflect on how much has changed. It has been written that more than 90-percent of the biodiversity once found in and along the Missouri River is gone. In large part, this is due to the fact that the river had essentially been separated from the floodplain. Nature loves muck as much as does a boy in his Sunday best. As slower moving backwaters were removed, important spawning grounds were destroyed. When the river was bottlenecked in, confined to a third of its historic floodplain, yearly flooding ceased. Flooding was largely controlled, turning swampy wetlands, which are great for fish, amphibians, reptiles and insects, into topsoil suitable for farming.

As the Corps of Discovery sojourned across 1804 Missouri, they noted deer in great numbers along the banks "skipping in every derection." Many of the diverse mammals noted in their journals in Missouri, such as the elk, buffalo and most of the black bear, are gone. The bright green and yellow Carolina Parakeets noted in Clark’s journal, which once ranged from the Canadian border to the Gulf and from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains, are now extinct.

But much of the nature they observed and many of the panoramic views they beheld can still be appreciated today. The Corps of Discovery immediately fell in love with the lush green valleys, which certainly reminded the Kentuckians and Virginians of their own green rolling homeland. They recorded that wild roses hugged the banks, along with ripening berries and grapes. Paw paws were to be found in great abundance.

Journal entries read "…land verry good…butifull a peas of land as ever I saw…one of the most beatifull and picteresk seens that I ever beheld…"

The area north of Kansas City was noted in Clark’s journal, dated Wednesday, July 4, 1804. It offers a good example of how awestruck the Captain was by the area’s beauty:

..The Plains of this countrey are covered with a Leek Green Grass, well calculated for the sweetest and most norushing hay—interspersed with Cops of trees, Spreding ther lofty branchs over Pools Springs or Brooks of fine water. Groops of Shrubs covered with the most delicious froot is to be seen in every direction, and nature appears to have exerted herself to butify the Senery by the variety of flours raiseing Delicately… above the Grass, which Strikes & profumes the Sensation, and amuses the mind… throws it into Conjecturing the cause of So magnificent a Senery in a Country thus Situated far removed from the Sivilised world to be enjoyed by nothing but the Buffalo Elk Deer & Bear in which it abounds...

On the western edge of Missouri on July 3, 1804, the party reported for the first time seeing the North American beaver. As their trip continued west, they would see unimaginable numbers of beavers. The insatiable fashion craze for beaver hats triggered increased exploration and settlement over the next 30 years, often called the "Golden Age of the American Fur Trade." The fur trade also jumpstarted the growth of a small village called St. Louis.

The bottlenecked Missouri River devastated many communities and destroyed thousands of acres of farmland in the Great Flood of 1993—the worst flood in recorded history. Another major flood in 1995 caused further devastation. As a result, many state and federal agencies made it a top priority to reopen some areas of the historic floodplain to the Missouri River. These agencies include the National Fish and Wildlife Service of the Big Muddy Wildlife Area, the Corps of Engineers, the Missouri Department of Conservation and others.

In the past two decades, more than 88,000 acres of bottomland have been purchased by these agencies to allow the river room to breathe once again: to prevent communities from being flooded, to protect farms, to preserve habitat and to restore habitat for fish and wildlife that have been lost during a century of channelization efforts. Wetlands have slowly begun to be restored and bottomland timber has been planted. The Corps of Engineers has also allowed an historically active, shallow side chute to reopen. The channel has already become a spawning ground for the endangered pallid sturgeon.

So through history, policy changes, politics and progress, the Missouri River still flows. A river once entrusted to rivermen and explorers seeking to fill in gaps on the map is now largely a silent place where poets and painters keep watch. After practically turning our backs on it for a hundred years in our pursuit of progress, it has become, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri’s number one underused natural resource. Somehow, the longest river system in the United States—one of the greatest rivers in the world—manages to meander largely unnoticed across our state day in and day out. It’s a feat that no magician could match.

Daily it slips unnoticed by more than 4.5 million Missourians who live within a few minutes drive of it, from St. Joseph to Kansas City to Columbia and on to St. Charles and St. Louis. And yet in this information age, we know so little about it. Generally the only time it makes the news is when it’s at floodstage and it has stretched beyond where we think its banks should be.

Perhaps the river is largely forgotten because the beauty of the Missouri River valley is so sublime. It rewards idle moments of contemplation as the sun crashes into the horizon in a fiery blaze, trailing stripped skies of vivid blue hues and subtle pinks. But the river doesn’t take your breath away in an instant like the first time you see the Rocky Mountains. The beauty of the Missouri comes on slowly as the light shifts and the geese alight. The beauty here lies in its perfect painter’s palette of saturated blues and greens. The beauty lies in the silence. Thousands of cubic feet of river and sediment plow by every minute with the force of a thousand freight trains, yet the river is quieter than a sleeping infant.

In addition to beauty, the other thing the Missouri River offers our frontierless age is solace. The Missouri is a place where we can reconnect with nature, with our own wildness, with the revering gaze of yesterday’s explorers, and with our country’s prodigious past. The river gives the soul a place to breathe. It is a place for imaginations to expand. A place where nature still reigns supreme, with horizons undisturbed by structures and banks unencumbered by our suburban endurance race of materialism.

On the Big Muddy, whether you look upstream or down, the river appears to stretch to infinity. It reaches all the way to the horizon. Some days it is as gray as a city park pigeon on an overcast day. Other days the river is bluer than a newborn baby’s eyes. And on many days, if you strain your eyes to that distant point on the horizon, where the line blurs between river and sky, the river stretches right up to the limits of land until it kisses the sky and they dissolve into one.

And I think that’s what draws the poets, the paddlers, the bird watchers, the hunters and the fisherman. In a measured world, the river is one of those things that seem to go on forever. It’s wild. Relentless. Never ending. And it intends to stay that way.

So despite being channelized, bottlenecked and largely forgotten, the Missouri River has a future that looks bright. Although the debate about the future of the Missouri River rages on, I like the river flowing past my door. Sometimes it moves grain, which helps the farmers and reduces traffic on the highway. Some of the bottomlands are tilled—a veritable black gold—generating America’s breadbasket. Some of the bottoms near my home have been purchased by various agencies to allow that important interchange between land and water—the wetlands—to take hold once again. There I see reason to hope for fewer floods and perhaps the return of a river more like what Lewis & Clark experienced. A wilder Missouri River.

Like Thoreau once said, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." With that return to wildness has come the resurgence of several endangered species, such as the national symbol of strength, the bald eagle. And as those wetlands become more overgrown and wild, those places will beckon to me. They will need to be explored, I am sure, with my young son.

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Refer to our Learn More page to find out more about our trip. If you don't find the answer to your question on the website, please email us at pebblepublishing@gmail.com. We answer emails much faster than phone calls since our office is not staffed full-time due to the recession. However, if you need us, please don't hesitate to call us at (573) 698-3903.


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Exploring Lewis & Clark's Missouri