Getting in the Spirit of the Big Muddy

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Missouri National Recreational RiverQuick — what’s the longest river in North America? Nope, it’s not the Mississippi. It’s the Missouri. Like fur trappers and Native Americans before them, explorers Lewis and Clark braved this great American riverway in search of adventure and nature’s bounty. Today, in South Dakota and Nebraska, the National Park Service has protected two free-flowing stretches of this 2,300-mile waterway in a park known as the Missouri National Recreational River.

Christi at Missouri National Recreational RiverTo explore the area, we used as our base the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ excellent Cottonwood Campground on the South Dakota side of the river in Yankton. This campground has been one of our best finds this year — inexpensive, right on the water, with free hot showers and electrical hookups.

Christi at Missouri National Recreational RiverFor paddling in the lower of the two stretches, the 59-mile District of the Missouri River, most kayakers with their own craft use a two-car shuttle. With only one car at our disposal and having no luck arranging one-way transportation service, we opted to paddle in the calm waters of Lake Yankton abutting the Missouri River from our campground just below the Gavins Point Dam.

Muskrat at Missouri National Recreational RiverThis was a popular place for kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders, but we followed the edge of the lake in search of wildlife. And find it we did. Great blue herons and killdeer stalked prey on the mudflats, frogs blinked at us from the water, fish jumped, and in one mass of floating vegetation we came across two muskrats that repeatedly popped their heads above the water and ducked back down a la the arcade game whack-a-mole.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrel at Missouri National Recreational RiverOn land, the whack-a-mole games continued. Thirteen-lined ground squirrels dashed in and out of their holes that pockmarked the campground, popping up and disappearing, making photographing them a maddening exercise. Nevertheless, they delighted us with their antics until we saw them scampering in and out of our car’s wheel wells and hoped they would keep their little rodent teeth to themselves.

Hector at Missouri National Recreational RiverThe ranger on duty at the national park visitor center gave us some hiking recommendations for the next couple of days when it proved too windy for paddling. First, we crossed over into Nebraska and drove to the Mulberry Bend area some 20 miles east of Yankton. We took a short looping hike through the woods overlooking the river, getting good looks at eastern wood-pewees, yellow-throated vireos and other birds.

Hector at Spirit Mound in South DakotaWe then crossed back into South Dakota to check out the Spirit Mound Historic Prairie. The ranger had described this bedrock knob as a mere pimple on the land, so we weren’t expecting much as we pulled into the parking lot. The small parcel protects historic tallgrass prairie with native grasses and wildflowers, the result of restoration efforts on land that had once been a farm and cattle feedlot.

Dickcissel at Missouri National Recreational RiverPassing through grasses that were indeed tall, our prairie walk yielded great views of singing dickcissels and eastern kingbirds as well as regal fritillary and monarch butterflies feeding on milkweed. The scene teemed with life on a small scale.

Christi at Spirit Mound in South DakotaWe continued up the path to the top of the mound to admire the view of the surrounding countryside. It was there in a moment of reflection that this place became more meaningful. Back in 1804 on their way westward, Lewis and Clark had heard from Omaha, Oto and Yankton natives that “devilish little people” inhabited the mound and shot arrows at intruders. Not ones to be scared off by such tales, on Aug. 25 the duo left their boats and hiked nine miles from the Missouri River to summit the mound. They saw none of the devilish little people but instead spotted their first bison and elk of the expedition, as well as meadowlarks, bats and swallows galore.

Christi at Spirit Mound in South DakotaWe, too, saw swallows galore, zipping through the air and feeding on insects, and we felt the power of standing on the exact same spot as Lewis and Clark. In fact, Spirit Mound is one of the few specific places where we know for sure that Lewis and Clark touched the soil. Here Hector and I were, more than 200 years later — on our own, more humble adventure — standing in the footsteps of explorers extraordinaire. Being a part of such history and nature made this place more special for us than we ever could have imagined.

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8 thoughts on “Getting in the Spirit of the Big Muddy

  1. Marcie

    Sounds like a beautiful, peaceful and mostly untouched location! A place where wildlife can just be without human intruders.

    We’ll miss you at my Dec. 5 holiday party. The first you’ve missed in a while if ever!! When do you arrive back in Phoenix and where will you stay? Keep enjoying the ride and paddle!!

    1. Christi Post author

      We’ll be home briefly for Thanksgiving with my sister but then hit the road again. Our final return date is yet to be determined!

    1. Christi Post author

      South Dakota really exceeded our expectations, and we found the people to be some of the friendliest anywhere. Stay tuned for a future post about our time in the western half of the state!

  2. Maxine

    Inspiring indeed, to be where Lewis and Clark took afoot on unknown land. I loved the exploration of Lewis and Clark. You and Hector have trod where many made history, how proud it must make you feel. And, thank you again for taking us along on your adventures.

    Onward!

    1. Christi Post author

      We also went to another Lewis & Clark site on the Oregon coast, where the duo and their crew members ended the first half of their journey at the mouth of the Columbia River. It was even more inspiring there. And of course, the Camp River Dubois Lewis & Clark State Historic Site that you and I visited back in 2004 is a great spot to learn about the Corps of Discovery, too.

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