Quick — 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.
To 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.
For 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.
This 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.
On 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.
The 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.
We 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.
Passing 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.
We 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.
We, 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.