“We Came to [to] make a warm bath for Sergt. Floyd hopeing it would brace him a little, before we could get him in to this bath he expired, with a great deel of composure, haveing Said to me before his death that he was going away and wished me to write a letter— we Buried him to the top of a high round hill over looking the river & Countrey for a great distance Situated just below a Small river without a name to which we name & call Floyds river, the Bluffs Sergts. Floyds Bluff—we buried him with all the honors of War, and fixed a Ceeder post at his head with his name title & Day of the month and year.”
—William Clark, August 20, 1804
Judging from the raging torrent of 80,000 cubic feet per second pouring out of Gavins Point Dam, it seemed like we might be in for a wild ride down the Missouri. Yet the current settled down to a mild 4 to 5 mph by the boat ramp, one mile downstream from the dam. Here began the 59-mile lower portion of the Missouri National Recreational River, one of few remaining fragments of the lower river that are largely unchanged since the time of Lewis and Clark.
Paddling flood waters can be highly dangerous back home in Montana where narrow, winding streams turn into roiling rivers, but the Missouri is so big it is like a slow-moving lake. Minor flooding makes it a bigger slow-moving lake.
Nevertheless, paddling a slow-moving lake has its own challenges. Think of a canoe and paddle as analogous to a car and steering wheel, providing the illusion of control as you travel down the highway. When paddling, however, the road itself is moving. That’s easy enough if the river is narrow and the current moves predictably downstream. But the Missouri is so wide that the current snakes back and forth unpredictably within the river, sometimes doubling back upstream right in the middle.
Looking ahead at a big cottonwood snag mid-river, it seems apparent that we will coast by on the right. Allow a moment of distraction, and now we are aiming past it on the left. We can paddle the entire time, thinking we are headed one direction while the river takes us another. At the last moment, we might be flowing rapidly sideways towards the only tree in the river. Add a breeze, and there are four variables of motion: river, current, paddling, and wind. Dodging a snag is easy enough with a few quick paddle strokes, but control over our overall trajectory is illusory.
We completed the recreational river in two days, arriving at Ponca State Park in Nebraska. Strands of the eastern deciduous forest follow the river north through the prairie, creating an oasis of bur oak trees, black walnut, hackberry, mulberry, and linden or basswood, with a rich understory of diverse eastern vegetation. One old oak tree has been growing since at least 1644. A scenic overlook allows a view of Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa.
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Below Ponca State Park the Missouri has been narrowed, deepened, and straightened as a channel all the way to St. Louis. The river has been shortened by nearly 200 miles since the time of Lewis and Clark.
The channel is admittedly much easier to paddle than the natural river. Stay away from any wing dams, wooden pylons, and submerged trees along the bank. Stick to the middle and drift or paddle with the current. Strange boils rise up out of nowhere, like underwater geysers that send out circular currents to deflect the canoe one direction or another. The sudden turbulence and crashing sound of water is unnerving, but apparently harmless. Intermittent mile markers track the remaining distance to Saint Louis.
One day’s paddle brought us to Sioux City, Iowa, burial place of Sargent Charles Floyd. He gained fame largely by keeling over of “bilious colic,” which medical experts theorize was likely appendicitis. Lewis and Clark buried Floyd on a bluff, naming it and a nearby river after the sargeant, then proceeded on with the journey.
However, poor Floyd hardly got any rest. His grave had been disturbed, possibly by wolves, before the Corps of Discovery revisited the site on their 1806 return trip, so they refilled the hole. By 1857 the shifting river began to erode his grave, so concerned citizens dug him up and reburied him 200 yards away. The publishing of Sargent Floyd’s journal in 1894 inspired folks to dig up his remaining remains and bury them in urns under a marble slab. Then, he was moved again while the Floyd Memorial Association upgraded his grave to a 100-foot-high sandstone obelisk, completed in 1901.
While his remains were in storage during construction, helpful citizens weighed, measured, and photographed his bones and made a plaster cast of his skull. With the aid of modern forensics, visitors can now see a close approximation of Floyd in the Sargeant Floyd Museum and Welcome Center aboard the dry-docked motor vessel, the M.V. Sergeant Floyd.
The adjacent Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center went one step further, channeling Floyd from beyond the grave as a silicone and silicon animatronic member of the Corps of Discovery, sharing reflections about his life and untimely death.
At least he isn’t alone. Thomas Jefferson is there to welcome visitors, while Lewis and Clark stand over Floyd’s coffin in the back room, talking up his good character. When Floyd whispered his dying words that he was “going away,” he probably never imagined that he would keep coming back.