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The Corps of Discovery wove stiff willow nets they dragged up the creeks to catch fish.

The Corps of Discovery wove stiff willow nets they dragged up the creeks to catch fish.

“I went with ten men to a Creek Damed by the Beavers about half way to the Village, with Some Small willow & Bark we mad a Drag and haulted up the Creek, and Cought 318 fish of different kind i'e' Peke, Bass, Salmon, perch, red horse, Small Cat, and a kind of perch Called Silverfish, on the Ohio.”

—William Clark, August 15, 1804

We blew out of Sioux City with the wind, or rather, against it, facing a stiff headwind as our only opportunity to move downstream before yet another storm rolled through. The headwind made it near impossible to steer the canoes. Front-heavy Belladonna Beaver turned perpendicular to the river and wouldn’t turn back. Chris and I drifted along sideways staring at the riverbank while Jubilee whined about the wind and waves. Scott’s canoe also drifted sideways, while John’s shorter, wider canoe drifted backwards, none of us able to paddle except toward or away from either shore.

Ten miles south of Sioux City we passed by Fish Camp, where the Corps of Discovery camped August 13-19, 1804 to invite the Otoe an Omaha Indians to council. In their spare time, the men wove willows together to make a stiff net and dragged it up the stream, catching 318 fish one day, and nearly 800 fish the next day. Using a similar method along the Beaverhead River in Montana a year later, they caught 512 fish. I wonder if that method would work today, or if fish populations might be lower now.

Some native species are now endangered, while many new fish have been introduced, including multiple species of carp. Although carp are disdained by Americans, they are considered a delicacy in other parts of the world, and often served as a Christmas dish in Eastern European countries. I hunted carp with a fishing bow and arrow the first week of the trip, anticipating carp all the way downriver, but never saw another suitable place to hunt.

Scott and John have been the serious fishermen of the trip, catching mostly small mouth bass, northern pike, goldeye, walleye, and perch. They had great success on Fort Peck Lake in Montana followed by long lapses as we’ve moved downstream.

I anticipated eating fish almost daily on this adventure, and I was worried about cumulative mercury and PCB levels due to fish consumption advisories. Mercury contamination comes from coal-fired power plants, mining and industrial wastes, batteries, and household waste. PCBs (polychlorinated bipenyls) were used in lubricants, coolants, ink, and paint until banned in 1977, but remain persistent in the environment.

Lewis and Clark actually brought mercury as medicine. Prior to germ theory, medical philosophy emphasized removing bad humors or morbid elements from the body. Mercury was one of the ingredients in Rush’s pills, a powerful cathartic otherwise known as “thunderclappers.” Mercury was also injected in the penis or anus to treat venereal disease and other ailments. The Corps of Discovery consumed enough mercury that archaeologists can verify Lewis and Clark campsites by testing for mercury in the soil from their latrines.

I expected to get a Lewis and Clark-sized dose of mercury by eating so much fish this year, but fortunately we had no such luck. Instead of fish, we’ve eaten store-bought beef, pork, and chicken, ensuring a well-rounded diet of growth hormones and antibiotics to complement the mercury and PCBs. Add nitrates from a lifetime worth of summer sausage, and we are models of healthy living in the twenty-first century.

With the river flowing at 5 mph, we made good time downriver. An afternoon lull in the wind allowed us to orient the canoes and paddle with the current, attaining 7 mph. A forty-mile day brought us to Decatur, Nebraska to camp at the Beck and Busse Memorial Recreation Area.

Receding flood waters hatched a legion of mosquitoes to torment us. The campground flooded three times this year according to the park manager, with recent flooding evident where the grass was still muddy brown. He advised us to move our tents onto the concrete slab inside the group shelter on the highest part of the property to wait out the latest deluge.

Here we met Dan Hurd, who is taking three years to bicycle the lower forty-eight states to promote suicide awareness (www.ridewithdanusa.com). Nebraska is state number thirty-three after nineteen months and 14,000 miles traveling north and south with the seasons.

Dan joined us the following day to hitch a ride across the bridge to Lewis and Clark State Park in Iowa. The park houses a full-size keelboat replica as well as two wooden boats or pirogues, one white and one red, hypothetically like those of the expedition. Coming from Montana, where the Corps of Discovery consisted of eight dugout canoes, I never truly grasped the scale of the expedition until I stood on the keelboat. It was a real ship!

The rain subsided after two nights, raising the flooded river by nearly a foot. We paddled downstream to the town of Blair while Dan bicycled ahead of us. By the time we arrived, he had obtained permission for us to camp at the Optimist Park.

Local river angel Steve Stodola saw our canoes and drove by to offer whatever assistance we needed. He taxied us to Kelly’s Fish Market for dinner. I ordered the carp, having never seen it on a restaurant menu before. Proprietor Mike Kelly caught it himself on the Niobrara River. His batter-fried carp was truly gourmet! Thinking back to Lewis and Clark, they brought 2,500 fishhooks for gifts and trade with Native Americans, sometimes even bartering hooks for fish to eat. They bought fish for dinner, and so did we.

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Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Montana. He is the author of Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about Tom’s books and the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.

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