Usually, the Missouri River stays within its banks, but when it doesn't, it's deadly. Headlines from 1937, 1947, 1951, 1952, 1984 and 1993 describe the devastation that occurs when the Mighty Missouri floods.
To be fair, this powerful waterway also deserves some credit for many days, weeks, months and even years when it's better characterized as a calm, peaceful, tranquil, inviting and entertaining place to be. These qualities make the mighty Missouri one of the most alluring rivers in the Midwest.
I've logged more than 700 miles floating this magnificent river. In July 2000, for example, my son-in-law and I floated on a 20-foot pontoon boat from Sioux City, Iowa, to Kansas City. In September 2002, I floated from Sugar Creek to St. Charles in a 17-foot fishing boat.
From those two endeavors and a few weekend trips, I have learned that there is no best way to float the river. The method of travel is merely a means to an end. Simply being there makes it memorable.
On the 2002 trip down the lower Missouri River, I planned to spend 13 days floating 325 miles. For my "raft," I selected a 17- foot aluminum fishing boat equipped with an all-weather top. I christened her the Gray Eagle. Her top was made of metal, but she was configured more like a prairie schooner than a fishing craft.
The design was quite comfortable. Across the back was a bed frame that contained my sleeping bag. Inside the canopy and attached to the top were fishing rod holders and storage racks. Along the interior walls were hooks for clothes, switches that controlled the running lights, and racks for my maps.
The floor compartment held a single-burner gas stove and other cooking utensils. I carried enough canned, non-perishable food to last 14 days. I carried enough water to consume one gallon every 24 hours.
While planning my adventure, I contacted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and requested a set of Missouri River Navigation charts. These charts show the course of the river and the location of mile markers that show the distance upstream from the mouth at St. Louis. The charts also show the locations of various public recreational facilities.
I also carried a copy of the boating regulations from the U.S. Coast Guard. I made sure the boat met all the requirements for lights, horns, flotation devices, fire extinguishers and safety ropes. I also packed a first aid kit and mosquito repellent. The marine radio kept me informed of the weather, and to the presence of other river traffic. My cellular phone kept me in touch with home and would provide emergency communication, if needed.
I left L.A. Benite Park's boat ramp at Sugar Creek on Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 10 a.m. Even though it was a cloudy, drizzly morning, my spirits were bright and optimistic. I was happy to be on the river again.
Before you start a float trip, you must prepare yourself mentally for the slow speed you will be traveling. River time dictates the pace of life for as long as you're under the river's power. Abandon thoughts of the Interstate, with its fast traffic and stressful environment. Don't think about clocks, schedules or obligations. Just relax and enjoy the ride.
As you drift along, the first thing you notice is the absence of man-made noises. Those noises are replaced with nature's sounds. I heard the current gurgling over the end of a partially submerged log and the splashing sounds of turtles as they tumbled into the water. I heard wind blowing through the tall trees along the riverbanks and high on the bluffs. Bird songs filled the air. I listened to the raspy cries of locusts, which sang as if they knew summer had passed and fall was upon them.
The first two days were cool, with a light, misty rain. Temperatures were in the low 60s. The water was warmer than the air, producing a fog that hovered above the river. It was still raining the morning of the third day, but by noon the sky was clearing.
As I floated through Bakers Bend and into Cranberry Bend, the sun began to burn through the clouds, casting long shadows across the water. The temperature rose to 75 degrees.
The day passed quickly as I enjoyed the scenery. About 5 p.m., I slid the bow of the boat onto a firm, clean sandbar at mile marker 257.5. After a light supper, I fished from the bank and caught several small channel catfish. After cleaning the fish and putting the fillets on ice, I retired to the shelter of the Gray Eagle for the night.
As I stretched out in my sleeping bag, I heard the mournful howls of coyotes back in the hills. From somewhere downriver I heard the sounds of a screech owl mixed with the shrieks of the blue heron.
During the night, I was awakened by the throbbing hum of a towboat, its powerful diesel engines pushing several sets of barges upstream. Its floodlights lit up the river and illuminated the shore. The lights glistened off the heavy dew that had fallen on my boat. The boat and its din passed quickly. Nature's symphony reclaimed the stage and serenaded me back to sleep.
The days and nights raced all too quickly as I enjoyed the serenity of floating. I also had plenty of chances to chat with local fishermen, admire the restoration of historical riverfront towns, talk with the proprietors of riverside businesses, and take pleasure in the ever changing scenery.
I spent the last night at Blanchette Landing in St. Charles. I arrived at about 4 p.m., but the truck and trailer for my return trip home wouldn't arrive until the next morning. I didn't mind. It just gave me more time to visit with the people who were loading and unloading at the ramp.
As evening fell over the river and the traffic slowed, I joined a fisherman on the nearby riprap bank. He was tall and thin, with long gray hair tied in a ponytail. He looked as if he might be in his 50s. He wore blue jeans but no shirt. He was fishing with a heavy surf rod and reel, casting his bait out in the current and letting it drift downstream.
While he fished, he told me a story about his uncle who once owned a fishing camp downriver. The camp was somewhere in the Cul De Sac Bend. He regaled me with many fascinating stories, including tales of huge catfish that were caught and sold on the river. After he gathered up his stringer of channel cats and his fishing gear, he bid me good luck and farewell with a friendly smile.
Alone again on the river, I returned to the Gray Eagle, where I spent the rest of the evening listening to the night sounds and allowing my mind to wander over the experiences of the last 12 days and nights. I never regretted a single hour of my float trips down the scenic Missouri.
If you love the outdoors and unhurried serenity, you will appreciate a slow float down the Missouri River. A float trip may be as simple as one person in a canoe, or you can join a flotilla of boats floating for weeks and covering hundreds of miles.
However you go, I guarantee that you will log lifetime memories while camping on clean and inviting sandbars, preparing your evening meals by firelight and watching the moon rise over the river as you sit with fishing tackle in hand. These experiences are there for everyone.
Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler