Article and photos by Brad Eifert
Editor’s note: We welcome a new essayist to Nebraska Rural Living this month. Brad Eifert is a lifelong resident of Nebraska and has been a fisheries biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for 22 years. He is passionate about anything that involves the great outdoors, with fishing, hunting, kayaking and hiking consuming most of his free time. And he is currently enjoying the paternal task of instilling his love of the outdoors into his two teenage sons. Watch for future installments of Brad’s Nebraska Wild series on the NRL blog.
In my never-ending quest to experience new outdoor adventures in the wonderful state of Nebraska, I recently found myself embarking on a three-day, two-night trip down the Missouri River, by kayak. The Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery made the trip up the river in 1804, so my friend Tony and I figured that we shouldn’t have much difficulty making the 36-mile trip down river from the Fort Randall Dam in South Dakota to Niobrara, Nebraska.
The stretch we chose was recently designated as the Missouri National Recreational River and is managed by the National Park Service. Weather conditions were perfect. Sunny skies, temperatures in the low 80s, and light winds greeted us as we prepared to launch our 12-foot kayaks. We knew the current weather conditions were too good to last, but we were living in the moment. We would deal with adverse conditions when they arrived.
The plan for the trip was simple. Keep the boats upright and pointed downstream until we hit our final destination. In the meantime we planned to fish, camp, and just enjoy that we were going to be in a wild and scenic setting for the next three days.
Harnessing the water’s energy
The Fort Randall Dam was releasing plenty of water as its eight turbines were running full capacity to satisfy the human demand for electricity. We, on the other hand, had no need for electricity. We were only relying on the water released by the expansive dam to get us to our destination.
The water leaving the dam was gin clear and cold, which felt good as I hung my feet over the sides of my boat. Floating through shallow areas, you could easily see carp and gar swimming along the bottom and it wasn’t long before we spotted the partial piece of a buffalo skull, likely from an animal that roamed this area a couple hundred years ago.
We took our time the first day, got used to the flow of the river and had some success fishing for smallmouth bass. After several hours of light paddling, we found ourselves just upstream of the Sunshine Bottoms boat ramp, approximately 10 miles from our starting point. We found a large sandbar high enough to protect us from potentially rising river levels and pitched our tents.
From our campsite, we could see Old Baldy, a distinguishing landmark near Lynch, Nebraska, which Lewis and Clark documented in their journals. It was near Old Baldy where they encountered and captured their first “barking squirrel” or black-tailed prairie dog as it is known today. We experienced an amazing sunset that was intensified from the smoke drifting into Nebraska from the Canadian wildfires, more than 800 miles to the north of us.
As the sunset transitioned into darkness, we could hear the distant drums and chants from a Native American powwow ceremony being performed several miles downstream from our campsite on the Yankton Sioux Tribal Lands.
Perfect way to celebrate the Fourth
Saturday was the Fourth of July, and I’m not sure I could think of a better way to celebrate America’s independence than floating down one of her most famous rivers. Had it not been for the Missouri River, it would have taken much longer for the early explorers to discover that there was indeed habitable land west of the Mississippi River.
The weather remained exceptional and, most importantly, winds remained calm. We spent the morning lazily drifting downstream, fishing for smallmouth bass along the rocky shorelines, taking in the abundant scenic views and relishing the fact that we basically had this section of river to ourselves on this major holiday weekend. We observed many bird species during our float.
Kayaks serve as an excellent method to observe wildlife, as the small boats are inconspicuous and nearly silent as they travel. You are often able to get very close to wildlife without spooking them. You can also hear calls from the birds that are more difficult to see. Along the way we encountered a variety of water-loving birds, including several federally endangered least terns and piping plovers. I vividly remember the startled look on Tony’s face as he was suddenly surprised by a least tern that dove within feet of his boat attempting to capture a minnow.
As we made our way downstream, we hugged the Nebraska side of the river to shield ourselves from the southerly winds that strengthened as the day wore on. Having the wind in your face can be a blessing when hunting big game but is a curse when trying to kayak a river. As we floated downstream, the rocky tree-lined shorelines soon transitioned to sheer shale banks towering a hundred feet or more above the river. Cliff swallows found these bluffs to be the perfect spot to build their waterside homes, and they entertained us for several miles with their acrobatic maneuvers as they hunted small insects.
As we approached the Lazy River Acres cabin area near Verdel, Nebraska, recreational boat traffic intensified and large boat wakes became an issue. This only added to the excitement of the journey as our small plastic boats bobbed at the mercy of these waves. We made an effort to stay next to the shoreline so we would not serve as “speed bumps” for these large pleasure craft.
The river in the Verdel area was wide and reminded me of a Nebraska reservoir on a summer afternoon. People were skiing, tubing, jet skiing and enjoying the camaraderie of family and friends as they lounged on the numerous large sandbars. By four o’clock, we found ourselves at the Verdel boat launch, approximately 18 miles downstream of our previous night’s campsite. The area was bustling with activity, and Tony and I soon found our way to the nearby Blue Moon Resort, where we found a cold beer and enjoyed conversation with the local river rats.
Afterwards, an isolated sandbar across the river from the boat ramp served as our campsite for the night. The location proved to be the perfect spot as we were able to enjoy the scenic views of the river and the fireworks provided by the numerous cabins in the area. What a fabulous way to end a Fourth of July holiday on the river.
Challenging last day ahead
A long night of celebration regrettably resulted in a short night of sleep as we woke early to get a head start on the high winds that were forecasted for the day. As it turned out, it wouldn’t have mattered how early we got up, as strong south winds blew throughout the night.
We knew we were in for a long arduous morning as we quickly broke camp, packed our kayaks and shoved off for the final nine miles of our journey. The south winds remained relentless and they forced us to continuously paddle to keep from being pushed upstream. The river below Verdel became much wider and large waves became an issue in several locations.
An hour or so of strenuous paddling only got us a couple miles downstream and for a time, paddling became so difficult that we were able to make better progress by pulling our kayaks downstream. That moment made me appreciate how difficult it must have been for the Lewis and Clark expedition to make this same trip upstream from St. Louis to Montana.
Just when we started thinking that things couldn’t get much worse, we quickly found they could. There is an old saying “misery loves company” and apparently our sour moods attracted the attention of a large thunderstorm that suddenly appeared over the bluffs on the Nebraska side of the river. Blinding rain and even higher winds temporarily forced us to seek cover in a stand of cattails to ride out the storm.
Luckily for us, no lightning or hail was involved and calmer conditions soon prevailed, with the sun eventually finding its way back to the river. Although we were soaked to the bone, our spirits were not dampened as we left the storm behind and began our final miles of the journey.
One last obstacle
The last navigational hazard came in the form of the Niobrara River delta. This dynamic deposit of sediment is created when the Niobrara River no longer has enough energy to keep its sediment load in suspension as it joins with the Missouri River. The result is an extensive area of shallow water. At this point, the Niobrara River seemed confused, not knowing which way it should flow. Its currents went in many directions as it tried desperately to connect with the mighty Missouri. We once again had to drag boats across the shallow water to find our way back to the main channel of the Missouri. Soon we were back in the flow, so to speak, and were within minutes of our final destination.
As we approached the Niobrara boat ramp, there were numerous fishing and pleasure boats heading out for a day of fun on the river. With our trip nearly over, we both had a great sense of pride in accomplishing what we had set out to do. I had already forgotten the misery we endured just hours before while fighting the wind and the rain. But, at the same time I couldn’t help but feel a bit depressed, as I knew that once I left the confines of the river, I would be forced to enter back into the reality of day to day life.
I would no longer be allowed to let the river dictate my day but instead would have to conform to the rules of modern society. I can always tell how awe inspiring an adventure has been by how hard it is to make the return to reality. The greatest adventures always seem to require more time to adjust back to the daily routine once I return home.
But I have also found that there is a remedy for the post trip blues. Start planning your next big adventure. So by necessity I am already brainstorming about what new location and experiences I want to explore next. Is it going to be another kayak trip? Or should I find a new hiking trail or a new fishing lake? So many choices, so little time. I better get started planning my next excursion into wild Nebraska.