Embrace America's Rivers

Upper Missouri River Trip...

There is an intruder on my boat!  I felt Therapy suddenly rock, I turned and there he was onboard.  I tried to convince him to leave but he gently nudged me aside, ignoring my suggestions and continued rummage through anything that caught his eye.  Now what? He seemed harmless but then again! But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I first need to explain a few details of my latest river outing.  The upper Missouri River had been on my mind for a while.  Previously, on two separate trips, I had made my way from the mouth near St. Louis, MO  to Atchison, KS at the 423-mile marker. The end of the maintained channel is past Sioux City, IA at the 754 MM just acrossed the South Dakota state line.  Earlier in the year I had aborted this run because of unfavorable weather but now I was ready to complete the remaining round trip of 662 miles. 

I have to add that the Missouri is not my favorite river.  With its high current and abundant rock dikes, some protruding to mid channel, it tends to demand more attention than any other river I have traveled.  And I guess that is part of the rub.  Normally, when I am out wandering the water a good part of the appeal is being allowed to my mind roam.  Therapy is not exactly the Space Shuttle and its simplicity is normally very tolerant my inattention.  But on the Missouri River that same inattention can lead to shorting of the lower unit by about 24 inches and possibly much worse. Still it was unexplored water - a river yet conquered. Reason enough to brave the course, even when equipped with an undisciplined mind.

I completed my normal pre-trip planning - two GPS units programmed, charts on hand, yada, yada, yada.  But there is a new item added to my checklist,  locate a  "reasonably" secure parking place for my truck and trailer. Since my New Orleans trip and the $1200 break-in damage to my truck I have become a little paranoid.  I had found on the web that Atchison, KS had a newly developed riverfront featuring a park and nice dock. I called their city hall and inquired about their ramp and parking facilities.  A very kind woman answered the phone and explained that they had a nice lighted parking lot that the police regularly patrolled.  She said although there were no guarantees there had been no problems.  Sounded good (photo of riverfront).

The seven hour drive brought me to the waterfront at about 10 PM and rather than trying to launch in the dark into the high current I decided to bed down in the parking lot.  Morning brought clouds and cool temperatures, which was a welcome change from the oppressive heat, sun and rainless skies that had hovered over the Midwest for weeks. Gazing out over the river confirmed the ever-present current but sliding Therapy off the trailer and easing up to the dock was uneventful. With the truck parked and locked in a very visible spot Therapy and I headed upstream.  You certainly won't mistake the Missouri for a canal as it constantly winds it way through the countryside.  It brings a smile to my face - it was good to be on the water again!  Current and dikes aside, the Missouri still offers some additional challenges. The first of those is fuel.  My cruising guide states that "From St. Joseph, through the Omaha-Council Bluffs area, to Sioux City, marinas are plentiful."  Well, yea, maybe!  One needs to realize that the Missouri is not heavily use by pleasure craft (or commerical for that matter).  Sure, near the metropolitan areas there is a decent representation of recreational boats but nowhere near the levels that you find at many Midwest river cities.  And on this 330-mile stretch they're only at cities of any major size, Omaha and Sioux City, so trying to survive in the marina business on the Missouri is tough.

Before departure the only safe procedure is to phone every marina that you think you might need and confirm their existence and hours of operation. The first listed marina/fuel along my route was out of business.  If it was in operation fuel was not a concern but since it was not it meant I would have to cover 178 miles before I could fill the tanks.  Normally this is well within my range of 230 miles (max, no reserve) but then there is the current.  Under normal conditions on the Missouri it can easily flow between 3 and 4.5 MPH so this must be factored in.  Figuring 4 MPH current cuts my maximum range to 192 miles.  That means if all goes as planned I would only have a gallon and a half onboard when I arrive!  Way to close in this situation so I had opted to include my 13-gallon portable, which would add another 100+ miles to the range. To my surprise there was another twist to the fuel problem, hours of operation.  My calls confirmed that many of the marinas were closed on Mondays.  Also, on weekdays all but one I contacted was not open until 3 PM or 4 PM.  It appeared that during the week business was too slow to justify the manpower until the late afternoon. So timing fuel fills is also a concern.

Not long into the trip I realized I had forgot to add ice to the small poorly insulated cooler I had brought along to store the cold cuts and drinks.  I have a higher quality ice chest but it is large and tends to crowd things aft when I have the 13-gallon portable onboard. I would most likely live on its contents for the next 4 days since I wasn't confident about available eateries on the Missouri.  Because of this, keeping things cold was a concern.

At the 498 MM I came upon Rulo, Nebraska, which has a ramp with a small floating dock (shown at right)..  A quick browse with my Lowrance GlobalMap 3200 GPS yields no "points of interest". This certainly isn't to say it is an uninteresting town but as with many small villages the GPS's database of restaurants, business, etc. showed no listings.  A nice feature on my older Megellan Map330 handheld GPS is that it shows the population of the towns which sometimes is an indicator of possible services.  I checked and it showed Rulo to have 191 souls in residence, not encouraging.  Nonetheless I decided to give it a try.  I had been at the helm for three and a half hours and a little stretch would feel good.  Near the ramp was the Rulo Boat Club building and it appeared to have a restaurant. I may have been able to get ice there but decided to continue on my walk to see what this burg had to offer.  I wandered about a quarter mile farther and ran into a small local drinking establishment with a bagged ice cooler sitting outside.  Looked promising.  As I walked in the door the 10 or 12 patrons all stopped mid swallow and sentence to stare at the stranger invading their domain.  I had an over powering urge to find a mirror for I was sure I must have grown a second head in order to command the stares and silence I was experiencing.  I meekly asked the proprietor about the availability of ice and received an affirmative response.   

But not everyone in Rulo was hesitant about outsiders.  On the walk back carrying the two small bags of ice I was befriended by the largest Great Dane I have ever seen.  He happily followed me back to the boat and watched from the dock as I started to drain the cooler overboard.  I guess he became impatient about not being asked aboard and made the decision to assume an invitation.   Because of the high current Therapy was secured to the dock with a good bit of slack line to allow her to move about without undue stress. The boat rocked unexpectedly and I turned to see this very large canine (I am sure he out weighed me) with front paws on the sole and hind paws on the dock.  But his weight was gradually moving Therapy away.  In slow motion he spread eagled between the two until something had to give and his rear legs hit the water.  After a few seconds of thrashing and splashing about the intruder finally managed to get all four onboard and immediately began to investigate my now very crowded watercraft.  I tried to take his collar and direct him back to the dock but my efforts were futile, as he obviously hadn't yet completed his exploration.  After a few minutes I guess his curiosity was satisfied and he casually departed and meandered up the path.  And to think my GPS showed no points of interest.  Rulo was interesting indeed!

Trudging my way upstream at 20 MPH Bellevue, NE was my next scheduled stop.  The Bellevue Marina was my first planned refueling and their hours of operation on weekdays were 4PM to 8PM,  usually.  They had confirmed the hours on my pre-departure calls but added, "On slow days we sometimes close early."    My ETA to Bellevue was about 6:30PM and I really need to get fuel there.  If they weren't open the next fuel was 16 miles away but they closed at 7PM,  couldn't make it in time.  Or 27 miles upstream was N.P. Dodge Park Marina that was scheduled to be open until 8PM.  But what if they closed a little early?  Actually, even the following fuel stop at the 691 MM was within my range but they wouldn't open until 5PM the next day.  I would easily arrive there by noon and then have to wait for five hours!   (Photo of buoy shows fast current).

I decided to try to call Bellevue on my cell phone but could get no answer.  Decision time.  If I stopped there and fooled around too long trying unsuccessfully to get fuel I might run late getting to Dodge Park.   Hmmm   Life on the Missouri River can be complicated.  I decided to take the chance.  Making the stop proved my concern was unnecessary.  The dock attendant was on duty and I topped the tank.  By the way, I had reached the marina and still had a little less than 2 gallons in my main tanks.  My calculations proved accurate and I could have made the trip without the portable.  Still, peace of mind has value.

With the Honda outboard fed it now time to consider myself.  At the 616.4 MM in downtown Omaha, NE is located Riverfront Marina.  This is a very nice city run facility in a small protected harbor.  Although there are no services it is located next door to a nice restaurant.  I idled in the empty marina and secured Therapy with thoughts that would repulse vegans worldwide. I knew because of the late hour it would be dark by the time I finished my meal and I decided the best plan would be to just stay here for the night.  For me this really wasn't the ideal anchorage.  It was the center of a large city with an interstate highway bridge nearby.  The rumbling sounds of tractor-trailers would surely continue 24 hours a day.  Plus, the airport was just 3 miles away with landing and take-offs probably ongoing throughout  the night.  But still, the urge for medium rare Angus was strong.

At the end of the dock (shown in photo) was a sign with the posted rules and I stopped to see how the facility functioned.  On weekdays before 4PM docking was free, that's good.  After 4PM there is a $5 per hour charge, OK, I can live with that.  But then there was the kicker.  Overnight stays were charged a flat $50, no consideration for length of the craft or services needed (there was shore power on some slips).  I read it a second time.  Yep, it was going to cost me $50 to moor my 18-foot boat for the night using none of their services.  I certainly didn't want to be searching for a suitable anchorage in the dark.  But as much as I wanted to eat a nice meal I just couldn't bring myself to donate $50 to the city of Omaha for the privilege.  I decided to once again dine on  lunchmeat and coleslaw from the cooler and continue on upstream in search of a place to drop anchor for the night.

The Missouri presents some real challenges when it comes to anchorages.  I have to admit I am not very adventurous with this boating procedure.  When I close my eyes for the night I want no doubt of Therapy's security.  My nightmare is to be blissfully asleep while dragging the anchor and ending up on the rocks or worst, in front of a tow.  Because of this, for me anywhere near the main channel is out because of the high current.  I don't care how solid my anchor may catch - it just to dangerous. On the Missouri there are numerous chutes and sloughs that look inviting but there too the current is usually strong.  Usually another viable option is to swing in behind one of the wing dikes.  There the current is neutralized and often offers a safe harbor.   But here on the upper Missouri every time I attempted this I found them silted in and inaccessible. The only comfortable reprieve from the current I could find was in the mouth of creeks (shanty boat at mouth of a creek in photo).  There is not an abundance of these so each evening they became my quest.  The chart showed Boyer Creek at the 635 MM and it looked promising.  It was far enough away to escape the noise from the city and airport but still close enough to reach before dark.  Boyer Creek it was for my first night on the water.  I pulled in just far enough to escape the flow but still have a nice view of the Missouri.

 As much as I take pleasure in spending the day cruising, this is the part of the trip I look forward to the most.  With Therapy secure and the light fading I sit and soaking in the serenity of setting.  I watched two young deer next to the water line not more than 30 feet away.  Occasionally they would stare in my direction but then seemingly decide to ignore my intrusion and continue feeding on the lush grass.   All the while the Missouri continues to hurriedly stream by swirling and slightly rolling but remaining silent to allow the other sounds of nature soothe all that take the time to enjoy the moment. To me, this is heaven. I finally decide to climb in the berth and settled in to watch a movie on my portable DVD player.  About 11PM I call it a night and sleep came quickly.  But about 3AM I am awaken by the sounds of small waves slapping Therapy's bow.  Obviously the wind had picked up and in my semi-conscience state seemed to occasionally see flashes of light.  Finally my brain was hitting on enough cylinders that I realized it was lightning and decided I would crawl out and take a look. As I looked out over Therapy's bow I could see what looked like a small thunderstorm.  Because of the wind direction I was fairly confident it was approaching so I decided to check the anchors (I had one of the bow and one off the stern to hold my position in the narrow creek).  There was no problem, as they appeared to be holding firm.  As I stood in the darkness I scanned the horizon and in the distance spotted two more small but totally separate thunderstorms spitting out sporadic lightning.  I can't say that I had ever seen this before, three different storms working the night sky.  It may indeed not be that unusual but still I had never witnessed it before.  Interesting.

Which brings up another trait of the upper Missouri River in this region.  One of the reasons I could see the three different storms in the distance is that the terrain is very flat and offers an unobscured view.  In fact, it is rare that the horizon is high enough to be seen over the tree-lined banks.  This may be another reason the Missouri is not near the top of my river list.  When cruising it often your whole world is between the shores.  No bluffs or hills.  No distant Smoky Mountains with homes with commanding views perched high over the river - just mile after mile of rock dikes and trees.  Not that it is unattractive, just that it, well, it tends to get monotonous after a while.

When morning came I was feeling a little lazy and got off to a late start (photo).  About 11:30AM I was approaching Decatur, NE at the 691 MM.  There is a marina located there but typically it wouldn't open until 5PM.  As I was passing I noticed a riverside park with a ramp and small dock.  My cooler was once again mostly liquid filled so I decided to pull in and see what I could find.  Again, I didn't have a good deal confidence in finding much.  The population of Decatur was listed as 641 and showed no "points of interest". I walked up and found a small attractive municipal park with a walking path, benches, picnic tables and campground all overlooking the river.  As I strolled towards town I came upon a city employee in a pickup truck and inquired about places to eat.  He replied that there are three restaurants and added that he was just heading home for lunch and would give me a ride. On the way to the business district I noted that Decatur was a small town but a surprising robust small town.  Besides the three restaurants there were two banks, a hardware store, a convenience store and probably more that I didn't notice or can't remember.  I stopped for a burger (I've had better) and then grabbed a bag of ice from the convenience store and walked back seven or eight blocks to the boat.  Still I was impressed, not bad for a village of 461 residents.

From there Sioux City, IA was a short 41 miles, about two hours.  There at the 732 MM is MirTym Marina.  It is the largest and nicest and facility I had found on this trip and I decided to stop in and double check the closing time.  The dockhand confirmed they would be there until 8PM.  I need to mention that MirTym was the only marina that I found that has normal hours, Sunday to Thursday - 10 to 8.  On Friday and Saturday, 10 to 10.  They also have a restaurant that opens at 11AM, always a good sign.  (Photo is MirTym Marina.) Since it was only around 4PM I decided I would complete the run to the end of the navigation channel at the 754 MM and then return for fuel for both Therapy and myself. It only took a mile or so to realize that upstream of Sioux City the Missouri has a different feel.  Gone are the daymarks that help guide your way with only the mile markers remaining.  Also, the river is much wider and shallower making the channel more difficult to locate. Still, I pushed onward following its winding path.

(Photo is the end of navigation Channel)
 As I approach the 752 MM I had the boat ramp at Ponca State Park, the end of my upstream journey, in sight.  It was then I realized that the lack of navigation aids along this section of river really wasn't a problem.  It seems in the past two days of travel I have come to understand the Missouri and actually grown comfortable with its navigation.  I find that even though I catch my mind wandering, I am almost instinctively following the prescribed course and find myself located in the proper posistion.  As if it has somehow allowed me to come in tune with its nature, to subconsciously allow me to understand its idiosyncrasies and automatically adjust to accommodate them while freeing my mind to  WHAM, DRAG, DRAG, scrrrrape!!!!  Yea, I hit bottom, dragged the lower unit - hard.   I instinctively jerked back the throttle, hit the trim switch, turned the key to kill the engine AND then took a deep breath.  Hadn't done this in a while.  But I knew from the feel of the strike it was sand.  Not rock, thankfully, and not hard clay but sand.  (Which brings up a whole other subject.  Do I consider it skill as a captain that I can tell the type of bottom by the way it feels during a prop/lower unit strike OR is it a lack of skill as a captain that has allowed me to hit bottom so many times that I can actually tell the difference). I trim the Honda up and timidly walk back to see what I have done this time.  But once again the river has just scolded me for falsely believing I could truly understand her but inflicted no harsh punishment.  Everything looked perfect although I am sure the healthy dose of sand ingested did not help the water pump impeller.  But after I restarted the vigorous stream from the outboard informed me that at least for now all was well and the only real damage was to my ego and nerves.

But now what?  I was sitting in less than two feet of water looking at the end of my planned trip about a mile and a half away.  Although the channel was not marked I was sure my "read" of the river was correct and I was where I should be.  I tacked back and forth across the stream searching for deeper water but the depth sounder kept squawking its warning.  After a few minutes I was ready to give up.  I decided that from here the channel must not be maintained and the water had become too skinny for me to complete my desired route.  Now disappointed, I allowed Therapy bow to swing around in the current (still strong) and prepared to drift a bit downstream and back into the safety of deeper water. (Photo - Boat ramp at Ponca State Park) A few moments pass and as I was feeling sorry for myself my eyes ran across the chart.  Yeah, remember that big paper thing sitting right in front of my face.  Maybe I should actually take a look at it!  And there was the answer.  Although contrary to the normal course of things, just before the 752 MM the channel crosses and runs down the shore opposite to where the riprap has been placed.  Even though a few stubs of hung trees were peeking above the surface, this was the deepest path and would allow me to reach the end of the line as planned.  Cautiously, I made my way there and celebrated by popping the cap of a cold bottled water. I savored the experience for a few minutes and then began my descent.  The powerful unrelenting flow that had hindered me for two days was now hastening my return.   It was good to see the GPS reading 27+ MPH instead of 21.

I made the run back to Sioux City and again turned into MirTym Marina.  I decided rather than topping off all the tanks I would just fill the mains, which would easily allow me to make it back to Bellevue for my final fill.  With the fuel concerns satisfied, it was time to find something to eat. The Marina dockhand directed me to an empty slip where I could use while I walked up to Jolly Rogers.  Although a hotel with restaurant was under construction Jolly Rogers is a bar and grill that sits on the barrier that divides the river from the marina.  It offered a great view of the river as well as a limited but decent menu.  After relaxing with a burger and browsing a boating magazine I decided to take a walk.  Situated just behind the marina and sitting high and dry on shore was a retired Corps of Engineers work tow - the Sergeant Floyd (shown in photo).  It was built in 1932 and used on the Missouri River as a survey and inspection boat.  Today it serves as a tourism center and river museum.  I would have liked to gone in and looked around but the hour was late and it was closed.

I decided before it became too late, it would be best to escape civilization and continue down stream to enjoy another tranquil night on the water.  I had gone about 15 miles when for some reason my brain started working and I realized I made a dumb mistake when refueling.  I had not filled the portable because the mains would easily allow me to reach Bellevue Marina.  Had I run the numbers on my calculator it would have been obvious that with it filled I could have completed the trip without another fuel stop. Normally an extra stop would not be a big deal but this is the Missouri.  And as I mentioned before Bellevue Marina wouldn't be open until 4PM and I was easily going to be there by noon the next day.  And now it was too late to go back as MirTym would be closed.  I blew that one!  Oh well, at least I then had a good excuse to be lazy and sleep late.  Just before dark I idled into a narrow but recently dredged slough at the 711 MM.  I sat and read until darkness forced a retreat to the berth where I fired up the DVD player and watched a movie.

I didn't drag myself out of the berth until about 8:30 the next morning.  I was standing brushing my teeth and looking out towards the river when I turned around and about 50 feet away was a guy standing by a pickup truck looking at me.  I now had to gracefully spit and rinse with an audience.  I guess it could have been worse, I didn't have on a shirt but at least I did have pants!   He explained the he was the foreman on a project just up river about a half mile were they were working dredging out sloughs and creeks.  He added that the federal government was spending 70 million dollars in this area of the Missouri River to restore wildlife habitat. I hadn't mentioned it before but I had noticed in places they were moving a lot of dirt along the shores.  He asked me if I was fishing.  I replied no, and he explained we were actually on the Winnebago Indian Reservation and if I wanted to fish I would need to obtain a license from the tribe. We talked a little more about the restoration project and he departed.  I decided it was time to haul the anchors and leisurely head downstream.  I killed a little time in the Omaha area and pulled in to Bellevue about 3:30 and waited for the attendant to open. I took on enough fuel to finish the trip and again idled out into the current.

 At the 563 MM is Nebraska City and the GPS suggested that the population was 6547 and several eating establishments were showing as points of interest.  There were no services but I decide to creep up in a small creek's mouth just far enough to escape the current.  I then exited over the bow on to shore and walked up about 10 blocks to the center of town.  There were three or four fast-food chains and not wanting another burger I decided on KFC. On my way back to the boat I passed an ice-cream parlor but it had just closed.  Probably for the best, all I needed was some more fat grams for the day.  After each of these little trips it usually takes about 3 weeks to get my weight back were it was before I left. Yeah, there is more than one way to have fun cruising!!! My final night is spent at mile marker 542 in the mouth of Nishnabotna Creek.  This is the first night that the sky was clear and overhead stars abound.  I slept well even though a little remorseful knowing the tomorrow I would be winching Therapy back on the trailer and heading for home.

The next day the remaining ride back the ramp was uneventful and offered me the only sun I had on the entire trip.  There is something about blue skies and white billowing clouds the always brings a smile.  The way it reflects off the water.  The way it brings out all of natures color. This is what boating is all about. So another adventure is complete and the entry added to Threapy's log.  As I have said before every river, although different, still has a certain charm.  In the case of the Missouri River you just have to looker harder to find it.  You must look past all the rock dikes and high current, but it is there.  There just waiting to reward any boater that is willing to accept its challenges and navigate its course.