You could say that Tom Elpel’s journey down the Missouri River began when he met a descendent of William Clark, explorer and co-leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition that crossed the continent in the early 19th century exploring part of the vast territory called the Louisiana Purchase for the United States.
"It was Churchill Clark and what he does is travel around the country making dugout canoes … and paddling trees," Elpel said Wednesday while on a layover at Lake Yankton. "I was lucky enough to work with him for three months last year cutting out this (canoe) I named ‘Belladonna Beaver.’"
A dugout canoe is made by literally digging the core out of a large tree. Such canoes were used by Lewis & Clark Expedition members.
"This is a Douglas Fir tree, and that’s not a traditional canoe wood," said Elpel, a resident of Montana. "It was actually super challenging to work with. The tools just bounced off those hard knots and we ended up using a lot of power tools on it. "
Also, he said this type of wood cracks when it’s being worked on.
"Just working on it, it sounds like popcorn, a constant cracking," Elpel said. "We are always oiling it to slow that down. It’s all sealed up with linseed oil and varnish and epoxy."
Elpel and Clark stripped the bark off the canoe’s exterior and smoothed the wood, but left the basic shape of the tree, with naturally occurring knots along both sides of the vessel.
The bow is carved to look like a beaver’s head.
"That was all Churchill Clark," Elpel said. "I was doing the grunt work, removing bulk material."
Churchill Clark was the expert who not only worked on the artistry but also on the function so the canoe would be stable in the water and perform well, Elpel said.
"It’s turned into a work of art," he said. "The beaver is going through the water, and the cracks actually lend to that effect."
The canoe is stable and does well on the river, but can be a challenge to steer in the wind, he said.
"On the lakes it starts feeling like paddling a log," Elpel said. "We actually put a motor on back at Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota, and took it off at Fort Randall Dam, so now we are paddling from here on out."
Elpel is with three friends in modern plastic canoes, who set out with him at the headwater of the Missouri River and are accompanying him to St. Louis.
"It’s definitely a different feel, riding in that thing," said Scott Robinson, one of Elpel’s traveling companions. "It feels more real and authentic as compared to plastic, so it takes on a vintage feel when you’re in that thing."
"I haven’t wanted to be in the plastic canoes on this journey, and when I step in them, they feel toy-like," Elpel added.
Elpel hasn’t actually weighed the finished canoe, but estimates that it weighs at least 500 pounds.
"The four of us can’t even lift the head," he said. "So it’s heavy enough."
When it becomes necessary to carry the canoe — over a dam for instance — Elpel uses a custom-built dugout canoe trailer.
Volunteers have transported the trailer from dam to dam down the Missouri River. Having portaged across Gavins Point, Elpel will not need the trailer until he gets to St. Louis, where a volunteer has offered to transport it.
Even though the trip is 60 percent complete, the group is in no rush to finish their journey.
"We are really taking our time and trying to see as much as we can along the way," Robinson said. "I get a sense that a lot of people are just going as fast as they can to complete the river. We are going super-slow to see as much as we can."
Elpel’s trip may take up to six months, landing him in St. Louis in late November, though he hopes to finish by early November.
As for the reason for this journey, Elpel said there are many.
"My kids are out of the house; I’m president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and I am developing a canoe trail in Montana; I live at the Missouri headwater and I made this beautiful canoe last year," Elpel said. "Now, this year, I’ve got to see where all this water goes."
Anyone who wants to follow Elpel’s progress as he travels down to St. Louis can do so at www.elpel.info.
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