Guiding a big boat down the last wild stretch of the Missouri River can be “like finding a mountain lion in your basement,” according to shipbuilder Butch Bouvier. The river is a beautiful wonder but how do you enjoy it safely?
Bouvier, who navigated the river on a Lewis-and-Clark-like pirogue in 2001, plans to retrace the journey in early October. The white-bearded, 72-year-old and his crew know they may face thick morning fog, high waves, burning-hot afternoons, cold nights, mosquitoes, submerged logs, tree snags, sandbars, strong currents, stiff winds and other inconveniences and dangers. However, the unknown has always been part of the river’s mystique.
Lewis and Clark ordered a 55-foot barge (mistakenly referred to as a keelboat by historians) for their 1804-1806 journey. However, while floating the barge down the Ohio to the Missouri, they realized it was overloaded so they purchased two pirogues — one red and one white — with awnings and sails.
“Evidence points to the pirogues most likely being plank on frame built craft, and flat bottoms,” says Bouvier. “Simple work boats. Over-sized row boats.” The Corps of Discovery proceeded with the three boats, and it surely would have been a failure without the pirogues.
The barge was sent back to St. Louis in the spring of 1805, and the red pirogue was not river-worthy when the Corps of Discovery members returned from their land journey over the Rockies to the West Coast in the spring of 1806. Only the white pirogue made the entire river odyssey.
Big wood boats powered by sails and oarsmen eventually became as rare as grizzly bears on the Upper Missouri.
But history is about to be repeated, at least for 100 miles this autumn.
BOUVIER, WHO LIVES in Council Bluffs, Iowa, with his supportive wife and river companion, Catherine, has become the West’s most proficient builder of historic boats. He built his first in the 1960s, and eventually founded Lewis and Clark Replicas, a one-man company that has a near-monopoly on construction of early 19th century riverboats.
Bouvier finished a 55’ wood barge/keelboat in 1987. He couldn’t stop at one. He went on to build seven more, mostly as museum exhibits. He and Catherine, sailed one of them up the Missouri and lived on it for a few months.
Sixteen replicas of the Corps of Discovery’s white pirogue exist today and Bouvier built 13 of them. Now he’s finishing his 14th, which is actually a reconstruction of another he built, and he is confident that it’ll be ready to launch at Fort Randall on Sept. 30. “Barring an abduction by aliens, I will get it built,” promises the white-bearded and talkative Iowan.
If aliens do appear, they’ll probably join in Bouvier’s preparations for the river trip. He has a knack for bringing people aboard. Yankton singer/songwriter Mike McDonald met Bouvier 15 years ago when he heard that the boat builder was about to launch one of his keelboats in a lake. Bouvier calls McDonald “the bushwhacker’s balladeer” because of the musician’s interest in river history. Together, they came up with a song they call “Runnin’ With the Wind.” Here is one verse:
You gotta run with the wind,
Keep her heading downstream,
Soar above the hills of green
And live your river dreams.
McDonald offered his family’s cabin near Springfield as a home base and overnight accommodations for the 2018 excursion, and he hopes to join the expedition for some of their afternoon and evening programs. He might even bring his guitar.
The journey will join together myriad people like McDonald up and down the Missouri, including members of the South Dakota Canoe and Kayak Association who plan to paddle along. “They’re going to have to find the channels and stay in the channel just like the 19th century explorers did,” says David Mays, president of the SDCKA. “We’re interested in helping them as much as we can, depending on the weather and especially the winds.”
Mays says the river valley from Fort Randall to Ponca, Neb., can be tough traveling, depending on river currents and winds. “It’s a wonderful river when the wind is low and the sun is bright, it’s pretty easy to go back in your mind and contemplate what the early explorers did.”
When the weather turns bad, it’s hard to not consider the hundreds of shipwrecks buried deeply in the mud and sand of the river bottom, or below the cornfields and pastures of adjacent fields that were once under the river channel.
David Hawley, a river historian and treasurer hunter, estimates that more than 300 big wood boats sank in the Missouri just in the years 1819 to 1848. Many more perished in the steamboat era of the latter 19th century. Every year since, a fishing boat or two has floated to the bottom.
BOUVIER KNOWS FROM experience that the river can surprise a crew at any moment. During the 2001 journey, the pirogue, which they called Raycliff, was caught in a fast current and headed toward a wing dam. Fortunately, the crew quickly jumped ashore and used long lines to guide it safely past the danger, using a process called cordelling practiced by Lewis and Clark.
Bouvier wrote about that and other adventures in a book, Brown Water. He also tells the story of a trip he made from Fort Randall to Fort Pierre in 2002. For that upriver journey, he punched a hole in Raycliff’s bottom and installed a 40-horse engine to help fight the current.
While crossing Lake Francis Case, they experienced 30-foot waves. “I was on the foredeck, with the wind in my face, listening to the Raycliff pound against the waves and mentally patting myself on the back for building such a sound craft when something caught my eye. Out ahead, about 80 feet or so, I noticed something floating along in the waves. The odd thing was that you could only see it in the troughs of the swells, and it disappeared when it hit the crest.”
Bouvier thought it looked, “like a bunch of round, grayish-brown kind-of rusty coffee cans, strange as that sounds.” He swung the rudder to investigate. As the boat floated close to the objects, he leaned over to retrieve one if possible. “Then what I saw horrified me!” he wrote. “They were not cans at all, as I had smugly surmised. They were the tops of trees that, before the dams had risen, had been sawn off so they were now about two feet below the surface! We were smack-dab in the middle of a minefield of pilings, which could put a hole in my girl in an instant.”
He and his crew carefully maneuvered the Raycliff away from the underground forest with only a few scratches to the hull. But the wind and waves worsened, and the shoreline was too rocky to allow for a landing so they hugged the shoreline, looking for a safe harbor.
Finally they spotted a sandy beach, and steered toward it just as the motor coughed and died. Without power, Raycliff was being blown into the rocks. Bouvier jumped into the water, and found himself trapped between the boat and some moss-covered boulders. He was worried for his legs, maybe even for his life, but a wave came and lifted the boat just in time. “I felt the hull touch my legs but it did not crush them as it should have,” he wrote. Everyone was mentally and physically drained, but after a few hours ashore — and a new set of spark plugs for the engine — they resumed the trip.
Bouvier says his knowledge of the river came from experiences like that, and from studying the 1804-1806 Corps of Discovery. “My interest in Lewis and Clark begins and ends with the boats,” he admits. “It’s all about the boats.”
THE MISSOURI IS THE longest river in North America, but only about one third of its 2,300 miles remains free-flowing and natural. The 752 miles below Ponca State Park (which is just across the water from Elk Point), have been channeled for navigation, mostly for modern-day barge traffic. Another 700 miles or so are now submerged in reservoirs.
About 100 miles of the river — from Fort Randall Dam southeasterly to Ponca — is now one of America’s 401 national parks, known as the Missouri River National Recreational River. It passes an eagle refuge below Fort Randall, widens into a shallow delta at Springfield and then deepens into Lewis and Clark Lake before abruptly stopping at Gavins Point Dam, just west of Yankton.
Below Gavins Point, the river regains its wild and original nature. The main channel bumps from side to side, leaving sandbars in its wake. It flows peacefully past the brick storefronts of historic downtown Yankton, but as the channel exits the city limits it cuts to the Nebraska side and then flows into a dangerous array of cottonwood snags and stumps that catch the attention of every boater, whether he or she be captaining a big pontoon, a fishing boat or a small kayak. The current often carries boats 5 to 7 miles an hour without any paddling or power, so snags and stumps come at boaters quickly, like hazards in a video game.
The river continues like that for the next 50 miles, rich with shallow sandbars and dangerous snags (some submerged just below the surface). The channel can be hard to find and follow; sometimes a boater faces several options, and the wrong choice may lead to a shallow dead end on sand or mud. Wind and other weather vagaries only add to the adventure.
Those 100 wild miles of national park are the route that Bouvier and his pirogue will travel in October. But he won’t be alone in the journey. Dozens of South Dakotans and Nebraskans are helping with the historical journey along the river that constitutes a border between the two states.
THIS LAST HURRAH comes 14 years after Bouvier’s 2004 trip on the Missouri. “Age, retirement and the lack of money and a lack of folks interested in helping were some of the factors,” he says. “Realizing there was no way I could get out on the river one more time, my heart ached but I said nothing to no one.”
Then he and Catherine met Shirley Enos, a Bellevue, Neb., woman who shares their passion for Missouri River history. Enos encouraged Bouvier to do one more “river run,” and the boat builder agreed, providing she would take on the job of project coordinator.
“At one point, she said that she would give anything to do another river trip with me,” Bouvier says. “I jokingly suggested she give up about 10 months of her life and spend a lot of time away from her family and put the whole thing together so my dream of one more time could come true.”
Enos agreed. As Bouvier and a few friends built the boat, she raised funds, recruited volunteers and organized a route. She keeps logistics for the trip in a white, spiral notebook that Bouvier kiddingly calls her “white river bible.” At every stop, local volunteers will be ready and waiting. Doug and Juliette DeShazer, talented chefs and the founders of the Lewis and Clark Pulley Museum in Crofton, Neb., just south of Yankton, have volunteered to provide meals for the crew each day. Officials from the Missouri River National Recreational River are also offering assistance and staffing at the shoreline programs along the way.
If all goes according to plan, the white pirogue will be launched below Fort Randall Dam on Sept. 30. It will dock at Randall Creek Recreation Area on the first night, and then proceed toVerdell, Neb., Crofton, Neb., Yankton, Vermillion and Ponca State Park on subsequent evenings. One or two public programs are planned each day along the way. (See sidebar for schedule.)
The boat is 42-feet long and 9-feet wide. It will weigh more than two tons when loaded with gear. The draft will only be 7 or 8 inches, a must for the shallows of the Missouri. The all-wood boat, painted bright white and with a square sail and an operating cannon near the bow, will be a pretty sight on the water.
Bouvier and Enos call the 2018 voyage “The Triumphant Return of the White Pirogue II.” In July, they christened the boat The Dale G. Clark, honoring an old friend who helped with the previous river expeditions but who recently suffered serious health issues.
Sponsors and friends have contributed a few thousand dollars, but most of the effort and expense has been borne by Enos and Bouvier.
“This may be Butch’s last hurrah when it comes to building a boat and sailing it down the river,” says McDonald, the Yankton musician, though that’s not a certainty. Even at age 72, he likes boats and his crew too much to ever say never to the river.
The song McDonald wrote with Bouvier finishes like this:
So sing a song for special friends,
And share a tear for old.
For here we stand with our new crew,
Their spirits bright and bold.
As for me, I’m just an old river rat
With a memory on my mind
Of summer nights we all once shared
In a place that’s lost in time.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally appeared in the September/October edition of South Dakota Magazine. It is reprinted by permission.