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A re-enactor fires the cannon at Fort Atkinson.

A re-enactor fires the cannon at Fort Atkinson.

“The Situation of our last Camp Councill Bluff or Handssom Prarie appears to be a verry proper place for a Tradeing establishment & fortification The Soil of the Bluff well adapted for Brick, Great deel of timbers above in the two Points. many other advantages of a Small nature. and I am told Senteral to Several nations Viz. one Days march from the Ottoe Town, one Day & a half from the great Pania village, 2 days from the Mahar Towns, two ¼ Days from the Loups Village, & Convenient to the Countrey thro: which Bands of the Soux hunt.”

—William Clark, August 3, 1804

William Clark’s vision for a fort at Council Bluff was realized fifteen years later when Col. Henry Atkinson led an expedition of 1,120 men to build a string of forts up the Missouri River. Their trial steamboats floundered against the river’s currents, sandbars, and snags, making Council Bluff the terminus of the expedition. The soldiers constructed a short-lived fort in the woodlands below the bluff. Severe winter conditions contributed to scurvy, claiming the lives of 160 men, followed by record high spring runoff that flooded the fort and necessitated reconstruction on top of the bluff, per Clark’s recommendations.

Fort Atkinson served as the gateway to the fur trade, becoming the first military post west of the Missouri River, the largest in the country. Westward colonization brought an end to the fort by 1827. It was reconstructed in the 1980s and 90s as Fort Atkinson State Historical Park.

The Missouri River long ago shifted three miles east of the fort, while ongoing flood conditions made landing impossible, so we paddled downriver to Omaha and caught a ride back.

Finding a dry and legal place to camp near Omaha proved problematic. We stopped to assess our options by Freedom Park, a Naval museum featuring a ship, submarine, jet and other military hardware. Unable to locate any place to camp legally, we ultimately pitched tents within the park, which was otherwise closed due to flooding. Scott called it, “the coolest campsite ever.” I hid my green tent between two green army trucks grown over with grass, vines, and brush, as if hiding out in a post-apocalyptic era.

John paddled onward, bound for the finish line in St. Louis. I was sorry to lose him from the expedition, but he was urgently needed back home. The rest of us hunkered down for another major thunderstorm, which dropped a couple inches of rain, but thankfully tapered off by morning. We hiked uptown and caught a ride to Fort Atkinson.

Although Fort Atkinson was a military post, it’s location far from civilization necessitated self-sufficiency, and most soldiers were employed tending crops and livestock. Re-enactors fired the canon, skinned and processed a bison, demonstrated blacksmithing, tinwork, and Dutch oven cooking, among dozens of activities.

Back in Omaha, we walked past homeless camps towards our riverside hideout, I too felt homeless. Hiding out in the bushes like fugitives gnawed on my nerves. Did anyone molest our tents or canoes? Would we get in trouble for camping in the closed park? Wading through the flooded access road and mud to get to our mosquito-infested camp amid the flood debris, I wondered if conditions might continue like this all the way to St. Louis.

In the morning we paddled down to Riverfront Marina, which was also closed due to flooding, but parked our canoes and climbed over the fence to tour the town. We enjoyed a short visit next door at National Park Service headquarters for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Back on the river, we paddled to Haworth Park Campground by Bellevue, which was entirely flooded except for half the parking lot by the submerged boat ramp. We pitched our tents on the asphalt. The nearby Children's Lewis & Clark Interpretive Art Wall tells the Corps of Discovery story in hand-painted tiles created by school kids grades 3 through 6 from communities along the trail. It is a fantastic mural.

The morning sun brought local police to investigate our tents in the closed campground, but they accepted our need for a safe campsite and wished us well. Flooding is widespread, but not deep. The river is lined with houses and campers on tiny islands surrounded by water, or at worst flooded a foot deep on the lower levels.

I can imagine folks cleaning up after spring flooding and putting their lives back together, but it’s been six months of repeated flooding with no end of sight. Early snowfall on saturated soils across the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains hints at more flooding to come. Rather than a post-apocalyptic world, it seemed like a pre-apocalyptic glimpse of the new normal in a climate-changed world.

We haven’t seen any boats on the river in days, not because it is particularly dangerous, but because the access ramps and marinas are all closed due to flooding. It is safe enough to paddle down the channel, giving wide berth to breaks in the levees where swift currents exit or re-enter the main channel.

I’ve been wondering if we should have followed John’s lead and paddled like crazy for the end. But arriving at Indian Cave State Park in southern Nebraska, we found great trails to explore and a whole new ecological zone dominated by sycamore trees, shagbark hickory, at least two species of oak, and paw-paw trees everywhere. As a botanist-forager-survivalist, finding ripe paw-paws has been a highlight of the journey. The raw fruits have a taste and texture similar to banana custard. For me, it is experiences like this that make the whole trip worthwhile.

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Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Montana. He is the author of Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about Tom’s books and the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.

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