National Parks Series Missouri Recreational River
Dakota Digest - 09/25/2009
By Cory Klumper
Today we continue our series on South Dakota’s National Parks. In this segment we visit the Missouri National Recreational River. The park contains 98 linear miles of Missouri River along the border of South Dakota and Nebraska.
The Recreational River is split between two sections. Today we’re on the 59 mile district between Gavin’s Point Dam and Ponca State Park. Looking to the north at South Dakota, you can see the bare sandbars and cottonwood trees dropping floating seeds on the opposite bank. Here on the Nebraska bank the chalkstone bluff is covered in oak trees. Below the high bank sits a boat provided by staff from the National Parks Service for a tour of part of this expansive park.
This park is a bit different than some National Parks. Most of the facilities are provided by numerous state and county parks. Mike Madell is the superintendent for the Missouri National Recreational River. He says pretty much all of the launch sites are publicly owned.
“I think there’s 17 launch sites within the two stretches of the river” Madell says, “the 59 mile stretch below Yankton and the 39 mile stretch between roughly Pickstown and the head of Lewis and Clark Lake.”
Madell says campsites are available at Lewis and Clark State Park in South Dakota, as well as Ponca and Niobrara state parks in Nebraska.
Madell says the park was formed 31 years ago to showcase two sections of wild river between the dams that control the flow of the Mighty Mo.
“As we’ve seen this morning, there’s a little bank stabilization, but for the most part in this 98 mile stretch the river still has a chance to function as a river,” Madell says. “There are places along here, down toward Ponca and the area south of where we are today, where it probably looks very similar to the way it looked when Lewis and Clark came here in the 19th Century.”
Some of the natural processes that used to shape the river have been radically changed by the dam system. Steve Wilson is a resource management specialist. He is driving the boat. He says the river is still carving out cut banks and moving within the floodplain.
“Essentially you can refer to it as having a modified flood plain. So it’s establishing a new flood plain. Where it would have moved bluff to bluff, now today with the controlled releases it’s moving from high bank to high bank. And so it will erode your high bank,” Wilson says. “Where we’re out here today, where we navigated closer to the South Dakota side, next year we may be closer to the Nebraska side.”
Wilson says the Parks Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers work as a team to recreate some of the things lost when the river was tamed. He drives the flat-bottom aluminum boat into a restored backwater. Here the air is still and the sound of birds nesting in the cottonwoods is underscored by buzzing insects. Wilson says the sand removed from what once was a part of the river channel is used to build sand bars for endangered and threatened bird species.
“The populations of the Northern Great Plains Piping Plover below Gavin’s Point is one of the most significant in the area along the Missouri River, because it’s the area where we still have sandbars that are created naturally to some extent, and some of the Corps programs that are out there to create new sandbars to help sustain those species,” Wilson says. He says the endangered Piping Plover and the threatened Least Tern nest on bare sand bars. The lack of vegetation helps the birds look out for predators.
As we move back toward the boat launch, I ask about what kind of boat works well on this unpredictable section of river. Superintendent Mike Madell says most people choose a boat with a flat bottom or a canoe. He says personal watercraft like jet skis are not allowed on this section of river.
"There are a couple of reasons. One is just to provide a diversity of recreation experience. Really it’s only these 98 miles along the Missouri River where they’re not allowed. Some people prefer to float and not have the intrusion of motorboat noise and that type of thing,” Madell says.
He says the river can be dangerous for canoes, but as long as people wear their life vests, it’s a pretty good beginner stream.
As we load the boat he tells me about numerous research projects that take advantage of this wild section of river.
“In fact sometimes it seems like there’s probably more researchers on the river than there are people recreating,” Madell says. “Of course a lot of things going on related to the endangered species we’ve talked about, the plovers and terns, sturgeon research, cottonwood research... there’s a young man from the USD that’s doing a very comprehensive study of turtles along the river.”
Madell says it’s hard to get concrete numbers on how many people visit the Recreational River every year. He says 98 miles of river with multiple access points makes any visitor count a rough estimate.
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