Floating history

Using dugout canoes, re-enactors navigate the Missouri River seeking a connection to the past.
Sunday, August 10, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:53 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

It’s a 28-foot-long, 3,000-pound, solid-wood piece of history floating down the Missouri River.

  This year, the Missouri Department of Conservation is hosting the Lewis and Clark Dugout Canoe Crew at the Missouri State Fair. As part of the living history program, the crew built a replica of the canoes used by the Corps of Discovery to take participants on a ride back through history to 1804 — a time when canoes made out of cottonwood trees were Cadillacs and the Missouri River was the highway.

The exhibit, which consists of two dugout canoes and one half-scale model of a river keelboat, can be seen at the pavilion at the south end of the state fairgrounds in Sedalia until Aug. 17.

It took six crew members six days to build one dugout canoe — the same time it would have taken Lewis and Clark and their fellow explorers to build about four.

“When Lewis and Clark did it, it took a day and a half,” said Mark McCarthy, member of the Dugout Canoe Crew. “But they had a purpose. They wanted to get home.”

The canoe can fit five or six people in its hollowed-out 3-foot cockpit. Lewis and Clark would have used any remaining space for gear such as guns, powder, ink, journals and any clothing they made. McCarthy said Lewis and Clark probably had about six canoes like those now on display.

“I can’t imagine floating down the Missouri River in that,” said Keith Walk of California, Mo., after listening to a member of the crew talk.

But that is just what Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery did. And now some members of the Missouri Department of Conservation have joined them.

“When you see this thing in the water, you can’t help but get excited,” McCarthy said as he explained the patriotism it stirred in him. “When you touch it, it’s like touching history.”

Crew member Jim Duncan, a retired school teacher from St. Louis and lifelong enthusiast of Lewis and Clark, said interest is growing in the expedition with the bicentennial anniversary approaching.

“It’s pretty cool,” said 12-year-old Lucy Harrison.

Lucy and her family from LaMonte have read about the Lewis and Clark expedition in “Missouri Conservationist,” a magazine published by the Missouri Department of Conservation. But Lucy said the magazine did not show the reality of how long dugout canoes really are.

“I thought it would have been shorter,” Lucy said.

Members of the Corps of Discovery II are re-enacting the adventures of the original Corps of Discovery. Currently, they are floating down the Ohio River in dugout canoes and keelboats. They will then head up the Mississippi River to the Missouri River where the journey into the west begins.

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