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Kayaking the Big Muddy

Boater follows course of Lewis and Clark with GPS
Wednesday, May 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:36 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Hunkering in his tent on the banks of the Upper Missouri River, David Miller could hear the bull stamping and circling. It was June 2002, the first summer of his expedition, and Miller was 30 miles west of the Montana-North Dakota border.

“He was just as agitated as he could be,” Miller said of the bull, which retreated after about an hour. Miller attributes the positive outcome to the fact that his tent is blue.

“If I had a red tent, I don’t think I would be here today,” he said.

Miller embarked two years ago on a solo kayak expedition following Lewis and Clark’s trail on the Missouri River.

The famous explorers were concerned with grizzly bears and rattlesnakes. For Miller, it was cows and buffaloes.

Miller, who spoke Tuesday in Columbia at the eighth annual Missouri River Natural Resources Conference, told participants that adventure paddling is on the rise, along with other recreational uses of the river.

The Missouri Department of Conservation also has recognized the increasing importance of river recreation. The state agency started a yearlong survey in January to better understand how the Missouri River is used.

Steven Sheriff of the Conservation Department said surveyors stationed at they spend on the river, the harvest of fish and wildlife, and demographic information. Private residents along the river are also being asked to keep an activity diary, he said.

Celebration of the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s expedition is giving this year’s conference an added dimension.

Miller, a geography professor at the State University of New York-Cortland, read the journals of Lewis and Clark every night after he started his expedition in Great Falls, Mont.

“People are going 60 miles per hour on the highway, not even in view of the river, thinking they are following the exact trail,” he said. “But the river is the trail.”

For navigation, Miller used satellite images as well as maps from the 1804 expedition.

“I worked out pretty much where their camps were located and marked those on my maps and take field notes,” Miller said . “I wrote about the characteristics about the area and combine that information with the historical anecdotal information.”

In the original expedition, William Clark sketched maps naming features in part based on events that occurred there, such as Yellow Bear Creek, marking the first sighting of a grizzly bear, by events that happened there. Clark also kept notes with compass bearings and distances. Miller found that Clark’s compass bearings were accurate, but his estimated distances were not as precise.

“I’m a cartographer, but Clark was a hell of a cartographer,” Miller said.

Miller had some of the same problems as Lewis and Clark did, but 200 years later there were new challenges.

To drink water from the river, Miller had to filter out pathogens, chemicals and agricultural runoff. Miller also had to take preventative measures for the West Nile virus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. For safety reasons, Miller used a small camp stove rather than open fires, and kept it close to the shore.

“I have gained a better understanding in the commentary of Clark by being there,” he said.

His kayak, an expedition sea kayak, is 17 feet long and 25 inches wide. He used a global positioning system with satellite uplink to transmit a signal of his location hourly. Using a hand-held computer with text messaging capability, Miller outlined his float plan for the day and sent updates of his location to people monitoring his safety and whereabouts.

Miller found that facilities for paddlers are lacking along the Missouri River. Camping and docking often presented more challenges for him as a kayaker than they would for other recreational users.

“Virtually all the campgrounds are set up for RV and service vehicle camping,” he said. “Very often the primitive campgrounds are located away from the river. In general they are not well laid out for people arriving by canoes and kayakers.”

During his trips, Miller has been working on a Missouri River guide. He hopes to kayak the lower Missouri River this summer from Sioux Falls, Iowa, to St. Louis.


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