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Go Afloat with the Corps of Discovery: Lewis and Clark State Park

  • 6/10/2015 9:51:00 AM
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Explore Iowa like Lewis and Clark at their namesake park and annual festival | Iowa DNRThis article by Sandy Flahive originally appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine. Check our event calendar for more information on the Lewis and Clark festival June 12-14.

“Cast away! Cast away!” With that resounding command, bellowed stem to stern o’er land and water, the stunning 55-foot reproduction of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Missouri-wending keelboat, Discovery, gingerly takes leave of the shores at which the explorers’ expedition arrived on Aug. 10, 1804.

Today these are the shores of 250-acre Blue Lake, an oxbow created after years of meandering of the Missouri River—and they rim western Iowa’s Lewis and Clark State Park, named for the duo commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to investigate the vast Louisiana Territory purchased from France. Along with several dozen men and supplies they arduously—sometimes against currents of raging water, sometimes “under a jentle brease”—sailed, towed and poled their keelboat up river from St. Louis to hunker in for a spell at the site now part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

As was their assignment along the route, the party was to record their every observation about the geography, resources and inhabitants of what now is the western Iowa area around Monona County before continuing their epic 7,689-mile, two-and-a-half-year journey over land and water to Fort Clapsop, Ore., and back. Word has it they found the spot as interesting and inviting as today’s park visitors.

Relatively small at 176 acres, the historical treasure that is Lewis and Clark State Park enjoys mega-sized popularity, according to park ranger Jeff Poen. No stranger to the life, Poen grew up at southwest Iowa’s Viking Lake State Park where his father, Gary, served as park ranger. “Our 100 campsites with electrical hookups and 12 with full hookup are right along the lakeshore and are always booked full,” he states, “and the two boat ramps provide easy lake access, so there’s no hassle to get to the water.”

With limited waterbodies in the area, Blue Lake is a big fishing and boating draw. Anglers target the class of larger, 16- to 18-inch largemouth bass, or a chance at a lunker northern pike. Catfishing has its fans, too. So, too, is the beach for those interested in a toasty repose in the sun or a refreshing bob in the lake. Shady trails invite landlubbers to navigate through timber for whatever hike desired: a blood-thumping sprint or snail-paced mosey.

The mostly marsh Blue Lake Wildlife Unit alongside the park attracts terns, herons, egrets, yellow-headed blackbirds, warbling vireos and rose-breasted grosbeaks, complementing the resident deer and turkey population. While the Civilian Conservation Corps lodge is a fine place for group events in the park, the newly constructed visitors center is the main attraction, building-wise. “This is our interpretive center,” explains Poen. “Here we tell the story of the expedition, erect displays and hold workshops and classes for kids and adults.”

The handsome structure, funded in part by the park’s Friends group, also is home to an impressive boat museum. “The keelboat on the lake, plus this one,” Poen exclaims with pride, pointing to another remarkable replica, “and the smaller boats, the pirogues, were all made by our park historian.” Come again? Didn’t these magnificent creations have to come from some huge factory where massive machines churned them out?

Ah, no! These are the results of weeks of devoted toil by one Mr. Butch Bouvier, indeed the park’s historian since 1985, and also the painstaking researcher, designer and builder of each boat, assisted by equally devoted local volunteers.

O Captain, My Captain Known as “Mr. Keelboat,” Bouvier captains his boats, of course, and it is his booming voice directing the crew to “cast off” into Blue Lake. Piloting Best Friends, named for his wife, this 21st century version keelboat captain is every bit the consummate trailblazer and memorable character that the famous explorers were.

As the craft moves out into the open waters of the lake, Bouvier flits back and forth from the prominent cabin and navigational deck in the stern to the main deck where he carefully scrutinizes the 35 men, women and children perched on wooden seats fastened to the sides of the boat.

“Hey, buddy. Turn around and get your life jacket fastened right,” he orders a youngster trying to lean over the side. “And get those arms and fingers inside if you want to keep them.”

Even as he checks to assure each passenger’s safety, he shepherds every bend, turn and function of the boat. Obviously multi-tasking is his forte. Throughout the hour-long journey he narrates not only the tale of the Lewis and Clark expedition but tells his own life story as well, explains in detail how he built the boat and interviews members of his awed and captive audience.           

“Young lady, where are you from? Are you enjoying the ride? Don’t you think living history is awfully important?” Vacillating from being a stern boat captain to soft-hearted teddy bear, to ultra-dramatic actor, Bouvier provides not just an experience for his passengers, he creates an unforgettable adventure.

For Omaha residents Karen McNarry and Sally Stuck, who are spending the weekend in the park, the keelboat ride defies description. Thrilled with a turn at steering the vessel, Stuck mutters a little shakily, “I’ve never even been on a boat before, any boat. This is really exciting.”

Morgan Kierscht, from nearby Moorhead, needs only one word to explain how it feels to steer just as Meriwether did centuries ago. “Awesome!” proclaims the 11-year-old, sporting a huge grin. No less intrigued are Josie Lewis, 10, and her brother, Wyatt, 8. “They’re never going to forget this,” affirms their mother, Sarah.

When Best Friends returns to shore, Bouvier caps off the excursion by treating passengers and the awaiting folks on land to a fitting climax. “Fire in the hole!” he shouts, a nanosecond before the thunderous roar from the keelboat cannon signals a celebratory end to the journey. Bouvier smiles with satisfaction as the departees clap and roar their approval.

Festival of Festivals The scene on shore where passengers and crew alight is straight out of the set of the movie The Mountain Men, and that tall, rough-hewn man clad in buckskin, the one carrying the hatchet, just has to be Charlton Heston. Doesn’t he?

No. This is no movie. It’s the annual Lewis and Clark Festival, held in the park the first weekend in June since its inception nearly three decades ago. With support from the Onawa Chamber of Commerce, the DNR, Monona County and local volunteers, The Lewis and Clark Festival Committee host this event that celebrates the explorers’ expedition and relives the 1804 to 1840 lifestyle.

Visitors stroll through the encampment of white canvas tents that engulf the park. What they encounter is a dizzying array of pre-1840 activity. Buckskinners cook hunks of meat over a campfire. Traders offer a variety of goods and engage in verbal combat with bargaining hagglers. Fur merchants and mountain men rendezvous, relax and celebrate by challenging one another in knife throwing and tomahawk matches. An archery contest ensues, the bows all self-made.

Every soul involved in the rendezvous is attired in period regalia. Canvas, buffalo skins and buckskin prevail. Pants and shirts are often gaily fringed at the seams, and rather than buttons, strings secure the garments. Felt hats, moccasins and boots of skins or leather adorn heads and protect feet. Pocket-less pants require that pouches be strung at the waist to carry necessary items.

Noise and smoke from muzzleloading competitions permeate the park. On wool blankets spread outside tent openings, steady hands deftly manipulate multi-colored beads into ornaments and jewelry. Behind an oak tree a deer hide is being tanned. Over yonder, a scruffy trapper explains how to efficiently snare small game.

Everywhere there is food—pancakes, pies, buffalo burgers. The head spins trying to take it all in.

From every state, some following the entire Lewis and Clark Trail, come these re-enactors…and overseeing the whole shebang is the booshway—an old rendezvous word for “the boss”—John “Lizard” Wilcox. Darting here and there among campsites and trading tents, he has little time for chit-chat, though he does pause to surmise, “The younger generations do not know a thing about this incredible period of mountain men and buckskinners. We try to push the issue by giving programs in schools and for community groups, demonstrating that time.” Then he dashes off to talk to a fur trader about a beaver pelt.

For Tom Roberts, a former park ranger and currently a Sioux City North High School teacher, the festival is an opportunity to portray John Colter, an explorer he considers one of the most interesting members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. “I do this out of a love for history, and Colter was historically fascinating,” he says of the rugged individual who is considered to be the first mountain man. “He was the first known person of European descent to enter what is now Yellowstone Park and the first to see the Teton Mountains.”

Roberts’ campsite is a study in authenticity. “Everything here is documented—flintlock, rifles, knives, blankets,” he says, gesturing with pride at his mountain man abode. “Every bit of it.”

A final note about the festival. “We are the only encampment anywhere with a genuine, bonafide post office,” says postmaster relief worker Margaret Anderson from Blencoe. “We fly our flag out here with pride.”

Iowa’s Lush Loess Hills While the stopover of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is of great historical note and a feather in the cap of Monona County, its importance has to be shared with another significant American treasure in the region: the Loess Hills, through which passes the National Scenic Byway.

This 640,000-acre band of rugged natural prairie-topped and woodland-cloaked hills that stretches for 200 miles along Iowa’s western border is up to 15 miles wide in places. The hills consist of a fragile geological wonder formed of up to 200-foot-deep loess (wind-blown) soil deposits, the depths of which are found nowhere else but China.

While humans have lived here off and on for more than 6,000 years, the unique land formation remains a place of uncommon serenity among the eroded gullies and knobs of wind-blown soils. Along the sharp angles and in the deep ravines of these fine-as-flour dunes are many of the rare animals and plants found in Iowa.

Within this spectacular natural resource are some ultra-special places, including Turin Loess Hills Nature Preserve, Sylvan Runkel State Preserve and the all-encompassing Loess Hills Wildlife Area. Doug Chafa, DNR wildlife biologist and manager of the 3,500 acres that make up these areas, is a challenging guide as he leads a couple of novice Loess Hills hikers up one of Turin Preserves’ steep slopes that ascends to a balance-defying, 2-yards-wide ridge top.

“Wind’s blowing pretty hard up here,” he says calmly.

“Indeed an understatement!” exclaims a fellow traveler, sinking to all fours for traction.

However, making up for the precarious stance on the narrow perch is the magnificent 360-degree panorama. The Missouri River valley glistens with the green of native prairie vegetation punctuated with the purple hue of violets and the yellow vibrancy of dandelions. Bur oak and eastern red cedar forests grow in gaping ravines. Bluestem and Indian grasses wave gracefully over the 14,000- to 30,000-year-old deposits of silt.

“A number of the plants here are more typically found in western states,” points out Chafa, “and for most of them, the Loess Hills is the only place in Iowa you’ll find them.” As if to confirm that statement, a yucca plant pops into view.

Many of the slopes bear evidence of extensive tree cutting. “There’s been a lot of collaboration and partnering by individuals and agencies to return these slopes to their original prairie state in order to preserve the system and in turn, the organisms, plant and insect life,” explains Chafa of the treeless, grass-strewn hillsides. “To clear them, we’ve been employing fire and mechanical cutting. The land has an amazing ability to heal itself and by helping it in this way, it will become biologically diverse once again.”