2 days in Omaha – Musicians and Keel Boats

I was in Omaha, tired but happy. The morning air held a slight chill that reminded me it was now September. Upon exiting my tent I found Janet making breakfast at the picnic table of our shared campsite. We hadn’t had much time to get to know each other the night before among the large group of Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage members. I sat down ready to compare river stories.

As Janet made coffee in her french press I sipped on a much less impressive mug of instant brew. Travelling by boats gives you the option to carry some luxury items that would have to be left behind on a backpacking trip. An extra ten pounds is barely noticeable among 100 pounds in a boat. It was clear that Janet was taking full advantage of this fact as she sorted through her library of books that was kept in a sealed five gallon bucket. After all, her trip was 1300 miles longer than mine so more creature comforts were necessary.

Stories of storms, mud, upset animals, and long days were shared. We also compared notes on the greatest sunsets, the virtues of time on isolated lakes and the comfort that can be found in solo travel. However, we agreed most strongly on people’s seemingly irrational fear of the river. Both of us had been warned about some killer aspect of the river by practically everyone we encountered. People have a penchant for the bombastic aspects of the Missouri. More recently we had been warned, “Watch out for those barges, they’ll suck you under and they throw a big wake.” Before that it was warnings about the indians like we were travelling through undiscovered lands. Preceding that were the HUGE wind and waves of the big lakes, the “rapids,” the rattlesnakes, floating trees, dams, quicksand, and the list goes on and on. Oh, did I mention the HUGE waves on the big lakes? We weren’t sure why people seem so afraid of the Missouri. It seemed to us that if you go out prepared the river is a perfectly safe place to recreate. It must be the stories of drunk or uninformed people getting caught off guard that the media surely replays incessantly.

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Mary Langhorst arrived in the afternoon with lunch and a truck to transport Janet’s stuff back to the boat ramp so she could paddle on as I took two days rest. We got everything transported and the packing process began. Janet’s boat is like a puzzle. Each bag has its own spot, sometimes supporting other bags in their place. I have the advantage of being able to use a small number of large bags and just strapping them down. Janet strategically stuffed bags into every nook and cranny of her kayak, Blue Moon.

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Off she floated and into the city I went. Mary drove me to the National Park Service building to pick up some packages I had shipped there. It was better than Christmas. Most importantly, I got a loaned sleeping pad from Thermarest since mine was leaking air which made for some uncomfortable nights. I was then dropped off in an area of Omaha known as the “Old Market” where I wandered through the streets and shops during a busy Labor Day.

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Alma Royster, founder of an Omaha SUP company named Meander, picked me up from Old Market and took me to an outdoor store called Backwoods. She had been following my trip and organized an event at the store for me to show a couple videos and talk about my trip. It would also hopefully help build interest in the sport locally. Alma was busy building her brand and getting people on boards at nearby lakes. If you are in the Omaha area, Alma would love to take you out for a SUP lesson. Also check out their line of boards

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It was a fun evening with an attentive crowd. Alma drove me back to my campsite 20 miles south of the city and I figured I’d relax and read in my tent. It being the Monday of Labor Day, the campground had cleared out by the time I left in the afternoon. I was a bit surprised to find that new RV’s filled the small park when I returned. As I was getting settled a gentleman came over to ask about my board. He had wondered how I arrived since there was no car at my site and was quite taken aback when I told him. Turns out he was part of a large group of musicians, made up of smaller groups, who were on their way back for a large folk festival in Iowa.

I found myself sitting around a campfire as about 9 people of varying age strummed their instruments and sang beautiful folk songs. The fire glowed off their carefully crafted wood instruments for a few hours while the musicians took turns singing. Yet another great unexpected, off-river experience.

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One of the LCTH Foundation members, Kira Gale, came to get me the next morning. She wanted to take me about 80 miles north to meet the foremost expert on building Lewis and Clark replica keel boats and to take one out for a ride. On the way we stopped off at her house for a breakfast of fruit smoothies as she showed me her vast library. When Kira got her first computer years earlier she decided she wanted a project which eventually led her to becoming an American historian.

With lunch packed we headed on the road. The drive passed quickly as we discussed the current state of technology. Unlike many of her generation she has jumped head first into learning and utilizing much of today’s technology. Her outlook on the world was refreshing. She would say things like, “Isn’t the world just wonderful,” many times during our day together. Always looking for something new to learn, she has begun learning video editing techniques and has a local film student come over once a week to tutor her.

From our talk of modern advances we arrived at a place set 200 years prior. We were at the Lewis and Clark State Park in Iowa which is situated on an oxbow lake. An oxbow lake is formed when a wide meander from the main channel of a river is cut off to create a lake (wikipedia). This means that the 60 foot keel boat that was tied to the dock was floating in water that was once part of the Missouri River.

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Butch Bouvier the boat builder and his friend Russell Field arrived to take us out on the water. The many-ton wooden beast was powered away from the dock by a 50 hp engine that was mounted inside where the captain quarters were on the original boat. We quietly cruised up and down the lake at a speed probably not exceeding 3 mph. The fact that people pushed and pulled these boats upstream is simply amazing. When I took a hand at the helm I felt first hand how long it took to initiate a turn.

We floated under a perfect blue sky and sat beneath the shade of a canvas canopy. I asked Butch a bunch of questions he has probably answered a million times. Butch was a relaxed, white-bearded historian that chose to tell history through the creation of these massive crafts. He talked about how his path hasn’t always been easy but he doesn’t waste his days and he doesn’t talk about what he is gonna do but goes out and does it.

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The experience was well worth the drive and I was thankful Kira was so eager to take me. We headed back to old market to grab a drink as I waited to meet up with someone who contacted me back on my second day on the river. Shawn McIlnay learned about me through a CLCboats.com newsletter and wanted to take me to dinner. Over a meal we talked about the opportunities to get on the water around Omaha and Shawn’s plans for building the Kaholo paddleboard kit he ordered. It was great to finally meet him after having his name written down in my phone’s reminders for three months.

After I got dropped off at the campground I went to hang out with the folk musicians for a second night. Although instruments were in many of their hands we just sat around talking for several hours. I joked that I was hoping they would walk along shore and play their instruments as I travelled down the river.

As I packed up to hit the water in the morning the group came over to offer any assistance and inform me that they had written a song for me! The song was titled, “Scott Will Paddle,” and was set to the tune of, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” I stood back and listened while not believing it was happening. Never had I expected to be written a song, especially after a chance encounter with a random group of people. Guitar strings were plucked and voices sang out in the late morning air.

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Mary arrived at the campground to help transport my stuff to the dock. She had been more than welcoming to me while I was in Omaha and I’m very thankful to her for her support. The musicians came down to see me off, most with an instrument in hand. I bid farewell to everyone with a thankfulness that couldn’t touch my actual gratitude for the moment. The current carried me away from this great group of people and distance slowly faded the lyrics to my song as they sang it again. “Scott will paddle his boat on down the Missouri, Scott will paddle his boat on down the Missouri, Built with his own hands, Built with his own hands, From Three Forks to Old St. Lou, From Three Forks to Old St. Lou…”

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