There's a saying among farmers who plant crops in the Missouri River flood plain—"You never know whether you're going to harvest corn or catfish." All rivers do it sometimes, in some places, but the unchastened Missouri won countless springtime championships in its time. Still does, as Jim Peterson's photo, above, proves. Every spring, when the freshet rises the Missouri begins to dance—sashaying from bank to bank through the yielding flood plain. It pushes hard and hurriedly against one bank, while slowing and settling on the other. The dance may last, with diminishing flourishes, until the end of summer.
Mark Twain put it as well as anyone ever has. He speaks here of the Mississippi, but the Missouri deserves his eloquence too: It is "a just and equitable river; it never tumbles one man's farm overboard without building a new farm just like it for that man's neighbor. This keeps down hard feelings."1
Frequently, the dangers of collapsing banks were worsened by combinations of other impediments—strong wind, swift current, shifting sands, trees and debris precipitated into the river. On one occasion (June 15, 1804) the Corps "passed thro a verry bad part of the river, the wost moveing Sands I ever Saw, the Current So Strong that the Ours [oars] and Sales under a Stiff bresse Cld. not Stem it, we wre oblged to use a toe rope, under a bank Constantly falling." On the night of September 21, 1804, they barely survived an even worse situation. Clark wrote:
at half past one oClock this morning the Sand bar on which we Camped began to under mind and give way which allarmed the Sergeant on Guard, the motion of the boat awakened me; I get up & by the light of the moon observed that the land had given away both above and below our Camp & was falling in fast. I ordered all hands on as quick as possible & pushed off, we had pushed off but a few minets before the bank under which the Boat & perogus lay give way, which would Certainly have Sunk both Perogues, by the time we made the opsd. Shore our Camp fell in.
Jim Peterson shot this view of the Missouri River eating away the edge of a Nebraska cornfield opposite Vermillion, South Dakota, in August of 1994.
- 1. Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 203.