Knife River - The Setting

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Aerial View, Winter 2000

Reconstructed Fort Mandan

Fort Mandan from the air

A late winter snow squall has dusted the leafless cottonwood trees and the dormant grainfields. The triangular structure at photo center is a replica of Fort Mandan built by local volunteers in 1972. It is two miles via good roads from the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center at Washburn, North Dakota. The original site of the fort, where no remains have ever been found, was about fifteen miles up the Missouri from here, closer to the mouth of the Knife River. Access to it is discouraged.

The two ranks of cottonwood trees, which take root a short distance from water, mark the shifting of the river's course over a period of many years. Annually, those snow-covered sand bars are submerged by the spring freshet. When the high water recedes, they will have been moved and reshaped by the river's current. The Corps of Discovery often used the ice-covered river as a travel route, but the Missouri has not frozen solid in this vicinity within the past fifty years, mostly because the dams upstream—chiefly Garrison Dam, 35 miles away, and Fort Peck Dam 382 miles above that—have changed the temperature and velocity of the river's current.