On the other hand 100 miles of the Platte River ran dry (in Nebraska), and that’s worrisome, especially this early in the season. I was born and raised along the headwaters of the Platte in the Colorado Front Range. It’s the major river of the central plains, draining everything from the Front Range to the Snowy Range to the Rattlesnake Range, from Denver to Laramie to Casper and eastward to its confluence with the Big Muddy Missouri below Omaha. The Platte River is not supposed to run dry. It receives waters from some of the major ranges of the Rocky Mountains and also the famously rich Oglala Aquifer of Nebraska.
“I wonder what the bottom of the river looks like?” This is one of the most often repeated curiosities our clients press upon us as we’re floating along and buoyed by the bosom of the biggest river this side of the globe, the beautiful and mysterious Lower Mississippi River. After the summer of 2012, we’ll be able to answer succinctly and with personal knowledge.
We are learning exactly what the bottom of the river looks like. And we don’t even need diving gear. Over one century ago James B. Eads walked the bottom of the river in a special diving bell he invented and learned it better than anyone before or since. But this year U.S. river runners don’t need any life-support system. We simply make a canoe or kayak or SUP landing and start walking!
It’s a history lesson. It's biology (mostly dead stuff). It's geology. It's a class in river bottom geomorphology. Our walk takes us up and down endless dunes and layers of mud and sand and gravel, and small plankton pools full of flopping fish or their carcasses, and turtle tracks, and the remains of feasts of bald eagles and coyotes littering the shore line, and through the evidence of ancient forests, and alongside strange eruptions of blue and green mud, and blue logs now exposed and disintegrating in the presence of oxygen UV rays, and fields of driftwood and trash, and in between beams, posts and rotting piers and amongst barge wrecks and steamboat wrecks and through jumbled slabs of wood, things long covered by water are now unveiled, the bottoms of landings, the tops of lost dredges, and even the RV that disappeared last year at Natchez-Under-the-Hill!
Everywhere we stop and walk and explore and play will eventually be covered up again in sliding layers of muddy water. The river is low now, but it will of course rise again as it always does.
If you stay on the paved highway you won’t see it. If you stay on the gravel road you’ll miss it. If you stay on any road it can’t be accessed. If you stay on the “Great River Road,” you will see only gasping forests and glimpses of sand. But if you get on the “Real River Road,” you will see the rest of the story. Your road reaches only the high places. But our road goes wherever the water goes. And this year the real river road is low, low, low!
As paddlers we of course have to stop wherever the water allows us to stop. And so we have been ending up on the edges of the long slivers of sand reaching out way out above and below the islands, the low water sequestering blue holes, mud holes, and making inlets along a ragged jigsaw shoreline longer and more tattered then the Maine shoreline (if you added up all of the zigzag shoreline on all of the islands and channel in between St. Louis and the Gulf of Mexico).