I left Omaha on a highway that cut through cornfields neatly trimmed with white wooden fences, all glimmering in the breeze. Vaguely rolling hills, soft and green, surrounded me. It seemed everyone in these parts had SUVs or pickup trucks. Soon I passed a Christmas tree farm called Santa’s Woods.
I was looking for the city of Blair and found “Dana College” painted on the town’s water tower. I went directly to Black Elk-Neihardt Park to see the Tower of the Four Winds, designed by Dana College professor F.W. Thomsen. Built to promote world peace, brotherhood and humanity, it portrays the message of Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux holy man and visionary. He is said to have envisioned a radiant person with outstretched arms in a blessing to all people, standing in front of the tree of life. The 45-foot tower, made from native rock and covered with a 50,000 piece mosaic, represents the messiah-like figure of Black Elk’s vision.
Several trails crisscrossed the 80 acres of rolling hills in the park. They included a paved trail with pedestal mosaics by Prof. Thomsen depicting Native-American descriptions of north, south, east and west.
I took a pleasant and breezy stroll around the park in a happy start to my morning. At the “heights,” I had some views of flat Nebraska.
I then crossed the Missouri River into Iowa, where I entered the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1958, it encompasses land in both Iowa and Nebraska. It lies on the wide plain formed by prehistoric flooding and shifting of the Missouri River. The Refuge’s primary purpose is to serve as a stopover for migrating ducks and geese. Peak populations of 50,000 or more ducks, mostly mallards, are common on the refuge during the fall migration.
The seven-mile-long lake that is the heart of the refuge was once a hazardous bend in the Missouri River. The DeSoto Bend got its name from the nearby river town of DeSoto.
Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery traveled through this area in 1804 and 1806. They set up camp along DeSoto Bend after meeting with Indians at “council bluff” (according to William Clark’s journal) on August 3, 1804.
I looked around the Visitor’s Center, including the goods scavenged from the Steamboat Bertrand, which sank on April 1, 1865.
By the mid-1800s, the Missouri River had become an artery for trade that opened the West. Steamboats carried supplies to the early fur trading posts, frontier settlements, and mining towns. But the turbulent, snag-infested “Big Muddy” took its toll on the early stern and side-wheelers. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, more than 400 steamboats sank or were stranded between St. Louis, Missouri and Fort Benton, Montana.
When the Bertrand sank on April 1, 1865, the Missouri River quickly covered the boat in mud. In 1968, the boat and its cargo were discovered on the refuge and unearthed the following year. The Center holds over 250,000 artifacts from the shipwrecked steamboat.
The cargo contained all manner of goods needed for the new Montana Territory, gold mines, logging camps, farms and households. Aside from tools and equipment, even food items and clothing were recovered from the boat. Remarkably preserved, the cargo provided a unique time capsule for researchers.
There were also displays about local history and wildlife at the Visitor’s Center. As the land here was opened up by riverboats, pioneers settled in the area and changed the land to suit their needs. Croplands replaced the meadows of Bluestem and Indiangrass, and native animals were sometimes displaced along with the plants. Today, the Refuge is working to restore pieces of prairie.
The lure of gold along the upper reaches of the Missouri produced a major boom in the middle 1860s. By 1865, eager fortune seekers swarmed over the hills and panned in streams. The activities of miners often produced devastated landscapes, sterile mine dumps, and foul water that killed native fish and made streams unfit for drinking by man or animal. Some mining techniques washed entire hillsides into the valley below, destroying wildlife habitat and polluting mountain streams with silt and other sediments.
Towns in the region became focal points for settlements. Sometimes entire towns sprang up almost overnight on what had once been limitless prairie or wooded river bluffs. The building of a town had much the same effect on wildlife as the activities of the farmer and miner.
I watched the film at the refuge then drove through part of the refuge and took a walk on the Grasslands trail (3/4 mile), where I saw a variety of grasses, goldenrod, and other yellow flowers that looked like rudbeckia – yellow petals with brown faces. Critters kept skittering across the trail in front of me, but they were so fast I couldn’t tell if they were lizards, grasshoppers or tiny frogs. I heard a commotion in a pine tree and saw three large raccoons scampering up the tree. Lots of action in these wetlands!
I left the wildlife refuge close to 11:00 a.m. and headed to Fort Atkinson State Historical Park.
*Thursday, September 5, 2019*