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Omaha Magazine

Rediscovering the Platte

Sep 03, 2014 09:00AM ● By Doug Meigs

Three hundred years after Europeans first documented the Platte River, I push a canoe into the current and head downstream. The two-day excursion takes us back in time to a French explorer’s arrival.

We depart from Two Rivers State Park near Waterloo. The Platte is high and rising, due to flooding on the Elkhorn. Floating logs and debris rush past. The foamy water surface resembles a road of chocolate milk, draining the riparian woodlands of eastern Nebraska.

Huge cottonwoods and willows stand sentry along the Platte’s swollen banks. Leafy branches stretch high into a clear blue sky. A steady south wind blows 30 mph against the current, shaking the shoreline’s long green wall.

Storms filled the weekly weather forecast. Rains would continue every day, except for a sweltering two-day window during midweek. We set out on a Tuesday. The tri-centennial of Bourgmont’s arrival at the mouth of the Platte—the day prior—had just passed with little fanfare.

Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont led a small French expedition to map the uncharted Missouri River and establish friendly trading relations with Native tribes along the waterway. His journey was part redemption. He had deserted his military post at Fort Pontchartrain in Detroit, and had allegedly eloped with a fellow officer’s wife for a life in the wilderness. The Governor of Louisiana, Sieur de Cadillac (for whom the car takes its name) offered to pardon Bourgmont in exchange for assistance. The 35-year-old voyageur from Normandy accepted 

Cadillac’s challenge.

Bourgmont came as far as the Platte. His round-trip journey upstream from the Mississippi River took half the year. Our present-day canoe trip is far less arduous. This is an expedition of rediscovery.

I grew up in Omaha. My great-grandparents farmed along the Platte. As a kid, I spent countless summers playing on the river’s shifting sandbars. Yet, never before had I visited the mouth of the Platte. The river remains essential to all life in Nebraska. But its significance for many local residents has shrunken to a roadside landmark. For many, it simply demarcates the halfway point between Omaha and Lincoln on I-80.

Today, the Platte offers some of Omaha’s most convenient nature destinations. Parts of the river feel almost pristine (except when pesky airboats spoil the ambiance with their jet-engine roars). Nearby Platte parks include Two Rivers, Mahoney, Schramm, Platte River State Park, Louisville State Recreation Area, Schilling Wildlife Management Area, and more.

As I paddle into the wind, trying to maintain course in the main channel, I wonder how anyone could have navigated upstream. Then my mind wanders, tangled in the drifting scenery.

A bald eagle takes flight from a nearby branch, circling overhead. A spotted fawn startles back into the shadowy woods. Two beavers stampede from the underbrush, kerplunking underwater like a couple of cannonballs.

Civilization is nowhere to be seen until an hour after Two Rivers. Then a lone camper trailer appears on the far shore. A few more hours pass. Bridges emerges on the horizon. Eventually we paddle underneath. A feathered spectacle appears.

Swallows flutter from hundreds of mud nests. Their homes hang on inaccessible sides of the bridge. The birds bring a smile to our faces. Then we remember. Our final destination—Bourgmont’s arrival point—still requires more than a day of paddling.

When he arrived at the mouth of the Platte, Bourgmont met the Otoe tribe living along the river’s confluence with the Missouri. The Frenchman asked what they called the river. Nibraskier, they replied in the Otoe language, “Flat Water.”

“This is the first recorded mention of the name that was to become attached to the state,” says Harlan Seyfer, the town historian of Plattsmouth.

Seyfer has researched Bourgmont since 2010, when he accepted his non-paying historian position at Plattsmouth city hall. Seyfer realized that the 300th anniversary was approaching, so he wrote two academic papers for the Missouri Valley Historical Conference, and he began planning a weekend celebration for the milestone with fellow history buffs.

Bourgmont wrote in his navigation logs: “Saturday 16 (June, 1714) travelled north one league; at the start an island of half a league; to the west a prairie of one league, at the end of which the river of the Pawnee (the Platte River) is found. Its mouth is wider than the Missouri at that point. About 30 leagues up this river are 10 villages of the Indians called the Pawnees.”

The Platte’s nom du jour entered usage only after a subsequent French expedition. “It wasn’t until 1739 that the Platte got its current name (La Rivière Platte, or simply, the Platte),” Seyfer says. “The Mallet brothers—Paul and Pierre—met the same Otoe Indians, and asked for the name of the river. The Otoe again said Nibraskier. Well, what does that mean? The Mallet brothers, being French, translated “Flat” into Platte.”

Nibraskier didn’t merely translate into the Platte River. The waterway has literally and geographically defined the state. Its braided channels and twisting sandbars originate in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and Colorado, and extend across Nebraska via the North and South Platte rivers. The two branches converge at North Platte and continue downstream through their aptly named river valley. All of Nebraska’s interstate traffic travels the same corridor, hence the state’s undeserved reputation for pancake-like topography.

Around Omaha, the river frames the western and southern boundaries of the metropolitan area. When the Platte cuts south, it slices off some of Omaha’s biggest street names. Maple, Dodge, Pacific, and Center halt in the river’s buffer woodlands, levees, and trailer parks. Past the I-80 bridge, the river curves again before emptying into the Missouri near Plattsmouth. Ultimately, Nebraska and Nibraskier both end at the mouth of the Platte.

Back in the 18th Century, Seyfer says the mouth of the Platte would have stretched for a mile and a half. The Missouri River was likewise much wider (by a multiple of four) and much slower (before modern channelization). “We’ve tamed things down considerably,” he says.

Bourgmont observed huge buffalo herds in the area. But they vanished long ago. Gold Rushers, Mormons, and pioneers would use the river for westward navigation. Nebraska towns (including Omaha) built wells to siphon the river. Nebraska corn farmers remain dependent on the Platte for irrigation. Damming the river in Colorado and Wyoming, and at Lake McConaughy in Nebraska, has further stymied the river’s natural flow.

Meanwhile, the Platte has sunken flatter and lower. Segments of the river sometimes go completely dry. “We love the Platte so much, we’re loving it to death,” says Gene Zuerlein, a planning administrator for Nebraska Game and Parks.

Zuerlein says that Nebraska is currently working with Wyoming and Colorado to raise the Platte’s flow to avoid periods when the river runs completely dry in central Nebraska.

The Platte is changing always. During summertime, it dries to a sandy ribbon stretching the entirety of Nebraska. But spring snowmelt and storms transform the waterway into a gushing torrent.

During our trip, the river is unusually high. We skirt along levees made from giant tractor tires and piles of broken concrete. We pass dense underbrush and sunken trees. The gnarled roots of giant cottonwoods, caught on some hidden obstruction, protrude from the water like bony, white claws.

Logjams clog underneath bridges, forming white-water chutes. Our canoe snags at one especially blocked bridge span near Platte River State Park. But we escape without harm.

After eight hours of paddling into the wind, we reach the Louisville SRA. The one-day route might take anywhere from 6-12 hours depending on river conditions.

We unpack the canoe and pitch camp as the sun dips below the flat-water horizon with a tangerine blaze. The park superintendent, Patrick Bogenreif, stops by on his evening inspection. He offers a ride to the main office to pay for the campsite.

Bogenreif has been canoeing the Platte ever since his days studying animal science and agronomy at UNL. His friends would rent canoes and float to Louisville from Two Rivers. Then he bought his own canoe, and he’s still using it.

“Just last week, I took my grandson out in the old canoe,” he says, from behind the steering wheel of his pickup. “The river was down to about 3.5 feet, and we had to work hard paddling to find a channel deep enough.”

Today, the river has surpassed six feet. The Platte is even higher downstream, Bogenreif says, warning us that the flooding Missouri has submerged boat ramps near the mouth of the Platte. By the weekend, the river depth at Louisville would rise above eight feet, its highest level since the 2011 Missouri flood.

“From ice out until mid-April, the Platte can be too high to canoe today and fine tomorrow; just make sure to check the river level (at the National Weather Service website) and you’ll be fine,” he says. “When the river is below five feet, it’s very safe. Wear a life jacket, and make sure your kids wear a life jacket. However, when it gets above five feet, you’d better be experienced.”

Back at camp, we cook dinner on a propane stove. Fireflies blink across the darkening shadows. Soon, our bodies crash into a deep slumber.

Aching arms and clear skies soon greet us. Fluffy cottonwood seeds float through the park like fairy dust. We reload our canoe and push back on course. Only four hours remain until the final destination.

Splash! A creature jumps from the water. A ten-pound carp hits me in the shoulder. Then it disappears. For a moment, I don’t know what happened. Then the scaly surprise repeats. Large fish are jumping at us, into the canoe, bouncing out, flipping and flopping. Asian Carp.

The invasive species has spread up the Missouri and into the Lower Platte. We had startled one Asian Carp on our first day of canoeing. We see more than a dozen during the second day, as we try to keep our course close to the right/south bank in preparation for exiting at the Schilling Wildlife Management Area.

After the Highway 75 bridge, the Platte grows rough, back-feeding. White-capped waves increase in frequency. We crowd the shore and travel slowly, searching anxiously for an exit. Then we spot a flooded trail. We squeeze around the leafy tops of sunken trees. I pull the canoe ashore right at the mouth of the Platte.

Three hundred years ago, Bourgmont lingered around the mouth of the Platte to gather information about the different area tribes. Then he went back down the Missouri. He was rewarded with a grand title, “Commandant of the Missouri River.” He did some further adventuring in the Midwest, exploring Kansas, before retiring with an estate in his French homeland.

I wave to a passing vehicle. He stops and gets out, unable to believe we just canoed down the river. “The water is over 15-feet-high right now,” he says. “Yesterday, I called in a search-and-rescue for a fishing boat on the far shore.”

Uprooted tree trunks are zipping downstream just 100 yards ahead on the Missouri River. The buoys and signs that normally identify the approaching Missouri are all underwater. The fisherman points to an especially massive tree floating past. “If you had gotten onto the Missouri right now in that canoe, you would’ve been screwed,” he says.

The passerby is an avid fisherman scouting his favorite catfishing spots. Like most Nebraskans, this is the first time he’s heard of Bourgmont.

Bourgmont’s navigational logs eventually headed to Paris, where a cartographer transferred them into maps by hand. The maps were never published. Instead, they landed in the French national archives, where Plattsmouth historian Harlan Seyfer says they were lost until 1969.

Settled safely upon dry land, I reconnect to the modern era. I turn on my smartphone. I snap a screenshot of our Google Maps location. I send it to the person en route who will give us a ride home.

A mere 30 minutes on the road take us back where we started. After two days on the Platte, we carry a greater appreciation for 300 years along the river, the Nibraskier, the Cornhusker State’s flat-water namesake.

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