Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Arkansas River - 4

Photo credit: wikipedia
From 1800-1814, French fur traders established a healthy business by going up the river with whatever trade goods appealed to the native tribes, exchanging them for furs, which they brought south for shipment mainly to Europe. The age of the steamboat began to dawn about 1814. Until then, river cargo was handled mostly upstream by canoe or pirogues (hollowed out logs), and downstream in flatboats and keelboats. The latter two were temporary vessels intended to last only long enough to deliver the freight down river. They were then broken up for building materials or scrap.

Two keelboats, one being poled and one under sail, passing a flatboat.
Photo credit: wikipedia
Jean Pierre Chouteau and his brother Auguste (a graduate of the recently established West Point Military Academy), were French Creole fur traders, merchants, and later, politicians, who amassed both wealth and influence through the new Louisiana territory from New Orleans to St. Louis and west. As early as 1796, Jean Pierre had established an alliance with several thousand Osage that called for them to move to the Three Forks area to develop a fur trade there. In 1802, Jean Pierre established the first trading post and permanent white settlement along the Arkansas River in Oklahoma at the junction of the Neosho River (previously called the Grand River) and Saline Creek, which is now Salina, OK. Indians boiled water from a spring south of the post to obtain salt, and Chouteau obtained the salt springs in 1825 through a treaty with the Osage, and turned the property around in 1830 when he sold the springs to Sam Houston, a friend of Washington Irving. In 1819, Auguste Chouteau established a boatyard at the Three Forks, near Fort Gibson, or present-day Muskogee, OK. Boats from his yard were 50-60 feet long, and could carry 50 tons of freight.

I found a historical disagreement concerning the Chouteau’s. One source credits Jean Pierre with establishing Salina, another gives the credit to Auguste. I’m not a historian, but everything seems to say Jean Pierre was in the area first, so I’d lean his way. Since they were both eventually there and working together, it probably doesn’t make much difference. Also, there’s enough credit to go around. After all, it was their father, Rene A. Chouteau, who had founded St. Louis. Across the Neosho River from Salina, and a bit southwest, is the town of Chouteau, OK, also named for the brothers. It was originally a cattle town made prosperous by the Katy railroad starting in 1871, and called Cody Creek after a stream that flowed north of town. Both the name of the creek and the town were changed to Chouteau, again reflecting the wealth and influence the family was amassing along the upper Three Forks area. Jean Pierre’s son, August Pierre, called A.P., continued the family business in Salina and established another post along the Verdigris River and others along the Mississippi. His son, Pierre, who was called Cadet, continued the expanding business until around 1850, by which time the railroads had created a steady decline in river trade. He then moved to New York to diversify the family’s wealth into steamboats, railroads, and mining.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Arkansas River - 3

The further I dig into the history of the Arkansas River, the more interested I become. The navigable segment of the river ceases to be just a 444-mile stretch of water, but takes on character and personality. While it’s just a slight glimpse into the lives of those that came to and developed the lands along the river, I know the experience of paddling the river will become that much richer.

The attack on Arkansas Post on 11 Jan. 1863, by Union ironclads
and 33,000 infantry and cavalry.
Photo credit:
In 1682, Henry de Tonty (or Henri de Tonti) became friendly with the Native Americans around the confluence of the Arkansas with the Mississippi, and built a fort he named “Poste Aux Arcansas,” the first white settlement in the Louisiana Territory, and which is now Arkansas Post. There were technically four Arkansas Posts, as the forts were moved about to positions more defensible from attack. An Arkansas State Park is now at the location of the original fort. The only skirmish of the Revolutionary War to occur west of the Mississippi, took place at Arkansas Post in 1783. In 1819, Arkansas Post would become the capital of the Arkansas Territory. Arkansas Post figured again in the Civil War when Fort Hindman was built there. Military operations from there were successful enough in disrupting Union communications and supply lines that it warranted a Union attack on January 11, 1863, as a prelude to the attack on Vicksburg. The Confederate forces were forced to surrender, and the fort was destroyed, unfortunately along with all remaining structures from the French and Spanish historical periods.

After the Revolutionary War, George Washington was especially concerned with the possibility of Britain, Spain and France trying to lay claims to the rivers and thus the surrounding lands in the Western Territories. He created what became the basis for our navigable waterway laws with the Ordinance of 1787. This stated that “the navigable waters leading into the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence shall be common highways and forever free, as well to the inhabitants of said territories as to the citizens of the United States, without any impost, tax, or duty.”


Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Arkansas River - 2

Hernando deSoto
Credit: wikipedia
The Arkansas River changes it face several times while it travels east-south-east from the Rockies. It drops an amazing 11,400 feet along its length, beginning as a torrent that falls 5,000 feet in its first 125 miles. It begins near the town of Leadville, Colorado, and runs its way through the major cities of Pueblo, CO; Wichita, KS; Tulsa, OK; and Fort Smith and Little Rock, AR.

The Arkansas River basin was a focal point for the exploration and development of the Plains region. Credit for finding the Arkansas and first naming it goes to Coronado, but the main reason is he kept better records to document his travels. Another famous name from the time was Hernando de Soto, who miraculously was in the same area the same year, 1541. They were in different areas of the Arkansas however. Coronado crossed the river near present Dodge City, KS, at a point commonly used by Native Americans and buffalo herds for fording the river . DeSoto followed the river south and crossed near present Arkansas Post, before again turning north in search of the Indian city of Coliqua near present Little Rock.

DeSoto had begun his expedition by landing at present day Shaw’s Point, Bradenton, Florida, in May 1539. Arriving with nine ships, he put 220 horses and 620 men ashore for an exploration north and west. By winter, they had reached the head of Apalachee Bay, and the area of the Aucilla and Ochlockonee Rivers. Archeological evidence has confirmed that the DeSoto expedition wintered-over about a mile east of present Tallahassee. In the spring, they continued into Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas. On May 8,1541, deSoto’s men became the first Europeans to cross the Mississippi River near Memphis. He wintered along the Arkansas River. A year later, May 21, 1542, deSoto died from a fever on the west bank of the Mississippi River near McArthur, Arkansas. While his remains were never found, writings by members of the expedition indicate his remains are believed to be in Lake Chicot, at Lake Village, Arkansas. From a historical perspective, deSoto’s expedition is considered a failure. His documentation was weak, his men managed to spread disease among the native populations, and they created hostile relations with any Native Americans they encountered.


Monday, September 24, 2012

The Arkansas River

The Port of Catoosa, America's Most Inland Port
After getting sick on one trip, and having shoulder trouble on another, I swore I wouldn’t make projections, or predictions, about what trips I was going to do, but this is a definite trip already in the planning book.

The Arkansas River has 18 locks and dams, 5 in Oklahoma and 13 in Arkansas, that drop the river level 420 feet before it reaches the Mississippi River. This navigable portion is roughly 444 miles from Catoosa, OK, to the Mississippi. That leaves a mere 599 miles of the Mississippi remaining before reaching the Gulf. I’ll leave that segment for another trip. If you count the entire river from the Colorado snow pack, it is 1,469 miles long. The Arkansas River is one of the five largest rivers in the U.S., and the longest tributary of the Lower Mississippi.

The first accounts of the Arkansas River come from the expedition journals of Spanish conquistador and explorer, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. He lead an expedition north from Mexico between 1540 and 1542, and traveled through what would become Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The force he lead included 400 Europeans, 4 Franciscan monks, and up to 2,000 Mexican Indian allies. When he reached the Arkansas, he named it the St. Peter and St. Paul River. That horribly lengthy miscarriage was corrected by early French traders that renamed it the Akansa, after the American Indian tribes that lived along the river.

After the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty, the Arkansas River formed the boundary between the United States and Spanish Mexico. That border existed until the Mexican-American War of 1846 and the annexation of Texas. Later, the Santa Fe Trail ran west along the Arkansas River.

Through the 19th century, the Arkansas was rarely navigable above Fort Smith, Arkansas. During the 20th century, the water levels in the river continued to drop as water was drawn off by farmers along its course for irrigation purposes. To correct this problem, the creation of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System opened the river to navigation to the Port of Catoosa, near Tulsa, OK, making it the most inland commercial port in the United States. The waterway, named after the two Democratic Senators, one each from Oklahoma and Arkansas, who worked to advance the proposal through Congress. The waterway was to include the lower portion of the Verdigris River, the Arkansas, and a short segment of the White River before its confluence with the Mississippi. Construction was begun in 1963 and the waterway opened to commercial traffic in 1971.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

St. Johns River Revisited

Manatee swimming in Blue Spring.
Photo credit: wikipedia
I have a couple other trips I’m looking at, but probably none require as much forethought as the St. Johns River. Part of it is because it’s so far away for me, and because conditions there change so quickly. I first planned to do the St. Johns during the latter part of 2010. If you’re interested in such a trip, I did reviews of the best two books on the subject in November and December of 2010---River of Lakes and the St. Johns River Guidebook. Both are interesting reads even if you do most of your paddling from an armchair. The St. Johns River Water Management District offered two pieces of advice that shaped my planning. The first was to do the trip between New Years and mid-March. Before this is hunting season when most of the camping sites are reserved, and after is when the bug population comes back to life and bull alligators get horny, mean, and fearless. However, it was a later bit of news that put the trip on hold. There had been so little rain in the upper river that it had dried out, and people were doing the river on ATV’s.

With a tropical storm and several heavy rain storms the last month or so, the upper river level is back up, and most of the conversation in the area has turned to fishing rather than drought, so I’ve dusted off the planning notebook. It’s actually quite a bit more involved than dusting off a file. I’ve had to pretty much go over everything. The entire trip has been run three times so far on paper to double check GPS positions, maps and charts, making changes to add new information and remove dated material. Then I ran the whole trip again to measure all distances between points. For planning purposes on the water, this helps improve decision-making near the end of the day to meet existing conditions. If it’s been a tough day, we may decide an earlier than planned stop is in order, or if we have a following wind and are feeling good, perhaps we may decide to pack in a few more miles. Knowing the distance to each potential stopping place is invaluable at that point. Getting caught out after dark on some reaches of the river is not an option.

The entire river from Blue Cypress Lake to the ocean inlet at Jacksonville Beach is 310 miles along the channel. However, I’d like to add a couple interesting side trips that are recommended as highlights of the experience, such as the Wekiva and Econlockhatchie Rivers, Jessup and Crescent Lakes, and Haw Creek at the bottom of Crescent Lake, which together total roughly 415 miles if we end the trip at Palatka. Continuing to the ocean would add another 80-90 miles.

The river is loaded with history. For example, Haw Creek is where the Confederates scuttled a couple ships to keep them from falling into the hands of Northern troops during the Civil War. They were raised after the war and put back in service, but seeing where such history took place is exciting. Also exciting is the opportunity to see areas that have changed little since Native American tribes lived along the river thousands of years ago. One author said that the St. Johns River is North America’s Amazon, and just as interesting.

All of this anticipation and excitement now has to remain on hold to see if there’s still water in the river in January.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Say It Like It Is!

Do you find yourself getting frustrated by all the things that get in the way of what you would really prefer to be doing? Does getting time on the water seem to be impossible to achieve, but thousands of other things pile on you like an avalanche? Does saying what’s on your mind seem impolite? Well, you don’t have to be Dr. John Becker to speak your mind, so put it out there!

Caf├ęPress enables you to design your own shirts to suit your message. I was lucky enough to fall on a two-for-one sale, and was looking for a bright chartreuse safety shirt to use either paddling or biking for greater visibility. These arrived about an hour ago. Now can I be any clearer?

Monday, September 3, 2012


Cover photo credit:
Kabloona, by Gontran de Poncins (Reynal & Hitchcock, Inc., New York, 1941, 339 pp.)

To answer the obvious question, kabloona is an Eskimo word for white man. The book was published in 1941 as a Book of the Month Club selection. It is about Poncins’ experiences when he went to spend a year with the Eskimos in the far North to study their language, culture, and customs. He began the book with an apology. He explained that this is a look basically into how our ancesters lived 20,000 years ago. How Eskimos live, and what they need to do to survive is beyond the understanding of soft Outsiders. The Outside is what Eskimos call the rest of the world. He feared some of the things he described might be found to be revolting, or shocking, but his explanations helped to put them into a light that, in the Eskimo’s context, made them logical and understandable. Some of the less bizarre things, the everyday things that we take so much for granted, are still difficult to understand and surprising. For example, coal gets so cold and hard, it will not burn. Pens and watches freeze solid, and a basic tool like a pencil, will have its lead frozen so hard it will refuse to write. At the end of Poncins' year, he returned to the Outside, and found that he had adopted some of their ways, and that they made more sense to him than did the ways of the Outsider. Poncins discovered his travels had not been a conquest of the elements or a strange culture, but a conquest of himself. The Arctic became a place of joy and peace he was never able to discover in the Outside.

As in other reviews, here are a couple insights to help encourage you to possibly read this book. He traveled, visited, and stayed with various Eskimo families, and at one point joined a French priest, Father Henry, who was ministering to the Eskimos. It is obvious to Poncins that the priest has gone to the other side. The snow hole he lived in made an igloo seem to be a palace by comparison. From the door to his ‘couch’, a rickety wood platform of three planks, his entire home measured four and one half feet. A packing case contained all his effects. He had no table knife, or fork. His only spoon had disappeared days before Poncins‘ visit, and a search into a hole found it with a dozen discarded fish heads. Whatever the priest had brought with him was now lost, broken, given away, or otherwise superfluous. For six years, he had eaten nothing but frozen fish. He found he could no longer stomach white man’s food, nor get it.

In the end, Poncins describes what I feel almost every paddler understands all too well. Even after a year of traveling, “after a few days I grew restless again. My peace was to be found on the trail, and I was anxious to be off.”

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Vagrant Viking

Credit: Amazon
Vagrant Viking: My Life and Adventures, by Peter Freuchen (414pp., Julian Messner, Inc., New York, 1953)

Most of us probably know very little about Eskimo life or culture. Here’s the book that will fix that, while at the same time giving you real insight into what it takes to survive in the Arctic. Part of our fascination with Eskimo life has to be their ability to build and hunt with skin kayaks, a part of their heritage we enjoy today.

Peter Freuchen was born in February, 1886, of a Danish father and Eskimo mother. While still young, he visited Greenland with his mother to see her family. He was totally captivated by what he saw, and by age 20 was on his first Arctic expedition when polar exploration was in its infancy. He became an expedition leader that traveled with Cook, Rasmussen, Amundsen, and others, and became an accomplished writer for newspapers, magazines, and the screen. Freuchen decided to stay in Greenland, except when he was home in Denmark outfitting another Arctic expedition. These are just a couple stories to elicit some curiosity about this man and his experiences.

He met an attractive Eskimo girl who drew his excited attention. He finally asked her to a dance, the only form of recreation in the frozen Arctic, and unlikely anything we would visualize when we think of a dance. She asked him to follow her home so she could get ready, and they would go directly to the dance from there. Living in such close proximity in igloos and snow houses, Eskimos seem to totally lack any idea of modesty, so she undressed and changed right in front of this young man she had just met. She then pulled the slop pot out and removed its lid. It was brimming full of urine, which they keep for cleaning, hide tanning, and---washing hair. She let her hair fall, which cascaded almost to the floor, and lowered it into the pot to wash it. Once she was ready, they went on to the dance, but he said having her hair next to his face and nose all night unavoidably cooled his fascination with the girl. He was married three times. His first wife was indeed an Eskimo, who died in 1921 in a Spanish flu epidemic, after bearing Peter two children. He was later elected as a Member of Parliament in Canada, and served there until 1984.

I found the Eskimo’s ability to live in the Arctic environment difficult to fathom. The most bizarre fiction could never touch some of the strange things people do in that environment to survive. Freuchen tells of one trip home when it was not at all clear if he would live. There are no landmarks. The world up there is as barren as the sea, and for much of the time during the winter, a frozen sea of ice is what inhabitants traverse. Searching the horizon in all directions reveals nothing but shades of gray. A compass is almost useless in the Arctic, and getting lost is a fact of life. The best guides are old sled tracks from earlier travelers. The wind was blowing hurricane force during this trip, and the temperature was 54-degrees below zero. Even the dogs tried to refuse moving, but he forced them on. He found an overhanging ledge with some bare ground beneath. The dogs had already dived in as he considered that this may be his only chance for survival. He pulled the sled across the cavity in the snow and ice and crawled under.

He awoke some hours later in pitch dark. He didn’t know if it was night or day. He only knew that the snow drift had become so deep that he had been buried alive, and in a spot barely the size of a coffin. He couldn’t move. After some time, he was able to work one arm free and clawed away at the ice to burrow a small hole to the surface so he could get enough air to breathe. When he neared the surface, he could see light through the ice, and realized that it was daylight outside.

He continued trying to dig as the ice ripped his fingers. The ice and snow he broke loose fell into his diminishing space, and worked its way into his hood and down his neck and back and inside of his parka. The sled was covered with maybe a ton of ice. If he could keep digging around the front of the sled, he hoped he could get an arm free and find his ice knife on the sled. Peter finally got his head and arm part way out when his whiskers touched and instantly froze fast to the sled runner. He was trapped, unable to get out or back in. He finally had to pull until he ripped the whiskers and part of his flesh from his face, leaving them frozen to the sled runner. He did get out, and you will never guess how he did it. For that, you need to read the book. He had both feet frozen in this ordeal, and one could not be saved as it turned black and rotted. There were no medical facilities, and he would have to wait until the thaw the next summer before he could get back to Denmark to have his leg amputated. In the meanwhile, he had to pick the flesh from his leg as it died, and hobbled about on the exposed leg bone. For real stories about survival and a fascinating life, this is it.