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Spring 1999: Authentic Adventure on the 'Misery'

Posted by James Miller 10/20/2016 10:39:35 AM

Long before Lewis and Clark, long before the establishment of the fur trade, even long before the Native American cultures that thrived there arrived, the Missouri River cut its course through a section of North Dakota near present-day Washburn. Geese pounded upriver, passing the sandbars and jutting clay banks as they followed the timeless waterway. Stilt-legged herons speared fish from the shallows. Deer crept out of the cottonwoods and willows to drink of the muddy water.

Perhaps it is those timeless qualities that held such an attraction for the earliest arrivals to the area. Many found the area attractive enough to stay. Most notably, Hidatsa, Arikara and Mandan people built their villages there to farm, hunt and trade.

From those earliest settlers, a trade region that spread goods across the nation developed. That trade hub and its inter-tribal trade system would be used by a following wave of men during the fur-trade era. Historic names like Francois Larocque, David Thompson, Alexander Henry the Younger, Pierre Verendrye and Manuel Lisa all visited there.


So, of course, did Lewis and Clark. Now synonymous with the area, the country's most famous explorers spent the fall of 1804 building Fort Mandan, where they spent that winter before embarking into the great unknown.


Today, that section of river remains much the same as it would have looked in the days before man's arrival. In fact, the river near Washburn rolls along as one of the last free-flowing sections of the river oft touted as the "Misery."


Doug Yunker appreciates those facts. His father farmed just upstream from reconstructed Fort Mandan. Along with his siblings, Doug spent his youth picking berries in the wooded draws leading away from the river, gathering mushrooms and cutting fence posts in the forested bottoms, and fishing and canoeing on the river itself.


The family knows the lasting value the river lends to the area. Yet, Doug and his siblings feared losing any connection to the river when their father Edward retired. "It's been years trying to think of something to do with the farm," Doug said. "None of us (the Yunker children) are farmers. We didn't want something impersonal like renting out the land."


Then Doug saw a brochure with a picture of a huge canoe in it. The 26-foot long, fiberglass watercraft replicated a voyager canoe from the fur trade era. "I knew that this was something unique that would draw people."


With the support of his wife, DeAnn, and his father, Doug approached his siblings with the idea of forming an adventure partnership based on taking guests down the river in a craft of that sort. Two of his sisters, Becky Salveson and Kathy Kaiser, agreed with Doug's thinking.


Sharing their connections with the river via canoe seemed like a good idea to the partnership for several reasons. First, the venture fit in nicely with area efforts focused toward the upcoming bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark ExpeditionÕs stay on the nearby riverbank. Second, they could use their father's land as a base camp for their guests' overnight stays. Finally, the venture could eventually be expanded to include other members of the Yunker clan.


The partnership, in its fledgling stage last summer, called their new venture BirdWoman Missouri River Adventures. They also chose BirdWoman, the English version of Lewis and Clark's most storied guide, as the name for their boat.


Last summer the boat hit the water many times. Thirty trips without guests aboard proved the vessel able to handle the river. The original boats, known as d'norts and made of birch bark, carried up to 1-1/2 tons of goods for voyagers. The Yunkers' craft is equally adept at hauling large loads. "Even with eight people and two guides with all of our gear, we still needed to use sandbags to make the canoe manageable," DeAnn said. "These were canoes built to haul. Swamping is really improbable." 


Still, the Yunkers sought more information so that they could make guests feel connected not only to the river, but to the historical development of the area as well. Enter the McLaughlin Expedition.


Led by Tim McLaughlin and Paul Ellenbecker, historical re-enactors of the fur trade era, 10 men adorned in period costumes joined the partnership last Labor Day weekend. The partnership hoped the group would give them insight into the time period and help with promotion. The Expedition hoped to use the trip to investigate the area and to live vicariously times far in the past.


Both got far more than that for which they'd bargained.



The adventure began at Fort Mandan where the expedition spent its first night battling wasps, mosquitoes and gnats while sharing get-together laughs and stories. Three days of paddling later, the trip ended at the Sanger boat ramp, downstream from Washburn. In between those two places, the river took over, forming a bond among people in much the same way it must have when men first plied its waters in buffalo hide boats.


"Even though the water is somewhat controlled, that stretch of the river is very much the same as in the Lewis and Clark days," McLaughlin said. "The forested bottoms, the sand banks, the incredible amount of wildlife ; deer, eight bald eagles, a peregrine falcon, herons and beaver ; it's the whole adventure. It's far different than going in a two-man canoe."


Paul Ellenbecker, second in command during the expedition, agreed. In spite of the insistent gnats and other bugs, the time spent on the river rowing really seemed worthwhile. "My favorite experience of the whole trip occurred prior to dusk one evening when Ruben Fasthorse played his love song to his faraway love, Ash, on a flageolet (courtship flute). The river lay calm, flat. You can't imagine the resonance of the flute off of the water."


Those memories, and many like them, will live forever as journals in the homes of the expedition's members. Like those of the period they re-enact, journaling became an important part of several of the members' evenings. While sharing a pipe or a cup of coffee, words were written to express the water and its appeal to the men.


At times, however, the river wasn't calm. Wind and sandbars caused the voyagers some problems, but Ellenbecker said he wouldn't change a thing. "It's an experience you can't describe. Everything is so fluid. I like the moods of the water. Just the dip of the paddles as sound," he said. "I think it would be a great trip for a corporate venture, teaching people to work together for a common goal."


This team bonded, leaving behind the mechanical trappings of everyday life and becoming a study in motion. "We switched positions so that everyone could get a chance to be the gouvernail (rudder or helmsman)," McLaughlin said. Since the canoe hauled 3,000 pounds of gear, getting a break from the milieu (middle) and avant (front) seemed warranted. "It travels well loaded down, and when all were paddling well, we got nine miles per hour. The smaller canoe with us couldn't keep up."


Besides an appreciation of the boat and the river, the expedition's members also came to respect the genuine interest and kindness shown them by the partnership. "What was really nice was when the Yunkers ran out to meet us on the second day at the encampment," Ellenbecker said. "We were really made to feel like this was a homecoming."

That night the expedition camped at the partners' encampment just upstream from Fort Mandan. Quite possibly, according to historical documents recording the event, the site is the same used by Lewis and Clark on the night before they chose the site of the fort where they'd winter. The famous explorers, however, probably didn't have quite as fine an evening there.


Following a huge feast of buffalo, deer and pork roasts, corn, potatoes, carrots and onions prepared by the expeditionÕs members, the partnership also received a gifting presented under the spell of camp fire and candle lantern. "There's a tradition among buckskinners when enthusiasm is shown that the person is gifted,'" McLaughlin said. "That'[s what the feast is for. Plus, we surprised them with gifts."


Those gifts, all articles used during the fur trade, will become appreciated parts of an attempt at authenticity by the partners. So, too, will the moral support the buckskinners gave the partners. "The expedition showed us a connection I didn't think existed," Doug said.


Still, they realize buckskinning and Lewis and Clark are only small parts of the history of the river. "We don't want to portray ourselves as buckskinners," Becky said. "Instead, we want to project a connection between the Native culture, the fur trade, the voyagers and especially the river. In essence, we're trying to provide for people on the river, much like the voyagers."


While fur-trade accuracy isn't the only goal of the partnership, they'd like to compliment efforts such as the interpretive center developed by the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Foundation and the replica of Fort Mandan built by the McLean County Historical Society. "We do feel strongly about Washburn being a part of the Lewis and Clark Trail," Jim Kaiser said. "Someone needed to take a risk for the town to become a destination (for visitors along the trail). We want to support the efforts already there." 


That makes a lot of sense for a family that wants to retain a stronghold to the area. The partnership hopes to eventually employ the older children as river guides, camp cooks and in any capacity where there is a need for additional help. Already a couple of the older children have started training toward accomplishing that goal. "Besides the source of income and the enterprise for us, what I like to see is the fourth generation on the river because our children are discovering the same bits of land."


Other relatives have joined in to help as well. "The extended family; cousins, everybody; have been very supportive," DeAnn said.


Extending the venture to include other family members took a prominent role from the very beginning. DeAnn, Becky's husband, Bob, and Kathy's husband, Jim, all pitched in toward something they saw as a way of attaining that partnership goal. I think to work as a family is something worthwhile, important and something we've always done," Becky said. "We all had rural roots; and it's the river."


Always the river. Always rolling on. Geese, deer, herons and now a new group of people sharing a respect for this incredible place in the best way they could find.

For information contact:

BirdWoman Missouri River Adventures, LLP
PO Box 59
Washburn, ND 58577
Telephone: 701-462-3367
Fax: 701-462-3732
Web Site:

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Editor, North Dakota Horizons
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United States of America

P: 866-462-0744


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