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Driving up on Thursday night, we set up camp at St. Helena, NE. The shuttles took around 2 hours (1 hour each way) that evening, so we were ready to go on Friday morning.
The current was pushing us at a 3-4 MPH clip in many spots, owing to the amount of water in the Missouri. We were easily averaging 4-5 MPH, and, should we have chosen, we could have paddled the entire 45 stretch in one day.
Given that we had planned to overnight camp on Friday night, we chose to raft up on several occasions and allow the current take the group downriver, enjoying the scenery and wildlife along the way.
This stretch of the Missouri is unchannelized, and is as close to the state of the river when Lewis and Clark paddled these waters.
You can count on encountering scratches (submerged trees/limbs), moderate eddies that can actually be fun to play in, and you have to pay attention to the current as you can get stranded on sandbars and have to walk your boat out of them.
The first day on the water (28 miles from St Helena to a few miles past Mulberry Bend) were by far the more enjoyable. We only saw 2-3 fishing boats along that stretch. The closer we came to civilization on day 2, the powerboats appeared along with the dreaded jet skis.
Along this stretch there are several boat ramps and/or public access camping areas: Bow Creek, Myron Grove, Brookey Bottom, Clay County, Mulberry Bend, Bolton. I do not recommend the latter two as they are very trashy and full of beer cans - probably overused and party attractions. Brookey Bottom has a nice covered awning for lunches, and nice pit toilets.
For primitive camping, it's more advisable to stay away from the established camping areas, and set up camp along the SD shoreline (if possible). Of course, leave a small footprint, don't litter, and leave the place unspoiled for someone else.
Goat Island is an outstanding island around 13 miles downstream from St Helena. There is supposed to be a steamboat wreck somewhere near there. The island is about 3 miles long, is public access, and full of nice sloping sandy beaches for campsites. Given that we passed this area early in the day, we didn't camp there, but I'd like to camp there on a future trip.
We found cell service to be fairly strong at most points on the river, at the put-ins and takeouts as well. Though the village of St Helena had some dead areas, and I found the visitors center at Ponca State Park to have some dead areas.
It's a good idea (as on any trip) to take along a good weather radio so you can gauge your day's paddling expectations and progress.
As this is the Missouri River, the water is silty and full of ag runoff and other possible pollutants. It is advisable to carry your own water. We brought along water filters in case of emergency.
During mid-summer, biting flies can be a problem during daylight hours. If possible, plan to wear long pants as they tend to want to go for the ankles and lower legs. Mosquitoes were only a problem at the twilight hours on the sandbars.
The unchannelized Missouri River does contain mile markers, but those markers are quite small, and often the vegetation covers them up. So it's advisable to have a good piloting map and GPS if this is your first time to paddle this stretch. Once you get below Ponca State Park (our takeout), the river is managed by the Corps of Engineers, and has huge mile markers.
The state park at the takeout at Ponca has primitive camping, as well as reservable cabins. There is a hike to these campsites...as they are not located very close to the water. State park camping fees apply.
During the 2-3 day journey on this route, camping is allowed up to the waterline on the South Dakota side of the river. However, that area on the NE side is considered private property, so be considerate when camping on the NE side (i.e. consult with the landowner (if possible) before pitching that tent).
Takeout (Ponca, NE): From St Helena, backtrack East on Hwy 12 until you see the Ponca, NE sign. Follow the signs to Ponca State Park. The state park has a nice boat ramp for loading/unloading.
I also used the park service maps to create my own topo maps for piloting....using Natl Geographic Backroads mapping software. Another group member actually printed overhead photos from Google maps to help with the piloting.
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