Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Along the Big Muddy

The first remarkable sight was a multitude of tiny amphibian carcasses smashed flat and turning gray on the pavement of the bridge. Apparently the frogs all swam for their lives and wound up here, albeit higher ground, only to be run over by cars prior to travel over the river having ceased. State authorities closed the thoroughfare when the Great Flood of 1993 became bad enough to threaten traffic on the old cantilevered truss bridge on that stretch of Missouri Highway 41. 

Farmers' fields were swallowed by the raging currents and crops decimated by the rising water level. It was a record-breaking amount of rainfall, an incredible deluge, and the flood level reached a peak not seen in 50-odd years according to locals. A spot of dry ground could scarcely be found in any direction looking from the overhanging northern shore of the Missouri River.

A frightened buck swam the river for all it was worth, instinct directing the animal farther away from its human enemy but only to an inevitable death among the depths. Mature deer in those parts might fall to a hunter's rifle in November but not drown in June. Onlookers gasped to watch the wide-eyed animal make such a rigorous effort leading to its own ultimate demise. 

Breached levees meant water eventually reached all the way to the platform. No entry, no egress. Cars were rerouted from the short passageway with no ferry access or service available, some trips lengthening to 50 miles. Resident numbers in surrounding communities was relatively small but affected nonetheless. That stretch of road was a fraction of the 30,000 square miles flooded that season, yet anyone without a boat and a vehicle parked on the other side doubled or tripled the daily commute.

The summer months drifted into fall, with the rainfall being span similarly long, with lives changed for the time being. People rallied to fill sandbags in hopes to keep the tide at bay. Everyone was warned to vaccinate against tetanus if slogging through the murky flood waters, and Anhueser Busch sent in canned water to drink during the boil order, as the potability of submerged wells couldn’t be trusted. Their fortification efforts were thwarted.    

photos by James McCray
The Mighty Missouri pulled similar tricks in the past, and people who lived anywhere near the river bottoms knew to expect the unexpected. Other vivid mishaps in the not-too-distant past lived in the memories of those who resided there for any length of time. Farmers braved the floodplain and rolled the dice every planting season, at Mother Nature’s mercy, and just waited for the channel to pour from its banks and obliterate months of their work. Their livelihoods submerged.

Other tragedies befell those shores before. The current’s force took swimmers in its powerful grasp, pulled children to their deaths despite signs warning of the powerful undertow and swimming being prohibited. Bodily remains were never found, likely swept away to the ocean in tiny fragments, prefaced by a parental torrential downpour of tears.

Another 20 years passed before tragedy struck a visitor to the area. Upon stopping for the night, a paddler succumbed to a heart attack following a leg of the Missouri River 340 race, which commemorates the Lewis & Clark Expedition, in the summer of 2013. Exhaustion and heat were the least of the man’s physical challenges at the end of his life journey just after dropping out of the contest. Another death along the river's banks.  

When looking nature in the eye, humanity’s comparative insignificance is obvious. No personal strength can match that severity. Natural forces overwhelm mere people, as if they were tiny, four-limbed creatures that can meld into the roads’ asphalt on passageways they've built across the great plains and water traversing the planet.   

*This post was prompted by the word RIGOROUS at The Woven Tale Press.


  1. An interesting approach to the contest and a great reminder of the power of nature. I just returned from walking part of the Natchez Trace, so this spoke to me for many reasons.

    1. Thank you, Lisa! I appreciate you reading it and commenting.
      It's been 20 years since that flood, but it's still vivid in my memory - especially the dead frogs. The area looks totally different now that they built a new bridge.
      We canoe and raft smaller rivers but still try to be careful of the dangers and respect the water's power.