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Brown Water

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This Iowa couple has chased the Lewis & Clark Expedition on the Missouri River since 1985, hoping to unlock the secrets of the boats used on that American adventure.  Find out why they are called:  Mr. & Mrs. Keelboat!

A Narrative of My Personal Journey in the Wake of Lewis and Clark

Butch "Mr. Keelboat" Bouvier 

Mr. Bouvier, known to many as "Mr. Keelboat" is considered by most to be one of the leading authorities in the world on the boats of our inland waterways prior to 1860, and specifically on the boats of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  He has researched, designed, built and operated on the river, more authentic pre-stream era water craft than anyone else in the world.  Over the last 30 years yea has performed experimental archeology and uncovered many of the lost secrets of that age on our inland waters.  His findings are in "Brown Water" along with many wonderful stories about his exciting life chasing those intrepid boatmen who opened up our rivers for transportation and commerce, prior to the age of steam.  


D.R. Shawn Fables; Independent American History

"He does an excellent job of explaining rather technical information and maneuvers without jargon.  Readers will be able to imagine the action and they will enjoy his friendly, down-to-earth style of story telling."



Nebraska History Volume 97/Number 3/Fall 2016

Brown Water:  A Narrative of My Personal Journey in the Wake of Lewis and Clark by Butch Bouvier

Onawa, IA:   The Author, 2015 Acknowledgments, preface, b&w photographs, epilogue, glosary, xvi, 202 pp.

Brown Water by Butch "Mr. Keelboat" Bouvier

Brown Water celebrates -and recreates-the watercraft of the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition.  The title is a hat-tip to the Missouri River and the inland waterways so inegral to exploration and the fur trade during the opening of hte Wes.  "Too thin to plow, too muddy to drink" was the adage that stuck, and it took a special kind of boat and a special kind of crew to move people and cargo up and down the Missouri and her tributaries.  Among Bouvier's subjects is a Lewis and Clark-era pirogue voyage down the Missouri from the Fort Randall Dam to Sioux City-roughly 134 miles-in which the pirogue averaged about 10 mph.  Bovier makes no secret that he prefers conversation over a campfire, but his writing is solid and to the point.  And his knowledge of details-particularly the engineering and mechanics of river craft in the Corps of Discovery era-comes only from years of dedicated study. 

Bouvier is particularly well suited to telling this story. He is likely the world's foremost expert on keelboat and pirogue construciton and spares no detail explaining them from an engineering and piloting standpoint.  Be aware that his passion is contagious, but if the reader is immune, he or she is still going to be presented with detour topics such as "how rudders work" and "how to determine a boat's speed".  Some chapters may not appeal to readers with more of an appetite for history than historical technology, but others will appreciate Bouvier's attention to detail. 

Mini-essays called "Knowledge Nooks" explain and test theories on how the boats were built and behaved in the water, using past chronicles and experimentation.  Others give practical instructions on how rope can be made from elk hide, and how to construct a "dead man"-a kind of eithteenth-century knot and also gives detailed information on boat repairs in a storm.  Before any voyage there is preparation.  Bouvier faces the snags and squalls of funding and expediting his dream project with good cheer, and assembles a revolving crew including his wife, re-enactors, a Kentucky dentist and his young son (half of the Lewis and Clark Expedition were Kentuckians or had Kentucky ties), a state senator from Iowa, and members of the volunteer group "Friends of the Corps of Discovery."  A "ground crew" provided supplies as needed and shuttled crew members for portions of the trip to learn that at times the crew, and on a couple of occasions Bouvier himself, could not resist the temptations of a  night in air-conditioned comforat at one of the ports-of-call.  Then as now the mosquitoes (which William Clark's journal mentions at least sixty-five times)  were "particularly troublesome".  On one voyage from Bismarck to Pierre onboard a Bouvier keelboat, the craft is fitted with a motor. 

For amost every stop along the way Bouvier and his crew donned period costumes and gave living hisotry programs for eager school kids and their parents and other curious locals, which included tomahawk-throwing exhibitions and target practive with flintlocks. As ambassadors of history Bouvier and his crew gave the townspeople an added appreciation for the Corps of Discovery and made the Missouri itself a classroom of times past. 

Who is this book for?  Lewis and Clark fans (again, remember you are getting into the nuts and bolts, there is less romance and more how-to here), living history enthusiasts, do-it-yourselfers, shade-tree mechanics, personnel managers, boaters, fur trade buffs, reality television fans, campers, and amateur explorers.  Residents of countries along the Missouri will no doubt recognize some of their favorite haunts being mentioned, if not attached to a story or two.  Some photographs, which appear throughout the book are a bit small for the sake of inclusion so have a hand lens ready.  The book has a glossary useful in understanding eighteenth-century river travel and interesting for the language and description itself. 

Matt Piersol

Nebraska State Historical Society

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