SD diver explores Missouri River’s muddy waters

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PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Tom Bowers has seen the Missouri River from its shiny topside, but also from its roiled and muddy underneath.

While others have fished its banks, boated on its surface or irrigated from its flows, Bowers has explored the river from the bottom up. A certified scuba diver and instructor, he has inspected its dams, brought back ancient buffalo skulls from its bottom and photographed some of its natural beauty during a lifetime spent at work and play beneath the surface.

Bowers began scuba diving as a bored Marine stationed at Guantanamo Bay. Since the soldiers weren’t allowed to go into Cuba, they had to find other means of recreation.

“(We) had a couple nice beaches, so we would just go to the beach,” Bowers said. “We really got into (snorkeling) there because there wasn’t that much else to do but drink beer. There weren’t any girls to chase or anything like that. So we would go to the beach with a case of beer and snorkel all day on our time off. And eventually we borrowed some scuba equipment from some other guy that had it, so that was my first experience with scuba, and that was probably late ‘63.”

He stuck with the hobby, even after returning home to Sioux Falls. When work gave him a choice of where to take up a position, he came to Pierre specifically for the river.

The Missouri River is more than a bit different from the tropics and presented its own unique challenges.

In Cuba he could also get away with diving wearing swim trunks and a T-shirt, but in South Dakota divers need a full wet suit - or dry suit in the winter - and hood.

The river’s temperature during the winter is usually between 34 and 35 degrees. In the summer the top water can warm up to about 70 degrees, but anywhere between 15 to 60 feet down that temperature will drop dramatically. In the reservoirs below 90 to 100 feet the water tends to stay at 45 degrees most of the year, he said.

Bowers said the Missouri’s current, which is often too swift to fight against, makes for effortless diving. But if a diver doesn’t have something to grab onto it’s nearly impossible to stop and look at something. Usually that means a large rock, but he’s known some divers who carried hooks they set into the river bed to stay in place.

And, predictably for a river nicknamed “The Big Muddy,” visibility is often an issue. While those who dive in the area are used to the limited clarity of the water, an average visibility of 15 feet in the summer, Bowers said those trained on the ocean often have trouble adjusting to how little they can see in the river.

“I remember a trip we took down to Baja on the Pacific side and we split a boat with a group from California,” Bowers said. “There was probably 10 of us and 10 of them, and we got into some pretty rough conditions and visibility dropped down to about 15-foot and those guys wouldn’t get into the water; it was too spooky. And we were just having a blast, spent the whole day diving.”

Water clarity is one of the reasons Bowers enjoyed winter dives. With low flows coming from the dam, the water clarity can be between 25 and 50 feet. On one especially clear day, he was even able to spot the dam’s powerhouse from more than 100 feet away.

Because he was beneath the surface so much, Bowers also took up underwater photography, snapping images of crawdads, walleye, burbot, catfish or anything else he happened to find.

His camera captured the sunfish and bullhead that used to be found below the dam. There was also a large school of gar that “would be stacked like cordwood” below the east shore boat ramp of the Oahe Marina, he said.

During the winter, various species congregated together and lay on the river bottom. The fish were so languid that a diver could easily swim up and grab a catfish or a carp, he said.

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