Floating Through the Wildest West

Joan Huyser-Honig is a freelance writer in Grand Rapids, Mich

Rushing against our canoes, the upper Missouri River sounded like salt poured into a dry skillet. Thick with silt, the milky brown current swept past carrying bits of bark, cottonwood fuzz, feathers and leaves.

"They should call this the Big Muddy," said my husband, Steve.

I patted a five-gallon water jug riding behind me in the canoe and felt reassured. Unlike Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who explored this isolated stretch in 1805, we wouldn't have to drink river water.

Our family of four--including sons Josh, 14, and Abe, 16--was floating this National Wild and Scenic River, the single best way to experience places that Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery described in their journals. Dams now corral most of the mighty Missouri, but the 149-mile protected portion between Fort Benton and the James Kipp Recreation Area in north-central Montana remains natural and free-flowing. East of here, dams and lakes contain the river. To the west, waterfalls and rapids mark the river's course from its headwaters in the Rockies.

Over the years, we've passed the eastern Montana stretch of the river on road trips between our home in Michigan and my sister's home in Alberta, Canada. Mesmerized by swaying prairie grass and big sky, we wondered: What did this area look like when Lewis and Clark and their party of 50 poled upriver--before railroads, fences and highways carved up the Great Plains? Then we read in "Undaunted Courage," Stephen E. Ambrose's wonderful 1996 account of the corps' push to the Pacific, that the protected stretch of the river looks much as it did back then.

So last July, on the drive back from Alberta, we took a three-day, two-night float detour to see for ourselves. Dark clouds chased our minivan across the Montana plains while we listened to audiotape narrations of excerpts from the corps' journals. The clouds caught up with us in Fort Benton, a town that's home to a small museum and several sites associated with the expedition. We'd planned to acquaint ourselves with these, but a fierce thunderstorm persuaded us to continue the 25 miles or so to Virgelle, where we would spend the night before our launch.

Virgelle, once a commercial center of sorts with a bank, grain elevator and so on, is a ghost town with a population of two: Jimmy Griffin and Don Sorensen, co-owners of the Missouri River Canoe Co. and Virgelle Mercantile. They rent canoes and, above the old general store, faithfully restored early-1900s rooms, plus some cabins and a sheepherder's wagon out back.

Griffin showed us to a comfortable 1914 homesteader's cabin outfitted with wood stove and lanterns. It had its own privy, but modern toilets and showers were nearby, in a restored icehouse.

Once we were settled in, we got out our camp stove and dined on a one-pot stew as if we were already in the wild. Which we were; there's no restaurant in Virgelle. (There are motels, fast-food outlets and a pizza place in Fort Benton.)

The evening was quiet, broken only by bird song and the clink of our boys' game of horseshoes. But I couldn't relax until I'd quizzed Griffin about hazards Lewis and Clark mentioned.

Hail big as apples? "We had some canoeists cut and bruised by huge hail during a tornado, but that was seven years ago," he said.

Rattlesnakes? "I've seen lots but never been bit. Make noise and move slowly when you climb up bluffs or near homesteads," Griffin advised.

How about capsizing? Should we wear life jackets? He said that fewer than one-tenth of 1% of canoeists tip into the water, and I believed him.

Griffin's calm manner and drawled-but-direct answers inspired such trust that I didn't even think to ask about quicksand.

I was still feeling relaxed and assured the next morning as we loaded our own gear into two of Griffin's canoes at Coal Banks Landing. We chose his outfit because it's one of the few that rents canoes; guided trips are the rule, even though the "wild and scenic" river is usually calm and easy to float for anyone with a little canoeing experience.

Steve and I usually canoe with one boy each. On this trip we let the boys ride together, and they had a great time.

Ranger Suzanne Koler recorded our names, address and self-guided trip plans. "The river is faster than usual," she warned. The average midsummer current is 3 mph, and most floaters cover 22 miles per day. But after the previous week's rain, it was running 5 to 7 mph. We would float 46 miles to Judith Landing, where a ride back to Virgelle would be waiting.

We pushed off into the river, and two hours later we were lunching at Little Sandy Creek. Afterward we hiked through fruiting prickly pear cactus and sweet-smelling sagebrush to a bluff Griffin had mentioned. We found four tepee rings, circles of stones that Blackfeet Indians once used to secure buffalo-hide tepee covers.

Back on the water, Steve recalled his plan to stay close to the bank in case we ran into problems. "Shoot, there are no snags, and you hardly have to paddle," he said. "You can float sideways down this river."

Ninety-degree heat drove us to guzzle a quart of water each. We dunked our hats in the lukewarm river; it left gritty trails down our necks.

By midafternoon, sandstone coulees (dry gulches) and hoodoos (toadstool rocks) marked our entrance into the stretch of White Cliffs, a 20-mile-long rock formation that Lewis rhapsodized about on May 31, 1805.

"The hills and river Clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance," he wrote, describing how water had worn bluffs into "a thousand grotesque figures, which with the help of a little immagination" reminded him of galleries, sculptures and "ruins of eligant buildings." (Lewis could have used a spell-checker.)

We wouldn't see Lewis' favorite "seens of visionary inchantment" till the next day, because the explorers arrived from the opposite direction. They muscled upstream, toward the Rockies, against the swift current that carried us down.

The corps camped that night at Eagle Creek. We set up our tents on the opposite side of the creek, as did campers from a guided riverboat tour and a private float party. We saw maybe a dozen people a day on the river--sometimes they were the same people we'd seen the day before.

We made our camp kitchen under cottonwoods on the riverbank. I marveled at the amount of supplies we were able to pack into the canoes. As a cautious person--overly so, my family claims--I'd prepared proportionately as much for our three-day trip as Lewis and Clark had for their entire expedition.

If we'd been backpacking, we wouldn't have eaten as well. Tonight, dinner would be soup--corn, orzo and ham--and bannock baked on a griddle.

My cooking-induced sense of comfort seeped away as we hiked after dinner deep into cool, dark Neats Coulee, where the cries of rock pigeons echoed in the 100-foot-high canyon. We saw deer hoof prints in mud, and grass flattened by recent rain. "Wouldn't you love to see a flash flood here?" Josh asked.

Actually, no, I thought, as Steve and the boys charged 60 feet up a slippery, camel-shaped rock. I climbed it too, but could only nod mutely when Abe declared it "cool."

We descended without injury, so I suggested we hurry back to camp for sunset on LaBarge Rock. "We could make chocolate pudding with dried cherries," I said. Instead we explored a deeper, darker slot canyon, where water ran below us and we had to scramble with our hands and feet on opposite walls. I felt a sandstone handhold crumble. I passed within 10 feet of a porcupine. I watched Steve sink into but quickly scramble out of knee-deep quicksand. I kept telling myself, "Adventure means risk. Lewis and Clark accepted that."

The hike made our moonlight campfire seem all the more blissful. Even the cottonwood smoke smelled sweet.

A lanky man from a nearby campsite joined us and, after some small talk, introduced himself. "I'm Dayton Duncan," he said, putting out his hand.

Dayton Duncan! He was the producer of the tape we'd listened to; it was based on the PBS documentary "Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery," which he'd done with Ken Burns.

"Lewis and Clark have been part of my life for 15 years. They're like old friends," Duncan said. He and his family were traveling with Missouri River Outfitters. The riverboat company had had to evacuate canoeists from Eagle Creek the previous week because of 24 hours of rain and wind.

"But you'll have beautiful weather tomorrow for the White Cliffs--prettiest sight you'll ever see," Duncan promised.

Steve and I rose before dawn for a so-so sunrise. It was memorable chiefly for being the spot where we experienced the full range of Lewis and Clark's mosquito-rating scale: "troublesome; very troublesome; very, very troublesome; immensely troublesome and annoying."

We were glad to get back on the river. Quickly, we were at the White Cliffs.

Despite dramatic historical changes elsewhere on the expedition's route, the White Cliffs seemed untouched. Dark, igneous Citadel Rock appears no different than when Clark described it in 1805, Karl Bodmer (a Swiss traveling with a touring prince) sketched it in 1833 and steamboat captains steered by it in the 1860s.

For an up-close look at the rocks we climbed through fields of black-eyed Susan, past coulees lined with pines, to Hole-in-the-Wall--a scary ascent with heart-stopping views. (I have no idea why pulling themselves up rock walls to a steep, narrow ridge didn't bother the pair of older, overweight women who climbed behind me. And they were wearing flip-flops, not hiking boots.)

Then came miles of risk-free floating past formations that to Lewis seemed sculpted by humans rather than by wind, rain and tectonic action. Sheer white walls straight as monuments. Parapets, pedestals and pyramids. Long black rows, sometimes 100 feet high, of horizontal rocks stacked like bricks.

"These cliffs are on a grand, human scale, like Washington, D.C.," Steve said, "not unimaginably big, like the Grand Canyon. You can hike to great views in half an hour."

Beautiful as the sky, land and river are, the mix proved too harsh for homesteaders who staked claims on these bottom lands in the early 1900s. We hiked to one weathered cabin, still surrounded by bare beaten ground. A rusted metal chair leaned against an outside wall. Through the cabin's sagging door, we saw a wood chest without drawers and a wood bunk bed frame. I tried to imagine the people who lost their dreams here.

Though we passed many abandoned homesteads, we saw no farms or occupied homes for almost 30 miles.

Ours were the only canoes at our final campsite, downstream from Slaughter River, where the Corps of Discovery happened on a pile of 100 dead buffalo that had been driven over a precipice by Indians. The expedition spent a miserable rainy night there, without benefit of Coleman, Ziploc, Polartec or Gore-Tex.

Cow patties littered the cottonwood grove where we camped. The only amenity was a fire ring. But the evening air was mild. We sat on fallen logs and listened as Josh read, by flashlight, a local Indian legend about how an unknown archer rescued a comely maiden from a vicious suitor. The legend explains the Indian name, Arrow Creek, for the same tributary that Lewis and Clark called Slaughter River.

I thought about that romantic rescue as moonlight slanted through the grove. And I wondered where the herd of cows was.

By midmorning, after our leisurely breakfast, the herd was at the grove's edge, staring at us. Abe headed toward trees we dubbed "the facilities" and saw two bull snakes--not rattlers, but BIG. Time to move on.

Too soon, the White Cliffs gave way to wide, muddy bottom lands with more trees. We paddled only during Deadman's Rapids, a riffle that was, as Jimmy Griffin had promised, "maybe almost just a little bit excitin'."

Then there it was--the Judith Landing bridge, our takeout point, an abrupt reminder that we weren't Lewis and Clark contemporaries after all.


GUIDEBOOK: Floating in Montana's Lewis and Clark Country

Getting there: Alaska and Delta airlines have connecting service (involving a plane change) between LAX and Great Falls, Mont., 42 miles from the head of the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River. Round-trip fares start at $364.

Doing the river: We rented canoes but packed our own food and camping gear. Outfitted canoes have food and gear but no guide. Or you can take fully guided, outfitted trips. Canoe rental averages $35 to $45 per day, plus shuttle service back to launch point, or $150 to $500 per group, depending on distance. Outfitted, unguided canoe trips run $150 per person per day; outfitted, guided trips, $110 to $300 per person per day. The season is May through September.

We rented from Missouri River Canoe Co. & Virgelle Mercantile, H.C. 67, Box 50, Loma, MT 59460; telephone (800) 426-2926, Internet http://www.canoemontana.com. They also rent B&B; rooms above the store, $80 to $120, and homesteader cabins, $30 per adult, $10 age 12 and under. For canoe rentals and guided trips by canoe or river boat: Missouri River Outfitters, P.O. Box 762, Fort Benton, MT 59442; tel. (406) 622-3295, Internet http://mroutfitters.com. For kayak or raft trips: Montana River Outfitters, 923 10th Ave. N., Great Falls, MT 59401; tel. (406) 761-1677, Internet http://www.mt-river-outfitters.com.

We found http://visitmt.com to be an excellent online resource for Montana lodging.

For more information: The Bureau of Land Management offers free information on the river and outfitters and sells river maps ($8) and a book, "Montana's Wild & Scenic Upper Missouri River" ($16.95). BLM, Lewistown Field Office, 80 Airport Road, P.O. Box 1160, Lewistown, MT 59457; tel. (406) 538-7461, Internet http://www.mt.blm.gov/ldo/fbframes.html.

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