Friday, September 17, 2010

Wild and Scenic Missouri River: Part 1

Nearly 18 years ago, we arrived in Fort Benton, Montana at the beginning of a 150 mile stretch of the Missouri River that enjoys Wild and Scenic status. Our goal was to spend the next 14 days paddling a measly 10.7 miles a day on average and enjoying our surrounding. Though we succeeded on the latter, we failed miserably on the former. Despite our not paddling more than an hour on the first evening, we still floated more than 10.7 miles a day and ended up finishing in 10 days. With four extra days on our hands, we made hay out of the situation and spent a couple days up at Glacier.

As with most of the surrounding land, much of this stretch of river is owned and ran by the Bureau of Land Management or BLM. They lease the land to cattle farmers for ridiculously low rates so that beef cattle can be raised and sold at premium prices making the local cattle ranchers very wealthy. To appease people who might object to these practices, they promise to rent out canoes and do some car shuttles. We took advantage of this and after saying goodbye to our car, ate our last food that would be cooked by someone other than ourselves for the next two weeks and decided that we would do an easy paddle in the couple hours remaining of daylight to a more secluded camp spot down river.

After loading up the boats and tweaking the weights to get the boats to ride evenly, we set off down the river drifting often to inspect the flocks of birds that were everywhere. Finally we pulled off only an hour later because we had already gone eight miles, eight miles more than had originally been planned. The reason was that the recent rains had caused the river to be at its highest level in awhile and the current was rolling. In fact, the rest of the next ten days would be spent doing everything but paddling. We just stuck a paddle in the water tilting it this way or that to push us toward one bank or the other. On one particularly dull stretch of river, we even went so far as to lash the boats together and tie a plastic ground sheet to our paddles which we held up in the air. Although we dramatically increased speed, we soon gave it up as it was much more work holding up the paddles and in the end, we wanted to slow down, not speed up.

Being it was a paddling trip with no portaging, weight is not as big an issue as when backpacking. Thus we brought along books that we sometimes read from, we took naps, we watch the scenery go by, we stopped and took long hikes at about every likely side canyon and we did lots of retracing the steps of Lewis and Clark and the settlers that soon followed them. The BLM had compiled a book that detailed events and people and places that occurred at various miles along the river. So with a detailed 7.5 minute topo map and the book, we could read about something interesting that occurred there, pull over and check it out. We tread through former campsites of the corps of engineers, found Indian buffalo jumps, checked out the remains of log cabins of long deceased settlers and many more things. When we grew bored of that, we merely stepped into the canoes and drifted a few more miles downstream to the next likely spot. Once or twice, we even gave up the canoes for an entire day devoting it instead to exploring our surroundings and perhaps catch a few fish, which ever seemed easier.

Because this is pre-journal keeping days for me, I have nothing but a photographic record to go upon. So I will probably make a series of posts as time permits that shows you some of that photographic record and will expound upon a place or two. By the way, I'm not sure what is on top of the cliff in the picture below. I suspect that is why the picture was taken though.


R. Sherman said...

I've always wanted to float that stretch of river. Are there a lot of outfitters up there?


Ed said...

R. Sherman - I couldn't remembered so I googled "Fort Benton canoe rental" and it turned up at least four or five places right in town. If you do, be sure to stop in at the BLM office and get their book with the history of the river which acted as our guide during the trip. I checked their website and found no mention of it so I don't know if it is still available or not. It has been 17 years now so who knows. Stay tuned though, I have at least five more posts with lots more pictures on this subject throughout the rest of this month.

Ron said...

Someday, I'd love to do something as remote and extended as that.

For now, I'm just happy I've been able to talk my 9-year-old into hiking around here with me. :)


Three Score and Ten or more said...

I haven't done that river. I have done both the North and South forks of the Snake River and taught a lot of Boy Scouts to Paddle in lakes. (Even supervised a fifty miler once) but I almost can't imagine doing a river where reading material was a factor.

Vince said...

The first Territorial Governor, a fellow named Meagher was pushed from a steamer in that town where you started out from. When I read the name a huge bell was rung but I couldn't place the origin. It came up when I put in google though. He is very famous in our neck of the woods.
But if they could get a riverboat up that high is the Canoe the man for the job.
It's a trip I would love to do all the same.

Beau said...

Sign me up... wow, that must have been beautiful. Any fishing? The history and archeology must have been fascinating.

Ed said...

Ron - I'm already chomping at the bit for my daughter to get a little older so our vacations can get more elaborate.

3 Score - For me, the reading material definitely made the trip.

Vince - We enjoyed mostly high waters on this section due to the numerous dams. However, back in the day of steamboats, the only ones that could get up that far were ones on river during high floods.

Beau - We did fish mostly for the joy of letting the fish pull us in the river while we floated in life jackets. However due to the high water and high sediment, the fishing wasn't very good during that trip. We caught a few but never enough at one time to make a meal for four hungry people.

sage said...

I've never been on the Missouri, but I like the way you can read about the history of the river as you float it--sounds likes this will be a great trip.