By Trevor Busch
Readers that might be familiar with my writing style — especially with regard to comment — will know that when it comes to “slice of life” pieces I almost exclusively leave this realm of literary expertise to my journalistic brethren in the Times newsroom, Nikki Jamieson and Greg Price, whose excellent ministrations in these endeavours will probably leave any foray on my own part circling the print doldrums, where unimpressive stabs at entertainment go to die.
And while my colleagues will probably never miss an opportunity to bask in the praise of a fellow unrequited keyboard basher like myself, pushing the boundaries is often a good thing. So for once I’ll depart from events of international import or the water-stained pages of some ancient tome, and give you what you’ve all been waiting for… at least, that’s how I see it.
In mid-July, I had the privilege to travel into the heartland of north-central Montana, and to follow in the footsteps — or paddle strokes — of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their famous 1804 journey into the unknown, the now-legendary Corps of Discovery.
What I’m referring to is what’s known as the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, and it is a place steeped in the history of a region that still seems almost as rugged and untamed as the days when Lewis and Clark rounded every unexplored river bend in their long search for a pathway to the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Traveling with my brother in a small flat-bottom fiberglass boat — which has had a checkered history in our employ and that of a friend, who recovered it some years ago from an ignominious end at a local landfill — and its seaworthiness has never been in doubt.
We put in on the Missouri at a place called Coal Banks Landing, near the hamlet of Virgelle — a rustic little collection of tumble-down houses and an old store, nestled in rugged Badlands country that lines both banks of the wide artery.
The Missouri is the longest river in the United States, flowing more than 2,500 miles from its source on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains near Three Forks, to its confluence with the vast Mississippi at St. Louis, Missouri. But more to the point of our adventure, a 149-mile segment of Montana’s Upper Missouri was designated a National Wild and Scenic River in 1976, while the powerful river and portions of adjacent uplands – some 375,000 acres of public land – now make up the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, which was declared only in 2001. The monument is governed and maintained by the Bureau of Land Management.
Considered the most popular stretch of the river for adventuresome paddlers, the 47 miles between Coal Banks Landing and Judith Landing — which we tackled in four days with three nights on the river — is in places staggeringly beautiful, with the early miles frequently referred to as the “White Cliffs” section, so named for the spectacular sandstone formations that resemble stone castles and ancient masonry pillars.
Coal Banks got its name from the dark layer of lignite coal in the hillsides. The landing was used by steamboats during the Indian Wars of 1876-77, and during the construction of Fort Assiniboine on the northwest side of the Bears Paw Mountains.
Lewis, when passing through the area in 1805, was astounded by the geological formations he encountered, which inspired him to uncharacteristic heights of verbose eloquence.
“As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end… the hills and river clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance. The bluffs of the river rise to the hight of from 200 to 300 feet and in most places nearly perpendicular; they are formed of remarkable white sandstone,” wrote Lewis in his journal on May 31, 1805. “For here it is too that nature presents to the view of the traveler vast ranges of walls of tolerable workmanship.”
The Corps traveled the wild and scenic portion of the river upstream in May and June of 1805, and it was on May 26, 1805, while hiking above present Bullwhacker Creek, that Captain Clark first sighted the lofty range that stood like a bulwark against the investigations of the tiny band of explorers.
“From this point I beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time with Certainty…”
For the historian in me — which is never far away — the journey is a remarkable one, where paddlers can camp in the very places that the Corps drew water and hew wood and rested their heads. While traveling this ethereal stretch, it is almost possible to imagine the expedition struggling upriver while passing through each spectacular bend.
There are four developed boat camps in this section of the river — including a number of primitive camps — and consist of Little Sandy, Eagle Creek, Hole-in-the-Wall and Slaughter River, each with their own respective qualities and scenery.
Traveling 14.5 miles in our first day, we camped at one of the many canoe-in campgrounds along the route, Eagle Creek, which was the site of a Corps of Discovery campsite on May 31, 1805, and is adjacent to some of the White Cliffs formations mentioned earlier. About a mile downriver, paddlers pass what is known as the Grand Natural Wall, an extended portion of this beautiful formation.
While the trip offers outstanding scenic paddling opportunities, there is also opportunities to do some hiking in the surrounding hills and coulees.
One of these opportunities is right at Eagle Creek, a short hike takes you up Neat Coulee, an ever-tightening slot canyon formed by water erosion that in some places is remarkably deep but sometimes only a handful of feet from rim to rim.
It was directly across from Eagle Creek that one of Montana’s most famous natural arches once existed, the “Eye of the Needle”, which unfortunately collapsed — or was vandalized, accounts appear to differ and no one seems entirely sure — in 1997.
The next stretch of the river will take you past Citadel Rock, a huge, dark, igneous incongruity at the river’s edge, before moving on to Hole-In-the-Wall campground (where we overnighted), situated below an eight-foot hole in the face of the surrounding cliffs, which is another hiking opportunity.
“In many places… we observe on either Side of the river extraordinary walls of a black Semented Stone which appear to be regularly placed one Stone on the other… Those walls Commence at the waters edge and in some places meet at right angles,” wrote William Clark on May 31, 1805.
Passing beyond this area, a paddler moves through some of the most striking scenery on the entire trip, which features extraordinary rock formations and towering pillars, among justifiably famous outcroppings such as the Seven Sisters (which resembles nuns in habits), Steamboat Rock (which resembles a twin-stacked steamboat), Dark Butte, and Archangel (wings outspread in white sandstone).
Eventually passing through this area, you travel over the Pablo Rapids and past Wolf Island, which sports a rather ignominious history. This area once caused the grounding of many steamboats in the 19th century, one of which included the Marion, piloted by Captain Abe Wolf in 1866.
After going aground, the crew mutinied and put Wolf adrift in a small boat. Instead of making their escape, the unworthy crew apparently “drank all the whiskey” before being brought to justice. The island below the rapids now bears the captain’s name.
We overnighted at Slaughter River, a Corps of Discovery campsite on May 29, 1805, so named for a mass of mangled buffalo carcasses the Corps encountered at the mouth of the river.
The final leg of the trip takes one into Judith Landing, where the valley finally flattens out. An historic district which features a Corps of Discovery campsite from May 28, 1805, the area was also the site of the Fort Chardon Trading Post (1844-1845), the Isaac Stevens 1855 Treaty, and Camp Cook, the first military post in Montana from 1866 to 1870.
Only a relatively short distance from southern Alberta, this stretch of the monument is a paddler’s paradise, and though sometimes one has to battle unpleasant headwinds, the current of this massive river usually keeps one moving downstream at a fair clip, sometimes even drifting at 3.5 to four miles per hour. This part of the Missouri, once should note, is not particularly challenging even for an amateur paddler despite the spectacular scenery and rugged terrain.
An historical adventure in the making just a few short hours across the border into the Treasure State, if you have yet to witness this spectacular stretch of the mighty Missouri, you might want to think about marking it down on the bucket list — you would be hard-pressed to be disappointed.