Canoeing the Upper Missouri
by Bill Marmon
Sycamore Islander, August 2001
My wife Lucky and I have recently returned from one of the world’s great canoeing treats—the stretch of the upper Missouri River commencing at Fort Benton, Montana, and running east for 150 miles through breathtaking scenery--happily preserved in pristine condition as a National Monument under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The trip retraced the historic Lewis & Clark expedition and was filled with inspiring history, magnificent scenery. A fabulous trip into a magical scene, much of which can be accessed ONLY by canoe.
Lewis & Clark spent about three weeks going up this stretch of river. Many of our campsites along the river under large cottonwood trees, were made on the same ground used by Lewis’ “corps of discovery” in the spring of 1805 as they moved into areas that no white man had ever seen. The wild beauty of the terrain has been well-preserved and must look very much as it did two hundred years ago.
On day two we glided into the spectacular “white cliffs” area formed by a perpendicular bands of sandstone on both sides of the river several hundred feet high and populated with weird structures and ghost like “hoodoos.” The cliffs are sometimes broken by jutting walls of harder igneous material known as “shonkinite.”
Meriwether Lewis described the white cliffs: “The water…has trickled down the soft sand cliffs and worn it into a thousand grotesque figures, which with the help of a little imagination…are made to represent elegant ranges of lofty free stone buildings…some columns standing…others lying prostrate and broken…niches and alcoves of various forms and sizes never had an end…vast ranges of walls of tolerable workmanship, so perfect indeed that I should have thought that nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she had first began her work.” (Lewis’s bizarre spelling has been standardized.)
Most days we had time to take an interesting and often challenging hike up into the rocky “breaks” and gullies running perpendicular to the river (photo, opposite page). Sometimes we would visit the crumbling remains of early homesteaders or “wood hawkers.” The latter sold wood to the passing steamboats, which consumed 25 cords a day going upstream. One hike took us high up a cliff to a rock structure known as “hole in the wall,” which features a large hole hollowed out by wind and rain erosion at the top of a sharp sandstone tower. On the water and before/after hikes we swam in the pleasantly cool river. The river is brownish--not unlike the Potomac after a rain--but clean to swim, but not to drink without boiling.
The rhythm of canoeing, swimming, and hiking was wonderful. However, I was always happy to get back into the canoes and out on the open water and be moving toward the next incredible geological permutation.
Wildlife on the river and on the banks is diverse and abundant. There are over 200 species of birds, and we must have seen at least 50 of them. The buffalo of Lewis’s day are gone, but we did see some bighorn sheep from a distance. This species was reported by Lewis & Clark but it became extinct by 1916. The Montana Fish and Game Department has successfully reintroduced several large herds.
At about noon on day seven we pulled into Kipp’s Landing, at the end of the “scenic river monument” and the beginning of Charles Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Missouri River Outfitters was there to take us and canoes back to Fort Benton for a long hot shower in the Grand Union. (406-622-1882)
There are a dozen or so outfitters in the area, but I highly recommend Missouri River Outfitters, run by Larry and Bonnie Clark (406-622-3295, www.MROutfitters.com). They offer first-rate equipment and experienced guides. Our guide, Lonny Gorbstedt teaches science at a local high school and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the flora, fauna and geology as well as the Lewis & Clark connections which give a special dimension to an area that is already, as Lewis wrote, rich with “visionary enchantment.”
The Marmons live in Somerset in Bethesda and are active Islanders and Potomac paddlers.