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.

Lucky and I made the six-night-seven-day “float” in 17-foot Old Town fiberglass canoe with some friends. We traveled in relatively lavish backwoods style with the Missouri River Outfitters, which supplied the canoes and an excellent guide, a first-class cook, and pontoon canoe raft to carry tents, cooking gear, drinking water, ice and even a top-of-the-line portable potty. We were re-supplied on day four at Judith Landing at river mile 89.

While the river has a brisk 5 mile-per-hour current and a few “riffles,” it lacks any real white water. Accordingly, the river is suitable for almost any level of canoeist, who is willing to sleep in the wild.

Stephen Ambrose, who chronicled the Lewis & Clark exploration in best-selling “Undaunted Courage,” includes several chapters on this stretch of the journey. Meriwether Lewis and his hearty band traversed this part of the river twice--upstream on the way out to the Pacific and downstream on the way back. Ambrose notes in his book that he has personally retraced, via canoe, this section 10 times and says: “Of all the historic and/or scenic sights we have visited in the world, this is number one.” We put in at Fort Benton, a colorful and historic frontier town, with a contemporary population of about 1,200. But 100 years ago it was a lusty boom town as the western-most terminus for the steamboats that plied the upper stretches of the Missouri commencing in 1830’s and playing a key role in settling Montana. The old spirit of the town has been recaptured in the recent restoration of the Grand Union hotel, on the riverbank.

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.

The weather was outstanding for most of the trip—warm and breezy during the day and cool in the evening. (The altitude of the river is about 2500 feet.) On day five, however, we hit powerful 35 knot headwinds, not uncommon on the river, which raised two foot white caps and make forward progress difficult and challenging. The winds continued for most of the day and several canoes, including the pontoon craft of the guide, were partially swamped. We finally made camp, got into our tents, and experienced one of the most violent and prolonged thunderstorms I have ever encountered. The next day the weather was perfect.

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.