CENTENNIAL VALLEY, Mont. — Where exactly is the source of the Missouri River? Virtually all maps of the Missouri place the beginnings of the river at Three Forks, Montana, where three rivers conflue to create a larger stream that roils into the giant that reaches St. Louis. Lakes or bogs with central sections of non-moving waters are generally cited, at least by engineers, as the sources of great rivers, like Lake Victoria for the White Nile. Then there is the argument that the tributary with the most water should be the real source—the Blue Nile meets the White Nile in Khartoum, and though the Blue is the shorter stream, it carries up to 80 % of the Nile’s waters.
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But there’s another point of view, and it’s one I share with Tony Demetriades. The 74-year-old Greek immigrant and former professor has made a hobby of investigating the topic, and he gives us his take on the issue: “The length of a river is the farthest distance a molecule of water must travel to reach the river’s mouth, and the source of the river is where that molecule begins its journey.”
Two hundred years ago
Of course, Lewis and Clark were supposed to follow the Missouri River to its source in their attempt to find an all-water route to the Pacific Ocean, but by Tony’s estimation they missed it by 100 miles. When they arrived at Three Forks in July of 1805, the Corps of Discovery chose to head up the largest stream, the Jefferson. From there they followed the Beaverhead south to its junction with two other streams, Horse Prairie Creek, coming from the west, and the Red Rock River from the south.
There Lewis made the decision that made history. Since their goal was to cross the Rockies and find the Columbia River, which rolled west to the Pacific, they chose the westward-running course, Horse Prairie Creek, and hiked up towards the Continental Divide. Soon the creek became so small that Private Hugh McNeal put one foot on either side, and later wrote that he “thanked god that he had lived to bestride the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri.”
Two miles up the mountain they came to a tiny font that was the creek’s first seep, and Lewis wrote in his journal that they had reached “the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri in surch [sic] of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless [sic] nights.”
But Lewis was wrong. The ultimate cradle of the Missouri was up the Red Rock River, not Horse Prairie Creek. But had Lewis and party gone to the proper source, they might not have succeeded in their quest to reach the Pacific. As it was, they hiked up beyond Horse Prairie Creek to cross Lemhi Pass, where they were able to secure horses from the Shoshone that allowed them to cross the mountains in winter. If they had gone up the southern stream they might never have found the horses, and been forced to turn back.
There is little record of visits to the source for nearly a century thereafter, until in the late 1980s a couple of adventurers made the remote trek, built a rock cairn and left a glass jar with a note of their visit. The few who have followed since have also left notes in what some call the “sacred jar” of the Missouri.
The source today
Today Tony Demetriades lives on Hell Roaring Creek in the Centennial Valley with his wife Donna, not far below the source, which was has been confirmed now with satellite mapping and GPS. “Few have ever seen the true source of the Missouri, and nobody has ever filmed it.” That’s enough to fuel our passions for a first, so off we set out to find the utmost origins of the mighty Mo’.
Most who travel to the source do so by climbing up Hell Roaring Creek, past Tony’s property, but it is a tough three-mile uphill trek to Bower's Spring. As Pasquale goes over the maps with Tony he asks about dropping down from a service road on the side of Sawtell Peak. It would be about half the distance.
We whisper up to the 9,866’-high summit of Sawtell Peak in our semi-silent Escape Hybrid, and step over to the edge of the Continental Divide. Then, with a can of bear spray in a daypack, and several bottles of water, we bushwhack our way down into a spruce- and pine-rimmed glacial cirque, using GPS waypoints, sliding down volcanic scree of olivine basalt, scrambling over volcanic tuff, past fireweed, lupine, Indian paintbrush and Queen Anne’s lace.
At 1:28 in the afternoon, after hiking for 3.99 kilometers – those GPS devices come in handy – we drop over a burnished ledge and find a trickle oozing from the dark igneous sand: the ultimate source of the Missouri, third longest river in the world (after the Nile and Amazon). Pasquale has now been to three sources of major rivers, the Blue Nile, the Congo and now this; I’ve also been to the font of the Ganges, so count four. But neither of us claims the enlightenment that some aver comes with such pilgrimages.
Though others who have been here apparently have. We find the sacred jar, twist open its rusted top, and survey its contents. There are just seven pieces inside, including one 1993 entry that declares “This is Holy Ground.” There is a prayer, and a poem about the sacredness of the spot. There is a photocopy of the map to the source from Jacob Bower’s 1897 book. There is a note from John R. La Randeau of the Army Corps of Engineers that non-transcendentally states the GPS coordinates; the elevation at 8809’ feet, and the elegiac phrase, “source is 2619.4 miles from St. Louis.”
We each sign a piece of paper, date it, and stuff it into the jar. We then photograph and videotape the source waters, making the first film record of this sacred spring.
Pasquale fills an empty Nalgene bottle with source water, which we intend to carry all the way to the mouth. But as he places the sacred jar back into the cairn, a rock slips and crashes into the glass, shattering it into pieces. Suddenly dark clouds gather, the earth begins to grumble and shake, the springs dry up, and a giant boulder perched above begins to roll towards us.
Just kidding. Nothing happens but guilt. We take one of our Nalgenes and replace the contents in what we tell ourselves, with gallons of cognitive dissonance, is a better vessel anyway.
A few hours later we rendezvous at Tony’s home and tell him the tales. Over cheap but immensely satisfying Rhine wine he congratulates us for finding the source, but then cautions, “When you go home, tell nobody about how beautiful it is.” Even though he has written persuasively that the source is just above his 1000-acre farmstead, he doesn’t want hordes of amateur explorers traipsing through his little piece of Montana paradise to get there.
So, the word from this correspondent: Don’t even think about it… Ignore the video and pictures herein. It’s dreadfully unattractive, and the environment is hostile. Better to go to Yellowstone. Or over the Lemhi Pass, the way Lewis and Clark went.
The Great Escapes media team is traveling the length of the Missouri River in September, filing daily dispatches along the way. If you have a question or comment, mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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