FORT BENTON, Mont. — We’re carrying sacred water from the source of the Missouri in a Nalgene bottle, following the Red Rock River through the heart of Centennial Valley.
The Red Rock is also carrying the source water down from Hell Roaring Creek, but we're confident our water will reach the Mississippi first, as the Mighty Mo is now emasculated by nearly two dozen dams, and a great percentage of the once free-flowing river is now lost to irrigation and evaporation.
We want to label the Nalgene bottle so nobody mistakenly drinks it during our journey, so our video guy Andrew Locke pulls the bottle from the pack as Pasquale Scaturro finds a marker. Then Andrew pulls out a second identical water bottle… uh oh. One has source water, one carries water from the Papoose Creek Lodge where we stayed the night before, and both look exactly the same, limpid and shiny.
Where forks collide
We wind our way downstream to the Beaverhead River and onto the Jefferson, and then to where it joins the Gallatin and Madison at Three Forks, Montana, to create, without ceremony, what is officially known as the Missouri River. It is a completely arbitrary designation made by Lewis and Clark when faced with which stream to ascend to reach the western-most pass over the Rockies. They had encountered similar situations before, coming to forks of seemingly equal volume, such as the Yellowstone and Marias, but choose one and knighted it the Missouri. But here, knowing where their bread was buttered, they named the branches after Secretary of State James Madison, Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, and "the author of our enterprise" President Jefferson.
Right across from site where the girl was kidnapped rises the Sacajawea Inn on Main Street. Here patrons can imagine the ghosts of the Indian wars while rocking on chairs along a white double-columned porch. The town, on the fringe of "celebrity Montana" to the south, is somewhat obsessed with Sacagawea, even promoting the Sacagawea dollar as the official currency. It seems astonishing that despite the prodigious powers of description Lewis and Clark possessed, and how critical Sacagawea was to the success of the expedition, neither ever described what the young mother looked like. It has been up to generations since to imagine the Shoshone teenager.
Visions of Sacagawea
We stop into the Headwaters Heritage Museum, housed in a former bank at the southeast corner of Main and Cedar, where curator Robin Cadby Sorenson showed us around. We find dozens of creative renditions of Sacagawea, from a Hollywood-style mannequin to dolls with chubby cheeks. However she appeared, it is widely acknowledged that her presence with her infant along the expedition signaled to wary and potentially hostile Indians en route that Lewis & Clark was not a war party, and thus allowed safe passage.
We make a short drive to Headwaters State Park where we watch the three rivers flow in twists and turns through a rolling, grass-covered valley. Larry Clark, who claims Mormon church-verified lineage to William Clark, is sitting by the riverside, preparing to cast a line into his favorite watershed. "I've caught my limit everyday for the past month," he chimes while turning off his cell phone and readying his rod. "Best fishin' in the world." He's convincing in his enthusiasm, so we decide to go fishing.
We hook up with Montana River Outfitters, and by drift boat head down the Wolf Creek Canyon section of the Missouri, legendary for its big brown and rainbow trout. The river purls past palace rocks and by celebrated fishing holes, and our guide, Neil Streeks, 50, works the water like a concert pianist, which he isn’t, or a 25-year veteran of the river, which he is. In our two-hour float, Neil catches the only trout, an eight-inch rainbow weighing perhaps a third of a pound, but he's more sanguine than us: "If it seems small, hold it closer to your eyes." He knows he'll be back tomorrow, yet we are heading downstream to a different Missouri.
Late in the day we arrive at the Great Falls of the Missouri. When Lewis & Clark arrived here in mid-June 1805 they found 18 miles of rapids with five major waterfalls. "The grandest sight I had ever beheld," Lewis wrote of his first glimpse. "When my ears were saluted with the agreeable sound of a fall of water, advancing a little further I saw the spray arise above the plain like a column of smoke which would frequently disappear again in an instant — which soon began to make a roaring too tremendous to be mistaken for any cause short of the great falls of the Missouri."
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Today the Great Falls are just a trickle, a few inches wide dribbling over naked rock, as a series of hydroelectric dams built in the early 1900s divert the water around the natural drops. They robbed Montana of a world-class scenic wonder. Lewis and Clark spent a punishing month portaging around these cataracts. It takes us 15 minutes in our Hybrid.
We end the day at Fort Benton, once the furthest-most inland port in the world, where steamboats came all the way from New Orleans to trade whisky and tobacco for buffalo and beaver pelts and gold. The railroads, of course, turned this and other river entrepôts to shadows of their late 19th century brilliance. The riverside Grand Union Hotel was once the finest between Minneapolis and Seattle, but it closed in the ‘50s and was boarded up for 15 years.
It's been lovingly restored by Jim and Cheryl Gagnon, and is once again a showcase along the upper Missouri, though it may be haunted. We check in anyway. My room is atop the second floor stairwell, where a cowboy on a drunken bet rode his horse, and was shot dead by the clerk.
But it's outside that I see ghosts. As the sunset paints the hills with a honey light I squint upstream and see a voyager canoe heading my way. It looks at though a party of Blackfoot is paddling downriver, intentions unknown. They could just as easily open fire as offer to trade. If only Sacagawea were here, I fancy.
But as the canoe passes I see the happy pink faces of tourists, who wave at me, and beckon. I'm tempted to dive in and swim over to immerse myself in what from the bending distance of today seems a more romantic era.
Lewis and Clark, hungry, fearful, and tired when they camped here, would likely not agree.
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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