UPPER MISSOURI RIVER — Some in these parts think the most profound act of the Clinton administration was declaring the 149 miles of the Missouri River from Fort Benton to James Kipp Park a National Monument. It was an act made on the second-to-last-day of Bill’s presidency, about the same time he pardoned Marc Rich, and to some Montanans it was equally controversial.
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But standing by the Missouri at first light I am thankful for this stream’s protection. It is almost too beautiful to behold. The light on the river, neither moonlight nor dawn, is a commingling of both, luminous as a pale shell. Downstream the river stretches, broad and smooth, sweeping around a vast elbow and disappearing into the mists of history.
I can’t resist the pull of this river, so off we go to canoe the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic, past the scenery that perhaps inspired Lewis and Clark more than any other. Lewis wrote as they pulled and poled their canoes upriver, “These hills and river cliffs exhibit the most extraordinary and romantic appearance. They rise in most places nearly perpendicular from the water, to a height of between 200 and 300 feet, and are formed of very white sandstone into a thousand grotesque figures, among which with a little fancy, may be discerned elegant ranges of freestone buildings, with columns variously sculptured...”
River guides and spaniels
We hook up with Craig Madsen, a native Montanan who has been guiding the Missouri since 1977. A few years earlier he had returned from a stint in the military and took an Outward Bound course, where he was surprised and delighted to discover that people actually made a living as a guide. He set about that goal, and never looked back.
We put in to paddle the White Cliffs section, and glide with the fast currents down past hoodoos and dykes, yellow cottonwoods and cactus. We flit and sally past grassy hills, wooded bottomlands, sandstone pinnacles, sere badlands, and a procession of remote Lewis and Clark campsites. A big-bodied mule deer with a broad, sweeping rack steps up a labyrinthine side canyon. A golden eagle rounds the updrafts, a rock pigeon cries down a gully. We’re in the heart of the Missouri Breaks, where deep fractured coulees snake up into the high bluffs and shattered hills beyond the riverbanks.
The Breaks and the surrounding treeless prairie were once the haunts not only of the buffalo-hunting Blackfoot, but also Assiniboin and Crow, all of whom used the maze of fissures as hideouts and ambush points in the wars with the white men. Later, this stretch of the Missouri was the water highway of the Mountain Men, the fur trappers who manhandled their pirogues upstream to reach Rocky Mountain beaver country. Rustlers, whiskey traders, and notorious outlaws including Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and Kid Curry found refuge here, as do we now.
We pass Eagle Butte, Hole-in-the-Wall, and the dark, igneous Citadel Rock, a signpost for steamboat captains in the 1860s. But though these landmarks have names it all seems as uncharted now as then. Lewis marveled at these “scenes of visionary enchantment,” and he would do the same if here today. While most of the Missouri would be unrecognizable to Lewis and Clark were they to re-incarnate on their bicentennial—Portland, Ore., for instance, did not exist—they would feel at ease here. Nothing, not anything, has changed. Wherever we look we can see no sign of man or man’s works, just wilderness as it has existed for millennia, and wilderness now preserved.
Protected by time and decree
In the years just prior to World War I and continuing through the 1920s, thousands who had never handled a plow or seen the hindquarters of a horse flocked here in search of agrarian dreams. But poor soils, brutal cold, extreme heat, hail, 'hoppers and drought sent the homesteaders reeling in defeat. Today both Wild and Scenic and National Monument status prevent any development along the river corridor, even in those overlooks where a scenic hotel would draw the jetboat set.
One of the few who has private land along this stretch is Mike Arnst, whose family has scratched out a living growing wheat and barley on their 8,000-acre parcel for generations. Today Mike runs Eagle Buttes Adventures, which takes folks hiking through the picturesque pieces of his land; he’s hoping that where farming has failed tourism might succeed, especially with rising interest in following in the moccasin-steps of Lewis and Clark.
Now the canoe and its sharp bow bevels the river past rock polished like monument stone, past parapets, pedestals and pyramids. Steep, eroded cliffs gouged by the river plummet a thousand feet from the canyon rim, revealing ten million years of geologic history. In places, epochs of wind and rain have washed away the sediments, exposing massive rock crags and fantastic castles of dazzling white sandstone that loom high above the river. It is staggeringly beautiful. It feels like we’re in an oversized diorama, or in the middle of an IMAX film: everything is exaggerated, the colors more brilliant than enhanced photos, or even HDTV.
In the midst of this revelry there is a clap of thunder. Looking up I see the underbelly of great gray frigate clouds, and higher still a sky nearly black, pulling into nothingness. This is indeed the Big Sky, even in the confines of this canyon.
At the take-out the sun again peeks through, hissing like a blowtorch. As I climb back into the Hybrid I turn back to look at the river, which dreams along like a giant sleeping. Time for a moment seems absent. Trees, grasses, white bands of high rock, warm yellow sands, the river itself, are all motionless as in a picture, caught in a continuous Now, living in the warmth of the sun with neither past nor future.
Then suddenly a boil swirls over the quiet surface, bursts and subsides like a sigh. It is time to move on, time to steer towards a Missouri of impoundment, of long, thin reservoirs and big schemes. Time to roll down the once-mighty river once more.
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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