Floating the Missouri with the ghosts of Lewis and Clark
After a while, your neck gets sore.
Not from the paddling so much as from the gawking — staring up at the colossal spires rising from the sagebrush along the Upper Missouri River.
The white cliffs are the size of skyscrapers and look like something out of sc-fli flick. But they’re real.
Bulbous boulders sit precariously atop Stonehenge slabs, and banks of 1,200-foot slabs lean against the blue sky.
These amazing cliffs provide just one of the attractions of floating the Missouri River below Fort Benton.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition came through this area in 1805 on their journey to find a Northwest Passage, and I can’t imagine much has changed since. Other than the cows.
Standing on the banks of the Missouri River in Fort Benton, I admired the big river pushing past me on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Here I was, thousands of miles upstream from St. Louis, Missouri, where the expedition set forth in 1804 to find a long-imagined water route to the Pacific Ocean.
Lewis and Clark came spent time here exploring a nearby fork of the Marias River to investigate whether the Marias was, indeed, the Northwest Passage. (It was not, and they turned back, but in my opinion it would have provided a much faster route over the Continental Divide.)
The Missouri River connects the settlement of Montana.
Just 50 years after Lewis and Clark passed through, a lively paddlewheel steamship business began operating on the Missouri from St. Louis to Fort Benton, where pioneers began settling the upper West. Remains of the steamship docks and piers can still be seen around Fort Benton, reminders of our history.
As a longtime kayaker from Missoula, I think the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is a classic Montana river trip and a must-do for all paddlers. The trip gives you spectacular scenery and a big taste of Western history.
I began researching this float and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument when I was working on a story last year about President Trump’s effort to downsize or eliminate the monument. That idea didn’t set well with most of the locals I spoke with in Fort Benton.
Locals were upset about the monument, but on both sides of the argument. Fort Benton is a microcosm of most Montana towns, where traditional activities like ranching and farming collide with new-age ideals, shops and tourism-based businesses.
Those social standards, traditions and cultures sometimes clash, and when the Upper Missouri River Breaks became a political issue with President Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Fort Benton residents quickly took sides.
Some of the animosity dates back to former President Bill Clinton’s designation of the monument. Some people cheered that status, as monument status for the upper Missouri River Breaks offered protection, while extractive industry advocates said the monument took away the ability to drill and explore for energy resources.
Eventually, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke did not remove or reduce the size of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
Fort Benton is a charming Montana town, with a classic main street that fronts the Missouri River.
You get the idea that the river is the heartbeat and pulse of Fort Benton. Certainly, it connects this remote landscape on the upper Missouri River. There are few bridges, and miles between. Two ferries downstream from Fort Benton carry one to two cars at a time.
Full disclosure here: I started kayaking in Missoula in the early 1980s, long before “play boats” and things like Brennan’s Wave captured our attention.
We paddled fiberglass boats back then, some of them built by legendary Missoula kayakers like Ralph Yule, and the last thing most of us wanted to do was bang up our boat, as that just meant an evening of repair work once we got back home.
I was unable to get my hands on a flatwater boat for the Missouri River trip, so in the spirit of frontier adventure, I rigged two of my whitewater boats together in order to hold all my gear — and water. Water is your most precious resource on this float, as there are no running creeks along this stretch.
While there’s water everywhere, you would need a solid filtration system in order to drink the murky water of the Missouri River in summer. The river banks in many areas are laden with cattle, and in places their filth can be seen floating out into what would otherwise be a clear river.
We put on the river in 90-degree morning heat at Coal Banks, about 15 miles below Fort Benton. The 65-mile trip would take us three days, with ample time for side hikes and leisurely camping.
The first few miles of our float were fairly monotonous. Cattle grazed the shoreline and splashed in the shallows to keep cool. But soon the landscape began to change as we entered the Wild and Scenic portion of the upper Missouri River. Around each corner we could sense the changes coming. Sandstone cliffs jutted up out of deep coulees and draws. We craned our heads ever skyward to watch this amazing landscape drift past us … or were we drifting past it?
Now, when I’m on a long river trip it takes at least a day and a night on the river for me to start to feel the pulse. Then you begin to feel the river itself, how it sets the pace of your day, your mood, and your release of the quotidienne life of deadlines and “goals.”
But here, on the Mighty Missouri, you get the idea pretty quickly you’re on to something bigger. After the first day, I was in the river groove.
The Wild and Scenic portion of the upper Missouri River is non-motorized from June 15 through Sept. 15, so we had no company of outboard motors. Most of the people we saw floating the river used canoes and loaded them heavily with gear — and water.
When President Clinton signed into law the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, he had good precedent to work with. The upper portion of the Missouri River was designated as Wild and Scenic in October 1976, and the section contains all three river classifications in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 — Wild, Scenic and Recreational. Aside from cattle ranching on the upper reaches near Fort Benton, the upper Missouri River is remote, silent and pristine.
The river offers natural settings from the gigantic cottonwoods along the river, to the beautiful White Cliffs section, where the rock formations capture your imagination.
Farther down the river are the gently rolling pine- and juniper-covered slopes of the Missouri River Breaks, but we never made it that far on this float, taking out at Judith Landing under smoky July skies.
In this three-day section, you’ll find developed camps with vault toilets, fire grills and great hiking. The canyons and cirques that rise up out of the river beckon you to get out of your boat and go explore.
With my contrived, two-whitewater-boat floating platform, I was a bit slower down the river than my companions, who had flat-water kayaks. Plus, as a journalist and curious outdoorsman, I take my own sweet time.
So after a day of waiting for me downstream, my companions moved on and just waited for me at the end of the day at the campsite, as I explored solo the canyons and trails where Lewis and Clark camped in May 1805.
Since no one — even my floating companions — knew my whereabouts, I stepped carefully among the prickly pear cactus and rocks. I hiked a deer trail up to the head of a cirque, and stopped at the base of an 800-foot pillar to rest.
Far below me, a coyote walked down the trail I’d walked up, oblivious to me, his tongue and tail dragging in the mid-day heat as he slinked his way toward the river.
Under me, I could feel the pulse of this high-desert landscape. The day drew on, and crickets began their songs. The sky deepened its hue toward evening, and I lingered as long as I could before I returned down the trail to the river. I would still have several river miles to paddle to catch my companions before darkness set in, but I felt like pushing it.
After all, my predecessors who hiked through here 160 years ago didn’t even have neoprene, sunscreen or bent-shaft paddles.
I pushed off from the muddy banks and let my kayaks spin down the river. I closed my eyes, and imagined I could hear the explorers’ voices floating down the canyons on the evening breeze.
This was the Missouri.
IF YOU GO
Bureau of Land Management
Lewistown Field Office
920 Northeast Main
Lewistown, MT 59457
LATITUDE/LONGITUDE48.03166015 / -110.2377386
The main access points for the Upper Missouri are in Fort Benton, Loma, Coal Banks Landing, Judith Landing and James Kipp Recreation Area. In Fort Benton, Montana, river accesses are at the Chouteau County Fairgrounds Canoe Launch and Campground, which is designated as River Mile 0.
Other access sites:
Fort Benton Boat Launch (River Mile 1.4).
In Loma the Wood Bottom Recreation Area, accessed via Loma Bridge Road east of U.S. Highway 87 N. This site features a campground, parking area and boat launch (River Mile 20).
Coal Banks Landing Recreation Area (River Mile 41.5)
This site is best accessed via Gardiner Road, east of US Highway 87 N at mile marker 66.7. Coal Banks is the main and most popular launch point on the Upper Missouri. Judith Landing Recreation Area (River Mile 88.5)
This is best accessed via State Highway 236 (Judith Landing Rd), east of US Highway 87 N at Big Sandy, Montana.
James Kipp Recreation Area is the end of the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River and main takeout point for boaters boating the badlands section of the river. Upstream travel restrictions are in effect from June 15 through September 15 annually.