TRAILING THE EXPLORERS Tracing the remote path of explorers Lewis and Clark along the Missouri River


There were two goals. One was, well, to borrow from the psychobabble of the '80s and '90s, bonding: a 50-year-old father and a 24-year-old son from the city taking a three-day, two-night canoe journey on the Missouri River in Montana. It would be my territory -- I'd grown up beside the Missouri in the capital city of Helena -- and my son's expertise -- he of numerous sailing and canoeing trips on the Chesapeake and Susquehanna and a sailboat journey from New England to the Bahamas. I would be the host; the child would be father (and camp counselor) of the man.

The second goal was to follow the route of the great American explorers Lewis and Clark through the remote White Cliffs of the Missouri in north-central Montana. This is a Missouri most tourists and even most Montanans haven't seen. It's the Missouri after it leaves the Rockies and turns east, later to join the Yellowstone and the Mississippi. For centuries, it has been cutting a spectacular swath through the soft sandstone, hard igneous rock and coal badlands of Montana, creating a 50-mile wonder of natural formations virtually unknown south of the (Montana-Wyoming) border.

We'd planned the trip for weeks and arrived just after Memorial Day at Virgelle, Mont., headquarters of the Missouri River Canoe Co. I wasn't impressed by the gentle but steady rain (predicted for much of launch day), nor was I prepared for spending prelaunch night in a restored homesteader's cabin, deprived of electricity and running water. But it turned out to be a good introduction to the river trip: a warm stove, fresh water in an antique water can and an evening to rearrange belongings by flashlight for the days ahead. We had to provide only sleeping bags and personal items; the outfitter provided the rest, including a tent, food, water, camp stove and utensils.

Virgelle, population one

Virgelle is one of many Montana towns reduced to ghost status; there's a ferry across the Missouri and a year-round population of one in the little town itself. But Don Sorensen, the proprietor of the canoe company and of the Virgelle Mercantile, an antique store with a working soda fountain, has made Virgelle into a splendid launching point for a trip on the Missouri.

After a hearty breakfast, we set forth at Coal Banks Landing (just east of Virgelle). The all-night rain persevered for an hour and stopped. We stripped our rain gear, threw in a fishing line and began reading aloud from a waterproof log provided by the outfitter, a log not only of Lewis and Clark's excursions up and down the river nearly two centuries ago, but also of the mostly failed attempts by homesteaders and others to settle in this harsh territory in the 20th century.

A treacherous stream

I had grown up knowing the river as foreboding and capricious (though I had swum and courted Helena girls on beaches called White Sandy and Black Sandy). It is still a treacherous stream, though the 150-mile stretch from Fort Benton to the upper Fort Peck Reservoir (on which we would cover 48 miles) is fairly calm. Boaters move along gently at about 3 mph in steady currents, but winds can raise havoc. The day before our trip, an east wind had caused heavy waves, contributing to the drowning of a fisherman only three miles from where we were to complete the journey.

There is nothing quite like it in the United States. The river passes through lofty sandstone cliffs -- the White Cliffs of the Missouri -- that transfixed Lewis and Clark in 1805 and 1806 and that continue to fascinate today. In 1976, the federal government designated this stretch of the "Mighty Mo" a part of America's Wild and Scenic River System, but aside from a few abandoned homestead shacks and ranchers' fences and a couple of primitive campsites developed by the Montana Fish and Game Commission, there are no signs of humans between Coal Banks Landing and the Judith Landing 48 miles to the east, where we pulled in our canoe the third day.

Lewis and Clark kept meticulous journals on their way up the river (westward) in 1805. The following year, their "Corps of Discovery," as the group was called, traveled downstream (our direction), although Clark left his companion to explore the Yellowstone River. (The two met again where the Yellowstone and Missouri join near what is today the Montana-North Dakota border.)

We had the benefit of excellent Bureau of Land Management maps and the L&C; journals on both segments of their exploration, and, in fact, camped at one place where they camped in both directions. It's called Slaughter Creek (named because L&C; saw fragments of at least 100 buffalo carcasses at an Indian buffalo jump a few miles downstream from the site).

Drifting downstream

As we drifted downstream, we read the journals aloud and tried to imagine the 33-member party struggling upstream 187 years earlier. Our 17-foot canoe, loaded with gear and plenteous provisions, contrasted with L&C;'s pirogues, the smallest of which was 35 feet long. Lewis described the effort:

"The men are compelled to be in the water even to their armpits, and the water is yet very could, and so frequent are those points that they are one fourth of their time in the water, added to this the banks and bluffs along which they are obliged to pass are so slippery and the mud so tenacious that they are unable to wear their mockersons, and in that situation draging the heavy burthen of a canoe and walking occasionally for several hundred yards over the sharp fragments of rocks which tumble from the clifts and garnish

the borders of the river; in short their labour is incredibly painfull and great."

Ours wasn't. This is a trip any able-bodied person could endure and enjoy, yet one most adventurers haven't taken, given Montana's isolation. The few "rapids" noted in the BLM maps are nothing but ripples. We camped both nights at the state campsites, alone except for nearby coyotes and owls, cactus, cottonwoods and acres of sage. This isn't mountainous country. The colors aren't the sharp colors of the Missouri of the Rockies. Here, in the plains country painted by Montana artist Charles Russell, they are brown and sage green, more subtle than those that have attracted a bevy of movie stars and others of wealth to Montana's mountain ranches.

A strenuous journey

Our side trips into the sandstone cliffs were the most strenuous and dangerous parts of the journey. There is a simple reason the minimum trip is three days: The Missouri at this point is so inaccessible that no roads on which one could deliver a pair of canoeists approach it for nearly 50 miles below Coal Banks Landing. This means that victims of accidents and snakebites are in big trouble; a hike to "civilization" is several miles.

We saw the White Cliffs, just as Lewis and Clark did, and we concurred. They wrote of "elegant ranges of lofty freestone building, having their parapets well stocked with statuary. . . . Nitches and alcoves of various forms and sizes are seen at different hights as we pass." They identified erosion as having worn "the soft sand clifts . . . into a thousand grotesque figures."

Indeed, some of the cliffs seem to have been planned and executed by some superhuman engineer. Here is a castle, complete with parapets. There is an obelisk. Here is a dike that starts on one side of the river and resumes on the other. The combination of hard igneous rocks and soft sedimentary rocks (so soft they can be crumbled by hand) has created one of America's most breathtaking spectacles. And the cliffs and pinnacles provide ideal habitats for the likes of rattlesnakes, coyotes, deer, antelope and golden eagles.

'Eye of the Needle'

One of the river's most spectacular sights is "Eye of the Needle," a stone archway atop a cliff overlooking the river. My son had to lift his old man through a narrow crevice that must be negotiated to reach the top. But it was worth it. At night, around nTC the campfire, out of sight of any other humans or electric lights, I rejoiced that I had made it. The climb, and three other long hikes, became more and more dangerous in the retelling.

Our trip ended right on schedule the third day at Judith River Landing, the first road access to the Missouri below Coal Banks Landing. We were tired but exultant. Bonded? Perhaps even that. We'd survived and thrived on the "wild" Missouri in an expanse seen only by fortunate visitors since Lewis and Clark's passage nearly two centuries earlier.

If you go . . .

Missouri River Canoe Co., R.R. 1, Loma, Mont. 59460; call (800) 426-2926 or (406) 378-3110.

The company, located 70 miles northeast of Great Falls (which has an international airport) and 16 miles from Big Sandy, provides full or partial outfitting in 17-foot canoes. The cost is $55 a day for everything but sleeping bags and personal items.

An overnight stay in restored 1920 homestead cabins (no electricity or running water) or a bed-and-breakfast is an extra charge.

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