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


August 30, 1992|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Staff Writer

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:

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