It was a whirlwind (sometimes literally) coming down through the Missouri Breaks. When I pulled into the Coal Banks landing I chose the campsite immediately at the top of the boat ramp because it was the shortest distance to haul gear uphill. The (dis-)advantage of that location was its proximity to the visitors center and overhearing all the conversations occurring, primarily with the camp hosts. Just as I was falling asleep the leader of a crew of teenage boys was informed by Casey, the BLM host, that bad weather was rolling in overnight.
I woke around 4:00 a.m. to the sound of rain on the tent and wind. It was a real howler by the time I crawled out of the tent and clear that it was going to be a bitterly cold and wet day. I ate breakfast and rolled the canoe down the ramp (canoe cart!) and started to load. In between trips the youth group leader came over and asked me what I thought of the conditions. “Not too bad, it still seems fairly calm on the water.” He then pointed out my mistake, I was looking at the protected inlet leading into the boat ramp. We conversed some more, mainly about whether they would push off with three canoes of first timers and then I crawled into my boat and zipped up everything as tight as possible.
The melt water from the late winter storm a week earlier made the river run quick through this section. That, combined with the wet and cold conditions, produced a wave of nostalgia for the season I was on BLM backcountry crew in Glennallen, Alaska, in 1985; running the Delta and Gulkana wild and scenic rivers. My run through the breaks would be short but it was a RUN, something that I expect will only happen once in this 1,800 mile trip.
The current shot me along and I had to fight to pull out to take the occasional photograph. Of course, photos never do justice to the experience and there’s so little left of the original Missouri River that the experience was too short lived. I continued onward and kept thinking about Lewis and Clark’s experience on this river where every mile and turn around the next bend was as raw and natural as that still to be seen in the Missouri Breaks. It’s at those moments of reflection that I can’t, for the life of me, even begin to understand the hubris of the U.S. Congress to pass legislation to dam and destroy over 1,100 miles of this natural gem.
After clearing the Breaks I continued on for several hours before pulling over to eat lunch and walk circles on the shore trying to regain circulation to my cold feet. I was in the famous White Cliffs area and could see the Hole in the Wall in the distance. So far, it had been a day of isolation with no other human in sight, the perfect way to enjoy a fast current and a well built canoe. I climbed back into my boat and shoved off and started back downriver. After about a quarter mile I realized that another yellow boat was parked on the shore and had to be that of Jake Valenze, the other through paddler that I knew was in this section of the river. I pulled over and whistled and yelled but got no reply; I was too cold and lazy to get back out of my boat to look (I had just gotten back in just a few minutes prior) so I gave up and shoved off. I figured he was off taking photos and I wouldn’t locate him anyhow.
I pushed on for the rest of the day soaking in the landscape and enjoying the primary reason I was doing this trip, the isolation and ruggedness that is Montana. Camp that night was made after a satisfyingly long paddle day (just like the old days in Alaska!). I slept soundly and woke to the knowledge that I would be repeating the pack it up, shove off, float for 9-10 hours with short breaks, search for camp late in the day routine again for another 7 weeks. Kinda fitting for a big trip through big country.
The landscape through the lower Missouri Breaks is dominated by large rock walls and a feeling that things will soon widen out and change to open prairie. I continued the next day and again chose to search for camp too late in the day for comfort. The next day I found my way to Judith Landing where I pulled out to eat lunch and look around. For all that’s been written about how the Judith River was named and its incredible beauty, it was a bit of a letdown. It was more of a hard scrabble boat ramp with an ugly campground than inspiration by a beautiful woman named Judith.
Jake and I hooked up again the following day when he paddled up to my camp and scared the bajeebus out of me while I focused on loading my boat while (in embarrassment) talking to myself. A quick policing for any overlooked items and I joined him on the float downstream. He filled me in on his life to date; 26, single with a girlfriend back in Denver, grew up in Maryland and went to college in West Virginia, degree in environmental studies, working the last few years as a subcontractor for Walmart doing parking lot storm drain inspection and cleanup. He’d had enough of the corporate scene and it was time for a float. The usual story that always unique to the individual person.
We floated for a few hours and as we turned a bend in the river Jake pointed out there was a canoe on the bank ahead and it had to be Nick Real. “Or another canoeist”, I pointed out. “He’s got a canoe cart, only through paddlers carry those” was Jake’s response. A simple observation that pretty much told the entire story.
Nick Real currently lives in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and is taking a four month leave of absence to float the 2,400 miles from the headwaters to home. Nick grew up in Sioux Falls, Iowa, and went to the Merchant Marine academy to learn how to captain the big boys. He currently works as a tugboat captain on the west coast and does as many outdoor activities as possible during his extended leaves. Of course, as he’s telling me all this all I could think of were the PBS television shows my kids watched as toddlers featuring a talking tugboat. And here was the captain looking every inch the image with his knit cap, flowing beard, and confident ease around other people!
For the rest of the day the three of us floated the river and chatted. The wind had kicked up again so it was a bit of a slow go but we reached Ft. Kipp by late afternoon. Ft. Kipp is the 400 mile mark in the float from the Missouri River headwaters at Three Forks, MT, and marks the completion of the first section of a through trip. Ft. Kipp also marks the beginning of what Dave Miller describes in The Complete Paddler as “truly remote and wild country” and what I always have considered the real start of my Missouri River canoe trip (more on that later).
By late afternoon we had set up camp in the Ft. Kipp tent area while quietly taking in the scene of the city that had popped up around us leading into the Memorial Day weekend. It’s always a shock to be back around people after several days of going solo. The racing boat engines and large pickups in the campground only reaffirmed the feeling that I’m doing something quite odd, moving across the landscape based my own muscle power. It’s definitely a different way of approaching an interaction with nature and at this juncture of the trip what had me most concerned about heading into the Dammed Section of the Missouri River…