A father and son make like Lewis & Clark on a Missouri River canoe trip
By Andrew McCarthy
May 23, 2016, 5:00 AM | Fort Benton, Mont.
“My arms are tired, Dad.”
“So are mine.”
“How much farther?”
Our oars dip back into the water. We’re making very little headway now. Sam glances nervously over his shoulder again.
“They’re still gaining on us.”
“Keep paddling,” I shout through the heavy breeze.
“Dad, where exactly does the wind come from?”
“I don’t know, Sam. Just pull hard.”
Wherever the wind does originate, this morning it’s been ripping, kicking the normally placid water into occasional whitecaps as we canoe downstream on a wide stretch of the Upper Missouri River in central Montana.
Sixteen years earlier I was flipping through a travel magazine and came upon one of those Top 50 Trips lists. One entry had a photo of white cliffs towering over a majestic-looking river. “Paddle Like Lewis and Clark,” the headline read.
According to the brief article, little had changed in this remote area in the nearly 200 years since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had led the Corps of Discovery up the Missouri River on their journey to find a northwest passage to the Pacific.
The expedition, commissioned by Thomas Jefferson, would make Lewis and Clark world famous and rewrite the North American map.
I clipped the article and threw it in a shoe box that held similar pipe dreams. Occasionally I would sift through the box and come across that small article, promising myself that one day I would go.
Then came the afternoon my son returned home from school and announced that his class was studying Lewis and Clark.
“How would you like to go canoeing exactly where they did?” I asked.
“That could be cool,” he said with a shrug.
It took another year, but my now-13-year-old son and I arrive on the banks of the Upper Missouri River in Fort Benton on a warm, late August morning.
“We’re just winding things down for the season. You’re here at a good time. The river is pretty quiet,” Michael Gregston of Adventure Bound Canoe & Shuttle tells me as he equips us from his garage with canoe, paddles, dry bags and other gear we’ll need for several days on the river.
He then drives us past fields of wheat and wildflowers, under a wide Montana sky, to our put-in at Coal Banks Landing. The Corps of Discovery passed this section of the Upper Missouri River, with its famous White Cliffs, in the spring of 1805.
Maybe it’s just our New York way of talking, or maybe it’s the way we load our canoe with no apparent know-how, but before leaving, Gregston rolls down the window of his pickup and calls out to us.
“If you’re zigzagging all over the river, don’t worry,” he says. “Nothing happens fast on this part of the Missouri.”
He then kicks up a cloud of dust and we’re left by the side of the river, with nearly 50 miles to go and five days to get there before we see Gregston at the take-out.
With nothing to do but begin, we slip into the river; the canoe rocks a bit, then settles. We catch the gentle current, and the Mighty Mo takes us in hand.
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“How fast do you think we’re going?” my son asks.
“Not too fast, Sam.”
“Two, maybe 3 miles an hour.”
“Oh man, how far are we going today?”
Distant hills roll away from the river, the long grass faded brown late in the season. The air — just as it was when Lewis described it in his meticulously kept journals — is “astonishingly dry as well as pure.”
Occasionally we see black cattle drink from the riverbank. Swallows dart across our bow. It takes less than an hour to see our first bald eagle, perched on the uppermost branch of a dead cottonwood tree.
Ten minutes later a golden eagle, its broad wingspan fully extended, circles overhead.
Our canoe cuts through the reflection of puffy clouds cast upon the still water as we make our slow progress.
“How long do you think it takes this water to reach the ocean?” Sam asks.
We go back and forth, calculating distances, estimating speeds, and somehow come to the conclusion of 70 days. It’s been awhile since I have had my son all to myself for an extended period that allows for the inconsequential musings, long silences and occasional revelations the river encourages.
We stop a few times, exploring creek beds, before eventually covering about 12 miles. We pull off the river at Monroe Island and set up camp beside a grove of cottonwoods — the trace of beavers evident in the gnawed tree trunks.
A great blue heron lumbers into the air. Off to the east there has been rain and a long, arching double rainbow appears.
Down by the river in the gloaming, nighthawks dart through the air, and I teach my city kid how to skim stones. (It’s satisfying to occasionally still be able to impress your teenager.)
The first morning
We wake to low-hanging mist on the river. Not far downstream we come to the site where, on May 31, 1805, the Corps of Discovery made camp.
It’s a fine, wide meadow with clusters of cottonwood and Russian olive trees. Across the river, white cliffs begin to rise. Soon both banks are crowded by the sandstone walls. The current runs faster here.
The cliffs rise 200, 300 feet into the air, forming towers and spires, shadowing our canoe as we slip past.
Lewis famously wrote about this section of the river — “The hills and river Cliffs which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance … the water in the course of time in descending from those hills has trickled down the soft sand cliffs and woarn it into a thousand grotesque figures.
“As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never had an end.”
“This is awesome,” Sam sums up.
‘A wild fireball’
We paddle past Citadel Rock, a dark igneous formation and one of the Upper Missouri’s most prominent features. We quit early and make camp under a lone cottonwood beneath a towering cliff called Hole in the Wall.
The river here is wide and running. After collecting firewood, Sam and I walk far upstream with our life jackets. We jump into the current and float back to our campsite, laughing and splashing in the cold water.
The wind has shifted and distant smoke from late-season forest fires farther north fills the sky with an eerie haze. The setting sun is a wild fireball.
First light brings a gauzy, muted beauty to the river. The cliffs have retreated from the banks and the Missouri now cuts a wide and deep valley.
We stop to investigate a Lewis and Clark campsite under a grove of green ash trees and encounter a troop of 40 or so Boy Scouts on a trip down river — the first humans we’ve seen on the water. We decide to press on.
The Corps of Discovery was working against the current on its journey west, and this section of the river proved a great challenge. Lewis praised his men — “their labor is incredibly painful and great, yet those faithful fellows bear it without a murmur.”
But for Sam and me, drifting downstream, the living is easy. We’re doing more floating than paddling now — chatting about video games, self-confidence, Sam’s relationship with his sister, the joys of ramen noodles, the nature of philanthropy and the creation of the Earth — while the current carries us onward.
Our last night we wait too long to select a campsite and end up on a bend in the river that has recently been visited by a large herd of cattle. We dub it Cow Pie Point and pitch our tent.
Above camp, a steep embankment rises a few hundred feet.
“Let’s climb it, Dad.”
Only a 13-year-old could think scrambling up a nearly 40-degree hillside of loose scree would be a good idea.
“Whoa,” Sam says as he stumbles halfway up. “I almost fell backward.”
“We’re a long way from help, Sam,” I say, puffing behind him, trying to keep up. “Don’t go rag-dolling.”
“Think about it,” I tell him.
He scrambles a few more steps in silence. “Oh, yeah. Good point.”
The final stretch
On this same stretch of the Missouri, Lewis observed in his journals — “We had high and boisterous wind last night and this morning,” and he could have been speaking of our final hours on the river.
As we put out the fire before crawling into our sleeping bags, the wind begins to blow under a star-filled sky, and it only intensified by dawn.
“That’s a beautiful sound,” Sam says of the strong breeze rustling through the cottonwoods. It is difficult to have imagined my urban son making such a comment a few days earlier.
“It is,” I agree, “but take a look at the river.”
The wind is blowing directly upstream, whitecaps breaking the surface like an incoming tide.
“Is that gonna be hard to paddle in?”
Luckily, we have only seven miles to our take-out. The traveling is slow and labor-intensive. At one point Sam turns over his shoulder to talk to me through the wind — then he sees something.
“Oh, no!” he shouts.
“Look behind you. The Boy Scouts!”
I turn over my shoulder and see a dozen or more canoes spread across the river. It’s easy to imagine that the Corps of Discovery expedition is making its way downstream.
“I bet they’re going to Judith Landing too,” I say.
“We can’t let them get there before us.”
The race is on. For the next few hours we pull hard, our paddles going deep — Sam constantly looking over his shoulder.
“They’re gaining on us!”
Eventually we take a bend in the river and our destination comes into view. Ahead is Judith Landing, named by Clark in honor of his future wife.
The Boy Scouts have narrowed the gap but we will make it to take-out ahead of them. We raise our paddles high over head and let out a whoop.
Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery covered nearly 3,400 miles on their expedition west. Sam and I have traveled less than 50, but our sense of exhilaration on reaching our destination rivals Clark’s upon his reaching the Pacific.
Clark spoke for everyone when he jotted in his journal — “…in view! O! The Joy.”