Greetings, readers! Our expedition began at Coal Banks Landing on the Missouri River where we met Jim and his wife, Martha, who have been floating the Missouri together for 23 years! Since retiring, they have volunteered for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as camp hosts and educators. I have very rarely met anyone as passionate about a place as Jim was about the Missouri. He was brought to tears describing the natural beauty of this land and the connection he felt to it. Jim urged the group to stand in the river and look out onto the same landscape that Lewis and Clark saw in 1805.
So here I stand (sit and paddle), 213 years later and while I have no complaints about the stunning white cliff faces or sinuous slot canyons, I have reason to believe that neither Lewis, nor Clark, had to worry about stepping in cow pies or waking to the omnipresence of persistent “MOOOs” when they camped along the Missouri’s picturesque banks. Our Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI) class has yet to go far without seeing cows or ranchers on ATVs. It’s challenging to look past these “advances” and “feel the history,” through Jim’s romantic lens. We’ve read accounts from the Corps of Discovery’s historic whimsical observations of frolicking ibex and bison, and death defying encounters with apex predators such as grizzly bears and not-so-lone wolves… April 22, 1805, “I ascended to the top of the cut bluff this morning, from whence I had the most delightful view of the country, the whole of which except the valley formed by the Missouri is void of timber or underbrush, exposing to the first glance of the spectator immense herds of Buffalo, Elk, deer, & Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture” (Ambrose, 1996). Spoiler Alert: all of these animals’ populations have since diminished, MOOved out, replaced by domesticated animals for economic gain.
The WRFI course material has focused on post-Lewis and Clark land management policies. In the late 1800s, propaganda of the purported wealth of the West newly opened for agriculture drove human hordes westward to manifest their destiny of “the American Dream.” The Homestead Act of 1862 offered free land for anyone who would improve upon it by farming. Homesteaders arrived in Montana with unfulfilled expectations of fertile soils and a temperate climate suitable for agriculture. Faced with the reality of arid plains covered in rattlesnakes (Healy, 2004), some tried to farm but many turned to cattle, letting their livestock roam for miles on the open public range. Generations of ranchers vying for cattle feasting forage; overgrazing grounds held in common. Some were able to feed their wallets, but many struggled to feed their families.
We can’t scapegoat (scapecow?) cattle entirely for our degradation nation; floodplain ecology has been interrupted by damming, cottonwoods have stopped reproducing, and river water is polluted by anthropogenic (human) sources. Seven dams have been built on the Missouri upriver from where we were traveling, primarily for irrigation and hydroelectric power. This process interrupted natural flood cycles of the landscape (National Research Council, 2002). Cyclical flooding once aided in the seed dispersal of cottonwoods fertilizing the land with nutrients. Without this natural event, cottonwoods need to be planted by volunteers and saplings are fenced to keep munching bovines at bay (French, 2014). Agriculture in the river basin has also played a huge role in the pollution of the water. Fertilizers and manure are often swept into the river after rain and snowmelt to the extent that potability is improbable (Earth Justice, 2018). Because of these disturbances we will never return to the West that was, but what can we observe and appreciate in the land we have now? Drum roll, please…
Our expedition was filled with amazing experiences for both me individually and our group as a whole. Two days into our paddle I saw my first rattlesnake which I ran past confidently armed with a camp chair and stack of books — apparently I missed the memo in our snake orientation to avoid crossing their paths, sorry mom! It was terrifyingly amazing to see an animal so well known to this region and of high importance to this ecosystem (BLM). A few days later, we woke up before dawn and paddled to Hole in the Wall, a popular and aptly named geologic feature featuring a hole in sandstone wall. In route we saw two beavers; these furry flat-tailed friends left evidence of felling trees over a foot in diameter – amazing to see one swim very close to a classmate’s boat. Upon reaching the summit of our hike, we sat and watched the river wind from above in silence. We admired the sunrise and then continued our day of paddling, stopping to have a warm breakfast on a nearby island, COFFEE! On our last full day of paddling, we chose to go for 30 miles. Despite this being our longest day by far, time seemed to pass quickly as we shared stories and joked; jovial and fulfilled with the wonders we were experiencing. All of these moments and more have made for an amazing and memorable trip on the Missouri.
Despite all of the changes made to this landscape, there are always new experiences to be had out here. In addition to our finned, furred, and feathered friends we encountered commercial outfitters and multigenerational visitors, all of whom shared positive sentiments of time spent out here and a desire to return. But I just have to say, no one is experiencing anything like Lewis and Clark did; lions and wolves and bears oh my!
Ambrose, S.E. 1996. Chapter Eighteen: From Fort Mandan to Marias River. Undaunted Courage. New York: Simon and Schuster. 211-229.
Bureau of Land Management. Bathroom signage and literature.
Earth Justice. 2018. Montana DEQ announces that HECLA mining company, national mining association chairman Phillips Baker in violation of Montana’s “bad actor” laws. 20 March.
French, B. 2014. Cottonwood trees have tough time taking root in Missouri River Breaks. Billings Gazette. 13 March.
Healy, Donna. (2004). Homestead memories: Challenges of life in Breaks include isolation, rattlesnakes. Billings Gazette, 23 July.
National Research Council. 2002. Missouri River and Floodplain Ecology. In The Missouri River Ecosystem: Exploring the prospects for recovery. Washington DC: National Academy Press.