Comparing Notes With Lewis And Clark

PrintPrintEmailEmailHistory unspools like film rolling slowly backward in the Missouri Breaks, a 149-mile corridor of stark cliffs and tawny bluffs along the Upper Missouri River in central Montana. On the eve of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s bicentennial, this is the last undeveloped stretch of the 2,700-mile waterway that carried the explorers west to fulfill President Jefferson’s charge of finding the Missouri’s source and to track a water route to the Pacific. In the spring of 1805, when the explorers became the first American citizens to penetrate the Breaks, this was one of the most remote areas in the vast new Louisiana Purchase. Still one of the nation’s most isolated regions, it remains the best place to see the West as Lewis and Clark did. In fact, the river corridor today looks more as it did to Lewis and Clark than it did a century ago.

The Corps of Discovery that Meriwether Lewis assembled in 1803 and 1804 did eventually find the Missouri’s source in south western Montana. But the headwaters rose several mountain ranges east of the Continental Divide, dashing hopes of a Northwest Passage. From a geopolitical standpoint, though, the expedition achieved something far more important: It sparked the expansion that would underpin American claims to the present-day northwestern United States. After Lewis and Clark visited it, the Upper Missouri became a major westward thoroughfare for fur traders, steamboaters, gold seekers, stockmen, and homesteaders. As they streamed in, they displaced the native peoples. Most famously, the Nez Perces beat their final, heartbreaking retreat through the Missouri Breaks while fleeing the U.S. Army. Nowadays, fading visual remnants reveal a historical palimpsest all along the river corridor, which was designated a National Wild and Scenic River in 1976 and as of 2001 has been further protected as the centerpiece of the new 377,346-acre Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.


Two centuries after Lewis and Clark, exploring in their wake still demands a boat. Road trips run a distant second. Pavement meets the river at either end of the Breaks, at the town of Fort Benton to the west and Highway 191 to the east, but in between, topography and, occasionally, private property are formidable barriers to all but a few rough gravel roads that wriggle down to remote river landings. Rising above the Breaks are Great Plains landscapes that yield little suggestion of the drama below. But getting on the water doesn’t require exertion. You can be fully outfitted, guided, shuttled, and cosseted on a summertime trip by motorized pontoon boat. Still, most travelers rough it, paddling rented canoes, with or without guides. Either way, you see the world from the explorers’ perspective, and history at eye level.


Floating the entire Missouri Breaks, most of it flat water with occasional washboard riffles, takes about a week of relaxed daytime paddling and primitive overnight camping along the shore. Lacking the time or the inclination to rough it for that long, many paddlers bite off smaller chunks—one-, two-, or three-day sections of the Upper Missouri. Then, once off the river- after a hot shower or two—they start to feel the ineffable pull of the area again and make plans to return. The late historian and Lewis and Clark chronicler Stephen E. Ambrose—perhaps an extreme example—had taken his family on the river 10 times by 1994 and called the area’s sandstone cliffs his favorite sight in the world.


So far my family and I have canoed parts of the Breaks only twice—the first time as I researched a book about the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the river corridor and the new national monument around it, the second on our own. Like most other paddlers, on that first trip we aimed first for the White Cliffs, toward the western end of the Breaks. The Cliffs rise 16 miles downstream from the closest put-in, Coal Banks Landing, where an outfitter deposited us and two canoes. The White Cliffs are famous for their beauty, but I was skeptical about their advance billing as “visionary inchantment.” Travel writing invites hyperbole; on the other hand, when the author is Meriwether Lewis, you expect sober observation. After all, Lewis devoted thousands of hours to recording in painstakingly accurate detail practically everything and everyone the expedition encountered on its 8,000-mile voyage across the American continent.