Comparing Notes With Lewis And Clark

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As Lieutenant Clark had predicted, the Missouri breaks would defy civilization.

Still, for some woodhawks, misery paid, for a year or two anyway. A single steamboat consumed as many as 30 cords of wood a day. The average price enterprising woodhawks might earn was eight dollars a cord. But in the process they denuded everything—bottomlands, hillsides, and even bluff-tops.

Near a place called Woodhawk Creek, five miles below Cow Island, we beached our canoes and waded through knee-deep river muck to make camp in an inviting-looking bottom. We had paddled an exhausting 28 miles that day to arrive at this spot, said to be the most comfortable campsite along our route. There we found a toilet (a rare luxury), a metal fire ring (the modern equivalent of a fire pit encircled with stones), and a picnic table. Best of all was the shade of a dense grove of tall, leafy cottonwoods. The trees had grown back since the woodhawks laid down their axes, and the scene more closely matched what Lewis and Clark would have seen before the Breaks were settled.

The wild bottomlands we passed up and down the river were almost all settled after 1909, when the Enlarged Homestead Act offered 320 acres to emigrants and triggered a land rush. One venturesome family, the Hagadones, originally from South Dakota, arrived in 1917 and soon cleared enough land to grow hundreds of bushels of corn, potatoes, peanuts, squash, melons, and tobacco. They even built a sorghum mill. But the syrup it yielded, and everything else, had to be freighted out by boat or packhorse or sled; there was no road to the homestead. On a high bank on the Frank Hagadone property (he separated from his wife in 1923 and moved a mile and a half upriver), my family and I found a small cabin furnished with two wood stoves and cast-iron beds; a huge assortment of old farm tools lay rusting outside. That homestead is the only sign of human habitation, past or present, for miles around.

Oral histories reveal that the Hagadones survived drought, grasshoppers, hail, submarginal soil, a toddler’s rattlesnake bite, and divorce. Decades later the federal government bought the land. Dugouts, crumbling chimneys, and the faint bumpy outlines of foundation walls still mark the sites of failed dreams of other homesteaders, while the fields the settlers broke have reverted to grass and prickly pear. As William Clark predicted, the Missouri Breaks defy civilization.

Now it is the solitude that survives everyone who passed through—and which remains the Breaks’ great legacy. For hours on end my family fell silent, listening to the dip and splash of our paddles and learning, haltingly, to read this anachronistic landscape.

 

We seldom knew just where we were. Because there are few major landmarks—just a slight bend in the river here, a tiny island there—plotting our progress on a map turned out to be almost impossible. So we weren’t prepared, after three quiet days, for the shattering rumble of an unseen tractor-trailer as we neared our take-out spot, just beyond where Highway 191 crosses the river near the Kipp Recreation Area. Ambivalence set in. On the one hand, we were dirty, sore, and sick of paddling after 60 miles. Our laden canoes were floating campers, and the going had turned out to be slower than expected. On the other hand, this was too sudden and jarring a finale, and we weren’t even off the river yet. “You didn’t miss a thing,” said Mike Gregston, our outfitter, by way of a reassuring greeting. He was waiting for us with our rented van at the boat ramp. “Status quo on Iraq, stock market sliding.” Nothing new under the sun. We drove away, and the thunderheads rolled in. Lightning danced across the broad wheat fields. There had been plenty of distant afternoon thunder while we were on the river, but mercifully, no rain. Now it could pour for days. We crashed through sheet after opaque sheet of rain while a single radio station penetrated the static up and down the dial. The deejays at a nearby reservation were broadcasting traditional Indian chants. As we bridged the distance between past and present, solitude and society, they were welcome to have the last word.

Lewis and Clark at Monticello To Plan a Trip