A present-day adventurer canoes the Upper Missouri to find that time and fortune have erased signs of its later history, restoring the wilderness the Corps of Discovery penetrated nearly 200 years ago
History 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.
I had my chance to compare notes with Lewis one sweltering summer evening after a strenuous day’s paddling the Upper Missouri with my husband and suns, aged 14 and 10, in two overburdened canoes. When we beached opposite the Cliffs, after 6:00 P.M. , the mercury had finally dipped below 100 degrees. With twilight coming on, we should have made camp and started dinner. Instead, a dog-eared copy of the expedition’s journals in one hand and a cold beer in the other, I sat down with my family to watch sun, shadow, and a flock of swallows play over the Cliffs. The sandstone walls—remnants of a primordial seashore—actually stretch for several miles up and downstream, but only here do they tower so dazzlingly, 200 and 300 feet high, luminous white laced with dark volcanic intrusions. Here were the upright columns and horizontal capitals and pedestals that Lewis imagined: “eligant ranges of lofty freestone buildings…well stocked with statuary.…” There, “vast pyramids of connic structure bearing a serees of other pyramids on their tops.…nitches and alcoves of various forms and sizes.…” Lewis got it right.
The corps camped here, near what is now called Eagle Creek, on May 31, 1805, after a miserable day slogging upstream with their six dugouts and two pirogues. The river was becoming swifter and shallower as they traveled west. A cold rain fell, Lewis wrote in his journal, turning the riverbanks into a slick gumbo of mud and sharp rocks through which the men struggled as they towed their craft. There was also a bad scare that day with one of the two pirogues: Its hemp towrope broke, and the craft nearly capsized. When the men finally made camp, the sight of the White Cliffs must have been a fine reward for a day of travails.
They were a year out of St. Louis by then and deep into a land “on which the foot of civillized man had never trodden,” Lewis had written. Milestones were few, though the Corps had passed an important one 50 or 60 miles downstream, with the explorers’ first bluff-top glimpse of a small, distant range of Rocky Mountain outliers. The sight brought Lewis “secret pleasure in finding myself so near the head of the heretofore conceived boundless Missouri.” But worry set in immediately, he continued, “when I reflected on the difficulties which this snowey barrier would most probably throw in my way to the Pacific.” Lewis did not, as it turned out, underestimate those difficulties.
I heard a hint of homesickness in the names the captains sprinkled through the Breaks. A clear stream trickling in from the south became Judith’s River, honoring Julia Hancock, nicknamed Judy, William Clark’s cousin and later his wife. Beyond, the men named a much bigger, turbid, and completely unexpected river the Marias, for Lewis’s cousin Maria Wood, after taking days of scouting to decide that it wasn’t, in fact, the Missouri itself, bending north-ward. The Corps of Discovery hadn’t named anything for women before reaching the Breaks.
So walled off from the rest of the world was this river corridor that during nearly three weeks of traveling through the Breaks, the men saw no one from the local tribes, though they noticed trails and signs of encampments. Even for the Blackfeet, who galloped across the plains above, this was a place apart. As for its future potential usefulness, “I do not conceive any part can ever be settled,” wrote Clark. The Breaks were “deficent in water, Timber & too steep to be tilled.” He called them “the Deserts of America.”
The eastern half of the river corridor is even more broken and remote than the White Cliffs to their west. French trappers named it les Mauvaises Terres, which the maps of the Bureau of Land Management translate as the Badlands. In the Badlands you’ll encounter even fewer people than around the White Cliffs, according to locals, who often insist that this is the best of the Breaks. It’s wilder, they say wistfully. You just have to see it for yourself, they conclude. So we did on our second trip the next year. For three days, two nights, and 60 river-miles, we met one other person.
In the eastern half the Breaks seem stripped to their essence. Here and there a single stunted pine leans from a high cliff face at a tipsy angle. But that only emphasizes the starkness of the whole. The shale bluffs, layered in brown, gray, and yellow, are deeply eroded. Side streams, left high and dry by the Missouri’s relentless dredging, have sliced canyons and coulees far into the bluffs. Some of the land within the new national monument is pristine enough to have been recommended for study to determine if it qualifies for federal wilderness protection, although among the peculiarities of public-land-use law, cattle grazing is allowed in wilderness areas, and throughout the corridor the sight of cows at water’s edge can strike an anomalous note in an otherwise timeless scene.
One night under a full moon, I awoke in my tent to the insistent lowing of cattle. That was followed by the high, piercing barks and songs of a coyote pack near our tents. It was chilling, but a far cry from the uproar at one of Lewis and Clark’s nearby campsites when a large buffalo bull suddenly charged through in the middle of one night after swimming over from the opposite shore.
The game animals the Corps of Discovery encountered were unafraid of humans. The “immence herds” of bison are long gone, as are the Great Plains grizzlies that gave the expedition several close calls. The wolves have also been displaced. Lewis and Clark marveled at the “bighorned anamals” that scampered across the Breaks’ dizzying precipices, and spent hours describing them in their journals. New to science then, what became known as Audubon bighorn sheep were hunted to extinction in a little more than a century. Still, for travelers retracing the route today, the Missouri Breaks remain rich in wildlife, with some 60 mammal species, more than 230 birds, and dozens of other animals. In the most desolate areas, we watched great blue herons stalking the riverbanks on reedy legs and heard noisy gaggles of Canada geese on midstream islands. Beneath a formidable rampart of cliffs in the Badlands, we came upon two clans of Rocky Mountain bighorns—introduced successors to the extinct Audubons—and maneuvered our canoes to within a few yards of where they grazed on a thin patch of grass by water’s edge.
You’ll also see deer, elk, antelope, prairie dogs, and—most important of all to Lewis and Clark—beaver. An inventory of fur-bearing animals was a major goal of the expedition, for Jefferson realized that an influx of American trappers and fur traders to the region would bolster American claims to the Louisiana Territory’s northern reaches and secure its murky boundaries. It didn’t take long for commerce to start working its way upriver behind the Corps of Discovery. In 1806, as Lewis returned eastward along the Upper Missouri, he met two American fur trappers heading west and told them where to hunt beaver, which was then prized for hats by fashionable Europeans. By the 1840s fortified trading posts had sprung up here and there along the river. Then, as the fur trade ebbed, gold strikes brought new booms. But transportation remained primitive until the first steamboat made it through the shallows to the mouth of the Marias River in 1859. By the 1860s crusty miners, citified merchants, horse thieves, and increasing numbers of hopeful settlers were jockeying for deck space. In a single year 70 steamboats ferried 10,000 passengers upriver. One vessel carried $1.25 million in gold dust back East, mostly in passengers’ money belts. Railroads finally killed off the river traffic in 1890.
There is little to suggest those busy decades as you canoe through the Missouri Breaks now. Most of the forts are gone, and the steamboat era survives only in place-names like Pilot Rock and Woodhawk Creek. Cow Island Landing, once a busy little steamboat port, is again a gentle stretch of broad, grassy bottomland. There Cow Creek meets the Upper Missouri, beneath broad openings in the endless bluffs and cliffs providing the first hint in at least 25 miles of Badlands canoeing that you could actually hike out to the prairie above.
This was once a well-known fording area. On September 23, 1877, Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perces, crossed the river at Cow Island, desperately fleeing toward Canada ahead of a pursuing U.S. Army—and nearing the end of a four-month 1,170-mile hegira. The Indians tried to negotiate for food and supplies at Cow Island, where the Silver City had just unloaded 50 tons of freight the day before. Soldiers guarding the boat eventually relinquished a little hardtack and bacon; refused more, the Indians attacked, taking what they needed and burning the rest. Then they marched on, up Cow Creek. Less than two weeks later Chief Joseph uttered his famous surrender speech—“I will fight no more forever”—just 45 miles short of the Canadian border. It was a tragically ironic moment for the peaceable Nez Perces, whose aid to Lewis and Clark more than seven decades earlier had helped assure the expedition’s success.
Local tribes, though, had skirmished with whites along the river for years. For the Indians, the woodcutters who supplied passing steamboats were easy marks, and they killed several. By cutting off the boats’ fuel supplies, the Indians hoped to slow the flow of whites into the region.
Woodhawks, as the woodcutters were called, led difficult lives, even when not under actual attack, as the diary for 1869 and 1870 of a young Dane named Peter Koch attests:
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.