“At this palce there is a large rock of 400 feet high wich stands immediately in the gap which the missouri makes on it’s passage from the mountains; it is insulated from the neighboring mountains by a handsome little plain which surrounds its base on 3 sides and the Missouri washes it’s base on the other, leaving it on the Lard. as it decends. this rock I call the tower. It may be ascended with some difficulty nearly to its summit, and from it there is a most pleasing view of the country we are now about to leave. from it I saw this evening immence herds of buffaloe in the plains below.”
—Meriwether Lewis, July 16, 1805
Ghosts of the Tower
For Meriwether Lewis, Tower Rock was the beginning of the transitional zone from open prairie to the Rocky Mountains beyond. Coming from the opposite direction, the tower is the end of the Adel Mountains Volcanic Field and less impressive than other spires encountered in this scenic and enchanting float. The river meanders through a fairytale land of purplish-brownish rock hills, knobs, and cliffs temporarily accented by brilliant green spring vegetation.
We paddled the Pine Island Rapids, the only named rapids on the entire Missouri River, which were easily navigated, then tied up the canoes at Hardy Creek and followed the stream up to Tower Rock State Park.
Climbing the tower served as a stimulating diversion for a bunch of river rats, an opportunity to look down upon the world instead of up. To the West is a great view of the volcanic fields, to the East is the open prairie, and down below is the hustle bustle of the interstate, with cars, trucks, and semi-trucks careening down the road, drivers jockeying for position to take the lead and win the rat race to nowhere.
Above the ceaseless roar of the highway is another sound, deafening in it’s silence, haunting in its absence, the ghosts of Lewis’s “immence herds of buffaloe” that no longer thunder across the plains. It is difficult to fathom so much change in so little time.
History creeps ever closer as we age. Lewis and Clark seemed unfathomably ancient when I was ten years old, seventeen lifetimes ago to this child of the 1970s. The passage of time should push history that much farther into the past, yet the opposite is true. At age 51, only four lifetimes now separate my journey from theirs.
It took slightly more than one of my lifetimes to exterminate the buffalo and subdue the Indians, another to homestead and build settlements and railroads. In the third we built the great dams, cities, and highways, and in the fourth, our time, we gobbled up the resources of the earth in an orgy of consumerism, with bigger houses, bigger toys, and bigger bellies.
Beyond the Tower we paddled into true prairie country with rolling grassy hills and broken, calving riverbanks. Massive plains cottonwood trees, big willows, and shrubby box elder trees lined the way. We stopped in Cascade for lunch, then on to Little Muddy Creek to camp. Chris foraged a salad of plantain leaves, topped with bright yellow silverleaf cinquefoil flowers for garnish. Adam cooked spaghetti squash and meat sauce for our first course, followed by two rainbow trout caught by John and Scott.
Another day of paddling took us to the town of Ulm, where we camped, then hitched a ride to First People’s Buffalo Jump with Felicia O’Brien from the Cascade Courier. The interpretive center museum was first rate, and the ranger’s talk was stellar. We learned the intricate methods by which Native Americans coaxed the herd to follow a stray calf, in this case a boy or buffalo runner wearing a robe, who led the herd towards the cliff until they could be stampeded over the edge.
While significant, the number of bison killed at buffalo jumps was minuscule compared to the tens of millions hunted with guns for their hides or tongues or the mere entertainment of shooting them from windows of tourist trains like mobile video arcades.
Similar to Tower Rock, First People’s Buffalo Jump is rife with ghosts of the past, not so much of bison who fell to their deaths, but rather the ghostly presence of hundreds of millions who never lived. The wind blows a silent tune over the cliffs; there are no buffalo at the Buffalo Jump.
The ghosts of the past are not easily forgotten. They surface when least expected. Three years ago I pulled a nearly perfect buffalo skull from the banks of the Jefferson River. Last year I paddled by two more in the Marias River. Of all the mammals on earth today, only 4% are wild animals, rapidly declining as our population continues to rise. Will we continue this trajectory until there are no more wild things or wild places?
The bald eagle tells us there is hope. The bald eagle is our national emblem, nearly wiped out by cumulative effects of the pesticide DDT until it was banned in 1972. Bald eagles have since bounced back, and we encounter them on nearly every bend of the river, a plethora of adults, juveniles, nests, and nestlings.
The American Bison is equally iconic to our country, and very nearly went extinct. But what would America be without bald eagles or bison? In 2016 Congress designated the American Bison as our national mammal, recognizing its symbolic importance to our national identity. In that designation there is hope.
Like the bald eagle, we can restore the bison, at least where appropriate on wildlife refuges and Indian Reservations. Maybe someday, when another Corps of Rediscovery follows the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, they will actually see bison from some of the same vantage points as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Thomas J. Elpel is a fourth generation Montanan born of the mountains and prairies. His roots to the original Elpel homestead near Glendive, Montana frequently call him out to wander and wonder the prairies. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery, Tom’s books, and the expedition fundraiser for a new public campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.