Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #9

Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River

The lower half of the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River features 800-foot high hills of mud and sandstone.

“One of the Party Saw a verry large bear, picked up on the Shore, a pole which had been made use of by the Nativs for lodge poles, & haul’d by dogs  it is new and is a Certain Sign of the Indians being on the river above   a foot ball and Several other articles are also found to Substantiate this oppinion.”

—William Clark, May 28, 1805

Crossroads in History

The 1803 Louisiana Purchase from France instantly doubled the size of the United States of that time, although neither seller nor buyer had previously explored the property nor knew exactly where the boundaries were. And neither party considered that native peoples living there might have a valid claim of their own. Part of the mission for the Lewis and Clark Expedition was to appraise the new holdings and inform the current occupants of their new leader in Washington.

Many tribes provided essential help to the Corps of Discovery, and the expedition would have failed without that kindness and generosity. Friendly or not, all tribes were later rounded up and effectively imprisoned on reservations. Two centuries later, many Native Americans understandably harbor deep resentment about colonization, genocide, and the loss of their land and liberty.

If Lewis and Clark symbolically opened the western frontier, the surrender of the Nez Perce (Nimmipu) near the Bear Paw Mountains in 1877 symbolically ended that frontier. Plagued by white depredations in their homeland, the Nimmipu struck out for Canada, eluding the U.S. Army for three months and 1,350 miles before being captured forty miles from the Canadian border. 

Today, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail intersects the Lewis and Clark NHT at Cow Creek, part of today’s Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River. The tribe crossed the river a week before their surrender. 

Most people who float the wild and scenic river paddle only the first half to see the spectacular White Cliffs area, exiting at Judith Landing. Yet, the lower section to Cow Creek and beyond is equally or more stunning, featuring 800-foot-high stark hills of multi-toned mud and sandstone. 

Looking down from the bluff.

I climbed to the top of a bluff early in the morning. There is a herd of twenty bighorn sheep in this photo, very small specks of white slightly below right of center.

Bentonite clay swells when damp to create an impervious layer, so that water runs off the land, not into the soil. Thus, the hills are largely desertified, except for pines and junipers rooted in bands of sandstone, plus the greasewood and grassland flats along the river.

From Judith Landing we paddled to McGarry Bar, which was closed due to a bald eagle nesting site, so we camped a quarter-mile downstream. An afternoon hike into the badlands provided a great opportunity for botanizing and bird watching. 

Western meadowlarks serenade our journey. Song sparrows are common in the greasewood and sagebrush. I saw a western bluebird with its blue head, blue back, and orange vest. Cicadas chirped from every bush. Climbing up to the Douglas firs and junipers, we were greeted by red-breasted nuthatches coming curiously close to our party. 

Bighorn sheep skeleton, skull, and horns.

We found the skeleton of a bighorn sheep, its horns still intact.

Climbing the clay hills is like exploring a battlefield of craters, sinkholes formed where water tunnels into the bentonite to emerge again farther downslope. History forms in layers here, the silts and sands of an ancient sea bed. A thick rock of compressed clam shells tells the story of ages without time. The recent skeleton of a bighorn sheep, it’s skull and horns intact, adds a new layer to the story.

In the morning I climbed to the top of the bluff and looked down on a herd of twenty bighorn sheep grazing near McGarry Bar. The Corps of Discovery hunted several bighorn sheep in this area, which Lewis described in detail their similarities and differences from domesticated sheep and goats. He noted that the animals preferred habitat is “the cranies or crevices of the rocks in the faces of inacessible precepices, where the wolf nor bear can reach them and where indeed man himself would in many instancies find a similar deficiency; yet these animals bound from rock to rock and stand apparently in the most careless manner on the sides of precipices of many hundred feet.”

Ice damage to cottonwood trees.

An ice jam this spring backed the water up far above the river, with ice bergs scraping the bark off the upstream side of cottonwood trees up to eight feet above the ground.

Continuing down to Bullwhacker Creek, we observed damage from the ice dam formed during the spring thaw that backed the river up far beyond normal flood levels. Cottonwood trees high above the river were debarked up to eight-feet on the upstream side, evidently the work of moving icebergs. The campsite fence was demolished, the circular fire grate twisted beyond repair. 

Burrito for lunch

We’ve been eating well, here enjoying beef, bean, and cheese burritos for lunch with local wild greens, in this case some wild mints.

Finally we arrived at Cow Creek and camped for two nights at the crossroads of the two historic trails. We  expected to live largely off dry goods for this stretch of the river until Josiah bought a secondhand cooler back in Fort Benton and went full-tilt Lewis and Clark on the red meat. We’ve eaten burger and steaks twice daily for a week, often made into burritos with cheese and wild greens. Life is good for our Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.

Some people celebrate Lewis and Clark as famous explorers. Others condemn them as the leading edge of colonization and the usurping of Native American land and rights. I judge them as men of their time, bound by the beliefs and customs of the day. 

Little would change if Lewis and Clark were somehow erased from time. History would have largely unfolded exactly as it did, except that we would be short a million words of insightful documentation from their extensive journaling of the West prior to colonization.

Thomas J. Elpel is the author of Participating in Nature and numerous other books on nature, wilderness survival, and sustainable living. He is president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. 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 campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

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