“We nooned it just above the entrance of a large river which disimbogues on the Lard. side; I took advantage of this leisure moment and examined the river about 3 miles; I found it generally 150 yards wide, and in some places 200. it is deep, gentle in it’s courant and affords a large boddy of water; it’s banks which are formed of a dark rich loam and blue clay are abbrupt and about 12 feet high. it’s bed is principally mud… the water of the river possesses a peculiar whiteness, being about the colour of a cup of tea with the admixture of a tablespoonfull of milk. from the colour of it’s water we called it Milk river.”
—Meriwether Lewis, May 8, 1805
The Missouri that emerges below Fort Peck Dam is not the same river we paddled into the lake nearly two weeks earlier. Above the lake, the Missouri is coffee-colored, knee-deep with mud, and barely cool. The sediment settles out in the lake, and the deep water becomes progressively clearer and colder towards the dam. Below the dam, the water is crystal clear, blue-tinted, and frigid cold, coming straight off the bottom of the lake. While much of the country sweltered under a heat wave, we paddled away our first 95ºF days enjoying a frigid breeze off the water, like driving a car with the windows open and the air conditioner cranked.
Soon we reached the confluence with the Milk River, where fresh sediment pours into the Missouri. A narrow stream of cream mixes with the wider stream of aqua blue for several miles until visibility subsides and the river takes on a greenish-murky hue.
Prior to the last ice age, the Milk was the Missouri. Glaciers shoved the river south to carve a new channel and create the rugged, scenic badlands we’ve enjoyed so much since Fort Benton. In rejoining it’s historical channel, the Missouri becomes a prairie river again, meandering back and forth in great cottonwood-lined loops, intermittently bumping up against higher badlands to the south.
The Milk River was known by the Mandans as “Ah-mâh-tâh, cu-shush-sur” or “The River that Scolds at All Others.” Lewis rejected that name in favor of his westernized alternative. However, many Indian names have persisted over time, including Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Dakota. There were also names from French Canadian trappers, which Americans typically translated into English, such as the “Roche Jaune,” which became the Yellow Stone or Yellowstone River.
Lewis and Clark ascended the Missouri naming nearly every creek and river after members of their expedition, prominent politicians in Washington, natural features, and potential girlfriends back home. Names for the larger tributaries have mostly remained in use while names for smaller streams were often forgotten and renamed by later trappers and settlers.
I also jumped in on the name game, naming isolated parcels of BLM land along the Jefferson River as campsites on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. I considered tackling a similar project on the Missouri to create the “Big Muddy National Water Trail,” much like a paddler’s version of the Appalachian Trail.
The project would have entailed visiting, photographing, and describing every existing campsite on the Missouri, as well as similarly evaluating and naming every scrap of BLM and other public land for its campsite potential, creating an online map with GPS coordinates for others to follow. That was a bigger project than I desired, choosing instead to plant the idea for someone else to pursue.
For the sake of example, I decided to name some parcels previously marked in my notes as “BLM South 1, 2, 3” etc., the parcels being on the south side of the river, opposite the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
We camped at one block of clay-capped badlands featuring several square miles of public lands for hiking and exploring. In recognition of French heritage, I named the campsite “Pomme Blanche,” meaning “white apple,” a name cited by Lewis when describing a Pea family plant otherwise known as “breadroot” (Psoralea esculenta). I dug up a few plants, but found the roots too small and stringy to utilize.
After lallygagging our way across most of Montana, we started paddling longer distances, taking advantage of the unusually high water and blessed tail winds to cover 20 to 25 miles per day. We stopped to cook lunch at Wolf Point while Josiah and Chris walked into town for ice. After a longer than expected absence, they returned with ice and a stray puppy, explaining the process by which they reasonably concluded it was abandoned. Chris named her Jubilee, the newest and youngest member of the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.
With every mile the river regains turbidity, each bend a mile-long loop around a peninsula, the banks characteristically muddy. Ospreys that were common near the clear water gave way to bald eagles, which temporarily transitioned to red-tailed hawks, presumably hunting prairie rodents. We encountered our first purple coneflower, a.k.a. Echinacea. The land is as green as the month of June thanks to all the rains this year, the second highest runoff year in the Missouri basin since record-keeping began.
We camped at a surprisingly lush parcel of BLM land at the mouth of the Redwater River, which Lewis and Clark originally named “2,000-mile Creek.” I named the campsite Redwater out of intuitive simplicity. I do not know whether anyone else will use or remember or rename these sites, but I hope to have at least succeeded in planting the seeds of a Big Muddy National Water Trail.
Thomas J. Elpel 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.