Category Archives: Missouri River Expedition

Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #10

Sweet clover at Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge

There is a big bloom of sweet clover in the hills of Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge this year. Thirty-one years ago, I walked through the refuge on a 500-mile walk across Montana.

“I walked on shore this morning   the country is not so broken as yesterday, tho’ still high and roling or wavy; the hills on the Lard. side possess more pine than usual; some also on the Stard. hills. Salts and other mineral appearances as usual. the river continues about the same width or from 200 or 250 yds. wide, fewer sandbars and the courant more gentle and regular.”  

—Meriwether Lewis, May 22, 1805

Roaming and Rambling

Lewis and Clark frequently traded duties, one man overseeing the laborious push of the canoes and pirogues up the Missouri, the other walking overland to explore, hunt, and observe the surrounding countryside. There were no fences, property lines, or “No Trespassing” signs. That freedom to roam remained the rule here in Montana the next 200 years.

Trappers, traders, gold seekers, homesteaders, and cattlemen traversed Montana in every direction by foot and horseback. The tradition of open access continued after the fences went up. That was the world I knew as a youth, hopping across fences like they weren’t even there. In 1988, at twenty years old, a girlfriend and I walked 500 miles across Montana from my grandmother’s house in Pony to Fort Union on the North Dakota border. Much of the route paralleled or intersected our present journey by water.

We first walked across private farm fields from Pony to Three Forks, then followed the active railroad down the Missouri to Sixteen Mile Creek. Our map still showed the tracks of the former Chicago Milwaukee Railroad ascending Sixteen Mile, but here the tracks had been removed and there was a locked gate plastered with No Trespassing signs. 

I understood the words well enough, but the idea was incomprehensible to the free-roaming lifestyle I’d grown up with. Not having anywhere else to go, we climbed over the gate and followed the railbed upstream over wooden trestles and through convenient tunnels. We saw 28 elk and 250 deer in one day. The property manager found us camped by the creek, but fortunately decided we were harmless enough and let us continue our journey. It probably helped that we were two innocent young adults on an epic quest, with me wearing buckskin clothes and a rawhide backpack.

We followed the railbed, most of it private land, through Ringling, Martinsdale, and Two Dot to Harlowton, then went cross country across more farms and ranches through Judith Gap to Lewistown, north to Roy and crossed the Missouri River here at the Fred Robinson Bridge. Then we walked east through the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, paralleling our present course down the river.

When newcomers tried to claim rivers and streams as their personal private property, fishermen took them to court arguing that Montana’s rivers and streams had always been public thoroughfares, and the courts agreed, leading to some of the strongest stream access laws in the country.

Paddling Fort Peck Lake

Paddling into the upstream end of Fort Peck Lake. Montana has some of the strongest stream access laws in the country.

Sadly, nobody stood up for the similar right to roam the open countryside. When No Trespassing signs went up walkers grudging shifted to non-posted parcels until those too were bought up by outsiders and closed to the world. 

Fencing people out is effectively the same as fencing them in like cattle. A person who cannot walk out the door across an open field is living in a cage. 

Zoo animals are known to have severe psychological disorders from living in cages. Cages impact people too. I’ve seen it in adult students in my Green University program who would rant against the trap of civilization yet were so conditioned to cages that they wouldn’t think to leave my little homestead to explore the 100,000 acres of adjacent public lands unless I invited them out for a hike.

Like my horse who would pace back and forth along an invisible fence after I removed the electric wire and plastic posts, these young people were controlled by fences even when there were none.

Thomas J. Elpel

Having grown up in a world without fenced boundaries, I felt free to pursue my own dreams and goals.

Having grown up without such limitations, I felt free to pursue all my dreams in life without credentials, certification, or jumping through hoops to get there. I built my own passive solar stone and log house without a mortgage, did my own plumbing and wiring, stared at blank pages long enough to launch a successful writing career and publishing company, and learned HTML without a manual. I am a slow learner, but unbounded by limitations. A vision or goal may require a dozen years of incubation to get airborne, as was the case with the Jefferson River Canoe Trail before we successfully bought our first campsite for the public.

I worry about the future for our young people who have only known cages. Freedom to roam is critical to inspire a new generation of thinkers, doers, and leaders. How will people think outside the box to solve humanity’s most pressing problems if they’ve grown up inside walls of No Trespassing signs?

As I write these lines in bed in my tent in the rain, I reflect back on that walk across Montana thirty-one years ago. That was a drought year, the year Yellowstone burned. The grass never turned green in eastern Montana, but went “crunch, crunch” under our shoes.” The hottest day was 110ºF. 

Scott caught a big catfish.

Scott caught a huge catfish.

This year we’ve been blessed with unusually cool, cloudy weather and plenty of rain. The C.M. Russell Wildlife Refuge is shockingly green. Scott caught a 27-inch channel catfish. He and John cooked a fabulous dinner of fish and chips. Life is good for the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery. We have, however, encountered our first significant mosquitoes. 

Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University, LLC and the author of Participating in Nature and numerous other books covering wilderness survival, botany, wild food foraging, house-building, green economics, and consciousness. Go to 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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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 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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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #8

White Cliffs

The White Cliffs, as seen from Eagle Creek Landing.

“The hills and river Clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance… The water in the course of time in descending from those hills and plains on either side of the river has trickled down the soft sand clifts and woarn it into a thousand grotesque figures, which with the help of a little immagination and an oblique view at a distance, are made to represent eligant ranges of lofty freestone buildings, having their parapets well stocked with statuary; collumns of various sculpture both grooved and plain, are also seen supporting long galleries in front of those buildings… As we passed on it seemed as if those scenes of visionary inchantment would never have and end; for here it is too that nature presents to the view of the traveler vast ranges of walls of tolerable workmanship, so perfect indeed are those walls that I should have thought that nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she had first begun her work.”

—Meriwether Lewis, May 31, 1805

Visionary Inchantment

Meriwether Lewis’s White Cliffs of “visionary inchantment” mark the start of today’s Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River, now included within the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument. This wild and scenic river is remote and accessible primarily to those willing to paddle and camp.

Many people return to paddle this stretch of the Missouri every year. Thus campsites are sometimes full, requiring parties to push on and look for other sites. In comparison to the rest of the world, however, the wild and scenic river is anything but crowded. At peak season, one may expect to see half a dozen groups float by in the course of a day, varying from a canoe or two up to eight or more. This is my second trip through the wild and scenic corridor, having first paddled it nineteen years ago with my kids and then-wife from Coal Banks to James Kipp Recreation Area. 

Our Corps of Rediscovery effectively launched upstream at Fort Benton after our three-day layover, camping our first night at Senieurs Reach Recreation Area. Here we were greeted by a friendly camping sign at the river’s edge and a welcoming plains cottonwood sheltering a fire ring and grill. 

Senieur’s Reach Recreation Area

Senieur’s Reach Recreation Area. Campsites like this on the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River inspired the creation of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

We watched a pair of kestrels feeding their frantic chicks in a hollow branch of the cottonwood. A turkey hen guided her chicks through the snowberry bushes by camp. I nearly stepped on a spotted fawn hiding in the grass. The shrubby box elder trees were full of house wrens, yellow warblers, yellow-breasted chats, and Bullock’s orioles. Every time I turned around it seemed I saw another deer or fawn. We saw two bald eagle chicks in a nest perched high up on a nearby cliff face.

Senieurs Reach is just a scrap of Bureau of Land Management land perched on the riverbank and surrounded by private land, as yet unfenced and unposted, as was most of Montana in my youth.

It was floater friendly campsites like this that inspired my own work on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. Working with like-minded folks, we identified, scoped, and named isolated parcels of BLM land along the Jefferson, published maps, and have since purchased additional campsites to fill in the gaps. Our most recent acquisition was the 30-acre Lost Tomahawk, named by local school kids after an incident recorded in the Lewis and Clark journals. 

Paddle Partners

Chris and Scott partnered in one canoe. Josiah is solo paddling. John and I are paddling Belladonna Beaver.

Back here on the Missouri, we visited Decision Point at the confluence of the Missouri and the Marias rivers. The Corps of Discovery camped here for ten days to explore and debate which fork was the true Missouri. For me it was also a confluence of memories, having paddling the Marias River exactly one year ago, the maiden voyage and test of Belladonna Beaver the dugout canoe. 

We improvised camp on Boggs Island in one of the few spaces free of deep grass and poison ivy, settling in just before a big storm blew through. Josiah bravely finished cooking dinner under a tarp, and we enjoyed eating and talking there until it seemed that even the tarp would blow away. We collapsed it for the night and ran for our individual tents.

The next day brought us beyond Virgelle Ferry and Coal Banks Landing to camp at Little Sandy Creek, where we slogged through fifty feet of mud to dry ground. Although one should avoid camping under cottonwood trees in wind and lightning, there was little choice there, but wow, that storm was spectacular! Other paddlers later said the storm packed seventy mile-per-hour winds.

Another day in the canoes brought us to the actual White Cliffs and the official start of the Wild and Scenic River. We stopped at Eagle Creek for lunch and hiked to see petroglyphs on a nearby cliff face. Later we camped near Hole-in-the-Wall. Although the hole is in the side of a cliff, the backside is accessible by foot. Every walk turns into a botany walk as we encounter new flowers, here an obvious pea like a milkvetch, but with deeply segmented pods that indicate a sweetvetch instead. 

Campfire cooking

Cooking hamburger, orache, and prickly pear cactus “Nogales” in the wok.

Feral orache grows abundantly on the Missouri. A relative of spinach, the plant has become our preferred green to compliment our meals. 

Every four or five days we take a layover day, here at Slaughter River, to take additional time for bird-watching, botanizing, sewing projects, writing, and relaxing, then back in the canoes and the journey continues.

Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Look for “Dugout Canoe Paddling” on YouTube to see the maiden voyage of Belladonna Beaver on the Marias River. And go to 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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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #7

Overhead view of Belladonna Beaver the dugout canoe.

At twenty feet, Belladonna Beaver is the biggest canoe in the fleet, capable of carrying additional tools and provisions.

“I sent out 4 hunters this morning on the opposite side of the river to kill buffaloe; the country being more broken on that side and cut with ravenes they can get within shoot of the buffaloe with more ease and certainty than on this side of the river. my object is if possible while we have now but little to do, to lay a large stock of dryed meat at this end of the portage to subsist the party while engaged in the transportation of our baggage &c, to the end, that they may not be taken from this duty when once commenced in order to surch for the necessary subsistence.”

—Meriwether Lewis, June 20, 1805

Tools and Provisions

The Corps of Discovery worked unimaginably hard dragging heavy dugout canoes upstream against the current. They famously ate nine pounds of red meat per person per day, the equivalent of eating thirty-six quarter-pound hamburgers… minus lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, and buns. Feeding the expedition for one day required either four deer, an elk and one deer, or one whole buffalo. Suffice it to say, the members of our Corps of Rediscovery are eating somewhat less, and we haven’t yet shot any deer, elk, or buffalo—not even a grizzly bear. 

Perhaps the most under-appreciated accomplishment of the Corps of Discovery was their preparation work. Originally envisioned as an expedition of twelve soldiers with Meriwether Lewis in command, Lewis bucked convention by naming army buddy William Clark as co-captain. The rank was rejected by the War Department, yet Lewis and Clark snubbed authority and maintained the fiction of two equal captains throughout the expedition. 

Together they enlisted as many men, boats, guns, supplies, and trade goods as they deemed necessary for a journey of unknown duration into unknown lands. They enlisted boatmen, hunters, cooks, and translators, with most men serving double-duty to dress skins, make clothing, or improvise repairs as necessary without hope of resupply. Increasing the size of the expedition required more boats and more equipment, yet they calculated the magic numbers of essential men and equipment.

Self-sufficiency was paramount, so their equipment emphasized guns, lead, and gunpowder over actual food rations. They carried dehydrated “portable soup” and other rations for emergencies, but largely depended on hunting for the duration of the 2 1/2-year, 8,000-mile journey. As their clothes wore out or rotted away, they tanned hides and made their own. They also carried extensive trade goods to exchange for food and supplies from native tribes. Although largely destitute by the end, they successfully completed the mission. 

Through it all, Meriwether Lewis had a desk for his journals and writing implements, and probably spent much of the expedition sitting in a canoe journaling while the men dragged the boats upstream.

Built-in desk in the dugout canoe.

I don’t know what Meriwether Lewis’s desk looked like, but I built mine to fit the dugout canoe and twenty-first century needs.

Preparations for our Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery were less critical, since we have the option of resupplying in numerous towns and cities along the way or even receiving packages at post offices.

My primary obsession ahead of the canoe trip was to build a custom desk for the dugout canoe. I had forgotten about Lewis’s desk, but as a writer, I always pack books, notebooks, and writing utensils first. My desk has a wood writing surface that can be opened to reveal a built-in solar panel for charging electronics.  Inside the desk is a small library of Lewis and Clark books, field guides, teaching tools, binoculars, a harmonica, snacks, and trade goods, such as the expedition bandannas we gift to people along the route.

At twenty-feet, Belladonna Beaver is the biggest canoe in the fleet, so she carries an assortment of group gear, such as a bow saw for cutting firewood. A rusty old gold pan serves as a fire pan to avoid leaving fire scars where fire pits are absent. Collapsible canvas buckets ensure a supply of water near the fire. My fishing bow is used by all to hunt carp. We do most cooking in a wok. We thrust a shovel in the ground in the middle of camp to facilitate digging cat holes when there are no toilets.

Sponge for mopping out the canoe.

A sponge, this one recycled from an old couch cushion, is essential for mopping out the canoe.

Other essential gear includes a big sponge recycled from an old couch cushion for mopping out the canoe, plus a livestock stake that can be driven into the riverbank to tie up the canoe. Chris, my main paddle partner, and I each have a ten-gallon locking barrel for clothing and personal gear, plus I have a barrel for food and a small cooler. He has a dry bag and bucket for food, and we have random food and gear tucked into every remaining space. There are no actual seats in the canoe, but we place our bedrolls in dry bags and sit on those. 

As for food, everyone prepared in their own way. I opened up the kitchen cabinets and shoved every partial bag of rice, lentils, flour, pasta, oatmeal, raisins, snacks, etc. into my barrel and called it a month-long food supply. We barely touched our dry goods in the first three weeks of the trip, but topped off with a resupply of cheese, summer sausage, bagels, yams, sweet potatoes, onions, pasta sauce, and snacks for the upcoming month-long gap between Fort Benton and Fort Peck, 300 miles downriver.

Having passed through the towns of Craig, Cascade, Ulm, Great Falls, and Fort Benton, we’ve been largely subsisting off burgers, burritos, sub sandwiches, and pizza. We are excited to disappear into the wilderness and return to fishing, foraging, and cooking from our own provisions.

Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the author of seven books. Go to 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.


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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #6

Portaging Great Falls

“The Corps improvised wooden wheels and axels of cottonwood to convert their heavy dugout canoes into wagons, which they pushed and pulled over steep hills along the river.”

“I went with the p[arty] for the remainder of the baggage. we got all and was returning. Saw a black cloud rise in the west which we looked for emediate rain   we made all haste possable but had not got half way when the Shower met us and our hind extletree broke in too    we were obledged to leave the load Standing and ran in great confusion to Camp the hail being So large and the wind So high and violent in the plains, and we being naked we were much bruuzed by the large hail. Some nearly killed    one knocked down three times, and others without hats or any thing about their heads bleading and complained verry much.”

—Sargeant John Ordway, June 29, 1805

A Hail of a Portage 

Portaging around the Great Falls of the Missouri required eleven days of brutal work for the thirty-one men of the Corps of Discovery in 1805. Following their route in reverse, we did the portage in a day, accomplished as easily as making a phone call.

Lewis and Clark learned of the Great Falls through talks with the Mandan Indians over the winter of 1804-1805 in present-day North Dakota. They were told to expect a half-day portage around the falls, advice from people who traveled the area on horseback, rather than boat. 

Hauling a dugout canoe.

The Corps of Discovery worked unimaginably hard to drag the dugout canoe wagons over land.

Instead of a single waterfall, the explorers found five cascades spread out over ten miles. The Corps improvised wooden wheels and axels of cottonwood to convert their heavy dugout canoes into wagons, which they pushed and pulled over steep hills along the river. When they weren’t suffering from mosquitoes on the river, they suffered from searing hot weather, crazy storms, and prickly pear cactus spines in their moccasins. The work was so intense that the men were prone to falling asleep standing up when they paused. As if that wasn’t enough, they were hit by golfball-sized hail that caused serious injuries.

Their larger wooden pirogues were too big to portage, and thus hidden below the falls. The crew attempted to assemble Lewis’s lightweight iron frame boat, but failed for lack of pitch to seal the seams. They ultimately carved two more dugout canoes, consuming a total of thirty-one days at the Great Falls before proceeding up river.

The Great Falls of the Missouri

The Great Falls of the Missouri… one of five in a series of waterfalls and dams. Photo by Scott Robinson.

Nowadays there are fifteen dams on the Missouri River, including five dams at Great Falls. As in 1805, it is still necessary to portage around the entire Great Falls complex in one move, but fortunately, the portage is much easier. Canoeists can call a shuttle service to portage canoes, gear, and people downstream beyond the dams.

Belladonna Beaver, however, is no lightweight canoe. At more than 500 lbs, she requires a boat trailer and truck to tow her around. In the serendipitous ways of the Universe, I was gifted an older dugout canoe as a museum piece for our Outdoor Wilderness Living School LLC kids programs. I bought the custom-built dugout canoe trailer that came with it, complete with rollers and a winch to reel the canoe in place. There are not many dugout canoe trailers in the world, but I became the owner of one just a few months before we started carving Belladonna.

Migrating a trailer down the river might sound like a logistical nightmare, but so far so good. Family members helped us portage the first four dams and parked the trailer in Great Falls. My friend Jeff will pick it up there in a few weeks and tow it out to meet us for the portage around Fort Peck Dam. I didn’t do much actual planning; it just fell together as each person indicated when they wanted to visit. We’ll still need to find drivers to move the trailer from dam to dam and all the way to St. Louis, where I will rent a truck to tow the canoe and trailer home.

A few days before Great Falls we hit a short, but intense rainstorm. That same storm dropped baseball-sized hail farther north in Valier that totaled vehicles, broke house windows, and heavily damaged siding and roof shingles. Fortunately, we missed that part of the Lewis and Clark experience, paddling instead through heavy rain that ended moments before we reached the shelter of a bridge. 

Talking to kids at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

Talking to kids about Belladonna Beaver and our expedition at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

On portage day, we started early and paddled ten miles from our campsite to Broadwater Bay in town, then called Montana River Outfitters to bring the trailer. They outsourced the job to Jim and Phyllis, who gave us the royal treatment in town. They delivered Belladonna Beaver and me to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center for the afternoon, where I talked with visitors and a large class of children about the canoe and our expedition. Meanwhile, Jim and Phyllis drove the crew around to get lunch, view the falls, and visit a sporting goods store. Everyone had an opportunity to tour the Interpretive Center before we hitched up again and headed out of town. 

Afternoon storms raged through while we were in the museum and again later while driving down the highway to Carter’s Ferry, tapering off before our launch. We unloaded, repacked our gear, and paddled down the river looking for a campsite. Another rain squall forced us to be less choosy. We set up tents in the rain and hunkered down for the night. While the landscape above Great Falls was prairie country, the river below is badlands with steep, eroding cliff faces. This is some beautiful country, and we are glad to be here.

Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the author of seven books, including Botany in a Day, Participating in Nature, and Foraging the Mountain West. Go to 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.

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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #5

View from Tower Rock

“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.”

“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.

Looking West from Tower Rock

Looking West from Tower Rock into the Adel Mountains Volcanic Field.

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. 

The American bison is emblematic to our communities and our country, here as artwork at the 468 Grocery store in Cascade, Montana.

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.

First People’s Buffalo Jump

Touring the First People’s Buffalo Jump near Ulm, Montana.

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. 

Bison diorama at First People’s Buffalo Jump

Bison diorama at First People’s Buffalo Jump.

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 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.

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Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #4

Entering the Gates of the Mountains

My sister Jeanne joined us for a few days to paddle through the Gates of the Mountains.

“This evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts we have yet seen. These clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the height of [about] 1200 feet. every object here wears a dark and gloomy aspect. the tow[er]ing and projecting rocks in many places seem ready to tumble on us. the river seems to have forced it’s way through this immence body of solid rock for the distance of 5 3/4 miles and where it makes it’s exit below has thrown on either side vast collumns of rock mountains high. the river appears to have woarn a passage just the width of it’s channel or 150 yards… from the singular appeaerance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.”

—Meriwether Lewis, July 19, 1805

Gates of the Prairie

The Gates of the Mountains are celebrated among the most iconic, scenic highlights of the Missouri River, yet Meriwether Lewis mysteriously found them “dark and gloomy.” I pondered his words as our expedition of rediscovery paddled into the canyon. Lewis previously gave high praise to the White Cliffs. What triggered his disdain for the Gates? Was it due to practical concerns or was it a reflection of his propensity for melancholy? 

I imagined the Corps of Discovery working upstream against the current in the twilight hours more than a year into their ascent of the Missouri River since they left St. Louis. Their recent portage around the Great Falls turned into three weeks of unimaginably brutal labor. Above the falls, the Corps assembled Lewis’s custom-designed iron frame boat and consumed precious time covering it with skins, but lacked any pitch to seal the seams. It was a spectacular failure. On the heels of these setbacks, the Gates must have seemed ominous indeed.

Unlike the White Cliffs area, where the river was slow and the banks wide, the narrow Gates made it impossible to walk the shoreline with ropes to drag heavy dugout canoes upstream. Nor could the men use poles to push themselves forward against the bottom. Their only recourse being to paddle furiously against the swift current, consuming precious energy to merely avoid floating backwards. 

Limestone rocks at Gates of the Mountains

In the wrong light and the wrong mood, it is easy to imagine that these majestic rock forms could seem “dark and gloomy.”

Add to that the unknown, the uncertainty of what lay around the next bend. By any reasonable expectation, the river should have been filled with great boulders that sloughed off the canyon walls to create impassible rapids or yet more waterfalls. With the expedition ascending the canyon in the twilight hours and no place to halt and camp, it is easy to imagine the towering cliffs, shadowy holes, and streaked rock faces as dark and gloomy. 

Sunrise at Gates of the Mountains

We camped just outside Gates of the Mountains our first night after portaging around Hauser Dam.

The Gates were quite the opposite for our little expedition. We were feeling worn and beaten after the arduous paddle across the artificial lakes at Canyon Ferry and Hauser dams. My personal gear was in disarray and not wholly dry after twice swamping the dugout canoe with waves on the shores of Canyon Ferry. My Uncle Joe and Aunt Diane graciously assisted us with the portages around each dam, delivering us exhausted yet renewed to the Gates of the Mountains. We camped at the mouth of the canyon, drinking in the beauty of the landscape.

My sister Jeanne joined us the following day. We shuffled gear and seating arrangements to bring her onboard and marveled at the fantastic cliffs and bonsai juniper and ponderosa pine trees growing from the rocks.

Funny how the rugged, wild landscape Lewis disdained is now what we treasure. Seven generations after his passing, we have carved up nearly every arable piece of land for roads and farms and cities, leaving only the most inhospitable scraps of wilderness in their pristine state. So precious is this wasteland of rocky cliffs that tour boats ply the river daily as tourists throng to see a remnant of the untouched world. 

Yet, the swift river Lewis ascended is no more. Holter Dam backs water up fourteen feet deep through the canyon, and motor boats speed back and forth covering in minutes what takes us two days of paddling. For them, nature can be consumed for lunch with ample time to return home for dinner and a sitcom. 

Our expedition encamped at Coulter Campground for two nights, named for John Coulter (or Colter) of the Expedition. It was a wholly appropriate place to read a passage from Stephen Gough’s book Colter’s Run, a work of historical fiction based on Colter’s life. 

Arrowleaf Balsamroot

There are great hiking trails at Gates of the Mountains, this one rich with arrowleaf balsamroot blooms.

Our layover day provided the opportunity to hike the trails, to study new flowers together, and to learn new birds. Chipping sparrows and western tanagers accompanied us on our walk. Bald eagles were everywhere along the water. 

Like Lewis and Clark, we have dined well. We were largely prepared to live off dry goods this trip, yet have daily enjoyed everything from bison burger and bison heart to elk meatloaf and batter-fried carp fillets, trout and walleye caught by Scott, plus cheeseburgers and fried chicken gifted to us at portage points, and pasties and cookies delivered to camp by friends and well-wishers. Here we savored Canada goose gifted to us frozen a few days prior by a fellow paddler who also once paddled the entire Missouri. With rhubarb imported from my mother’s garden, I baked a pie for dessert. Life is good for the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.

Leaving Gates of the Mountains

The land gradually turns to prairie as we move beyond the Gates of the Mountains.

Continuing our journey, the Gates of the Mountains have become our Gates of the Prairie as we follow the route of Lewis and Clark in reverse. Paddling the length of Holter Lake through the winding canyon, cliff walls gradually transition into grassy hills. The skyline remains dominated by rugged hills, but no longer the snow-capped mountains of home. 

Ponderosa pines, absent in the upper reaches of the Missouri, now dot the hills where soil moisture permits, creating open, grassy forests. This is the same species that grows to immense height and girth in wetter climates, and from which Lewis and Clark carved canoes in present-day Idaho for the descent of the Columbia. These prairie ponderosas are comparative dwarfs and bound to get smaller the farther we travel into prairie country.

John found the remains of an elk apparently killed by a mountain lion in the Beartooth Wildlife Management Area, now abandoned to a scavenging bear that turned tail and disappeared upon approach. 

We were blessed with a tailwind to deploy the sails for the final stretch of Holter Lake. My mother met us with the truck and trailer to portage the dam, and Jeanne relinquished her seat in the canoe. Another camp, another night, and the adventure continues, now back to free-flowing river.

Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the author of seven books, including Botany in a Day, Participating in Nature, and Foraging the Mountain West. Go to 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.

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