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Sierra Magazine
Big Sky River

Latter-day Lewises & Clarks chronicle a float down the wild Missouri: same scenery, less wildlife, better spelling.

By Page Stegner

Fort Benton is a sleepy little town in north-central Montana. This is Big Sky Country with a vengeance. Unbroken horizon. High plains grazing land. Ranches with people scattered few and far between. Fort Benton is their town trip when they don't want to drive all the way to Great Falls, 40 miles away. It is also the outfitting point for the only remaining free-flowing section of America's longest and historically greatest river, the gateway to 160 miles of a wilderness virtually inaccessible except by foot or boat, the portal to a week of solitude in the last untouched, unaltered, unimproved stretch of the wide Missouri. And that is why we have come.

Bob Singer is a retired high school band director who rents canoes and equipment, and hauls people to and from the few ingress/egress points downstream. He is lean, wiry, weather-creased, a human smokestack, a one-man historical society, and if he has an opinion about the five disheveled fools and their two thousand pounds of junk that he drops at Coal Banks Landing, he doesn't express it. No doubt he's used to middle-aged hysteria at the prospect of great adventure, recycled Lewises and Clarks falling all over themselves to be off and away. He helps us unload the canoes from the van, admonishes two little girls trying to stone a rattlesnake that has taken refuge under their fisherman daddy's pickup, and promises to meet us six days hence at the Kipp Park Bridge where Highway 191 crosses the Missouri.

My old friend and bowman on this expedition, Peter Nabokov, recalls that the ground on which we stand was where Lewis and Clark camped on June 2, 1805. As the heaviest of our supplies are being lugged down to the river, he reads to us aloud from the Journals, which we have brought along. "Killed 6 Elk 2 buffale 2 Mule deer and a bear . . . the bear was very near catching Drewyer; it also pursued Charbono who fired his gun in the air as he ran . . . Drewyer finally killed it by a shot in the head; the (only) shot indeed that will conquer the farocity of those tremendious anamals."

"In the event you gentlemen have forgotten," adds Nabokov, "Drouillard [aka Drewyer] was killed up at the Three Forks by some Blackfeet about four years after this incident. They scalped him."

By midafternoon we are loaded and still showing an inch of freeboard. We launch in windless, 90-degree heat, and float side by side for a time while we share some cheese and rye crisp and apples. Low bluffs drop steeply to the river along here, and above them the rolling prairie fades off in dun-sage contrast to the green ribbon of cottonwoods and willows that screens the bank. In the shallow draws between the hills, little bluestem and bunchgrass and western wheatgrass bow in a breath of hot wind, and are still again. Far to the south we can see the sharp etching of the Little Belt Mountains against the bowl of a cloudless sky. We are not far, my bowman informs me, his paddle comfortably tucked in along the gunwale, from the spot where Captain Lewis ascended from the river on the 13th of June, 1805, and looked over what he described as "a most beatifull and level plain of great extent or at least 50 or sixty miles; in this there were infinitely more buffaloe than I had ever before witnessed at a view."

I let the canoe drift with the current, trailing my paddle in the mocha-colored water. It is so rich with the silt of the unstable soils through which it flows, and so alkaline, that it is undrinkable; though after an hour in this late afternoon sun, a hat full of it feels good on my smoldering pate. Our map, a revised and updated version of one originally published in 1893 by the Missouri River Commission, shows little change in the cut of the channel; little change, indeed, since the upper Missouri was diverted southward during the last glacial advance. When Karl Bodmer, the Swiss artist with Prince Maximilian's 1833 expedition, painted these walls and bluffs and spires, he painted them precisely as we see them now, though he had a habit of foreshortening his scenes.

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