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  May/June 2000 Articles:
Beyond the Sunset
Big Sky River
Core of Discovery
Buffalo Nation
How to Heal Our Cities
 
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Sierra Magazine
Big Sky River

(continued from page 2)

Day three. Tang and oatmeal bars for breakfast, and some salty words to Lewis, our cook, about his expansive cuisine. Lewis wants an early departure, he says, because we will stop tonight at the Judith, a long 25 miles downriver. On the 29th of May, after a hectic night during which a bull buffalo ran full tilt through camp ("within 18 inches of the heads of some of the men who lay sleeping"), Lewis and Clark came upon a small but significant stream flowing into the Missouri from the south, and Clark called it the "Judieths" after his intended, Julia (Judy) Hancock of Virginia. They found the campfires of 126 Indian lodges belonging to the Atsina, allies of the Blackfoot--or so said "the Indian woman with us" (Sacagawea) after she examined their "mockerson" tracks in the sand.

Ten miles upriver they came upon a pishkin, a place where the Indians of the upper Missouri, before they had wide access to the horse and the rifle, used to drive great herds of buffalo over a precipice. The most active and fleet young man of the tribe would put on a skin with the head and horns still intact and position himself so that when the hunters appeared he could pop up and run like mad toward a chosen cliff. The startled buffalo would blindly follow, the decoy would try to time his arrival at the edge precisely, drop into a pre-scouted crevasse just below the lip, and let the herd thunder over. Voilˆ. The most active and fleet young man became the toast of the teepee, the life of the evening party--unless, as sometimes happened, he turned out not to be fleet enough and the thundering herd made a rug out of him.

Lewis remarks that the rotting carcasses they discovered "created a most horrid stench," and that the great many wolves they saw skulking around the neighborhood "were fat and extreemly gentle." Clark killed one of them with a short pike called an espontoon, though Lewis does not say why. Probably for the same reason mountain men killed everything--sometimes because they wanted to eat it, often just because it moved. The expedition leaders, in consolation for their unappetizing find at the pishkin, apparently thought it proper to open the bar. Lewis reports that "notwithstanding the allowance of sperits we issued did not exceed 1/2 (jill) pr. man, several of them were considerably effected by it; such is the effects of abstaining for some time from the uce of sperituous liquors; they were all very merry."

The upper Missouri below Great Falls is strictly a Class I river. We look hopefully at markings on our map like Pablo's Rapid and Dead Man Rapid, but they prove to be little more than riffles and a slight acceleration in the current. Just below the Slaughter River at the end of the White Cliffs we drift down on a flock of white pelicans bobbing in the water, much larger than the coastal variety I am used to, and possessing the greatest wingspan of any bird in this part of the country.

We hold our paddles quiet and they watch us until we are within 20 or 30 yards, then lift laboriously off the surface and begin slowly to circle, gaining altitude an inch at a time like some jumbo jet corkscrewing its way out of a high- altitude airport ringed by mountains. They are snow white with a fringe of black aileron on the underside of their enormous wings, and the conical helix of their upward spiral against the flat blue sky is completely hypnotic. Around and around they wheel, now catching a thermal and rising faster, higher, higher, higher, a speck of cosmic dust in a glinting bank around the sun, still higher--until magically they vanish, absorbed into the atmosphere.

I hear children swimming. The sound of their splashing carries a mile up the river, destroying the midday quiet, the contemplative float through the post-luncheon nods, the illusion that we are alone in this wilderness and protected from the babble of other anthropoids. Somebody is swimming in our river. But nothing appears. The noise grows louder. We float down, almost abreast. Still nothing. I stand cautiously and peer over a low bar of cobble that forms the bank to my right, and beyond it into a brackish-looking pond created by summer's recession in the flow of the river. What I see are the glistening backs of a dozen giant carp, their dorsal fins and the scaly upper half of their goldfish bodies cutting through the shallow water in a slow, almost meditative glide, punctuated every now and then by a violent convulsion that churns the water and produces the sound we heard away upriver.

We beach the canoes and watch them for over an hour, understanding finally the obvious pattern to their ritual. Behind each female (they appear to be about three feet long) swims a smaller male, and it is he who thrashes the water with his tail to excite the releasing of the eggs. The whole scene is so primeval that we would stand gaping all afternoon if the westering arc of the sun didn't jog us on our way.

We camp at the Judith as planned. There is an old ferry here, and a broad grassy bank along the river shaded by cottonwoods. A dirt road runs north for 44 miles to the town of Big Sandy on Route 89, and south from the other side of the river about 49 miles to Hilger on Route 191 out of Lewistown, but neither is a road that anybody travels for pleasure, or indeed for any reason except to get back to the ranch. A sign by the ferry says "Judith Landing Recreation Area," but I don't see anybody recreating except two fishermen setting trotlines for catfish and periodically emerging from their pickup to check on their luck.

It is hard to imagine this empty stretch of river ever changing, ever becoming a "recreation area." It is exceedingly remote to begin with. It is not the kind of country that stimulates most backpackers, has no whitewater to lure river runners, has limited access and primitive facilities at only a few places. Fishing is pretty much limited to goldeye, sauger, and catfish, and in a state full of blue-ribbon trout streams, who cares for that? The Bureau of Land Management was charged with developing a river-management plan, always a little worrisome, particularly when one considers what happened to 93 percent of the Missouri under the direction of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation.

In the 1940s they came up with two plans for development: The Corps stressed flood control and navigation, and the Bureau stressed irrigation and hydroelectric power. They decided to cooperate and build all the dams proposed by everybody, and that was the end of the Missouri River. The economic benefits from the dams went mainly east, and the social costs were borne by the people of the regions through which the river flows--like, for instance, the Mandans, who lost much of their cultural history beneath the waters backed up by the Garrison Dam.

Others who have written about this river have found the badlands along this eastern stretch below Judith more teeming with wildlife than the White Cliffs section. Bighorn sheep and elk have been reintroduced in the area. There should be whitetail and mule deer in abundance, and this is the most likely place to spot a golden eagle. But we see, in fact, fewer birds, more signs of human habitation, and, apart from a small herd of pronghorn antelope and a few beaver, not much along the banks. Captain William Clark suffered no such disappointment.

He remarks in his journal entry for the 23rd of May, 1805, "I walked on shore and killed 4 deer & an Elk, & a beaver in the evening we killed a large fat Bear, which we unfortunately lost in the river . . . The after part of this day was worm & the Musquetors troublesome. Saw but five Buffalow a number of Elk & Deer & 5 bear & 2 antilopes to day." The following morning, just to get his blood circulating, Clark "walked on shore and killed a female Ibi or big horn animal . . . in my absence Drewyer & Bratten killed two others." A kill count from the Lewis and Clark journals might help explain our diminished sightings.

The weather begins to turn foul, with high winds and blustering rainsqualls, and because we laid over a day at the Judith to swim and loaf we begin to feel pressed to make time. We aren't, but that doesn't seem to occur to anybody. Nabokov suggests we lash the canoes together and rig a sail out of a ground cloth and two paddles, and he and my son sit in the bow holding this contraption before the wind. No wonder we don't see any wildlife. We look like the last days of the Kon Tiki, veering and yawing down the river, flapping like wash day at the asylum, but it works, and we rocket through 35 miles of twisting channel before we finally collapse at a place called Bullwhacker Coulee.

Meriwether Lewis climbed out of the river here on the 26th day of May, a little over a year and 2,000 miles from the day he and Clark and 43 men began their trek to the Pacific, and he caught his first glimpse of what he thought were the Rocky Mountains, "covered with snow and the sun shone on it in such a manner as to give me the most plain and satisfactory view." His reaction to this discovery is all the more touching because he was actually looking at the Little Rockies of northern Montana rather than the great mountains he thought them to be. "I feel a secret pleasure in finding myself so near the head of the heretofore conceived boundless Missouri; but when I reflected on the difficulties which this snowey barrier would most probably throw in my way to the Pacific, and the sufferings and hardships of myself and party in them, it in some measure counterballanced the joy I had felt in the first moments in which I gazed on them; but as I have always held it a crime to anticipate evils I will believe it a good comfortable road untill I am compelled to believe differently."

I wonder what he would think of that road now? Take Interstate 15 to Helena and over the Continental Divide to Butte. Pick up Interstate 90 to Missoula, and then Highway 12 across Idaho and into Washington. You'll hit the Columbia just past Walla Walla and from there it's interstate again all the way to the ocean. Six months, you say? Now it's a two-day drive.

Rain continues to fall in wind-blown sheets, and we turn in at the first hint of dusk. In the morning we load the canoes and shove off in a gusting storm that turns the river to chop. Cow Island, where Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perces crossed in September of 1877 (General Oliver Howard in hot pursuit) slips by to our left. The channel is much wider along here than it was above the Judith, the cliffs far back from the muddy banks. There are numerous side channels and grassy, treeless islands. We see little in the way of animal life except cows and an occasional band of horses, and few birds except a crippled pelican, obviously the recipient of some idiot's shotgun blast, dragging itself along the beach at Tea Island, just before our pullout point at the Fred Robinson Bridge.

Civilization. After the wildness of the upper river, the solitude, the illusion of being sequestered from humanity, returning to a world even as sparsely inhabited as northeastern Montana suddenly begins to seem like a bum idea. We begin to regret out loud that 35-mile day when we did little but hunker behind an improvised sail. We should have spent more time off the river, hiking, poking around. We start to question one another about the infernal compulsion to log miles, check maps, figure out where we are and how far we have to go. Go where? To a steel and concrete bridge with cars zipping overhead, overflowing refuse cans, chemical johns, wounded birds? Pretty soon we aren't even speaking.

But it is only by contrast that this feels like civilization, and it seems extremely unlikely that this piece of the world is going to be much changed by an influx of tourists, developers, immigrants, speculators, retirement communities, second-home owners, utility companies, or resort operators. There just isn't anything up here to make a buck on. Space and the wind in your ears. No thrills. For most people it is too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, too austere in its emptiness, too far from port, too tough on the spirit. It will remain, one feels, the preserve of those who can accept it on its own terms.


Page Stegner is the author of numerous works on the American West. A fuller version of this story was first published by Sierra Club Books in Outposts of Eden: A Curmudgeon at Large in the American West (1989).

For more information, see the Sierra Club's Lewis and Clark  and ecoregions websites.

Sierra Club Outings leads trips across the country.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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