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Floating Through the Wildest West

In Montana, a canoe trip following Lewis and Clark's expedition is a family adventure in American history

July 04, 1999|JOAN HUYSER-HONIG | Joan Huyser-Honig is a freelance writer in Grand Rapids, Mich

VIRGELLE, Mont. — Rushing against our canoes, the upper Missouri River sounded like salt poured into a dry skillet. Thick with silt, the milky brown current swept past carrying bits of bark, cottonwood fuzz, feathers and leaves.

"They should call this the Big Muddy," said my husband, Steve.

I patted a five-gallon water jug riding behind me in the canoe and felt reassured. Unlike Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who explored this isolated stretch in 1805, we wouldn't have to drink river water.

Our family of four--including sons Josh, 14, and Abe, 16--was floating this National Wild and Scenic River, the single best way to experience places that Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery described in their journals. Dams now corral most of the mighty Missouri, but the 149-mile protected portion between Fort Benton and the James Kipp Recreation Area in north-central Montana remains natural and free-flowing. East of here, dams and lakes contain the river. To the west, waterfalls and rapids mark the river's course from its headwaters in the Rockies.

Over the years, we've passed the eastern Montana stretch of the river on road trips between our home in Michigan and my sister's home in Alberta, Canada. Mesmerized by swaying prairie grass and big sky, we wondered: What did this area look like when Lewis and Clark and their party of 50 poled upriver--before railroads, fences and highways carved up the Great Plains? Then we read in "Undaunted Courage," Stephen E. Ambrose's wonderful 1996 account of the corps' push to the Pacific, that the protected stretch of the river looks much as it did back then.

So last July, on the drive back from Alberta, we took a three-day, two-night float detour to see for ourselves. Dark clouds chased our minivan across the Montana plains while we listened to audiotape narrations of excerpts from the corps' journals. The clouds caught up with us in Fort Benton, a town that's home to a small museum and several sites associated with the expedition. We'd planned to acquaint ourselves with these, but a fierce thunderstorm persuaded us to continue the 25 miles or so to Virgelle, where we would spend the night before our launch.

Virgelle, once a commercial center of sorts with a bank, grain elevator and so on, is a ghost town with a population of two: Jimmy Griffin and Don Sorensen, co-owners of the Missouri River Canoe Co. and Virgelle Mercantile. They rent canoes and, above the old general store, faithfully restored early-1900s rooms, plus some cabins and a sheepherder's wagon out back.

Griffin showed us to a comfortable 1914 homesteader's cabin outfitted with wood stove and lanterns. It had its own privy, but modern toilets and showers were nearby, in a restored icehouse.

Once we were settled in, we got out our camp stove and dined on a one-pot stew as if we were already in the wild. Which we were; there's no restaurant in Virgelle. (There are motels, fast-food outlets and a pizza place in Fort Benton.)

The evening was quiet, broken only by bird song and the clink of our boys' game of horseshoes. But I couldn't relax until I'd quizzed Griffin about hazards Lewis and Clark mentioned.

Hail big as apples? "We had some canoeists cut and bruised by huge hail during a tornado, but that was seven years ago," he said.

Rattlesnakes? "I've seen lots but never been bit. Make noise and move slowly when you climb up bluffs or near homesteads," Griffin advised.

How about capsizing? Should we wear life jackets? He said that fewer than one-tenth of 1% of canoeists tip into the water, and I believed him.

Griffin's calm manner and drawled-but-direct answers inspired such trust that I didn't even think to ask about quicksand.

I was still feeling relaxed and assured the next morning as we loaded our own gear into two of Griffin's canoes at Coal Banks Landing. We chose his outfit because it's one of the few that rents canoes; guided trips are the rule, even though the "wild and scenic" river is usually calm and easy to float for anyone with a little canoeing experience.

Steve and I usually canoe with one boy each. On this trip we let the boys ride together, and they had a great time.

Ranger Suzanne Koler recorded our names, address and self-guided trip plans. "The river is faster than usual," she warned. The average midsummer current is 3 mph, and most floaters cover 22 miles per day. But after the previous week's rain, it was running 5 to 7 mph. We would float 46 miles to Judith Landing, where a ride back to Virgelle would be waiting.

We pushed off into the river, and two hours later we were lunching at Little Sandy Creek. Afterward we hiked through fruiting prickly pear cactus and sweet-smelling sagebrush to a bluff Griffin had mentioned. We found four tepee rings, circles of stones that Blackfeet Indians once used to secure buffalo-hide tepee covers.

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