Reflections on the Upper Missouri River Breaks

Writing this post on Wednesday, June 3rd. Also, I may have to add the photos back to this post at a later date.

A week ago today, I put on at Carter’s Ferry and paddled 16 miles to Fort Benton, mile 0 of the 149 Upper Missouri River Breaks. This stretch of river is what most consider the most spectacular scenery on the entire Missouri River. The first half, generally from Coal Banls Landing to Judith Landing are the famous “while cliffs” – sandstone walls and natural monuments on both sides. So much to take in. Then after Judith Landing, the personalilty of the Breaks changes. It has more of a Badlands feel to it – rocky, muddy cliffs, but no less beautiful. As the Badlands is one of my favorite National Parks, I think I enjoyed the lower half the best.After camping with my friendly snake at Judith Landing, I put in a full day of paddling, stopping at a few interesting Homesteads – more on that. Around 5pm, I pulled into Gist Ranch – normally an excellent homestead to check out. But I think what happened is that the winter ice jams took out the cattle fences keeping them out of the campsite. The actual camp was a wreck with cow dung, a stench and generally just torn up ground. I paddled another mile or so to Snake Point. Still a bit torn up from cattle, but not as bad. The Breaks guide said this was the starting point for a short hike up a Badlands-type mountain, from where Meriwether Lewis spotted the Rocky Mountains for the first time. I had a relaxing dinner and evening watching the sunset over the river, and was even treated to a low-flying single engine plane right through the river valley to coincide with sunset – look to the left, it’s there:I set my alarm for 5:15 but ended up not neding at as it starts to get light this far north before 5am. I jumped up, grabbed a Cliff Bar and water and climbed the hill. 1000 ft and a pit stop to take my morning constitutional is a self-dug hole later, I was standing at the exact spot where Meriwether beheld the snow-capped mountains that would later nearly put an end to their westward exploration. No mountains were to be seen today, I was told the day before that the increased haze was due to wild fires in Alberta, Canada.I took a few photos of the scene as the sun came up over the mountains. Pretty sure I’ll be framing this panorama:Later that morning, I stopped by a Homestead that wasn’t marked on the map. If it gets published when I have reception again, I had an Instagram post that gave a short explanation of Homesteads along this part of the river. Basically, in the mid to late 1800s, the US government basically gave away tracts of lands in order to get people out west, settle the land and, ahem – move Native Americans off the land. While some stuck it out and made a life on the wide open plains through farming or raising livestock, many others weren’t able to sustain a life with the harsh Montana weather and conditions. Some of these Homestead sites can be found along the river here. Some are actually still in use as working farms, many others are just ruins of the old farm sites. You are able to stop and walk around in them. Some of the images are pretty stark. As I explored a few on my own, I had feelings of insignificance and impermanence. Here were homes and workshops of people whose lives were here or 10, 20, 30 years. And then it was done. They moved on to something better, something easier. And here were the remains of their lives and their work for that period of time. Captured in history.Another site I passed later that day was the Nez Perce Trail. While it isn’t a specific site you can stop and take a picture of, the map I was following was marked where the trail paralleled the river and eventually crossed over and headed North. As the young US was expanding westward, the Nez Perce signed a treaty to move to 7.5 million acres of land in Montana and further to the Northwest. As the 7.5 million acres became 1 million, 300 men, women and children of the Nez Perce refused to sign a revised treaty and tried to make a run for the northern border of Canada. Pursued by US troops, they were eventually tracked down, some killed and the rest forced to reservations. As I paddled by where these 300 tribespeople marched along and over the Missouri River, I reflected on the dark parts of our nation’s history, the sacrifices and horrible incidents that happened during our nation’s rapid expansion. Certainly, I’m proud to call America home. But I feel like educating oneself about the horrific things that got us to where we are today are a necessary part of being American.

When people talk about paddling the best parts of the Missouri River, many are referring to the Upper Missouri River Breaks. The incredible sights and scenery as well as the rich and plentiful wildlife along the way is matched only by the history to be found along the way. For someone who loves nature as well as history, this was a spectacular few days and I can only hope to make it back here to paddle this stretch again someday.