Trails to a Vanishing Frontier
Exploring the White Cliffs of the Missouri River
Looking through a natural window into Neat Coulee, which is part of the terrain that surrounds the National Wild and Scenic Missouri River. Photo By: Donnie Sexton
The Upper Missouri River Breaks wild and scenic area remains largely unchanged since Lewis and Clark's expedition over 200 years ago. Photo By: Donnie Sexton
Guide, Peter Pratt, and Jo Matayas paddle closer to the Virgille sandstone formations of the White Cliffs. Photo By: Donnie Sexton
Navigating through the narrow segments of Neat Coulee, a slot canyon created by water erosion, proves challenging for even the smallest hiker among us. Photo By: Donnie Sexton
Eagle Creek, an area rich in archeological history, provides camping and hiking opportunities into a small drainage nicknamed Neat Coulee. Photo By: Donnie Sexton
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STANDING ON THE BANKS OF THE MIGHTY MISSOURI RIVER, I LISTEN TO THE BANTER OF OUR RIVER GUIDES, BOB NELSON AND PETE PRATT.
“We get paid by the mileage,” Bob announces with nary a twinkle in his eyes. “So if you want to go in circles that’s alright with me.” I tug my navy ball cap tighter down on my head in a guise of avoiding the sun, but it’s Bob ’s penetrating stare I’m working at escaping. Our group just met him in front of the Virgelle Mercantile/Antiques and B&B, in Virgelle, Mont., so it’s hard to tell how serious he is.
It must be the canoeing he’s referring to, I decide, and he’s only half-kidding. Our group of six is a mixture of experienced and novice boaters set for a canoe and camping trip that will follow the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. We will paddle to hikes at Little Sandy Creek, Neat Coulee, Hole-in-the-Wall and search for Lewis and Clark’s disputed buffalo jump. It’s this last entry that most interests me; many historians challenge the existence of this buffalo jump. Proponents, however, point to a passage in the Lewis and Clark journals that cites the location in detail and refer to its visual existence based on Karl Bodmer’s illustrations (drawn on his North American expedition with German Prince Alexander Maximilian). I’m anxious to judge for myself.
Listening to Nelson interrupt Pratt, his athletic 20-something guiding partner, I’m guessing he has a better chance of teaching me how to canoe in less than five minutes than he does of getting the better of Nelson, a retired Big Sandy agriculture and biology teacher and well-known guide in these parts. Pratt patiently waits Nelson out, while the rest of us stuff our hiking gear and overnight camping necessities into waterproof bags. Altogether, it’s two guides, four canoes, five tents and the six of us setting out for two nights and three days of canoe-only accessible hikes along these historic and often forgotten trails of the Upper Missouri National and Wild Scenic River. This 47-mile corridor, from Coal Banks Landing to Judith Landing, is the most popular, picturesque and entertaining section of the “wild” Missouri and the one most written about by Captain Lewis — just 10 miles downriver, the famous White Cliffs of the Missouri River begin.
An hour later, just past 10 a.m., our gear safely stowed in the canoes, we put in at Coal Banks Landing, mile 41.5 of the mighty Missouri. I still don’t quite know what to do with the paddle they’ve given me. Thankfully, I’m in the bow of the boat (so they tell me) where I can do the least damage. I’m warming up to Nelson and his sarcastic, yet incredibly funny sense of humor that reminds me more and more of my grandfather. When Jo Matyas tells him that she wants geology, history and wildlife information he replies, “Well, without the nightlife that’s about all we have here.” As we paddle onto the Missouri, Nelson tells us that Coal Banks Landing was a steamboat stop for the Assiniboine. Its name was derived from the dark layers of lignite coal that are settled in the hillsides. Easing downriver, I wonder about the history these banks hold, starting with their glaciated beginnings to the Blackfeet, Nez Perce, to Lewis and Clark to steamboat travel leading to the birth of Fort Benton, Karl Bodmer and Charlie Russell. Most of all I wonder when Nelson is going to tell us about the buffalo jump beyond Slaughter River. Not only is he one of the believers, he says he knows where it is.
The stories that the Slaughter River hike have to reveal must wait for now as we’ve landed at Little Sandy, mile 46.7 (and even though we’ve only paddled 5 miles, I do believe that some of us have gone twice that already). As we pull our canoes up to this 385-acre recreational easement, flickers rat-tat-tat out a welcome some 60 feet above in the cottonwoods that lazily line the riverbank. With the sun high in the sky, we ply on more sunscreen and tug our hats further down on our heads, load up on water and begin our hike up the short-grass prairie hills that surround Little Sandy Creek. In single file we follow a circuitous old cow trail, leaving the shade of the cottonwoods behind. We sidestep cactus and jump over eroded gullies until we reach the windy top, which offers some relief from the heat. Eagle Butte rises above us in the far distance; downstream we can see the river’s meanderings weaving back and forth until it looks like there are three Big Muddy’s below. Alkaline soils and straggly-looking sagebrush dot the hilltop and are much more visible then the ancient Indian encampment where we stand. Nelson points out the tipi rings that without his experienced eye would be difficult to find. We create a human circle around these historic remains and with the help of our imaginations, Nelson’s storytelling brings the once vibrant village to life.
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