by Rob Samuelsen
On May 29, 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition camped at the confluence of Slaughter Creek and the upper Missouri River. Using poles, ropes, and paddles, they somehow navigated their flotilla upstream against the 4 mph river current. Just over 213 years later, I beached my lightweight solo kayak and camped in the same spot. I dreamt about the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition as I slept through the nighttime rain. My goal was to paddle 108 miles from Fort Benton, Montana to James Kipp Recreation Area, approximately 56,000 paddle strokes down the “big muddy!”
This section of the Missouri River includes the famous white cliffs and Missouri breaks areas protected by the National Wild and Scenic River designation, a National Wildlife Refuge, and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Lewis and Clark described the white cliffs as:
“a most romantic appearance. The bluffs of the river rise to the height of from 200 to 300 feet and in most places nearly perpendicular; they are formed of remarkable white sandstone which is sufficiently soft to give way readily to the impression of water . . . The water in the course of time . . . has trickled down the soft sand cliffs and worn it into a thousand grotesque figures . . . with the help of less imagination we see the remains or ruins of elegant buildings; some columns standing and almost entire with their pedestals . . . As we passed on it seemed as if those scenes of visionary enchantment would never have an end.”
The cliffs are penetrated by stunning vertical dikes of magna and horizontal bands of coal giving the white rock stunning black lines of intersecting contrast. Interspersed between the bluffs are verdant meadows and tributary estuaries of riparian life. Lewis and Clark and later Ferdinand Hayden were the first to document big horn sheep and dinosaur fossils at Slaughter Creek. Slaughter Creek itself was named for the 100 carcasses of American bison found at the bottom of the cliff believed to have been stampeded to their demise by Blackfeet hunters.
The river is wide, wild, and scenic as its protections are so aptly named. Eddies and class one rapids provided swirling variety to my paddling as I meandered downstream. I saw many pelicans, eagles, hawks, beaver, deer, big horn sheep, and even encountered several human-sized paddlefish and sturgeons. In terms of people, I only encountered two other river adventurers during the week, two BLM boats, and one group of three wilderness researchers armed with electronic tablet computers walking on the remote shoreline. Unexpectedly, one of those researchers was dressed in a bikini highlighted by snake proof gaiters – the latest in desert bushwhacking fashion! Whether it be communing with nature, seeking adventure, or testing the latest fashion, the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument offers a historic, gorgeous, and remote family-oriented trip of a lifetime. Its romantic appearance, grotesque figures, and visionary enchantment are apropos descriptions of this epic paddleway.