Floating Montana's Missouri River

By Craig & Liz Larcom

      Black clouds loom as our party floats the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River late in the day. Paddles churning, we sprint for the closest beach among the White Cliffs, a half-mile distant We hit the shore in a dead heat with the first big plops of rain, then toss up the tents with record speed. As we leap inside, torrents of rain begin and a dandy thunderstorm crashes around us. A snug tent is a good place to be when a sound and light show arrives on the Missouri River.      
      Some time after dark, calmness returns. Craig and our friend Steve hear a strange, flushing sound across the river. Roused, the rest of us listen, too.  
      “It’s a flash flood,” Craig announces with sudden realization. Canoeing across the river in the morning, the outwash of mud below a small, steep-walled canyon confirms his insight.

Discovery on the Missouri      

Discovery is a constant theme on a trip down the 149 miles of the Wild and Scenic Missouri. Sometimes it’s the discovery of “turrets” on a cliff. Sometimes it’s a beaver slapping its tail next to your fishing line. Sometimes it’s improvised sailing with your tarp and a tail wind. And sometimes it’s camping where the Lewis and Clark expedition did or poking around a homesteader’s cabin.  
      Slipping our canoe from the dock at Fort Benton, 41 miles from Great Falls, we always have an awareness that we are committing ourselves to a week-long camping trip through remote country. Although three launch points lie between us and the Fred Robinson Bridge, a basic amenity like potable water is not guaranteed at any of them.  
      Like other rivers with the “wild and scenic” designation, the Missouri is free-flowing in this section and bears only lightly the footprint of man. In keeping with this, even the most developed recreation areas are spartan. A fire ring, a vault toilet and a fence to keep out cattle is high development.  
      Camping anywhere on public land is also permitted.
Usually we have found less company on the river than we expected. Most days we have seen only two to four other parties. But we see many more in the central section from Coal Banks Landing to Judith River Landing. Thankfully, our fellows are a well-mannered bunch. Also thankfully, few of them use motors, although they’re allowed. (On most of the river boaters are restricted in summer to no-wake speeds and must travel only downstream, river rangers excepted).      
Is it worth giving up a week of hot showers? After watching bighorn sheep from our tent, seeing the dawn seep into these unique cliffs, and savoring a campfire steak with friends, we can only answer with an emphatic yes!
For more information, including new regulations on packing out human wastes below Judith Landing, contact the Bureau of Land Management, Lewistown Field Office, Airport Road, PO Box 1160, Lewistown, Montana 59457, (406) 538-7461. To travel with an outfitter, see listings on the website at Russell.visitmt.com or call 1-800-527-5348.

If you Go

Recommended reading: Glenn Monahan’s “Montana’s Wild and Scenic Upper Missouri River,” with it’s mile by mile account of river history, complete with excerpts from journals and newspapers.

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