Missouri River Outfitters' owners take pride in floating the Missouri
By Kimberley Yablonski
MONTANA LIVING — From the first moment of meeting Larry and Bonnie Jo Cook, owners and operators of Missouri River Outfitters based in Fort Benton, it’s evident they take their river float trips and the Wild and Scenic Upper Missouri River seriously.
Wasting no time, Larry decisively divides the group in two, which could best be described as city slickers, history buffs and backpack bearing outdoors people. The crew loaded the 20 guests and our belongings onto the specially designed riverboats for a three-day cruise. As the West Wind and Chippewa slowly glided away from the bank and up the river, I felt like a kid going to summer camp for the first time with that nervous excitement of what the trip may hold.
The Cooks, who have offered float trips on the Upper Missouri River for more than 35 years, provide visitors with a unique blend of nature, nurture and knowledge. They are of that rare breed that manages to parlay their passion into their daily work. Each night, Larry gives lively history lessons and reads from the journals of the river’s most famous explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Remarkably, the Upper Missouri River is relatively unchanged from the days 200 years ago when the Corps of Discovery searched for a northwest waterway passage.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the Cooks, who have spent thousands of nights on the banks of the river, have contributed to the resurgence of interest in the Lewis and Clark expedition. Many parts of the river and the famous White Cliffs can only be seen from small boats or canoes. For most trips, Missouri River Outfitters puts in at Fort Benton and takes out three or four days later at Judith Landing.
In 1985, MRO took a then unknown Stephen Ambrose on his first of many trips down the river. The Cooks’ professionalism earned them a glowing mention in Ambrose’s best selling book Undaunted Courage. Ambrose wrote, “Of all the historic and/or scenic sights we have visited in the world, this is number one.” He also later wrote, “They know the river; they know the history.” Throughout his lifetime, he returned many times sharing the experience with colleagues, friends and family.
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and writer Dayton Duncan sought out the Cooks to help them capture the photos needed for the PBS film, Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. Parts of their property appear in the film. These trips prompted an invitation for the Cooks to attend the 1997 screening of the film in the East Room of the White House.
The canopy-covered boats, complete with a bathroom, offer open views of the majestic cliffs, natural beauty and wildlife. Unless you opt for a canoe trip, guests are asked to do little except enjoy the ride and maybe turn down the rain flaps if a storm hits.
As we navigate the Missouri, each bend of the river provides a new set of vistas unattainable through land access and unbelievable to behold. The remoteness has sheltered the area from most human influence and persevered the same landscapes that awed the Corps of Discovery. It’s easy to see why on May 31, 1805 Lewis wrote a long passage about the White Cliffs area in the journals, “The hills and river [c]lifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance…. “As we passed on it seemed as if those scenes of visionary enchantment would never have [an] end;”
The Cooks use roughly eight different areas along the river to set up camp depending on conditions.
The boats anchor early enough for guests to explore the land, swim the river or just relax. Once camp is set up, Larry and other crewmembers lead hikes to historic points or vistas with spectacular views of the winding river and surrounding landscape. One short hike provided a hillside view of the river and included exploration of a large prairie dog town replete with ancient tepee rings. Another day, a hike inland demonstrated the diversity of this land. Climbing the “Narrows,” a thin trail encased in smooth walls of red rock, we were rewarded with a grand view of the bluffs of the Missouri and the surrounding plains.
The crew, which includes their daughter Kyle and relatives as well as long-time schoolteacher friend, Dave “Parch” Parchen (a rugged outdoorsman and entertainment factor in his own right), assembles each guest tent. Bonnie makes the daunting task of preparing dinner for a large group in a mess tent look easy.
Each night around the campfire, Larry dons traditional mountain man clothes complete with bear claw necklace and reads from the parts of the Lewis and Clark journals that relate to where we are camped. A question and answer session follows. I’m not sure if this activity was optional, but it doesn’t matter because Larry’s enthusiasm is contagious. For history buffs this completes the experience.
Once night falls, the magic of sleeping under the big skies of Montana can’t be duplicated, particularly when beavers at the river’s edge slap the water to remind you who truly belongs here.
As a team, the Cooks offer a unique blend. Both are Coast Guard licensed riverboat pilots; Bonnie has the distinction of being the first woman captain on the Upper Missouri River and the only female captain in the river’s national monument areas. Their no-nonsense approach is quickly softened by one-on-one interaction and interest in their guests and their reasons for coming on the wild and scenic river.
Larry loves the historical aspect of their work. “It’s virtually timeless. You can look at a Karl Bodmer painting and the landscape looks the same as in 1833,” Larry said.
The majority of guests from out of state come on Missouri River Outfitter trips for the history, according to Larry.
For Bonnie Jo, it’s the love of the outdoors that draws her to the river. “I enjoy the beauty -- the White Cliffs, the ranch and farm lands, all of it. And there’s nothing more romantic than seeing horses on a cliff,” she said.
While the natural surroundings are stunning, Mother Nature can sting at any time. Larry and Bonnie have many stories of weathering storms that hit quickly and hard. In Dayton Duncan’s latest book, Scenes of Visionary Enchantment – Reflections on Lewis and Clark, he writes of his memories of his many trips with Larry and Bonnie.
One night, a fierce thunderstorm whipped up. He and Ken Burns counted the seconds between the lightening bolts while trying to keep the tent from blowing over. That ended the filming for that trip, but secretly they were glad for it meant a return trip was required. On that next trip, they captured scenes with the full moon magically illuminating the magnificent lava like rock formation called the Hole in the Wall. They decided to continue down the river with the moon lighting the way, “an unforgettable night voyage that even a hardened river rat like Larry Cook still refers to with reverence each time we meet,” Duncan wrote.
The Cooks want their guests to be so absorbed in the striking beauty of the scenery that they completely forget their jobs and stresses back home. “Once we’re on the river for a while you can visibly see people’s shoulders relax,” Bonnie Jo said. Not unwinding isn’t an option since the remoteness makes cell phones useless.
With 2005-2006 marking the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark voyage, celebration trips are in full swing. However, the Cooks plan on scaling back. Lifelong Fort Benton residents, Larry and Bonnie Jo are third and fifth generation Montanans respectively. Their love affair and respect for the river runs as deep as their Montana roots and is apparent in every aspect of their company. They don’t just know the history of the Upper Missouri River they’re part of it and live it. Bottom line: They don’t want to see the river overrun with traffic and potentially ruined.
“You won’t find me anywhere near Cow Creek Island in May 2005, I can tell you that,” Larry said. “We could make a lot of money on people who want to be at the exact spots Lewis and Clark camped for the bicentennial, but we just won’t do it. We’re not going to be on the river at those times.”
“My opinion is why go to those places with hundreds of other people,” Bonnie adds.
The Cooks have run as many as 20 trips a season averaging 20 guests per trip, but plan to operate about 14 trips in 2005. The opportunity to see the river and surrounding land nearly as it was in the days Lewis and Clark explored the then uncharted territory is what appeals to the Cooks. Part of the experience is also the solitude. They want nothing less for their guests.
Both want their guests to have an unforgettable, lifetime experience. That recently happened for a group of senior citizens from Kalispell. The youngest one was in her 70s. MRO was the only outfitter capable of taking the group for a day trip since no paddling was necessary. One 92-year-old lady told Bonnie she’d been “dreaming of a trip on the river for 50 years.”
“It made me feel so good to be able to take her down the river. To show her parts of the river and land that she wouldn’t have been able to experience any other way,” Bonnie said.
Over the years, the Cooks have been involved in efforts to preserve the river. In 1976, Congress designated 149 miles of the Upper Missouri River as a part of the National Wild and Scenic River system. In 2001, the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was added to the Department of Interior’s National Landscape Monument system. The ecosystem that parallels the Upper Missouri River contains an abundance of geological, biological, wildlife and historical objects of interest. Since the Cooks have been running their business, the Bureau of Land Management has limited the number of vessels licensed to operate commercially on the river. In recent years, new historical walkways with views and markers have been added near Fort Benton.
While the Cooks support protecting the river, they don’t want to see anyone hurt by the monument designations. They say some groups have really picked on the ranchers, which the Cooks view as “part of the backbone of our society.”
“I like the river the way it is with the cows and ranches and farms. I want to see everyone win,” Bonnie said.
“Montanans are good people. People like that Montanans will look you in the eye and ask you how you are doing,” Bonnie Jo said.
In the off-season, the Cooks busy themselves on their 3,000-acre ranch nestled along the Missouri River. From their land, which was first homesteaded by Bonnie Jo’s great Grandfather, they can see where Lewis and Clark camped on a part of their ranch in 1805. For the Cooks it is clear there is no better place on earth.
ABOUT MISSOURI RIVER OUTFITTERS
Missouri River Outfitters offer float trips from mid-May through August. Fort Benton is located about 40 miles northeast of Great Falls.
Three day cruise – Fort Benton or Marias River to Judith Landing
Four day cruise – Marias River or Coal Banks to Kipp Recreation Area
Five day cruise – Fort Benton or Marias River to Kipp Recreation Area