Take a ride on a Montana ferry

Montana River Ferries: Susan Sanford, the ferry princess

Missouri River ferries harken to earlier times in Montana

MONTANA LIVING — Lewis and Clark proclaimed this area barren and uninhabitable, and for the most part they were right.
But here on a bench overlooking the Missouri River near where the Lewis and Clark expedition camped in 1805, Susan Sanford defies the explorers’ proclamation and lives out her summers running the McClelland Ferry, one of only three ferries left on the Missouri River.
Sanford lives in a older trailer at the base of a sandstone bluff overlooking the muddy, slow-moving Missouri. The area where Sanford lives is a desolate place. In this part of Montana, at the upstream portion of the Missouri Breaks, you’re as likely to step on a rattlesnake or scorpion as you are to see a hawk soaring high in the sky, an omen of life in this harsh country.

Sanford carries on a 27-year family tradition of operating the McClelland Ferry, one of only three ferry boats left on the Missouri River between Fort Benton, Mont., and the river’s confluence with the Mississippi River. The ferries are used to replace bridges. Rather than build expensive bridges across the Missouri, county bridge departments opt for a ferry; they run them only a few months out of the year, keeping operational expenses low but helping people, livestock and cars get from one side to the other. The McClelland Ferry is a cooperative project between Blaine and Fergus counties, and they each share in the ferry’s maintenance.

Sanford, whose friends call her the “ferry princess,” was proud to carry on the family tradition. “This is where I learned to swim,” she says.
Sanford might get six or seven vehicles across the river on a busy day, and on some days they might not see any at all. The roads leading down to the ferry crossing are treacherous, and any rain leaves them in a gooey state of gumbo.
“I like being in the country, meeting new people from all corners of America,” Sanford says. “They always try to tell me, ‘We have a ferry back where we live,’ but I’m sure it’s not like this.”

Sanford sees hundreds of canoeists, rafters and motor boaters float by each year, so there’s usually someone to talk to. Other than that, her main communication with the outside world is a television. “It’s not lonely at all,” she says. “With the tv, I don’t feel as if I’m out of touch.”
The Missouri brings water and life to a harsh existence on the Montana plains. A breeze serves only to push the hot air around, andit feels like someone’s breathing down your neck. “Everything dies in August,” Sanford says.
The river is also a monumental barrier to crossing. The ferry shuts down in the winter, forcing motorists — if they even wanted to drive this section of road — hundreds of miles to the nearest bridge.

“My father used to say people would ask him ‘How deep is the river?”

So Sanford, who was raised in nearby Lloyd, Mont., in the Ragland Bench area, says, “You don’t get over to the south side much during the winter.”
The 14-ton ferry, which can haul two cars at a time, is connected to a large overhead cable that spans the river and keeps the boat going straight; the ferry is powered by a large diesel engine on board that coils in cable one side and out the other, to pull it across the might Mo.

The McClelland Ferry is a trip back in time. So it’s no surprise that with the many hundreds of people Sanford sees each year, she gets asked some unusual questions. She answers them straighforward, although her father was known to throw in a little dry humor — a staple of weathered Montana old timers.

“My father used to say people would ask him ‘How deep is the river?”
“Jump in and find out,” was usually his answer.

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published