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History lessons on the Missouri ... by canoe. Paddling trips show you Lewis and Clark's West.

History lessons on the Missouri . . . by canoe It all began with the Missouri River: after Lewis and Clark's 1804-06 Corps of Discovery, the river carried the fur traders, gold miners, missionaries, cattlemen, farmers, and dam builders who shaped the history of the West. They toiled upstream in vessels ranging from crude wooden pirogues to mountain steamboats in search of a Northwest passage, riches, a decent life. Their feelings about "Old Misery" varied as much as the river's course, but one thing was constant: the river was a way of getting somewhere. For the Blackfeet Indians, who wintered and hunted along its banks, it was something to cross, something permanent, immutable, life-sustaining.

Today's Missouri River has been tamed by six major dams and numerous canals, but it is still mighty. On the 2,315-mile journey from its headwaters at Three Forks, Montana, to its confluence with the Mississippi near St. Louis, it covers seven states and drains nearly a sixth of the continental United States.

You can get a taste of the river's history on a three-to seven-day trip along the 149 miles between Fort Benton and James Kipp Recreation Area in Montana. This section, designated a Wild and Scenic River by Congress in 1978, traverses a spectacular landscape little changed from the days of Lewis and Clark.

A gentle, class I current makes this a slow-paced trip suitable for families. The three put-in points set trip lengths at a minimum of 40 miles, or two days. Either go with a guide or rent a canoe and set up your own shuttle (see page 31). Motor-boats (no rentals) are allowed on the river at no-wake speeds.

The route is an easy float, but watch for occasional high winds, thunderstorms, and rattlesnakes. You can camp at any of 11 primitive campsites--the main sites are shown on the map--or pick your own spot on public land. River water is not potable, and only two campsites have drinkable water. Summer temperatures are in the 80s, but cool at night; water temperatures are a cool 60 [degrees]. The Bureau of Land Management's visitor center in Fort Benton has maps and current weather conditions.

A two-day drive from Seattle or Denver, Fort Benton is 45 miles east of Great Falls International Airport and a 75-mile bus trip from Havre's Amtrak station.

"The Chicago of the Plains"

Plan a day in Fort Benton for an excellent overview of area history and geology.

As you walk the quiet, cottonwood-lined levee from the grand Union Hotel to the keelboat Mandan, it's difficult to believe 19th century visitors were warned, "It's a tough town, walk in the center of the street and keep your mouth shut."

Once the terminus for western steamboat travel, Fort Benton called itself the Chicago of the Plains. It was shaped by the goods that went downriver: in the 1840s, beaver pelts; in the '60s, gold dust; in the '70s, buffalo skins; and in the '80s, cattle and sheep. When the railroad arrived, in 1887, it killed the steamboat trade. Fort Benton changed from a frontier town to a regional commercial center--not unlike the town of today.

An hour in the small, old-fashioned Museum of the Upper Missouri will acquaint you with the early history of the Upper Missouri from Folsom man to turn-of-the-century homesteaders. Behind the museum is Old Fort Park, with the log remains of the American Fur Company's 1846 Fort Clay (renamed in 1850 in honor of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, a supporter of the fur trade).

Also spend some time in the three large buildings and homestead village of the new Museum of the Northern Great Plains. You'll see how farm life has changed over the last 80 years, as simple wooden plows gave way to giant 40-foot cultivators, sod hurts to ranch houses, and kerosene to electricity.

A visitor center run by the BLM (managing agency for the Wild and Scenic (Missouri) focuses on Upper Missouri history with fossil exhibits, a 20-minute slide show about Lewis and Clark, and a film about naturalist Prince Maximilian von Wied's 1833 expedition. Two excellent waterproof maps ($4 each) are keyed to a site-by-site History Digest, lent like a library book so you can take it downriver.

"Seens of visionary inchantment"

"The swift current was gently tossing and swaying our crafts as if to say: "Come, why tarry? Cast loose and I will bear you swiftly into the land of your dreams.'" Landforms like Citadel Rock, Hole in the Wall, and Dark Butte--which inspired painters and oriented river pilots--seem as fantastic today as they did to fur trapper James Willard Schultz in 1901.

The seven-day trip down the entire 149 miles of Wild and Scenic river passes through three geologically contrasting sections of river. Trips run from mid-May to mid-October. Cost is about $100 a day; plan a month ahead.

You'll drift along about 20 miles a day -- a far cry from the backbreaking toil Lewis and Clark's expedition endured coming upriver: "Men are compelled to be in the water even to their armpits, and the water is yet very could, and . . . the banks and bluffs along which they are obliged to pass are so slippery and the mud so tenacious that they are unable to wear their mockersons."

Days 1 and 2 cover the 42-mile valley from Fort Benton to Coal Banks Landing. Bordered by cottonwood groves and rounded bluffs, this is the oldest part of the river--its channel unaltered by glaciers that bent it north at Coal Banks.

Days 3, 4, and part of 5 bear you through the spectacular 50-mile White Cliffs section between Coal Banks Landing and Judith Landing. Sandstone cliffs and igneous-domed rocks crowd the river, the combined artistry of volcanic activity and wind. Lewis described these "seens of visionary inchantment" as "eligant ranges of lofty freestone buildings, having their parapets well stocked with statuary." Homesteader cabins are ghosts of an early 1900s land rush.

Days 5, 6, and 7 along the isolated 60 miles between Judith Landing and Fred Robinson bridges are within the Missouri Breaks region that trappers called mauvaises terres (badlands). Rounded hills dotted with ponderosa pine and Douglas fir give way to steep, sharply eroded, bare cliffs with narrow gullies that look as if a giant had set down his hand in soft clay.

Bring binoculars for this section, which offers the best wildlife viewing: more than 230 species of birds--pelicans, golden eagles, prairie falcons--wing the skies over bighorn sheep, mule deer, sharp-tailed grouse, and soft-shelled turtles. And don't forget a fishing rod: walleye, catfish, and prehistoric flat-nosed paddlefish swim the waters below. Licenses ($10 for two days, $38 for the summer) are available at Fort Benton's Coast to Coast store, 1422 Front Street.

Planning your trip

Unless noted, the area code is 406 and the zip code is 59442.

In and near Fort Benton

Visitor information, Karen's Insta-Print, 1402 Front Street; 622-5634. Free walking tour brochures are available here June 1 through September 1, 9 to 5 weekdays, 10 to 2 Saturdays.

Museum of the Upper Missouri, Front and 18th streets; 622-5494. Admission: $2 adults, $1 ages 6 through 12 (includes entry to Museum of the Northern Great Plains). Open 9 to 7 daily from May 15 through September 15, 10 to 5 September 16 through October 15, and 10 to 3 May 1 through May 14; or by appointment.

Museum of the Northern Great Plains, 20th and Washington streets (Box 262); call 622-5494 for information. Hours and ticket price included above; opens an hour later May 15 through September 15.

BLM Visitor Center, 1718 Front Street; 622-5185 in summer, 538-7461 winter. Open 8 to 6 daily May 18 through September 9; other months, write to River Manager, Airport Road, Lewistown 59457.

Lodging. Rates are per night, double.

Fort Model, 1809 St.Charles Street; 622-312. A serviceable 11-room motel on the outskirts of town; $35.

Pioneer Lodge, 1700 Front Street; 622-5441. A nine room downtown motel near the river; $40 rate includes continental breakfast.

Virgelle Mercantile Antiques, HCR 67, Box 50, Loma 59460; (800 0) 426-2926. Old-timey, riverside bed-and-breakfast; go 22 miles northeast on U.S. Highway 87, then follow signs 8 miles to Coal Banks Landing. Four B & B rooms cost $85 (by reservation only; $20 deposit); three cabins cost $40.

River outfitters

These outfitters have BLM permits for river trips; rates are for guided canoe trips (G), canoe rentals (C), and shuttle service (S).

Missouri River Outfitters, Box 1212, Fort Benton; 622-3925. Rates: G, $80 per person per day for three-to seven-day trips May 15 through September; C, $12. From May 15 through August, one-to five-day trips in the 32-foot, flat-bottomed riverboat are $90 per person; S, $35 to $420.

Missouri River Canoe Company (see Virgelle Mercantile Antiques, above). Rates: C, $15 a day; S, $85 to $275.

Montana River Outfitters, 1401 Fifth Ave. S., Great Falls 59405; 761-1677. Rates: G, from $15 (one day) to $100 (three to five days). C, $25 a day; rubber rafts, $25 to $60. S, $25 to $240.

Medicine Lake Outfitters, Box 3663, Bozeman 59772; 388-4938. Rates; G, $750 (five days), $1,500 (ten days).

Sharon Pavlovick, Judith Landing, Box 874, Big Sandy 59520; 386-2421. Rates: S, $60 to $200.

Upper Missouri Keelboat Company, 8385 Buffalo Horn Dr., Helena 59601. Rates: $750 (three days) and $1,500 (five days) for trips in a six-passenger keelboat.
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Date:Jun 1, 1991
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