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Missouri River

Description: The river that carried Lewis and Clark across much of Montana is a trout-filled mountainous stream in its upper reaches and a broad, scenic prairie river in its lower two-thirds. This is a trip through history.

Vital statistics: 734 miles (including 223 reservoir miles) from Three Forks to the Montana-North Dakota border.

Level of difficulty: Class I, suitable for beginners its entire length, except below Morony Dam in Great Falls (4 miles of Class III rapids).

Flow: Annual mean flow: 7,696 cfs at Fort Benton. Plenty of water all year in this big river.

Hazards: Strong winds, sudden storms, mosquitoes, and plenty of rattlesnakes.

Where the crowd goes: The 149-mile "wild and scenic" section, especially between Coal Banks Landing and Judith Landing. Holter Dam to Pelican Point receives heavy fishing pressure.

Avoiding the scene: Fred Robinson Bridge to Turkey Joe. For a long trip, Fort Peck Dam to the North Dakota border.

Inside tip: Float from Fred Robinson to Fort Peck Reservoir in September to see and hear one of the last remaining prairie elk herds in the nation.

Maps: BLM: #39 (Great Falls North), #40 (Great Falls South), #41 (Canyon Ferry Dam), #42 (Townsend), #43 (Bozeman), #48 (Lonesome Lake), #49 (Fort Benton), #58 (Winifred), RAG-16, RAG-17, #84 (Glasgow), #85 (Fort Peck Lake East), #93 (Wolf Point), #102 (Culbertson), Upper Missouri National Wild & Scenic River (maps 1&2, 3&4)
USFS: Helena
USGS: Bozeman-MT, White Sulphur-MT, Great Falls-MT, Shelby-MT, Lewistown-MT, Jordan-MT, Wolf Point-MT

Upper Missouri A
Upper Missouri B

Wild and Scenic Missouri

Lower Missouri

River rules: Check with FWP regarding ever-changing trout-fishing regulations. Registration required for floating "wild and scenic" Missouri (at Fort Benton, Coal Banks Landing, and Judith Landing).

For more information: BLM, Lewistown or Fort Benton; Montana River Outfitters, Great Falls or Fort Benton; Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures, Missoula.

The paddling: Known as "Old Misery" to early explorers and fur trappers who fought its tricky currents and fickle moods, the Missouri River has carried boatloads of Montana history-makers on its waters. Pathway for the expansion of the West, the Missouri provided the major water route to the Rocky Mountains from the time of Lewis and Clark until the coming of the railroads in the late 1800s.

Although the river once bustled with activity, it now offers solitude and a deep sense of the past. Nearly every bend has a story to tell, and despite all the mishaps that have occurred on this historic river, even beginning floaters can handle the Missouri for its entire length in Montana.

The Blackfeet, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, and Cree Indians ruled the lands along the Missouri before settlers arrived. In 1805 and 1806, Lewis and Clark traversed the entire length of the Missouri River and its tributaries in Montana. Fur trappers invaded soon after. Steamboats came next, proceeding as far up the Missouri as Fort Benton. The ships brought gold-seekers, sodbusters, homesteaders, shopkeepers, and other opportunists. Livestock came to Montana in the 1880s and cattlemen still dominate the Missouri River area today.

Colorfully named landmarks reflect the Missouri's rich and romantic past. Places like Gates of the Mountains, Citadel Rock, Hole-in-the-Wall, Slaughter River, Bullwhacker Creek, Drowned Man's Rapids, Steamboat Rock, and Woodhawk Creek all played a role in Montana history. Floaters looking for Lewis and Clark information will find a treasure trove, but two books stand out. First is Bernard DeVoto's classic book, The Journals of Lewis and Clark. It's an excellent distillation of the journals, with explanatory footnotes. The other is Stephen Ambrose's more recent book, Undaunted Courage.

Floods have played a key role in the Missouri River's history. As one song describes:

"She glides along by western plains,
 and changes her bed each time it rains."


Pioneers weren't able to deal with the river's wandering ways and set out to harness it. Dams now check the Missouri for most of its 2,500-mile flow. In Montana, nearly a third of the Missouri lies stilled behind concrete and earth. First come Canyon Ferry, Hauser, and Holter dams, three dams in succession that lie east of Helena and impound the river for nearly 70 miles. Then near downtown Great Falls lie five run-of-the-river dams that check the famous falls where Lewis and Clark made an arduous 17-mile portage. Finally-and most significantly-there's the huge Fort Peck Dam in eastern Montana, which drowns nearly 100 miles of river and creates the fourth largest reservoir in the world.

The 149-mile segment of the Missouri between Fort Benton and the Fred Robinson Bridge endures as the only major portion of the 2,500 mile-long Mighty Mo that has been protected and preserved in a free-flowing and natural state. After a hard-fought battle, it became a part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 1976. It's very popular, attracting river rats and history buffs from all over the country.

Like a great fallen tree with its branches ensnarled in the mountains, the Missouri starts near Three Forks where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers join. The river flows freely for about 35 miles before being impounded by the Canyon Ferry-Hauser-Holter complex of impounded lakes.

The river between Townsend and Three Forks has experienced a burst of popularity as anglers have discovered the exceptionally large trout that reside here. Fairly isolated, the area has beautiful rolling hills and wooded islands. Water quality isn't always the best here, and hot summer days can raise water temperatures. Toston Dam, which lies about halfway between Three Forks and Canyon Ferry and creates a few miles of slack water, blocks upstream movements of trout. The Toston-to-Townsend float is popular in the fall when the brown trout are spawning and the fish are concentrated below the dam.

Except for a short float from Hauser Dam to Holter Reservoir, the next floating opportunity starts below Holter Dam near Wolf Creek, where the river flows through a narrow canyon. Lewis and Clark watched mountain goats and bighorn sheep prance along the cliffs here. Although Interstate 15 is close to the river and subdivisions sometimes mar the scenery, the Missouri between Helena and Great Falls remains magical. The water flows clear and the fishing is excellent. Access is easy with the Missouri River Recreation Road paralleling the river for 35 miles.

According to state fisheries studies, the Missouri between Wolf Creek and Craig ranks with the Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers for trophy trout production. This section contains about 3,000 fish 10 inches or longer per mile, with about 300 per mile that are 18 inches or over. Whirling disease is present in the Missouri but has had little effect, so far, on trout populations. It's easy floating all the way to Great Falls except for some difficult water about a mile and a half below Hardy Bridge.

The well-known falls of the Missouri preclude floating through Great Falls, but expert kayakers can try surfing the waves just downstream from Black Eagle Dam. Other floaters may want to put in right below Morony Dam and try the short section of whitewater (about 2.5 miles) that lasts until about 1 mile beyond Belt Creek. Less skilled paddlers can launch at Carter Ferry to avoid the whitewater. After Carter Ferry, the river is easy for the rest of its way across Montana. The biggest danger is the wind that can create waves and make maneuvering a boat nearly impossible. Although old maps may show rapids, they're only dangerous if you're piloting a steamboat.

The Missouri begins to change character once it cuts into the plains near Great Falls, picking up sediment and getting more turbid. The Sun River pushes the first mud into the Missouri, and the Marias River completes the job. At runoff times, it justly earns its nickname, "Big Muddy." Some farmers claim to fill pipes with Missouri River water and then saw them into disks to use as grindstones.

The "wild" Missouri starts at Fort Benton, a historic Montana town with a great museum. For the first 40 miles below Fort Benton, canyon walls slope obliquely toward the river as the Missouri slowly sheds itself of civilization. Most of the land along this section is privately owned. After passing Virgelle and Coal Banks Landing, the river becomes completely isolated as the sloping canyons turn into sheer white cliffs that rise directly from the river's edge. Wind and rain have shaped the soft rock into peculiar formations, guaranteed to mesmerize river explorers.

This bizarre but attractive country enchanted Captain Lewis. Always the person for detail, his 1805 description of the river and its scenery is hard to top:
 

The hills and river Clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance . . . . The water in the course of time in decending from those hills and plains on either side of the river has trickled down the soft sand clifts and woarn it into a thousand grotesque figures . . . .  As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end . . . .
After nearly 35 miles of white cliffs, the scenery changes to rugged badlands. A maze of coulees and ravines, this legendary Missouri River breaks country invites exploration. Below Cow Island the valley broadens and the bluffs are lower and more distant. Dense cottonwood stands dominate the river bottom for most of the remaining distance to the Fred Robinson Bridge.

The Bureau of Land Management has developed an excellent map of the wild and scenic portion of the river. These water-resistant maps provide a mile-by-mile guide to the river as well as other important logistical considerations. They may be purchased at most BLM offices in Montana.

Those looking for a one-day trip on the "wild" Missouri usually float between Fort Benton and Loma. Depending on how fast one paddles (and whether there's wind), Coal Banks Landing to Judith Landing takes two or three days, as does the section from Judith Landing to the Fred Robinson Bridge. Most people allow five to seven days to float the entire 149 miles. While the widely spaced access points preserve the primitive nature of the river, they make shuttling vehicles difficult. Shuttles take several hours or can be arranged in Fort Benton. (Check with the BLM office in Fort Benton for names of individuals who offer shuttle services.)

The wild and scenic portion of the Missouri grows more popular every year, and high national interest in the Lewis and Clark Expedition could lead to levels of use that compromise solitude. Floaters traveling between Fort Benton and the Fred Robinson Bridge between Memorial Day and the weekend after Labor Day must register with BLM (it's free). Self-registration is available at Fort Benton, Coal Banks Landing, and Judith Landing.

While you may encounter large numbers of people at major put-in points, this is a big river and people seem to spread out during the day. Unfortunately, campsites on public land are limited, as is shade. Mature cottonwoods are dying and there is little new growth, mainly due to cattle grazing along the banks. Measures need to be taken by BLM to protect existing trees and provide for regeneration of new trees. BLM may limit cows on the south side of the river from Cabin Rapids to Woodhawk Creek (about 17 miles) during the float season. It's a start.

BLM estimates that at least 8,000 people float the "wild" Missouri each year. Floaters should be prepared for an irritant you wouldn't expect on a wild and scenic river: motorboats. The droning of motors off the canyon walls not only diminishes the primitive experience that is a key part of this trip, but motorboats also make the river seem smaller and more crowded. BLM says the river has a tradition of motorboat use and contends the decision to allow motors was made after extensive public participation. There is a no-wake restriction (about 5 mph) and only downstream travel is allowed for motorboats on the wild and scenic sections from the weekend before Memorial Day to the weekend after Labor Day. Nevertheless, the time seems right to reexamine the issue of motorized use.

Although beginners can handle the Missouri, hazards exist. Thunderstorms can be severe and can occur suddenly. The Missouri's strong winds are legendary. Stay close to shore if the winds get brisk and stop if they worsen. But if the wind is steady and in your favor, take advantage of it. Rig a poncho or ground cloth (be creative!) between your canoe paddles for a sail. The person in the bow holds the sail between his legs (to drop or adjust depending on the wind), while the person in the stern uses another paddle as a rudder. You will fly!

Be sure to take along drinking water. The river water is unsafe to drink unless boiled or filtered. There is potable water at Coal Banks Landing, Hole-in-the-Wall, and Judith Landing. When camping overnight, take along gas stoves for cooking, as firewood is scarce. Beware of camping in cottonwood groves when winds are strong, as the trees snap easily. Be sure to camp and hike on public land unless you have permission. Vault toilets have been installed at most campsites. Rattlesnakes are common along the river and have been encountered at every campsite. Consider taking a snakebite kit.

If you're looking for wildlife, head for the prairie dog towns, as they're usually a center of activity. More than 30 different species of Great Plains wildlife use the dog towns. Floaters also have an excellent opportunity to see Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. These animals were reintroduced into the Missouri Breaks country in the 1960s to replace the Audubon sheep that had been wiped out after the settlement of the white man. Today, there are large populations on both sides of the river below Judith Landing.

Birdwatchers will enjoy the river. Kingbirds perch along the river and grab insects, while many warblers sing from the brush. Pheasants use the thick vegetation often found on islands, and great blue herons and Canada geese appear along the shores. Look for white pelicans either floating on the river or circling overhead.

The spiny softshell turtle, uncommon in Montana, can sometimes be spotted sunning on a beach. Don't pick them up, as they may bite. The Missouri has excellent populations of warm-water fish species including catfish, sauger, and northern pike. Night fishing for catfish is a pleasant way to spend a warm summer evening. Or leave a baited hook out overnight and have fish for breakfast.

While most people head for the "wild" Missouri, the 25 miles of river below Fred Robinson Bridge (James Kipp Recreation Area) is equally primitive and spectacular. Bounded on each side by the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR), an incredibly productive prairie elk herd roams the bottoms and sometimes can be seen swimming the river or grazing on the islands. Deer, sage grouse, and coyotes are also common. Floating ends where the river backs up to form Fort Peck Reservoir at Turkey Joe.

The prehistoric paddlefish is also a denizen of this section of the Missouri. Spring triggers a spawning run of these strange fish up the Missouri from Fort Peck Reservoir. Fish as heavy as 141 pounds have been caught near the Fred Robinson Bridge. Paddlefish, however, aren't taken by conventional fishing methods. Heavily weighted treble hooks are used to snag these fish, which may live 30 years or more. They feed on plankton, which are rarely larger than the period at the end of this sentence.

The public owns much of the land adjacent to the "wild" Missouri, and this is one of the few places in the United States to experience prairie wilderness. Although the Bureau of Land Management has studied six areas adjacent to the river, Congress has taken no action and no real constituency has formed yet to push for a designation. If you want to help, contact the Montana Wilderness Association.

Below Fort Peck Reservoir, the Missouri remains primitive and the rough breaks country gently merges with woodlands as the river approaches North Dakota. Although U.S. Highway 2 is never far away, this section of the river is quite isolated for its entire 185-mile course. If you don't like the crowds on the "wild" Missouri, this section will please the crustiest of river hermits. Count on seeing plenty of wildlife, and for those seeking the unusual, this is probably the best spot in Montana to see a whooping crane. They migrate through this part of Montana in spring and fall.

Excerpted from Paddling Montana by Hank Fisher
(Copyright 2000, Falcon Publishing, Inc.)




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