Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument
This protected section of the Missouri River winds rich and brown through central Montana. Bordered by sandstone cliffs of white, hills of sagebrush, cheetgrass, and yucca. Mature cottonwood stands dot the riverbanks.
I came upon this place from flat and grass-covered plains. Driving east and south, past sentinel grain silos and stands of cottonwood that marked small enclaves of humans amongst rolling tracts of farmland. Clouds with bottoms as flat as the land stretched in neat rows as far as I could see, as if sewn by some great farmer, tops bulging as ripe cotton. As I neared Fort Benton, where I would turn to follow the Missouri and enter the monument the hills became sharper around the edges, and here now were dotted with sage and yucca amongst the green-yellow grasses of late spring. I continued on, down past the bridge where the bank swallows nested, along the dirt road past the established BLM site—little more than a gravel lot with some fire rings and a pit toilet—over little-used tracks that still hold some mud from recent rains. I can see the power of water here. The transition from arid land to riparian jungle is abrupt. As rain touches dry earth mud springs to life where once there was dust, and a thick bunch of reeds, snowberry, fireweed and sedge explode on banks edges, oases amidst the sagebrush. I found a grove of mature cottonwoods near the river and made camp. Their fallen limbs tonight supplied fuel for a small fire that as I write dwindles further and further into glowing ember and ash. The sun falls behind hills across the river, and the great cacophony of riverside birds begins to quiet as the light fades, their place taken by a pair of great horned owls calling to one another with plantive, rhythmic hoots, the female slightly higher in pitch. They have since ceased, and as best as I can tell are silently soaring off into the darkening sky on their errands. I don’t envy the field mice I saw scuttling in the wheat fields to my west."
The lively eyes of the gas station attendent peered at me through thick-framed glasses that curved about a shaved head as I handed him my things. I’d come for stove fuel and beer. As he eyed my items I eyed his canoe, out in the lot perched atop an old pickup. I’d been searching for one in town, running into a number of dead ends. His canoe was a Wenonah (FC), green as the firs of my youth, with three wooden seats laying across a belly of fiberglass scratched and marred by years and stones. He turned over the fuel can in his hands. “Camping?” he asked simply.
I spoke of the river, of the canoe search. He spoke of life here, and his longing to know what was on hidden riverbanks, out amongst the reeds and under the cottonwood stands. We made our desires clear and there was little more to discuss. He would share his vessel, I would share my works.
We unstrapped the Wenonah with care and deliberation as I wrapped my mind around the realities of a river trip. Aging ratchet straps in a rainbow of color held the large canoe percariously to his truck, and we both worked to free them from underneath dented gunwales. Few words were exchanged, but with each strap undone came a new instruction.
Orange: “She’s built for three, and handles clumsily. Be careful in the rapids.”
Black: “The river ought to be safe if you keep your head about you. Swim to shore if something goes wrong.”
Yellow: “The paddles and life jacket are in my garage. Turn left at the stop sign, continue past the chainlink fence, and go right into the alley. Look for the broken down VW.”
I had seen them only from a distance until today. From afar their shifting, twisted sandstone layers were unnoticeable as distinct, blending into a soft shade of tan-white. Within arms reach they were much more, intricate stripes of soft stone layered as if with a fine brush. I landed my canoe amongst the sedge, on the shore next to a great cottonwood, the only one in sight. The path took me upwards toward a distant white cliff that grew as I walked. Now the path begin to grade upwards. I walk through silver sagebrush, yucca, rabbitbrush, past the channel of a dry stream. There is evidence of water all around, dry traces left for the trained eye to catch."