This is post 3 of 3 in "Daunted Courage."
When writer Paula MacKay decided to join Wildlands friends on a float trip down the Upper Missouri River, she stepped out of her comfort zone and into the water trail traveled by Lewis and Clark more than 200 years ago. In her 3-part travel essay, she describes her scenic paddle through history and some of the challenges she encountered along the way. All posts in this series…
We traveled 15 miles on that windy day, dragging ourselves into Hole in the Wall camp just in time for a late dinner. The site was named for a dramatic rock formation you couldn’t miss from shore—a rough-hewn arch associated with a cavity in the sandstone wall. Robert and I set up our tent in grassland next to the river, our campsite separated from the others by a wire cattle fence. We wanted to give ourselves space in case Alder woke up woofing in the night. In hindsight, he was too exhausted to make a peep.
Alder wasn’t alone. The whole crew had had a physically trying day, which didn’t come to a close until the Upper Missouri tossed us one last little curveball.
The gusts were so strong that Dave couldn’t get himself around the final bend, causing him to drop out of view from those floating in front of him. Although most of us had already arrived at the campsite, Kim was bringing up the rear and pulled his boat over just beyond the bend to sit and wait for Dave. Meanwhile, John tried to paddle his kayak upstream to check in with Kim—his efforts thwarted by the will of the wind. Kim and Dave both ended up stuck on the water for over an hour before Mother Nature calmed down enough to let Dave through. Needless to say, no one was singing campfire songs once we were all safe at camp.
Nor did anyone jump at the chance when the people camped next to us asked if we could take on a passenger from their group; he had apparently been intimidated by seeing multiple canoes capsize in the river. I secretly empathized with the wannabe deserter, who could’ve easily been me if I hadn’t been in such capable company. We ran into the group again a couple of days later, their canoes lashed together into a giant, grinning flotilla.
After a short hike to the base of the Hole in the Wall and a quick bowl of stew, I tucked myself into my sleeping bag wearing flannel pajamas. Though the night was as cold as January in Seattle, the late-spring sky allowed me to write in my journal without the help of a headlamp. I jotted down a few words about meadowlarks and the wind, and then drifted off to sleep—until the rains came.
Rain, rain, and more rain. The wind didn’t subside much either, leading to a restless night for Robert and me. Years ago, we were camped on a bluff above Alaska’s Denali River when a storm came in and broke our tent poles in half, causing the nylon fabric to collapse in around us. We spent the remainder of the night huddled up in the remains—and keeping an eye out for the grizzlies we’d seen hunting ground squirrels before sunset. Windy nights in a tent have never been the same since.
Climbing Back into that Canoe
Given the foul weather, I wondered if we might sleep in a bit at Hole in the Wall and delay our departure. No such luck. I heard the crew rattling around the campsite kitchen by 7am, and I crawled out of our tent half an hour later. By 8:45am, we were on the river again.
I was determined to resume paddling with Robert despite the blustery morning, with the thought of sitting out another day an affront to my ego. I’d also come to realize that watching the current from the comfort of the dory’s deck was far less rewarding than engaging with it in the canoe.
The strokes of my paddle had yielded a physical intimacy with the water, and my baptism by fire was compensated with small crumbs of confidence in return. Besides, the wind had changed from a headwind to a tailwind and quieted down enough that I felt at least a pretense of control, which made all the difference in my ability to trust the river.
Alder, too, seemed to prefer the canoe—or maybe he just missed getting his salmon treats. Abbie had offered to let him ride in the dory again, and he did okay for a while thanks to her showers of attention. But Alder’s dogged focus on Robert and me paddling at a distance was too much for him to bear, and at one point he almost leapt overboard to swim to our boat. Another 180 and we met the dory on shore.
With Alder back in our canoe and the weather improving, I was finally able to look around and take in the scenery. Yesterday, we’d floated through the famous White Cliffs section of the river—massive, 300-foot cliffs chiseled by water and time. Lewis compared the resulting spires and cathedral-like walls to “elegant ranges of lofty freestone buildings.” The towering galleries of rock impressed me, too, but I was being sufficiently buffeted by wind and fear that I couldn’t internalize my awe.
Today, the sandstone hills began to permeate my psyche. As I gazed around at the passing moonscape, I found myself daydreaming about the bison, wolves, and grizzlies that once roamed this vast sea of plains. With my brain no longer consumed by fight-or-flight, I was struck anew by the tragic reality that these animals had been part of the Upper Missouri’s lifeblood until White Men came along. Lewis and Clark documented the Expedition’s offensive against every grizzly bear they encountered, with Lewis himself expressing his dislike for “the gentlemen” that were “so hard to die.” People are such a paradox. Our heroes included.
The remainder of the story is on river time—a slow, meandering flow of wildlife, compelling conversation, and sensations of place.
There were the bald eagles, the harriers, the sandpipers, and white pelicans—6 of which took flight in a v-shaped formation right over my head.
There was the fragrance of sagebrush and desert-dry scrub, the adamant dee dee dee of a killdeer protecting her nest, and the splash of a beaver as his tail smacked a warning call to those who cared to listen. A minute or so after the beaver disappeared, a cloud-gray coyote emerged along the shore—the sun’s rays highlighting a reddish tint on her head.
We also saw at least 50 bighorn sheep, including 30 or more gathered on a steep slope rising from the bank of the river. When one of us called out to the boaters behind us, the herd sadly startled and moved across the cliff face in one graceful wave—like a school of fish arcing with the ocean current. (Lewis and Clark first documented bighorns—to them, a new species—on May 25, 1805; our initial sighting came 212 years later almost to the day. Bighorns were extirpated from the area by the mid-1920s and were reintroduced again in the 1970s.)
By the afternoon of day 3, or May 26th, the foul weather’s about-face allowed me to write in my journal while we drifted downriver—legs stretched out long and feet elevated on the gunnels. Alder was also more relaxed in body and spirit, his head now resting on our dry bag full of food as he gave the occasional grumble of a dog in a dream. Given room to wander, my writing probed the light and dark images that played through my mind as we penetrated the wildest part of the Missouri Breaks:
Imagine a grizzly resting in one of those copses, or a mother wolf nursing her pups. Maybe a bear watched Lewis and Clark pass through this section of river, somehow sensing trouble in their wake. Or maybe the bear hadn’t enough reason to fear man until then—knew enough to stay clear, but no more so than if a Sioux had paddled by in a dugout canoe. She would have learned quickly, though, with roughly 40 of her kind killed by the Expedition itself, and thousands more in the years and decades to come.
I wrote about the sounds of riffles on the water, the rhythm of Robert’s paddle dipping and dripping behind me, and a black cow mooing at the river’s edge.
“Is that a golden eagle soaring overhead?”
John had appeared next to us, his eyes peering into the sky. Sure enough, we were seeing our first golden eagle of the trip—Dave glassed the bird from his nearby boat and confirmed that she or he lacked the adult bald eagle’s distinctive white head and tail.
At mile 114, Kim’s brother Mark told us we were approaching one of Lewis and Clark’s historic camps, further recalling that the Expedition had spent the night here on May 26, 1805. Later, I looked up that date in Ambrose’s book and discovered that it also marked when Lewis had climbed the surrounding bluffs and “beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time.”
From our own camp that evening, I was casually observing half a dozen bighorns graze the opposite shore when I noticed movement from above. A ewe and 3 tiny lambs scrambled down the almost vertical wall, stopping at a distance from the other sheep—among them, a large ram.
One morning, Robert, Alder and I joined John and Dave for a half-day hike in a rocky creek bed. There, we tracked bighorns, mule deer, and western coyotes while trying to avoid shoe-sucking mud and prickly pear cactus. We also came across small, black remnants of what we first thought to be hooves, until we realized there were way too many of them for this to make sense. Dave surmised that they might be ancient mollusks.
We took another walk together, too, our final day on the river. Most of our group had headed to the take out at Kipp, but the 5 of us (including Robert and Alder) had stayed on an extra night to do some more exploring. And that we did—bushwhacking through cottonwoods, short-grass prairie, and shrub steppe into the otherworldly terrain of the badlands.
The going was slow and hot as we navigated a wall-to-wall carpet of cactus, and our senses were on high alert for the resident rattlesnakes (which we did encounter). But our efforts were rewarded by the bird’s eye view of river country from the high point of the hike, and by the strange, crusty clearings capping the cliffs where we stopped. The clearings looked like parking lots dotted with fist-sized rocks—except that the only vehicles that could have parked there were UFOs.
Yet another mystery unsolved.
These day hikes with John and Dave were one of the highlights of the float trip. John is like a brother to me—a kindred spirit in his love for all things outdoors. I’d never traveled with Dave before, but I was immediately taken with his passion and bold words for wildlife. Both of these attributes took center stage as we sat around the campfire our last night on the river.
Was it the fire’s dance or the spark of memories that lit Dave’s eyes as he told us his saga of restoring Mexican wolves to the Blue Range of Arizona? Dave relayed a lot of details about the reintroduction—hostile hearings, packing wolves in on mules—but the upshot is this: thanks to his unyielding, decade-long efforts, wolves once again inhabit that wild place, though both the wolves and Dave continue to pay the steep price for human intolerance.
Mexican wolves remain one of the most endangered mammals in the world, with their numbers teetering around a tenuous 100. Meanwhile, Dave was deceived into taking an early retirement from the FWS—his superiors apparently concerned that he was too much of an advocate to play a politically charged role with a wildlife agency. As if there’s any such thing as scientific objectivity in the midst of an extinction crisis.
Which brings me to another conversation that unfolded around the campfire—one that ultimately sent me crying to the water’s edge. As Dave was off tending to his tent and Robert listened from the sidelines, John and I delved deeper and deeper into the dark corners of eating meat, the dire elephant situation, trophy hunting, and our unsustainable culture of waste. In the throes of my verbal catharsis, I inadvertently tapped a sore nerve—prompting John to say something I thought I’d never hear him say: “Paula, you’re dogmatic.”
John’s words were like a kick in the stomach. Here was the most fervent conservationist I know—a modern-day Thoreau who has trekked thousands of miles in the name of wild nature—calling ME dogmatic! John has dedicated his career to putting the Earth first, and has always shared my frustrations about living in a human-centered society. If he perceived my passion as dogmatism, what hope did I have with the rest of the world? I made a half-hearted joke about having to be pretty special to warrant such a label from John of all people, and then slunk off to the river to try to disentangle the threads.
The evening sunshine was a salve to my raw emotions. As I watched the swallows dart about chasing insects over the water, I reflected on why John’s comment had caused such a sting. It wasn’t long before I realized that he, too, had struck a nerve: sometimes I can be dogmatic about my beliefs. I usually know when it’s happening—I feel my vision narrow as the words spill from my mouth—but I just don’t know how else to convey my most heartfelt convictions. I guess that’s why I’m a writer.
About 15 minutes later, John arrived by my side. Good, now we could resolve this awful rift! But there’s always that awkward moment when the person you’d hoped would come find you actually does. Suddenly, everything you’ve been rehearsing in your head goes totally blank.
Back to being his polite self, John acknowledged the fine weather to help break the ice, and took a step toward the water to fill up his pan. I uttered some nonsense about how staring at the far shore evoked the illusion that it was the land that was actually moving—and then began to sob when I tried to explain why I was feeling hurt. My gasps picked up strength as John rested his hand on my shoulder…and just like that, we were a pair of sometimes-dogmatic, forever good friends embracing our contradictions on the banks of the Upper Missouri.
Because here’s the thing about broken hearts: sometimes they get messy and bleed into the open spaces around them. John and I, Robert and Dave—all of us who traveled together to central Montana—are doing our best to ease the pain of a planet come undone. Often we’re overwhelmed, and too often we fail. But I think the Mexican wolves would give us points for trying.
By the end of my wild adventures, I’m usually ready to return home. I wouldn’t trade those adventures for anything, but there’s nothing like a hot shower and a good meal after roughing it for a while. So I was surprised by my disappointment when I first saw the bridge at Kipp’s landing, announcing our arrival at the pull out and our transition back into so-called civilized life. Yes, the Missouri Breaks was special country, all right.
It was Memorial Day in America—to borrow a line from James McMurtry—and that morning at camp I’d found myself reflecting on brave veterans like Kim and the too many faceless victims of our too many wars. But I also wondered if we couldn’t expand the purview of this national holiday to also remember the fallen species of our time. Maybe we could celebrate Memorial Day for the loss of life in all its forms. Including the animals that have died at our hands on the Upper Missouri.
Slowly, some of these animals are coming back. The bighorns, the eagles—they were almost gone because of us. John speculates that the Upper Missouri has already served as a wildlife corridor for cougars moving east from the Rockies, and that the small population of cougars that has reestablished itself in South Dakota’s Black Hills and North Dakota’s Badlands may well have traveled there in part along the Missouri River.
And there is this from the June 8, 2017 edition of Montana’s Great Falls Tribune:
On June 1, a plucky pair of young grizzlies turned up at the mouth of Box Elder Creek, where it enters the south side of the Missouri River, between Ryan and Morony dams. That’s 12 miles northeast of Great Falls, a city of 60,000 residents—and the same vicinity where Pvt. Hugh McNeal, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, ran into a grizzly bear in July 1806, when the expedition passed through the area on its homeward journey.
A plucky pair of young grizzlies, indeed. Now that’s undaunted courage.