Floating the White Cliffs of the Upper Missouri River Breaks
Floating the Mighty Missouri for days on end in a small canoe is beyond description. But throw in that portion of the river better known as The Breaks and you have an experience to savor. Floating this small part of our world almost untouched is mind blowing. The Breaks are so remote–perhaps because of its remoteness this land defies mankind and its so-called civilization. Choosing to do this float was definitely the right decision.
Once the decision was made, the thought of preparing for and actually doing a four day float was daunting to say the least. Unknowns can sink an idea such as this within minutes. How dangerous is it? Are there rapids? Is there potable water? Where do we camp? Thankfully the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sells Boaters’ Guides to answer these exact questions. We wanted to float the White Cliffs section of The Breaks so Embee trotted down to our local BLM office and purchased the Fort Benton to Judith Landing Guide for a mere purchase price of $4.00. Worth its weight in gold it is printed on waterproof paper and lays out in great detail what you need to do to prepare and what is available along the river—mile by mile.
I have boo-koos of experience packing the essentials for a trailer camping trip and I pack thoroughly knowing that we are well prepared; however, preparing for a remote float out of a small tippy boat pounded my little brain endlessly for days. Thinking deeply about upcoming events helps to serve a major purpose—procrastination. It wasn’t until the day before the float that the menu started to come together and therefore what food cooking equipment I needed to take.
The previous week we camped at the campground at Judith Landing, a major take-out point for floaters. I took this opportunity to “survey” floaters that came off the river as to what their menu looked like. It varied from all canned goods (chili, sauerkraut, and R&R whiskey) to gourmet meals such as Mediterranean Chicken, fresh green beans, cous cous, and a box of wine. I decided to go the gourmet way and packed fresh foods with the idea of one-pot meals in mind. Because of the small space available in the canoe the portable BBQ grill was left at home and I took only the two-burner camp stove. Luxury! And definitely the right decision.
After only 1 hour of loading the car we took off from Great Falls at 10 am driving two cars to make our own shuttle. An hour and a half of driving took us to Big Sandy, home of our fabulous Senator, Jon Tester (!!), and then we took Highway 236 east to the Missouri River. After another 44 miles, 27 of which is dirt road, we dropped off one car at the take out place, Judith Landing, river mile 88.5. Then, retracing our steps in the loaded-for-bear car topped with a red Coleman canoe we pointed our way to Coal Banks Landing, river mile 41.5. Thankfully once we got back to Big Sandy this was a pretty short drive that included only 6 miles on a gravel road.
Registering with the BLM staff is a safety must so they know to start looking for you if you don’t show up at your intended take out spot. Thanks, Aaron, for helping us out and making sure we were prepared!
It was close to 2:30 pm by the time we actually pushed off from shore and headed downstream on the Mighty Missouri. We only went about 10.5 river miles that day—just enough to poke our nose into the Wild Classification portion of the river at river mile 52. A very small sandy island beckoned us to make our first night’s camp. We knew this would be the coldest night of the trip and hunkered down to stay warm. Having a campfire was out of the question since a Stage 1 fire restriction was in place and fires were allowed only in metal fire rings. We were as far away from a metal fire ring and civilization as possible. Our one-pot dinner on the camp stove consisted of warmed up goulash and some nice crusty bread. Desert was no-bake cocoa cookies from a zip-lock baggie. Red wine topped off the banquet quite nicely.
We tucked ourselves into our tent just after dusk as it was getting quite cold. Wearing our long johns and fleece hats we settled in for a little reading and a lot of slumber. Well, we had slumber in mind but the local beavers decided we were in their territory (which we were) and started slapping the water around our tent furiously. I swear one even waddled up on the island and started whacking the tent sides with his paddle of a tail. About the time the beavers accepted our presence the coyotes started in. We heard two distinct packs as they serenaded us to sleep.
Morning broke and we waited impatiently for the sun to rise above the impressive white cliff to our east. Once the sun arrived and warmed us up a bit it was time to hit the river again. We floated past many named rock formations such as Burnt Butte, the Grand Natural Wall, Citadel Rock, and Hole in the Wall, as well as a few BLM developed camp sites.
I have to say that the BLM has done an outstanding job setting up low impact camping opportunities for floaters. You can choose from a higher density campground that can accommodate up to 10 parties and offers two vault toilets, or lesser developed sites that accommodate fewer parties and have really gross pit toilets. Or hit the banks on public land and make your own campsite. There is a pack it in, pack it out rule and carrying your garbage out is required and no big burden. But, let there be a warning that you are required to pack EVERYTHING out—including solid human waste. It’s a good thing you can buy potty bags and you just “go” in a bag and it becomes real solid waste. Our local outdoor specialist, Keith, jokes that he just pokes two holes for his legs and wears the bag the whole time he is canoeing. Ha!
We spent night two in a very undeveloped campsite at about river mile 71.3, directly across the river from a Lewis and Clark campsite of May 30, 1805. What a feeling to be exploring the same river as the most famous of American explorers! But we had it easy since we were floating DOWN the river and they lugged all their cargo up the river against the flow. We unloaded the canoe and set up camp adjacent a serene cottonwood and green ash tree grove. Embee took this opportunity to take a dip in the river and wash off a bit.
I took to setting up the kitchen and getting a meal going. Dinner consisted of a Dijon and mushroom chicken sauté with potato cubes and fresh buttered peas (yes, Mamma and Daddy, I now eat peas!).
For two night’s running the coyotes sang us to sleep. One lone coyote sounded like he was about 20 feet away and his howl put a unique chill in my bones. But my corresponding return hooooowwwwllll sent him on his way leaving the night scene open to the owls and their hoots and woots. Their calls sounded a lot more serene and less urgent than the packs of coyotes and lulled us to sleep.
We count up the miles and only have about 17 miles left to travel. Neither of us is ready for this float to be over so we slow down the pace a little bit. Nap time arrives around 1:30 and we pull in to one of the developed camp sites called Slaughter River and unload the cooler and our sleeping pads. Napping under the cottonwood trees was an ideal way to spend the afternoon.
We were awakened by the sound of oars breaking the water and were visited by two of the most pleasant BLM employees in the world. Nikki and Sean are seasonal employees of the BLM stationed out of Fort Benton and were on a 6-day river ferry patrol ending at Kip Landing in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Their main job that day was to check the campsites for trash, restock the vault toilets with paper, and paint the inside of one of them. Their energy and bright outlooks speak well for the future of the BLM. They pointed us to a fabulous campsite downstream called The Wall and tipped us off to look for a prairie dog town just up the hill from the campsite.
Back on the water we saw a small moving object ahead. It was moving too quickly to be a beaver and we soon recognized it for what it is. A rattlesnake swimming across the river! I kid you not! Embee got a couple of good photos and I was able to come out of my hyperventilation long enough to get a quick video of it. The video is a one-handed effort since the other hand was holding a paddle ready to bash it in the head if it tried to crawl into the canoe.
So there we were—floating with the river current eyeballing this deadly snake which was also floating with the current. And swimming toward us. Uh….I decided I would take coyotes and beavers over this snake any day. Maybe even a grizzly bear.
So the snake finally decided to move along toward the shore and we continued post-adrenalin phase to pull in to The Wall campsite at river mile 81.3. Logistically this spot was the best as it had a nice flat driftwood plank set up on some downed logs which performed as a low low table to set up kitchen. After getting camp all set up we hiked up the short hill to watch the prairie dogs. Man were they entertaining! There was a town about 5 acres across and a few holes outside that area. I dubbed that “the burbs.” As we watched the colony a lone badger lumbered down from the hills and sniffed around many of the holes. You never saw animals scurry down into the ground so fast! But a lot of the prairie dogs stayed outside their holes and watched their predator from a distance calling out their warning cry to others. I was rooting for the prairie dogs and hope that the badger went home with an empty stomach.
The entire river corridor was infested with one invasive species I could have lived without. Cows. Bovines. Beef–it’s what’s for dinner. They were everywhere! Especially around the developed campsites. No matter how many fences were up it seemed that they found a way around them. Embee and I started to joke that when we smelled cow crap we knew there was a campground coming up. Herds of cows would be lying under the cottonwood trees bellering loudly. Or they would be down at the river drinking. And if you couldn’t see them, you could see and smell their cow patties left behind. The only saving grace is that they don’t use toilet paper so it seemed a little bit more natural. I had to get into the mindset that back in the day it would have been bison roaming the breaks leaving round, flat, steaming presents. Somehow that assuages my annoyance just a *little* bit.
Again we were lulled to sleep by the coyotes and owls. Morning brought the realization that our float was almost at an end. Using up the last of the perishables I made a one-pot omelette with fried potato rounds and scrambled eggs topped with tomato slices seasoned with Italian herbs. Capped off with a rich mocha to sip and contemplate the universe. I don’t think we lost any weight on this sojourn but we sure did gain a new perspective on Montana and its greatness.
Sadly we loaded up the canoe for the last time and floated the remaining 7 miles to the Judith Landing for our take out. Fifteen minutes of loading up the car with our gear and canoe and we were headed back home with fine memories of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Thank you William Jefferson Clinton for setting aside this national treasure for all to enjoy. Well, at least for those brave enough to face whatever the wild and scenic river is willing to dish up.
Here is a list of our cargo:
Canoe and 3 paddles (1 extra in case one floated away)
2 flat folding lawn chairs
1 blue poly tarp
2 sleeping pads
2 sleeping bags
1 fleece blanket
1 2-burner camp stove
1 green bottle of propane (could have used two)
1 butane clicker/lighter
3 boxes of matches
6 gallons of water
Books (Sea Wolf by Jack London and Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner)
2 LED lights
1 mess kit and assorted utensils
2 cups, 2 bowls, 1 knife, and 2 spoons
1 small lightweight cutting board with paring knife
Dish cloth, dish soap, and hot pad
Dry shoes for camp
Personal gear (clothes, toothbrush, etc.)
2 wash cloths and 1 towel
2 potty bags
Duct tape and rope (hhmmmm sounds like trouble to me)
First aid kit
Cooler full of fresh food and 4 beers
1 plastic pint of Canadian Club (had to stay warm at first night!)
1 BLM Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument Boaters’ Guide (Fort Benton to Judith Landing)
2 old, but adventurous spirits