The entrance to American Prairie's PN property, which includes the confluence of the Judith and Missouri rivers.
“Wild river areas – Those rivers or sections of rivers that are free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted. These represent vestiges of primitive America.” – The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, 1968
Last July, on America’s 243rd birthday, my brother and I pushed our loaded canoe off the bank of the Missouri River near Judith Landing. We planned to follow the river by canoe and mountain bike for four days, covering about 150 miles on land and water as we traversed the American Prairie Reserve from the PN huts to Buffalo Camp Campground. As American Prairie Reserve's Director of Public Access & Recreation, my job has focused on building huts and campgrounds to support trips like ours, and I was curious to use them as a visitor might. Our parents were also on a summer road trip, and we planned to camp with them at the Reserve’s newest campground, Antelope Creek.
Our route followed the Missouri River, the thoroughfare of the Great Plains. The Missouri is America’s frontier river, and it runs through the heart of American Prairie Reserve. For thousands of years it was this continent’s Silk Road, a trade route flowing with people and the items their cultures considered most valuable. Native Americans moved buffalo hides and obsidian blades, fur trappers shipped beaver pelts and wolf skins, and prospectors boarded steamboats loaded with gold. In our era, most river travelers come for the rarities of unscheduled days, dark skies, and deep quiet.
Late in the day as showers moved off, the sun came in below a blanket of clouds.
We spent the first night in the shell of the new Lewis and Clark Hut, which was under construction and offered a roof but no doors or windows. We were happy to have shelter as a heavy summer rain fell. I brought along a copy of the Lewis and Clark journals, and over dinner I read to my brother their descriptions of the expedition’s passage through this same section of river in May 1805. On that leg of their journey, not far from the current hut, a one-ton bull bison swam across the river in the middle of the night, thrashed onto the bank and into their boat, trampled out of the boat and among the men sleeping on the ground before finally being chased out of camp by the expedition’s dog. They also recorded the first observation of bighorn sheep by European Americans, and Lewis saw the Rocky Mountains for the first time from hills near the PN.
Chris Kautz experiencing the same Missouri River mud Lewis & Clark battled on their journey. William Clark wrote "the bank and the bluff they are obliged to pass are So Slippery and the mud So tenatious that they are unable to bare their mockersons." Meriwether Lewis also expressed his vexation with the mud: "I attempted to walk on Shore Soon found it verrry laborious as the the mud Stuck to my mockersons and was verry Slippery."
In the morning, there were heavy clouds over the river and a cold headwind. We applied ourselves to our paddles and hoped the rain would hold off. The 150 miles of river running from Fort Benton, Montana, to the Fort Peck Reservoir are protected as a Wild and Scenic River. The section makes the Missouri unique among America’s big rivers; the landscape along its banks looks much as it would have 200 years ago to the Lewis and Clark Expedition or 500 years ago to a gathering of Plains tribes. Neither the Mississippi, the Colorado, the Hudson, or the Columbia have stretches of comparable length that are as unaltered by human development. Before Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, there were plans for as many as five dams along this section of the Missouri. John and Frank Craighead (the Reserve’s Craighead Hut is named for John and his wife Margaret) helped write the Act, which was informed in part by a trip the Craighead brothers took on the Upper Missouri.
Bighorn sheep feeding on cliffs near American Prairie's PN unit.
By dinner we had covered about 35 windy miles, past pelicans paddling upriver, bald eagles roosting in cottonwoods, old homesteads, and a group of bighorn sheep on a nearly vertical cliff face. We set camp on the Reserve’s Cow Island property, a place whose past includes the Kipp family cattle ranch, a freight depot for steamboats, and more than 6,000 years as a river ford on a Native American trail. The river is less than waist deep here except during spring runoff.
As we cooked dinner and read the journals, we noted all that we did not see. Lewis and Clark described bison, elk, antelope, deer, grizzlies, and wolves along the same section of river. Lewis describes buffalo so numerous “that the men frequently throw sticks and stones at them in order to drive them out of the way.” The landscape here looks much the same as in 1805, thanks to the last century of conservationists. The work of restoring a measure of the wildlife is a task for this century.
After dinner, the sun came out for the first time all day. The hills and the river flushed with color. As the sun set, we watched and listened to nighthawks darting and diving over the river. As the males accelerate in a dive, the turbulence over their wing feathers creates a loud and startling sound like truck tires crossing a highway rumble strip.
As it grew dark, the wind calmed and the surface of the river smoothed. I woke in the middle of the night and walked out to the edge of the water. There was no moon and the Milky Way shimmered on the river. On dark nights the prairie stars are so dense that the sky feels close instead of infinite, like the high ceiling of a great hall stretching down the river.
With only one usable gear on his bike, Chris climbs the long hill back to the highway.
In the morning we put sore shoulders into paddling again, hoping to beat the heat of the day, to the James Kipp Recreation Area. We assembled our bikes, stashed the canoe, and began the biking portion of our trip. The 1000-ft. climb out of the river valley with loaded bikes was a reminder that the prairie is rarely flat. A towering thunderstorm behind us provided motivation. We were pushing to stay ahead of the storm when my brother’s bike broke for the first time. A metal tab holding the derailleur snapped, and we had to get out the tool kit. With some work we converted his 24-speed to a single-speed. Many steep hills lay ahead, and his bike was now only geared for flat ground.
Any illusions of a rugged adventure were gone as we soon rendezvoused with our parents at the Antelope Creek Campground; their car had a cooler filled with cook-out supplies and we ate Fourth of July staples unknown to Lewis or Clark. Though we were hungry, we were not able to match the nine pounds of meat per man, per day their expedition averaged. We took hot showers and rolled out our sleeping bags on memory-foam mattresses in the camping cabins. That evening we watched from the picnic table as a massive thunderstorm rumbled in from the northwest. The campground remained in the sun, while just a mile away a black wall rumbled past with thunder, lightning, hail, and heavy rain. As a finale, the storm produced a horizon-to-horizon rainbow.
Balsam root and a passing storm at Antelope Creek Campground.
My brother and I left early the next morning. We had two days and 80 miles of riding in front of us, and the forecast called for more severe afternoon storms. Riding on the empty highway through rolling sage, we were surrounded by sky. We had covered 30 miles by midmorning and were soon back along the river.
Though it was not yet noon, storm clouds began building in the west and we began hitting mud from the previous evening’s storm. The “gumbo” mud in this part of Montana is infamous. A mix between axle grease, heavy clay, and construction adhesive, it makes wheeled travel impossible and even foot travel difficult. Many campers, hunters, and hikers have ended up marooned down impassable roads for days after storms waiting for the gumbo to dry. My brother and I were discussing how many days of macaroni and cheese we had left when we came to the sudden end of our trip.
A creek crossing that is normally dry, or at most a small trickle, was flowing with eight feet of swift water. Storms in the north the night before had dumped several inches of rain in the drainage and washed the road away. With several similar crossings further along our route, there was nothing to do but turn around.
From 24 speeds to none. Chris assesses the damage to his bike on the shoulder of Highway 191.
A mile or two into our retreat, my brother’s bike made a metallic snap and he coasted to a stop. The bolts holding the front gears had sheared off from the strain of riding as a single-speed on washboard gravel. The trip was doubly-finished. We had 20 miles back to the pavement and he alternated foot-paddling his bike and walking. Mosquitos and deer flies swarmed us along the river and we put on pants and jackets despite the heat. We alternated between sweating profusely in our rain gear or being bitten incessantly in shorts and t-shirts. The Lewis and Clark journals contain the phrase “mosquitos very troublesome” nearly daily, and Clark had 19 different spellings for the pests including “mesquestor,” “misquitoes,” “missquetors,” and “muskeetor.” We used all of the spellings and more by the time we coasted back into the campground.
We had dreamed of this trip for months and were disappointed to turn back early. At the same time, we were glad to know places like the prairie exist – places indifferent to human plans – where even 21st century travelers can get lost, broken down, stopped in their tracks, and sent home. The old order that Lewis and Clark documented is disappearing as the world becomes tamed with roads, dams, fences, and bright lights. Wild landscapes like Montana’s prairies are among the last places where visits are still made on terms not of our choosing and where the outcome is uncertain. These are the ingredients of adventures, and the grasslands remain a place to find them.