The Big Muddy
Story and Photos by Tom Bol
When I was in high school, history was one of those subjects that went in one ear and out the other. Sure, I could go on autopilot and memorize facts for a test, but those historical events soon faded from memory. But one daring adventure stayed in my mind: the Lewis and Clark expedition. It struck a chord with me, this bold journey into the unexplored West, across unknown terrain, encountering hostile natives, wild rivers, and strange animals. No one knew how long the expedition would last—possibly years.
In following a portion of their route, I wasn’t looking for too much adventure. Detailed maps, gourmet food, cell phones, and a lightweight canoe would outfit my expedition. Three or four days, not years, would be plenty of time. Just as Captain Meriwether Lewis had Captain William Clark, I too needed a partner. I put in a call to Randy, a photographer friend, and convinced him he had been spending way too much time in his dark studio. I told him that he needed some sunshine and to get out of town for a while. After promising to do all the cooking and cleaning, I found myself headed north to Montana at dawn the next morning, marking the beginning of the Tom and Randy Expedition, almost 200 years to the day after Lewis and Clark.
To really absorb the incredible history of this area, buy the excellent guidebook Montana’s Wild and Scenic Upper Missouri River, by Glenn Monahan and Chandler Biggs. This book describes mile by mile the historical points on the river, with some great Lewis and Clark references and quotes. Also handy for navigating the river are the BLM river maps, available at the BLM office in Fort Benton.
In 1803, for a sum of $15 million, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. This purchase doubled the size of the nation. In the same year, President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore this vast new area. Their goals were many, foremost of which was laying claim to these new lands for America and possibly finding a mostly water trade route to the Pacific Ocean. The specific boundaries of this new territory were vague, and with British, French, and Spanish trapping and exploring going on in parts of it, Jefferson wanted to cement U.S. claims.
By the summer of 1805, Lewis and Clark had moved up the Missouri River to a spot near present-day Fort Benton, Montana, near where we plan to put in on the river. Just like Lewis and Clark, we are experiencing hardships of our own just getting to this point.
“Tom, can you push the jack further over so it’s centered on the axle?” Randy instructs from underneath my truck. “I’m afraid the truck will fall off the axle if we don’t get it centered right.”
We have been on the road for only a few hours when a flat tire halts our journey north of Casper, Wyoming. Lewis and Clark used their resources wisely, and so do we. Randy may be a studio photographer, but he has a lot of cowboy in him, and along with that comes a love of tinkering with big trucks. Changing a tire is like putting a new roll of film in his camera. I idly relax along the interstate while Randy gets greasy putting on the spare. We wait a few more hours while our flat is being repaired in town and then finally start driving north again. After 745 miles and endless recycling of a Dixie Chicks CD, we arrive in Fort Benton.
“Right now the river is running pretty low. You are going to have to choose deep water channels carefully or you might run aground,” the BLM ranger tells us when we check in.
The Missouri is known to many as the Big Muddy, referring to the river’s typically brown water, especially in its lower reaches. At this point on the upper river, and before spring runoff, the mighty Missouri looks more like the Little Clear than the Big Muddy. This suits Randy and me just fine.
We stop in at Adventure Bound Canoe and Shuttle to drop off our truck keys, as they will be shuttling the truck to our take-out at Judith Landing. At our put-in site, Coal Banks, we load up our canoe. After being warned not to camp on islands because of rattlesnakes (attracted there to raid bird nests), we push off into the steady-moving current of the Missouri River. The Tom and Randy Expedition has really begun now.