Canoeing the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River for three days with eight high school students and one science teacher with 27 hours of unrelenting rain may not sound like your idea of a good time, but don’t knock it ’til you try it.
Yes, I was wearing three pairs of pants, three shirts including a wool sweater and raincoat. I was wearing neoprene socks under my river sandals and an oilskin stetson hat.
Canoeing in the rain is magical. Sharing this magic with high school students is an added bonus.
It wasn’t easy. The students persevered through rain, a headwind, and poor paddling techniques. Mr. Olson and I were challenged to keep everyone warm and dry and trying with all our energy to keep their spirits up. I knew it was a successful trip when most of the students, although not all, were asking what our next trip would be. They were feeling the magic. The magic of being outdoors, in nature, hearing nothing but silence or wind or rain or flocks of geese flying through the river corridor. The magic of seeing an osprey fishing for breakfast, dive bombing his body into the river, pulling a fish out of the water with his talons and taking flight clinging onto his meal. The magic of watching an adolescent bald eagle enticing his parents to come play. And the magic of the group dynamics that is an unpredictable but inevitable result of spending time with a small group on an outdoor adventure; bonding with people that you had never seen yourself connecting with otherwise.
The trip started with a long drive, a long drive even in Montana standards. A drive to eastern Montana where the mountains are fewer and smaller, where the plains are vast and never ending, where Montana got the nickname “big sky country”, where the rivers are wide and lazy, and where the population is few and far between. We drove past Great Falls towards Fort Benton where we had to stop at the canoe rental office for our paddles and life jackets. The canoes were already at our boat launch. We pulled into Fort Benton, parked the bus and started walking on Main Street looking for the address to the Adventure Bound Canoe Rentals and Shuttles assuming the business would be in the central location of the town with the other shops and stores. We walked for ten blocks past the recreation center, past the historic sites, and into a neighborhood before we found the address which was a house marked with a paddle standing beside the mailbox. The wife of this couple owned business set us up with our gear and told us that our canoes would be under the Russian Olive tree at Coal Banks Landing. She asked us if we were aware of the weather coming in and questioned if we still wanted to follow through with our plans. We told her we’d been planning this trip since May and a little rain wasn’t going to stop us now.
We drove another 30 miles towards Virgelle, Montana taking a long, dusty and washboardy dirt road to the campground at Coal Banks Landing. We set up camp, had dinner and took pictures of the magnificent sunset.
The next morning I was up at the crack of dawn, my favorite time of the day. I wanted to get an hour without the kids to enjoy my tea and watch the start of a new day. Mr. Olson was already up and enjoying the morning on the front porch of the little visitor center where I joined him. The bats were flying in and out of the porch roof, finishing off the last of the night bugs. We watched as the river birds started waking up and were honking at whoever would listen. I think they were telling all the other birds that there was a hellacious storm coming and that they all better get a move on.
We hated to break the spell of our morning, but we knew we had to make breakfast, pack the boats, teach the kids how to paddle a canoe, and try to do all of this before the rain started. As soon as we started shoving the canoes into the river the rain started. It slowed up a bit when we stopped for lunch, but mostly it rained the entire 20 miles of paddling that day.
The kids paired up at the start and stayed with their canoe partners most of the time. Three times that first day Mr. Olson told one pair of girls to pull over and let us split up to help them as they were never canoeing down the river but back and forth more like a sail boat does when it’s sailing into the wind. Every time he would tell them to pull over they would get mad and paddle harder and faster determined not to be the only canoe that would have to be rescued by the adults.
We pulled into the Hole in the Wall campground around 4:00. It was still raining. We had stopped and collected firewood and even hauled it up to the camp, but the rain never let up enough to start a campfire. There were two shelters at this campground. We used one to store our stuff and set up our kitchen. The other one the girls used to set up their tents. One of the girls told me she was glad she would be able to put away a dry tent in the morning but she was going to miss the sound of the rain on her tent all night. Everyone set up their tents and put on some warm dry clothes. We heated up homemade chili and had a beautiful green salad. Each pair of kids were assigned a meal that they had to plan, shop for, prepare and clean up from. After dinner and cleaning up from dinner one of the kids asked what time it was. Mr. Olson pulled up layers of clothing off of his wrist and said it was 6:00. Guess we’ll go to bed they said.
It rained all night. The next morning we packed everything in the rain. The rain and cold had seeped into our bones making it harder to stay warm. We all had on one more layer of clothes. Paddling helped keep us warmer. Our feet and hands were colder than the water temperature so we would periodically dip them into the water to make them feel warmer. Several times we would group up, holding onto each other’s canoe’s and just let the river current pull us downstream. As we grouped up I started singing and dancing “Shake it up……. shake it up”. One of the 15-year-old girls gave me the evil eye complete with death darts shooting towards my heart and said;
“Lisa……. those are not the words!”
I wasn’t sure if I hadn’t pushed these kids past their limit. But there was nothing we could do. Couldn’t call her mom to come get her, couldn’t even pull over and hitch a ride. All we could do is to keep paddling to the next campsite in the cold and rain. It rained hard most of the morning.
We grouped up again and I said, “…let’s play Lewis and Clark; I’ll be Sacajawea”. One of the boy’s said he would be Clark and assigned Lewis to the other boy.
“Who’s going to be the baby”
“Me”, said one of the girls. “I just want to do nothing and be held”
“What’s the baby’s name?” I asked. “Who wants to be the dog. Pompay? Is that the baby’s name?”
“I’ll be the dog,” said Mr. Olson
“Great”, what’s the dog’s name?” I asked again.
Mr. Olson didn’t look up and quietly said “Seaman”
“SEAMAN!” I yelled as one does when the answer was on the tip of your tongue but you couldn’t come up with it yourself.
We broke up the flotilla after that and paddled to lunch. The rain slowed to almost nothing as we finished our sandwiches. Most of our lunch ended up on the ground as our shivering hands shook all of the insides out from between the bread.
The clouds were thick and high and the rain had stopped, which seemed to have given us hope and our canoes went faster. An hour after lunch we found Slaughter River Campsite, our destination for the day. Still shivering, we unloaded the canoes, set up our wet tents and made a campfire. The heat from the fire warmed up more than our bodies, the heat thawed our attitudes and scowls on faces warmed into smiles and laughter. Once our hands were able to work again we heated up water for hot tea and hot chocolates.
One of the students was so revived she announced that she was going to go for a walk up to to a rocky knob above the campsite. I told her that Mr. Olson was talking about a walk as well and she should invite him to go with her. The two of them headed out and the rest of us watched as they went higher and higher further and further away until they finally disappeared behind a ridge. Last time I hiked with Mr. Olson, I lost both of my big toe toenails. The time before that I lost both of my little toe toenails. The guy never stops, you think he’ll stop to eat or drink or pee or maybe his shoe will come untied and he’ll have to stop to tie it. But no. He never stops, he goes and goes and goes and he goes fast. We were all starting to feel bad that we had not warned the new member of our group that a walk with Mr. Olson was a far cry from a stroll in the park.
They finally came back from an opposite direction that they started in. The student was talking non-stop about sinking up to her mid-calf in gumbo and about the sandstone that looked like solid rock but crumbled into your hands into sand, and the hidden canyons in the hillsides. We thought she was going to be angry about a never ending walk with Mr. Olson, instead, she wanted us to all go back with her so she could show us what they had explored. Her enthusiasm was contagious and within five minutes we were ready to follow her and Mr. Olson.
There was sandstone climbing up to stone plateaus where yoga poses were photographed. The boys ran across gumbo hillsides until there was no choice but to slide to the bottom. I walked to the top of the ridge opposite where the students and Mr. Olson were. I sat on top of the ridge and watched them below listening to their conversations that traveled up to me. Watching them in this unscheduled, serendipitous event made me realize that this is what creates the adventure that you can not put on an itinerary or describe in a grant application. To watch eight teenagers uninhibited, dirty and messy, helping each other up the rock faces, constantly asking Mr. Olson to “look at this” or “what is that?” is to capture the spirit of the adventure.
I know what some of you are thinking at this point. “What is gumbo?”
Gumbo is what happens to concrete-like dirt after it rains in eastern Montana. It turns into a combination of mud and quick sand and is slick as ice. It sticks to your boots and then collects dried grass and you have to have help removing it from the bottom of your boot before it turns you boot into a high heel shoe. If you’re trying to climb the side of a mountain that has turned to gumbo, you’ll never make it. It’s like climbing a marble wall. The gumbo dries onto your skin and is now a part of you like your fingernail. And, as we would soon find out on our shuttle out, it is nearly impossible to drive on.
Just after I woke up and snapped some sunrise pictures a huge bank of fog rolled in blocking the sun from drying anything. We made a fire and ate hot oatmeal then packed up all of our wet gear. We had about a three-hour paddle today to our takeout where we were scheduled to meet the shuttle driver at noon. Not only did it not rain, the sun finally burned off the fog and started to warm us up. We also got to experience paddling into a headwind for the first time on the trip. We were still making good progress, but you would have to look at the shore to see that you were actually moving down the river, the headwind made it feel like you were going nowhere. My arms were shot from three days of paddling.
The kids drove me nuts always asking:
“What time is it?”
“River time”, I would reply.
“What time do we get up tomorrow?”
“When the sun comes up.”
“How much longer to our camp”
“NO!……… How the heck should I know………….. let’s enjoy the now.”
It’s not their fault. We’ve raised them on pretty tight schedules and we don’t want to be late or miss something. They need to be prepared for the next something as well. It all works out in the end. We told our shuttle driver that we would be at the take out at noon and we arrived at 11:58. He was not there.
The kids unloaded the canoes, washed out the gumbo, and hauled them up the bank setting them upside down to dry. We were just getting our lunch out when the shuttle driver, the husband of the couple owned rental and shuttle company showed up. He was late fifties, half bald half hair that would be better off bald, sporting a pot belly and double chin with a day old growth of hair. I was going to throw the lunch back into the cooler, not wanting to hold him up, having quickly reverted right back into the world of schedules. He told us to take our time and eat our lunch. He said the road needed to dry if we were going to get out of there in a loaded van. He told us he’d blown a transmission driving in the gumbo the day before and had to have his customers rescued by a local rancher. Local being a relative term due to the fact that eastern Montana ranches can be 125,000 acres in size.
The van ride out was an adventure itself. The gumbo did prove to be challenging especially going up hills. We were in an old 10 passenger van pulling a trailer with all of our gear and canoes. If you stopped, you’d never get going again. If a car came from the other direction you’d get stuck. Forty-four miles until we hit a paved road near Big Sandy, Montana. I told the shuttle driver that one of his canoes was broken. He looked at me a bit surprised. I explained that the canoe would only travel in a zig-zag fashion all the way down the river. He said he had had that problem before as two of the girls sunk into their seats in embarrassment.
The shuttle driver asked the kids if they wanted some music as he turned up the volume to the one radio station choice.
“It’s all girly music,” he said to me.
“I like girly music, makes me want to dance”
“Me too,” he said.
“Do you think they’ll play; ‘Shake it up, Shake it up’?”, as I sang and danced the question.
There was a scream from the back of the van.
“LISA! Get the words right”
“I have a thing for Taylor Swift”, said the shuttle driver, “but she’s too young for me”
“….and you’re married,” I said.
“I dig Lady Gaga too.” he said as ‘Poker Face’ played on his radio.
“She’ll make ya wanna dance.”
And we drove down the gumbo road sliding left and right, with the kids sleeping in the back and the beauty of the plains of eastern Montana slowly rolling by us, while the shuttle driver and I did the “driving in the car bobble head dance” to Lady Gaga.
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3 thoughts on “Canoeing the Missouri”
I was home, all warm and cozy, wondering how you all would survive the rain and complaining teenagers. After reading your version, I sort of want to go next time. Sort of 🙂
This is one of your best stories. It was fascinating; there was tension, conflict, suspense, awe. So many emotions were present. I even teared up a few times.
You are my hero… I would never gave survived the cold rain, my fingers would have stop working. Always enjoy reading your adventures!
We have been to Virgelle, loved it!