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By Tom Elpel
Contributing Writer 

Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery: The Journey Begins


"This little fleet altho' not quite so rispectable as those of Columbus or Capt. Cook were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld theirs; and I dare say with quite as much anxiety for their safety and preservation. we were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width... and these little vessells contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves. however as this the state of mind in which we are, generally gives the colouring to events, when the immagination is suffered to wander into futurity, the picture which now presented itself to me was a most pleasing one."

--Meriwether Lewis departing the Mandans, April 7, 1805

Our little fleet consists of three modern canoes plus my dugout canoe, and six men to pilot them down the river-not so respectable as Columbus, Capt. Cook, or Lewis and Clark, but still viewed by us with equal pleasure as we embark on our own journey of discovery.

We launched from Missouri Headwaters State Park near Three Forks, Montana on June 1st to begin our six-month voyage downriver to St. Louis. Friends and well-wishers came to see us off, and seven other paddlers joined us for the day in their own canoes and kayaks.

Sunny skies and warm temperatures invited us onto the water. After a long, lingering winter in the northern Rockies, we felt fortunate and grateful that summer arrived at all. Lewis and Clark must have felt similarly after overwintering with the Mandan Indians in present-day North Dakota in 1804-1805 through brutally cold temperatures and the relentless winds of the Great Plains.

Calculating from latitude and longitude, the explorers estimated a journey of at least two thousand miles from the Mandan villages up the Missouri River, over the Rockies, and down the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. Our journey is far less ambitious, and we are flowing with the current, not against it, yet we still face a journey of more than two thousand miles winding down the sinuous Missouri River to St. Louis.

We enjoyed a leisurely first day, drifting ten miles with the current to camp at Fairweather Fishing Access Site. In the spirit of Lewis and Clark, we dined on bison burger for our first meal, chopped and fried with dandelions, wild mustards, and plantain leaves all foraged around the campground.

With dry weather and not yet many mosquitos, we opted to forgo tents for the night, each of us sleeping under different juniper trees for shelter from the dew. For breakfast we collected plantain leaves and mixed them in a batter of flour, egg, water, and spices, then fried them in butter in the wok over the campfire.

The river called us onward, and we drifted downstream through the scenic canyon to Sixteen Mile Creek, which Lewis and Clark originally named Howard's Creek after Thomas P. Howard, a member of the expedition. We stopped under the railroad bridge to explore the ruins of the historic town of Lombard as mile-long freight trains rumbled back and forth down the line.

If Lewis and Clark were alive today, they would easily recognize the river they explored, but they might not believe it. In four months dragging their dugout canoes upstream through present-day Montana, they did not encounter another human being until they were near present-day Idaho. Montana remains one of the least-densely populated states, yet there are more than a million people here now, with trains, highways, cities, towns, and coffee shops along the river, plus ten dams just in the Montana portion of the river.

Toston Dam was our first obstacle on the Missouri. No worries. With a boat ramp, trailer, and volunteers to shuttle us around the dam, portaging would be nearly effortless, or so we anticipated before learning that the boat ramp was temporarily closed at Toston.

We never actually weighed Belladonna Beaver the dugout canoe, but optimistically claimed that it weighed 500 lbs. In actuality, four men cannot even lift the front of the canoe, and the total weight might be closer to 1,000 lbs. By weighting down the back, lifting the front, and winching from a tree, we succeeded in getting her head out of the water and on the grass. Switching to the next tree, we pulled Belladonna across the grass on PVC pipes as rollers, then towed her forward with a rope from the truck and ultimately used a car jack to get her head high enough to load onto the canoe trailer.

Portaging across the grass at Toston Dam. Courtesy photo

Our portage was nothing compared to what Lewis and Clark endured portaging the Expedition upstream around the Great Falls of the Missouri, yet we were proud of our accomplishment and felt a degree of kinship with their challenge and experience. It was empowering to know we can overcome obstacles and portage the canoe if we have to. Let's just hope we don't have to do it again!

Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the author of seven books, including Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills and Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification. Go to to learn more about the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery, Tom's books, and the expedition fundraiser for a new public campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.


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