Friday Classic: Footsteps of Lewis and Clark

Mark reached under his pillow and pulled back the hammer of his pistol. My eyes are heavy as I started to drift off to sleep. I barely hear the pickup rolling into camp. More shocked by the pistol than the pickup, I urge Mark to put away the gun. Throwing on a shirt I get up and prepare to be our ambassador. Guys and gals pour out of the pickup. They are from the closest town, 33 miles away.

At age nineteen, three of us decided to paddle the Missouri from Great Falls, Montana to the North Dakota border, a journey of some 700 miles. We wanted to follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. We planned a month for the trip, we lasted a week. In short, we got bored. The river is wide, flat, and slow. The first 50 miles are iconic and after that it turns into the subtle flatlands of eastern MT. We wanted an epic and it wasn’t there. Our planning was also imperfect. We had no music, no beer, no girls. Without the elements pushing us our 19 year old attention spans didn’t stand a chance.

We pulled out at Judith Landing and hiked two miles to the nearest ranch house to make a call. My dad agreed to make the ten hour drive to get us, although he couldn’t make it for another three days. So we waited.

Mark, no longer focused on the pistol, focused on the women. My focus centered on making friends with the guys so they didn’t beat us up, thinking that we were trying to steal their women. Tensions subsided. But with the prospect of getting beer and the chance to spend more time with the girls Mark decided to go back to town with the group. As he left we were not really sure if he was coming back.

Mark did make it back and our trip came to an unceremonious end as my dad rolled in a couple days later. It took me almost fifteen years before I made it back again.

When the opportunity came a second time to paddle The White Cliffs stretch of the Upper Missouri I approached it with a different mindset. I no longer needed an epic, our group had plenty of beer, the lack of women was a blessing. Instead of Mark’s pistol, I armed myself with a few fly rods and a box of the biggest streamers I had. The slow pace of the river was perfect this time around.

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