The Missouri Breaks

It rained on and off most of the night during my first night in Montana, but when I awoke below the massive Fort Peck Dam before daylight, a warm wind had picked up and the concrete tabletop in my campsite was dry. Before coffee even, I headed over to the downstream waterside.

The eastern end of the Fort Peck Dam can be seen above this pond

Petrified trees

That’s the Missouri flowing out at 10,000 cubic feet per second, from right to left. Three miles around the bend on the left, the Milk River flows in from the north, carrying the southern Alberta silt which lends its color and name. Lewis described it as “being about the colour of a cup of tea with the admixture of a tablespoonfull of milk.”

Speaking of tea–how about some coffee?

Morning routine

The Milk crosses the U.S.-Canadian border twice after flowing out from its origins near Glacier Park in western Montana. This would have been of interest to Lewis and Clark, who hoped and suspected, like President Jefferson, that the Missouri watershed extended north of the 49th parallel. And it was the watershed of the Missouri which Jefferson intended be the definition of American expansion. The Treaty of 1818 formalized the 49th parallel, thus ending American claims to the northernmost part of Louisiana.

The Milk is the northenmost tributary of the Missouri, and its long, gentle east-west valley became a natural conduit for James Hill’s St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway (later the Great Northern Railway), and for US Highway 2. Before that, the Milk was a travel and trade route for Mandans, Hidatsas, and European trappers. It was also the only known northern tributary of the Missouri. It was my route, too.

The green amidst the gold–the Milk River valley

In a vast dry space Lewis described as “high country on either side of the river one vast plain, intirely destitute of timber back as far as the eye can reach,” the Milk River valley is a 300-mile long oasis paralleling the lake and then the Upper Missouri Breaks. I followed it as far as Havre, where I turned to the southwest on Hwy 87 toward the mouth of the Marias River at Loma. US 2 carries on due west, while the Milk curves to the northwest, where it flows out from under Fresno Dam.

The route traveled by the Expedition lies 200 feet below the surface of Fort Peck Lake. But they also explored the Yellowstone (which westbound I-94 follows upstream to the southwest from where I crossed), and Maria’s River, which Lewis named for his cousin, Maria Wood.

The Marias River at Loma flows in from the west. This picture is 500 meters from its confluence with the Missouri.

The Milk and Marias (modern spellers and historians have dismissed the apostrophe) together provided the Corps with one of their most important choices. Since the Milk, as far as any tribe or trapper had ever reported, was the only known northern tributary of the Missouri, the discovery of the Marias as a north fork was confounding to the Corps. There was a debate about which river to follow, and the captains were outnumbered by the rest, who believed that the northern fork must be the main stem. But Lewis was certain that the southern fork was the Missouri: it was clear, rocky, and characteristic of a river flowing out of the mountains. The north fork was turbid, some gravel but mostly mud–very similar to the Missouri they’d been traveling for so long. This convinced the rest of the party that the north fork was the main river. So they sent six men up each of the branches. Lewis, with his octant, determined in three days that the north fork went too far north. They knew from previous reports that the Missouri curved south, and had a great series of falls after exiting the mountains. Clark came to the same conclusion after two days traveling up the south fork. On June 8, 1805, the parties rejoined and continued their journey up the Missouri and through the Upper Missouri Breaks.

The Missouri Breaks are a long series of canyons which the river has carved into the soft Virgelle sandstone of the northern Montana plains. Lewis and Clark passed through the Breaks in May of 1805. Lewis wrote: “the hills and river clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance. The bluffs of the river rise to the hight of from 2 to 300 feet and in most places nearly perpendicular; they are formed of remarkable white sandstone which is sufficiently soft to give way readily to the impression of water…”

From a distance, on the surface of the prairie, the Breaks barely reveal themselves, as the picture above shows. But on the river, they are spectacular.

At the southern end of the Breaks, I dropped back down to the river at Fort Benton, which was established as the most far-flung trading post on the Missouri in 1847 by my fellow St. Louisans, Auguste and Pierre Chouteau, and named for Thomas Hart Benton (the senator from Missouri) by the US Army, which bought the post from John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company in 1865. There is a Lewis and Clark interpretive center there, along with a narrow gauge railway, the Great Falls & Canada Railway, which ran between Lethbridge, Alberta, and Great Falls, Montana, filled with Canadian coal starting in October 1890. For thirty years, before the ascendance of rail in the west, Fort Benton was a major steamboat port for traders coming upstream and for prospectors coming downstream (north) from Montana’s new gold fields near Bannack and Virginia City. It is one of the oldest settlements in the West, and is considered the “birthplace of Montana.”

Sandstone atop a subsurface of Marias River shale at Fort Benton

Southern boundary of the Breaks, just south of Ft. Benton

Back onto 87 for the push to Great Falls. I’d considered trying to get as far as Helena or even Three Forks, but side trips had delayed me so I pulled into Great Falls. The thing about Great Falls is this: the falls are not so great. In fact, they are not so “falls,” either. Rather, they are now a series of dams and small reservoirs along the length of the five cataracts.

Rainbow Falls, the fourth of five falls

The small black truss bridge in the upper left above the dam is 90 feet high. It carried the Chicago Milwaukee Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad. There was another falls just beyond the bridge, but it is submerged under the reservoir created by Rainbow Dam. The rocks still look fearsome, and it’s still possible to imagine the challenge of portaging around them, but only one of the falls (the last of the five) is still open. Lewis reported hearing the falls from a great distance.

After a quick spin around the riverfront area, I found a riverside hotel with a pizzeria next door. With a nice Big Sky Amber Ale, it’s a meal I’m sure the Corps would have enjoyed as much as I did. I’m sure they would have enjoyed the pillows in my room, too.

Meanwhile, my throttle lock has totally failed. Not really a problem for the bike, but after 13 hours of holding the throttle open the last two days, I’m having some difficulty with gripping and writing with my right hand. I have figured the problem out and tomorrow morning, I feex!

Also tomorrow, I will make the crossing over Lemhi Pass, deep in the heart of the Bitterroot Mountains and overlooking the Shoshone homeland of Sacajawea. At the top, I will reach the “farthest fountain” of the Missouri River, a spring at the head of Trail Creek, just a few hundred meters below the pass. My family’s history lies along the Missouri from St. Louis to Leavenworth, KS.  I grew up near the confluence of the Missouri with the Mississippi, and have traveled the Missouri river valley east and west for most of my life. The site of this great river’s origins is a place I’ve been looking forward to seeing since the earliest planning for this trip.

320 miles today in 7 hours. The Corps spent 36 days traveling from the Milk River to the Great Falls of the Missouri.


2 thoughts on “The Missouri Breaks

  1. It was a gorgeous day out at Robert’s…perfect for a campout. Looks like you’re having good weather, too. Stay safe!

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