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River Floating: A Current Affair

Why huff and puff to get to an isolated campsite? Simply grab a paddle, then let the current carry you to a secluded riverside trailhead.

Wild and Scenic Missouri River, Montana

The water: “The hills and river cliffs exhibit a most romantic appearance,” Lewis and Clark reported of this section of the great Missouri River. Even today, the adventurous duo would recognize this part of their journey that’s remained relatively unchanged by modern life. Paddlers can camp in the same rustling cottonwood groves that the Corps of Discovery occupied almost 200 years ago and stroke great, ponderous loops of water that coil through semi-arid country of sculpted sandstone cliffs and quiet coulees. The current flows steadily, but is free of rapids over the entire 150-mile length from historic Ft. Benton to Fred Robinson Bridge at US 191, making it a great 5- to 7-day trip for beginner and intermediate paddlers. Shorter 2- to 3-day trips can easily be arranged by starting at Coal Banks Landing (mile 42) or the bridge at Judith Landing (mile 88). The biggest hazard is frequent, and often strong, upriver winds.

The hikes: Established trails are rare, but explorations on foot away from the river are unlimited if you have decent bushwhacking skills. Besides, the Big Sky landscape is so evocative it’s hard to stay in the boats. Some of the most spectacular hiking is in the White Rocks area, on river left, between miles 58 and 72. Hole-in-the-Wall is also easily accessed on river right, at mile 64. This dike of volcanic rock stands out in a formidable rampart, with a spectacular window near the top that hikers can scramble to. Many coulees and ridges lead off all along the river corridor, and almost all of it is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, accessible to the public.

Experience level: Beginner to intermediate paddling. Intermediate to advanced hiking, if you’re making your own trail.

Season: The Missouri is floatable from spring through fall. Mid-June through late-July is your best bet for weather and good water levels. September is also beautiful and less heavily traveled.

Logistics: The best craft is a canoe, although touring kayaks are common, too. The put-in is 45 miles north of Great Falls at the town of Ft. Benton.

Guides: Floater’s guidelines, Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River Floaters Guide Map Set ($8), and information on outfitters and shuttles are available from the Lewistown BLM office (see Contacts below). Good guidebooks to the area include: Floating and Recreation on Montana Rivers, by Curt Thompson ($24.95), and Paddling Montana, by Hank and Carol Fischer ($14.95), both published by Falcon, (800) 582-2665; www.falcon.com.

Contacts: BLM, Lewistown Field Office, (406) 538-7461; www.mt.blm.gov/lvo. National Wild. Scenic Rivers site, www.nps.gov/rivers/missouri.html.

-Alan Kesselheim

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