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Down the Missouri River Twice

 

Pygmies not only sell boats. We go adventuring in them!

 

Family kayak camping is one of my favorite things to do. There is something profoundly satisfying about moving across wild places by day and building a new nest site each night. It is one of those rare times when you get to be part of a pack again; pitching the tent, building a fire, catching a fish for dinner, cooking a meal, sitting around the camp fire, and piling into a tent at the end of the day.  
For family wilderness trips I pick places that are wild, but safe, where the challenges are manageable. The goal is to wander, lie on the beach, fish, explore, to see what happens, to be at ease. We usually take two weeks for a trip that others do in five days and we let time stretch out.
Two of my favorite kayak trips are ones I took with my daughter Freya down the free-flowing stretch of the Missouri in central Montana that is part of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and the National Wild and Scenic River system. When Freya was six, we paddled from Coal Bank Landing to Judith Landing. This was our first father/daughter kayak trip, and this stretch of the Missouri was an ideal destination. It was safe; it is unobstructed water with no rapids. It was easy; the river rolls along at about four miles an hour making paddling optional. It was warm, strikingly beautiful, and lined with shady groves of giant cottonwoods to camp in.
In typical fashion, we spent eleven days paddling only forty-five miles of river – a distance most people do in only three days. But we had fun!

We took the Osprey Triple, and just to make sure my six-year-old daughter was happy, we took her dog Lucy along to keep her company in the bow cockpit. That summer was one of hottest on record in Montana, with thirty two consecutive days of temperatures over ninety-five. Freya spent half our kayak time diving out of the front cockpit and paddling around the kayak in her little life vest.
This stretch of the Missouri cuts 2000 feet down through the central Montana Plato forming the Missouri River Breaks. The river passes numerous white sandstone cliffs and fields of sculpted sandstone pillars called hoodoos. The valley is etched with exposed intruded lava dikes, which erode into freestanding 50-foot high rock walls that run across the landscape. There are numerous side hikes up into narrow, cliff-lined coolies.
We spent our days reading stories aloud in the tent, making breakfast, paddling, hiking into the hoodoos and up onto the tops of cliffs, lying on the beach, jumping in and out of the kayak to swim, paddling, drifting, exploring, scouting campsites, taking side hikes up into the coolies, pitching camp, fixing dinner in the late evening sun and sitting around the camp fire drinking cocoa and watching the stars come out. The days were full, but they were easy and always changing. One of the great joys of a father/child camping trip is that you get to be the mother duck with the ducking(s) scooting about behind you.
Eight years later, when Freya was fourteen, we did another father/daughter trip down the Missouri river. We put in again at Coal Bank Landing and revisited the beautiful white cliffs and coolies of the upper Missouri. But this time we paddled past Judith Landing into the ‘Badlands’ of the Upper Missouri where shale and sandstone outcroppings protrude from riverbanks.

This time Freya commanded her own boat, an Osprey 13. Although Freya at fourteen stood only 5’1”, she was a very strong paddler. She was always ahead of me no matter how hard I tried to keep up. She picked the current lines and the path through islands. I would hear her up ahead singing at the top of her lungs or see her with her paddle down, drifting along, staring at the scenery. At fourteen, she was still completely enthralled with the out-of-doors.
We again fell into that timeless rhythm of movement and nest building. Our paddling pace was faster, but we still stopped frequently to hike and explore, to eat lunch and lie in the grass. At fourteen, Freya helped unload the boats, pitch camp, build the fire, and cook dinner. She was no longer the duckling scooting along behind; she was out in front, totally focused on exploring what lay ahead. We still took twelve days to paddle the 106 miles from Coal Bank to Robinson Bridge that most people do in five or six. And it was by far the most beautiful trip I have ever had.
It was another hot summer in central Montana. The days were warm, clear and sunny with vivid sunsets and late evening thunderstorms, magical weather.
Three days before the end of our trip we experienced the most violent storm I have ever been in. It came as had all the storms on this trip, at the end of a beautiful sunny day. We found an attractive campsite under several huge old cottonwoods. As we beached our kayaks on a long gradual low bank, a dark cloud mass appeared over the high ridge on the south side of the river.

John Lockwood in a Coho.

 

By the time we had finished dinner, six or seven, vertical rope-like cloud structures that I had never seen before move over the southern ridge and rose up for thousands of feet into the sky. Then the bent over and streamed off horizontally toward the east. I was amazed. I tied all four corners of the tent, and the tent peek to trees and logs. I pulled both boats way up the bank, nth tied them to a three-foot wide cottonwood.
That night it howled and poured. The sky was covered with sheet lightening. The tent shook, hummed, and flattened. It rained so hard the ground was covered in an inch of water with the drops flying up three or four inches from the surface. The next morning there was not a cloud in the sky but the river was twice the width it had been the day before, and had risen over 12 vertical feet during the night. The river’s surface was covered with floating debris; the water was a thick soup so laidened with mud that over 10 inches of silt the consistency of chocolate mouse covered thirty feet of the bank where the river had already receded from its high water mark during the night
Each time we came ashore for the next three days, we landed in muck and had to wade through goo as we pulled our boats up the shore to high ground. But we had two more glorious days of sunshine and watched one more late-evening thunderstorm roll in while we sat by the evening campfire with our tent pitched and ready. This trip was family camping at its best. We were buffeted by strong winds and poured on by heavy rains. We were treated to dazzling displays of the sun streaming though clouds and moving across a beautiful landscape. We ate well and worked hard. We were bathed in sunlight and fresh air. We were warmed by a campfire and surrounded by stars. It was by far the most beautiful trip I have ever been on. --By John Lockwood

 

 

 

 

 

 

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