Canoe into a magical land in July

History buffs, outdoor enthusiasts, wildlife watchers, educators, and others have a special opportunity this coming July to take a canoe trip through the most magically beautiful area traveled by the Lewis and Clark Expedition more than two centuries ago: the White Cliffs of the Missouri River in Montana.

The non-profit Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and its Portage Route River Chapter in Great Falls, Montana, as well as the Montana River Outfitters, are sponsoring a July 13-15 river trip through the White Cliffs and an accompanying July 16-17 tour of important historical sites.

Enjoy more views like this along the White Cliffs. Photo by Lewis-Clark.org

The White Cliffs, located in the Upper Missouri River Breaks Monument, flank a scenic stretch of river that flows steadily and usually slowly, and has only minor ripples and rapids. This is a remote area that has seen little change since the Lewis and Clark Expedition moved through there in late May 1805 in six small cottonwood dugout canoes and two larger canoes.

Designated a National Wild and Scenic River, this river segment is fairly clear and unencumbered with muddy water as the river is in its lower reaches where it is nicknamed the Big Muddy.

After completing the river journey, participants will tour these sites in or near Great Falls, Montana, on July 16 and July 17:

  • the archaeologically important First Peoples Buffalo Jump, a Montana state park and National Historic Landmark believed to be North America’s largest bison cliff jump;
  • Lewis and Clark National Interpretive Center that offers in-depth information about the expedition and its importance in America’s westward expansion; and
  • Two Medicine Fight Site, where Meriwether Lewis and three companions had a bitter encounter with Native Americans that ended in a fatality. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Looking down on the Missouri River from the White Cliffs Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management
Looking down on the Missouri River from the White Cliffs. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

The canoe trip through the uninhabited White Cliffs will be a glamping journey—an outdoor experience more glamorous and luxurious than traditional campouts.

Tents with cots and air mattresses will be set up ahead for the canoeists. Meals will be prepared by outfitters. All of this will allow the travelers time for hiking, exploring, campfire chats, wildlife and bird watching, fishing, taking photographs, and reading Lewis and Clark’s journals. The trip will be led by guides knowledgeable about the country and history.

Lewis and Clark and the other expedition members and even Lewis’ Newfoundland dog, Seaman, would likely have loved such a glamping experience. The explorers lived ruggedly, sometimes on the edge of starvation and occasionally barely with any clothes to protect them from freezing temperatures, blizzards and cold winds. Their journey went along a 4,900-mile route now federally recognized as the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. The trail goes through 16 states from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.

One of many scenic views along the White Cliffs of the Missouri River. Photo by the Bureau of Land Management.

When the explorers reached the White Cliffs, they were delightfully surprised to see the enchanted landscape. Lewis wrote a journal entry that some historians consider one of the most classic pieces of American travel literature ever written.

His journal entry described 300-foot-tall white sandstone cliffs, some perpendicular to the river, carved into a thousand different shapes by the vagaries of the waterway. He noted that with the help of a little imagination it was possible to see lofty buildings and statues among the cliffs.

“A most romantic appearance” was how Lewis described it.

For members of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, the cost for the July excursion is $1,500; for non-members, $1,600, which includes a year-long foundation membership. A $500 non-refundable deposit is due with RSVP by May 31.

Canoeing skills are little cause for concern; beginners are welcomed. Age requirement: If people are capable enough to paddle a canoe for three days, they are old enough to take the trip.

For more information, go to the foundation’s website (lewisandclark.org) or call the foundation at 888-701-3434.

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