Despite the wind and rain I actually slept well, but woke very early and headed out of the cabin and over to the main building where I’d been told coffee would be available from 6am. And it was. Spent a very nice couple of hours chatting with Janna (sp?), a college student who is working at Virgelle for the summer. She only started last week and is learning all the breakfast recipes fast. There was something terribly clichéd but compelling about sitting in this lovely house in the middle of nowhere drinking coffee while a pretty girl efficiently cooked and chatted away.
By 8am, a few other guests had turned up. It was homecoming weekend in Big Sandy, the nearest town. This is held every five years and anyone who graduated from Big Sandy High School (or drove past it as one of the wags suggested) can turn up. This sometimes includes Pearl Jam’s bass player Jeff Ament.
The breakfast chat was light-hearted but also a real insight into how places like this work. The older folks – well into their 60s and beyond – were reminiscing about clearing homestead land when they were younger and the family and friendship connections run deep around these parts even though your next door neighbour could be several miles away. Curt seemed to be the lynchpin of the group – his family held a reunion to coincide with the Big Sandy event and people flocked in from out of state – indeed his niece and family turned up some minutes later. They live in Oklahoma.
A group was setting off for a two-day canoe trip and was going to go regardless, so we waited fora report back from where they were putting in as to the river conditions, specifically the volume of debris floating down. Don made it clear that he would make the final go/no go decision for me – fully aware of my lack of canoeing experience.
The weather was clearing up, but it was still very windy and there was a flood warning for the whole area. I wasn’t that optimistic.
I guess Lewis & Clark had a fair bit of waiting around to do, and while their men’s chores involved mending clothes, checking over equipment and keeping guard, the captains of course would be writing their journals and making maps. Which is more or less what I was doing. It was very easy just to hang out at Virgelle. Occasionally people would stumble across the place and look round. Janna, now prepping breakfast for Saturday, had sort of become a living exhibit as people wandered in and asked what was baking.
Danny and I had our picnic lunch at the breakfast table and decided that we’d be good to go. He’d have gone in any weather I guess. So, around 2ish we loaded up the canoe with what seemed to be an awful lot of stuff. We were prepared for any emergency.
We pushed off into the Missouri at Coal Banks Landing, heading just 11 miles downstream to Pilot Rock. Sadly we weren’t able to get as far as Eagle Creek, where the White Cliffs really start, as the road access there was problematic.
Once we were on the water, the current didn’t seem that strong. We generally stayed out of the faster flowing channels anyway, but even doing little paddling we were making very good speed.
Sandstone cliffs with strange erosions, protusions, and basalt strata faced grassy banks and islands.
We spotted a deer gazing at us intently but otherwise only cows. This really WAS the way to see the river and we switched from one side to the other depending where the more interesting scenery was. Danny explained that in the mid-late summer the river would be so shallow you could hit the bottom with the paddle.
Lewis & Clark made good progress through this section, moving from Eagle Creek upstream to near Loma in just one day at the end of May 1805. Lewis had been quite moved by the rock formations in this part of the river comparing them to the finest cathedrals.
What concerned the Corps though was the complete lack of contact with Indians. This was Assiniboine territory and there was plenty of evidence that they had been around, but they hadn’t actually met any. This was of concern because they knew that at some point the river would be unnavigable and they would need to transfer to horses, which they would have to obtain somehow from Indians.
The Assiniboine knew they were coming of course but news of the devastating effect of white men’s diseases had reached them and they were steering well clear. One of the clues to the presence of Indians was the tipi rings – circles demarcated by stones that showed where tipis had been erected. Some of these are still visible and Danny and I pulled over at Little Sandy campsite and walked up the hill to see a set of three.
The view was perfect for seeing anything coming upstream and we wondered whether Assiniboine scouts would have stood right here and seen the pirogues and dugouts coming round the bend.
This whole stretch of river – known as the Missouri River Breaks National Monument – is perhaps the least altered since the time of L&C. At least with the exception of wildlife, which was abundant when the Corps passed through, but no longer.
Back in the canoe and in very little time it seemed we’d made it to Pilot Rock. Danny did some neat steering to get us docked and Jimmy arrived in the van at the same time – perfect timing (which given the vague discussion on arrival time earlier was fairly amazing). We stepped out of the boat and it started to rain.
The drive back took almost as long as the river trip but the views were amazing. At around 3,000 feet, this was truly the high plains. Buttes stood out on the horizon, the volcanic lacoliths puncturing the largely flat landscape. The sky had cleared again and we could see far off into the distance. Looming large but impossibly far away were the Rockies. My first glimpse of them. Lewis & Clark hadn’t yet seen what stood in their way from down nearer the river. It would be the first in a series of shocks between here and the Pacific.
Back at Virgelle, the sky was turning blue.
Saturday promised to be a great day to be in a canoe. I would be in my car heading for Great Falls.