Corps of Discovery on the Missouri River

Statue of Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea, and her son, Pompey.

We love paddling. From rowing our dinghy Fever in the Bahamas to kayaking in our inflatable, Pirogue Bleue, we’ve paddled a lot. We’ve even paddled against the current of the Missouri River… for about ten minutes. We got tired of it quickly.

The Corps of Discovery rowed upstream almost the whole length of the Missouri. Those 35 men, led by Lewis and Clark, certainly have my respect. Our little discovery group, Duwan and Greg in Ballena Blanca, visited some of the places they explored.

We are big Lewis and Clark fans. Their spirit of exploration was even included in our wedding ceremony. But this post isn’t any kind of complete summarization of their trip. Just some pictures from a few of their stops. Much has been written about their expedition, and all the characters who participated, including another dozen contract boatmen, guide Sacagawea, Clark’s slave, York, and Seaman, the Newfoundland dog. I’d encourage you to read about them.

They traveled from 1804-06. And their mission was to observe and report. I like to imagine the west they experienced. It would change so dramatically. In just a short century the buffalo would be gone, the passenger pigeon would be extinct, railroads would crisscross the continent, and the indigenous peoples would be confined to reservations.

Today you can follow a 149-mile section of the river traveled by the expedition. Here in the Missouri Breaks National Monument, paddlers float the river downstream from west to east. There is little development along this pristine stretch of river. We drove to all the camping stops. Most of the travel was on dirt roads through the surrounding prairie. we crossed the river twice on ferries. Our drive was a lot longer than 149 miles.
Nightfall at our camping spot near Stafford-McClelland Ferry in the Missouri River Breaks.
Daytime at Stafford-McClelland Ferry.
Stafford-McClelland Ferry.
There are not a lot of hiking trails in the Missouri River Breaks National Monument. But we did hike a trail that brought us to this view of the river near Stafford-McClelland Ferry. The trail was actually a road built by the army in 1869. Troops were sent here to offload cargo from a wrecked steamboat. The riverside terrain we saw in Missouri River Breaks looked much like this.
Wood Bottom Landing in the Breaks. The year before the expedition began (1803), Robert Fulton designed a steamboat which was sailed on the River Seine. It wasn’t long before boats started steaming up the Missouri. The boats required a lot of fuel. Many of the landings in the Breaks are named for this fuel. Wood Bottom was named for the loggers who sold firewood to the boats.
Near Wood Bottom is Decision Point. To the left runs Maria’s River. The Missouri is on the right. Lewis and Clark had not been told about Maria’s River. When they got here they had to decide which one was the Missouri. Time was an important consideration. Choosing the wrong direction would lead to a failed expedition. Parties were sent to explore. It was decided that the river on the right was clearer and had more rounded rocks. These were signs that the river had originated in the mountains (Rockies). The correct channel was chosen.
The center section of this bascule bridge in Fort Benton, Montana was initially designed to swivel, allowing steamboats to pass. In 1908 the swing span washed away. It was replaced with a fixed span.
Ideally, the party would find a reliable water route to the Pacific Ocean. But when they arrived at what is now called Great Falls, they ran into their first big obstacle, an 87-foot waterfall.
Then there was another set of falls. These are Horseshoe Falls, 19 feet high.
And another. These are Rainbow Falls, 44 feet high.
Finally, the last of the Great Falls. Black Eagle Falls at 26 feet. The hydro-electric dams were all built atop the falls in the late 1800s. These falls, and another, which is now underwater, were obstacles to boat travel. The expedition would need to portage around them. An 18-mile overland route was laid out and work began.
Here is the beginning of the Great Falls portage. Boats were wrestled up this creek, then hauled up the hillsides to the prairie above.
Display at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls, Montana showing how the boats were hauled over the portage. Most of the trip was flatter terrain than this.
One at a time the boats were hauled across this prairie. Occasionally, the wind would be favorable, and a raised sail could help propel a boat. Otherwise, they were pulled by hand. The portage took four days. I’m sure the work was difficult, but do you think the guys may have enjoyed a break from rowing?
End of the portage around Great Falls. Camp was established on the ground below. The crew celebrated by drinking the last of the whiskey.
The crew brought along an experimental portable boat like this. Once the frame was assembled, it was covered in hides. But there were no pine trees around, so the hides could not be sealed together with tar. An attempt was made to waterproof using lard. But the boat leaked and sank. The original was buried. This is a replica.
Statue of Seaman, the Newfoundland that Lewis brought along from Pittsburgh. Seaman may have saved lives on the journey, by warning the camp of a grizzly bear attack.
At this spot, Captain Lewis described a “remarkable bluff of crimson coloured earth”. The red cliff is below us, much easier to see from the water. He also described the island in the center of the river.
Pompey’s Pillar, just east of Billings, Montana. Here is the only physical evidence left of the Corps of Discovery’s journey. Captain Clark carved his signature and the date into the side of the pillar alongside some Native American petroglyphs. Other carvings have been left since Clark made his mark.
Replicas of the canoes used in the expedition. Over 200 hours of manual work went into making these rough copies, which are on display at Pompey’s Pillar. The Corps of Discovery continued from here, paddling up to the headwaters of the Missouri River, and eventually to the Pacific Ocean.

10 thoughts on “Corps of Discovery on the Missouri River

  1. Fascinating! And so cool you got to follow their route a little bit and stopped at some of the sites they did. I had no idea these adventurers were featured during your wedding ceremony. You’ll have to tell us all about that, one day. Did you spot Clark’s signature at the petroglyphs site?

    1. No, we didn’t see Clark’s actual signature. The trail was closed – because of covid, I think. There was a replica, though.

      Lewis and Clark were mentioned in our wedding vows because they were adventurers and we were going to be adventurers (we married before bought the boat and went nomad). We will tell you more when we see you again soon!

  2. I’ve always been fascinated by the core of discovery. Thank you for the continued documentation of your journeys. It gives me hope that when I’m healthier I can continue In the foot steps and tire tracks of your travels.

    1. Thank you for following along Kelvin. I hope you can get on the road soon. We hope our tire tracks bring us back to Texas one day for a visit!

  3. That looks like a place that is rich is history, even if it is short of trails!

    Cheers – Stewart M – Melbourne

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