May Misery on the Missouri River


The truck idled softly, barely discernable above the warm air gushing from the vents. Outside, low, grey clouds dripped cold rain and a biting wind shook the just-emerging leaves.

“If it were my trip, I’d bail,” said Brian, sitting next to me in the passenger seat. “It’s cold, windy, and rainy, and I’m not feeling good about this.”

I sat silently for a few moments, thinking carefully about my response. Brian was right. The weather was objectively bad. The truck’s thermometer read 45 degrees. A steady 10-15 mph headwind had built since we crawled out of our sleeping bags.

May in Montana. The week prior, we’d enjoyed bright sunshine, 80-degree days and soft spring nights. On a practice run near our homes in Missoula, we’d paddled in shorts, sweating in our PFDs. Now, we were hunkered down in my running pickup truck, grateful for the heat.

I’d gambled that the weather would cooperate when I scheduled my summer “research” and hedged that the 150 miles of flatwater that comprised the Upper Missouri River Wild and Scenic Section would be a good spring mission.

I truly didn’t know what to do. We’d already cut fifty miles off the trip, hastily changing our plans the day before when we met with the outfitter we’d hired to shuttle the truck. In Nicole’s cozy house, safe from the wind and cold, she marked where we could find shelters on the river map and quizzed us about the gear we had.

Nicole: “Did you bring an emergency water filter?”
Me: “No, we were planning to resupply at the BLM campground. I called and they said the water would be on.”
Nicole: “They haven’t turned it on yet. I’ll drop five gallons for you and loan you a filter.”
Nicole: “Do you have drysuits?”
Me: “At home, hanging in my gear shed. We brought wetsuit pants.”


I quickly realized my plan of making 25 miles a day in these conditions was naïve at best. Skipping the first 50 miles sounded reasonable, prudent even. When we stepped back outside into the wind-driven rain, I wondered if we should have cut off even more.

I’d invited Brian on the trip and felt responsible for putting us in this situation. With more money than I cared to admit invested in gas to get to the put in, dehydrated food and other supplies for the trip, the shuttle I’d already paid for, and the time off of work we’d arranged, I really wanted to get on the river. Also, I was writing a guidebook about stand up paddling in Montana and was planning to make this one of the book’s featured trips.

I needed to get on the river.

“You can always kneel if you need to,” I finally said, ashamed I was evading Brian’s earnest appeal to reason, but unable to quit on the trip.

A beat-up pickup truck splattered with sticky mud pulled into the campground. Two men got out and started looking at the license plates on the cars parked nearby.

“I think our shuttle drivers are here,” I said.

“Well, that’s that,” Brian responded.

The Upper Missouri River Wild and Scenic Section twists through some of Montana’s most remote and scenic landscapes. Beginning in the historic river town of Fort Benton, the Wild and Scenic designation extends 150 river miles to James Kipp Recreation Area, about 16 air miles from the western edge of Fort Peck Reservoir. Aside from Fort Benton and James Kipp, it’s accessed in two places, Coal Banks and Judith Landing, creating three roughly 50-mile sections, each perfect for a few days of floating.

The stretch from Fort Benton to Coal Banks is generally considered the least scenic, winding through sprawling farm and ranch country and lined by thick cottonwood forests. The middle section, from Coal Banks to Judith Landing, is known as the “White Cliffs” section, so named because of the spectacular white cliffs that tower over the river. The final section cuts through the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and delivers beautiful weather-sculpted badlands that stretch forever into Montana’s Big Sky.

Of course, I wanted to run the entire 150 miles, and based on past multi-day river expeditions, felt that 25 miles a day was a reasonable cadence. I hadn’t considered a headwind. Or rain. Or cold.

My eyes felt like they might never unsquint after paddling hard into the wind-driven rain. Brian had stood on his board for a minute or so, posing for a photograph, but for the two hours we’d been paddling, he had otherwise knelt. We hadn’t spoken much. We hadn’t rested either. If we stopped paddling, even for a moment, the wind pushed us sideways to the current.

Brian was a seasoned outdoor pro (literally: he had managed safari camps in Africa and led wilderness trips in Montana), but he was fairly new to stand up paddling. He had enjoyed a 55-mile overnighter the summer before, but that was in the sunbaked heat of August when falling into the river meant paddling in a wet bathing suit for a few hours. On this trip, we’d packed lightly, each bringing only one set of dry clothes for camp. That meant that falling into the frigid Missouri wasn’t an option, so he knelt.

I was more confident in my skills, but the wind and cold made for some of the hardest flatwater paddling I’d ever done. I stood less than I wanted to, and my hands felt sore after just a couple of hours of gripping the paddle. The gusty wind made grabbing a snack or snapping a photo from the board impossible. The prospect of another six days on the river felt daunting.

When we floated close enough to talk, Brian told me he wanted take out at Judith Landing, 50 miles downriver, and find a way to meet me at the truck, another 50 miles farther. I said we’d see how we felt when we got there in a few days, neither agreeing to his plan, nor rejecting it.

I didn’t want to paddle the last 50 miles alone. The conditions were too dangerous. My plans depended on a partner. Brian’s plan wasn’t bulletproof either. Judith Landing sits in remote country, 45 muddy miles from the small agricultural hamlet of Big Sandy, Montana, and there was no guarantee Brian was going to get a ride to town, never mind all the way to the truck in a few days’ time.

As I wrestled with my guilt for forcing us into a tough situation, a farmhouse appeared downriver, the first we’d seen all day. I noticed some interpretive displays on the bank and called out to Brian.

“Let’s pull over here, scope it out, and maybe ask if we can use the phone to call the shuttle company. If we can get ahold of them, we can get the car dropped at Judith. I’m not paddling alone past there.”

We nervously approached the front door as a lame, old cow dog and spry, wiggling puppy met us in the dirt driveway. Warmth poured out the house when the door opened.

“Yes, you can use the phone. You boys look cold. Come on in.” We smiled awkwardly, mumbled our thanks, excused our mud-covered booties, and shuffled inside. Miraculously, Nicole answered after a couple of rings.

When we put back on the river, things were different. The wind hadn’t relented, the rain hadn’t stopped, and the temperature hadn’t risen, but we had a solid plan and that made all the difference. With enough food to last seven days and the truck now waiting only 50 miles downstream, we knew we could slow down and relax. No one had to contemplate bailing on the trip or heading off solo. No one had to worry about hitchhiking across a hundred miles of remote Montana farmland.

Our big worries drifted off on the current and more traditional, immediate worries, companions on any trip, replaced them—where would we camp tonight, lasagna or chili mac for dinner.

Brian still didn’t stand up. And he still wanted to be done with the trip and off of the river. But he met my optimistic pep talks with his own witty retorts and a wry smile.

The swirling, grey river became less menacing. The cold rain glittered on vibrant spring-green sagebrush. The white cliffs grew more frequent and more majestic. An hour passed, then another. Swallows darted all around us, three feet off the river’s surface. White pelicans flocked in the shallows. We ended the day at a primitive campsite cooking dinner in the tent, dry and warm in our sleeping bags as rain pelted the fly.

The next morning was even colder–38 degrees according to my small thermometer–but the wind had slowed a bit. Up early, we put on the river at 8:30. Our goal: a BLM shelter where we could dry out and hunker down. We pulled over a couple of times to do jumping jacks and sprint up and down the shore, forcing blood into our hands and feet, numbed by the damp cold and laughed at our awkward lurching and stumbling. But without a stiff headwind, we made the 14 miles in about three hours. I left it to Brian to decide if we should push another 14 miles to the next shelter or stay put. We stayed.

Truly relaxing for the first time on the trip, we sipped whisky and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes as our gear dried under the shelter and the rain continued fitfully. By late afternoon, the rain stopped, and we traded our damp but warm PFDs for down puffies and rain jackets and hiked through the spectacular sagebrush landscape accompanied by a constant chorus of songbirds.

Upstream of our campsite, Citadel Rock, a dark upthrust of igneous rock stood resolute and imposing, just yards off the riverbank. Downstream, Hole-In-the-Wall cliff reflected the softening light, its white face changing colors as the evening waned and the clouds parted. We found wood dry enough for a fire and nestled our hydrating meals beneath our layers as they steeped with just-boiled water, unwilling to let any heat source go to waste. Swallows flew through the air like fighter pilots, gulping spring bugs. Canada geese honked in the distance. Redwing blackbirds flitted among the thin willows. It was stunningly beautiful.

Before we went to sleep, I pulled up the screenshot I’d grabbed of the weather forecast. Tomorrow promised cold sunshine…and a lot of wind.

We put on the river in golden morning light, but the wind was already lashing the Missouri into a white-capped frenzy. The bright sun buoyed our spirits but offered no real warmth. Resting wasn’t an option. At each bend, the gusts grew even more intense. We battled back and forth across the wide river, braving the wind-whipped waves and the threat of a capsize, to avoid the worst of it. At one point, we resorted to walking the boards along the shore to make downstream progress.

Despite the conditions, we made solid, if slow, progress and reached our campsite by mid-afternoon. We were only 12 miles from the final take out but decided to rest our overworked arms and stay put for the night. I spent the afternoon hiking through the sage-covered hills behind the campsite, snapping photos, and relishing the chance to move my legs and explore this unspoiled country.

I realized that if the weather had cooperated and we had stuck to my original plan, we would have seen the entire Wild and Scenic Section, but we wouldn’t have experienced it in the same way. The weather forced us to slow down and slowing down allowed us to see more closely, to listen, and to reflect. Instead of being frustrated with our shortened itinerary and with the difficult conditions, I felt grateful.

Over dinner, Brian shared funny stories of his time in Africa and India – the time he camped on a volcano and woke up to lava pouring down the hillside. The campfire crackled and hissed while the sun slowly dropped behind the horizon, casting the high thin clouds in a changing palette of orange, purple, and yellow. When twilight finally gave way to night, I crawled into the tent. Brian was already asleep.

The final 12 miles didn’t give up easily. The headwind we had been battling for days remained our constant foe. But our rhythm was set: paddle for an hour or so, clamor off the boards to stretch stiff legs and aching knees, eat a snack, repeat. When we finally clawed our way to the takeout, we’d been on the water for about three hours. Brian once again offered to meet me a few days later, 50 miles downstream, and I considered it. For a moment.

When the truck finally rolled off of the muddy dirt road and onto pavement, 45 minutes from the takeout, Brian said: “Well, that didn’t kill us.”

We both responded at the same time:
Me: “Not even close.”
Brian: “Almost.”

Then we laughed. Home was just a few hour’s drive away.