Elpel portage

“I went with the p[arty] for the remainder of the baggage. we got all and was returning. Saw a black cloud rise in the west which we looked for emediate rain we made all haste possable but had not got half way when the Shower met us and our hind extletree broke in too we were obledged to leave the load Standing and ran in great confusion to Camp the hail being So large and the wind So high and violent in the plains, and we being naked we were much bruuzed by the large hail. Some nearly killed one knocked down three times, and others without hats or any thing about their heads bleading and complained verry much.”

—Sargeant John Ordway, June 29, 1805

Portaging around the Great Falls of the Missouri required eleven days of brutal work for the thirty-one men of the Corps of Discovery in 1805. Following their route in reverse, we did the portage in a day, accomplished as easily as making a phone call.

Lewis and Clark learned of the Great Falls through talks with the Mandan Indians over the winter of 1804-1805 in present-day North Dakota. They were told to expect a half-day portage around the falls, advice from people who traveled the area on horseback, rather than boat.

Instead of a single waterfall, the explorers found five cascades spread out over 10 miles. The Corps improvised wooden wheels and axels of cottonwood to convert their heavy dugout canoes into wagons, which they pushed and pulled over steep hills along the river. When they weren’t suffering from mosquitoes on the river, they suffered from searing hot weather, crazy storms and prickly pear cactus spines in their moccasins. The work was so intense that the men were prone to falling asleep standing up when they paused. As if that wasn’t enough, they were hit by golfball-sized hail that caused serious injuries.

Their larger wooden pirogues were too big to portage, and thus hidden below the falls. The crew attempted to assemble Lewis’s lightweight iron frame boat, but failed for lack of pitch to seal the seams. They ultimately carved two more dugout canoes, consuming a total of 31 days at the Great Falls before proceeding up river.

Nowadays there are 15 dams on the Missouri River, including five dams at Great Falls. As in 1805, it is still necessary to portage around the entire Great Falls complex in one move, but fortunately, the portage is much easier. Canoeists can call a shuttle service to portage canoes, gear and people downstream beyond the dams.

Belladonna Beaver, however, is no lightweight canoe. At more than 500 lbs, she requires a boat trailer and truck to tow her around. In the serendipitous ways of the Universe, I was gifted an older dugout canoe as a museum piece for our Outdoor Wilderness Living School LLC kids programs. I bought the custom-built dugout canoe trailer that came with it, complete with rollers and a winch to reel the canoe in place. There are not many dugout canoe trailers in the world, but I became the owner of one just a few months before we started carving Belladonna.

Migrating a trailer down the river might sound like a logistical nightmare, but so far so good. Family members helped us portage the first four dams and parked the trailer in Great Falls. My friend Jeff will pick it up there in a few weeks and tow it out to meet us for the portage around Fort Peck Dam. I didn’t do much actual planning; it just fell together as each person indicated when they wanted to visit. We’ll still need to find drivers to move the trailer from dam to dam and all the way to St. Louis, where I will rent a truck to tow the canoe and trailer home.

A few days before Great Falls we hit a short, but intense rainstorm. That same storm dropped baseball-sized hail farther north in Valier that totaled vehicles, broke house windows, and heavily damaged siding and roof shingles. Fortunately, we missed that part of the Lewis and Clark experience, paddling instead through heavy rain that ended moments before we reached the shelter of a bridge.

On portage day, we started early and paddled 10 miles from our campsite to Broadwater Bay in town, then called Montana River Outfitters to bring the trailer. They outsourced the job to Jim and Phyllis, who gave us the royal treatment in town. They delivered Belladonna Beaver and me to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center for the afternoon, where I talked with visitors and a large class of children about the canoe and our expedition. Meanwhile, Jim and Phyllis drove the crew around to get lunch, view the falls, and visit a sporting goods store. Everyone had an opportunity to tour the Interpretive Center before we hitched up again and headed out of town.

Afternoon storms raged through while we were in the museum and again later while driving down the highway to Carter’s Ferry, tapering off before our launch. We unloaded, repacked our gear, and paddled down the river looking for a campsite. Another rain squall forced us to be less choosy. We set up tents in the rain and hunkered down for the night. While the landscape above Great Falls was prairie country, the river below is badlands with steep, eroding cliff faces. This is some beautiful country, and we are glad to be here.

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Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the author of seven books, including Botany in a Day, Participating in Nature, and Foraging the Mountain West. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery, Tom’s books, and the expedition fundraiser for a new public campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.


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