Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Montana man paddles Lewis and Clark's route to St. Louis in dugout canoe

Montana man paddles Lewis and Clark's route to St. Louis in dugout canoe

Thomas Elpel with his dugout canoe

Thomas Elpel's dugout canoe was fashioned from a fir log with a carved beaver on the bow. Shown here is a camp on the Missouri River outside Townsend where he was stopped.

Thomas Elpel’s dugout canoe needed a name.

Through the guidance and steady hands of Churchill Clark, great-great-great grandson of William Clark, Elpel assisted in shaping the trunk of a Douglas fir into an image of the past. As he stood knee deep in the Missouri River near Townsend last week a few days into a 2,300-mile paddle to St. Louis, the author and teacher of wilderness skills reflected on the boat and its journey.

“I was just looking for a canoe but it turned into a piece of art,” he said. “It was Churchill’s inspiration — he saw the knot (on the bow) and saw the eye of a beaver’s face, so he worked that into the design of the canoe. It was so beautiful I called her Belladonna — Belladonna Beaver.”

Elpel lives in Pony, an old mining town in the Tobacco Root Mountains, where he has authored seven books through his HOPS Press, including “Foraging the Mountain West” and “Botany in a Day.” He teaches wilderness survival skills and sustainable living to local students through his Outdoor Wilderness Living School, as well as adult courses through his Green University. Some of his students from the latter make up the six-person crew paddling the Missouri to St. Louis over the next six months.

“The dugout canoe was something I wanted to do for a long time,” Elpel said. “I teach primitive wilderness survival skills, so the appeal of doing something myself instead of just having a plastic canoe, making my own canoe was always a big appeal.”

The crew packed plenty of food for the journey, but foraging and survival skills will be a staple of the adventure. The morning’s menu included batter fried carp taken with a bow and arrow, as well as greens plucked from along the river.

Elpel peels the leaves off a nodding thistle

Elpel peels the leaves off a nodding thistle to reveal its core. The soft, moist center of the plant is edible.

While the journey has clear Lewis and Clark expedition themes, Elpel’s vision for the adventure is less a celebration of the 1800s exploration by the legendary crew and more about experiencing the landscape as those explorers did.

“Paddling to St. Louis is really the secondary goal,” he said. “That’s just the excuse to stay out here for six months camping, hiking, foraging for wild foods.”

A dish of grass stamens Elpel has gathered

A dish of grass stamens Elpel has gathered along his trip. He plans to experiment with traditional uses of the plant part.

Elpel hopes to use the trip as a fundraiser, as well. As president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, he hopes to raise $38,722 — the final cost of the Lewis and Clark expedition — to purchase a public campsite along the Jefferson.

Those interested in donating can visit to learn more.

The canoe itself is a masterful vessel in the water. It handles beautifully, although a bit sluggish in the turns, but it makes up for that in stability, Elpel said.

“It’s just like a big log missile, so the water doesn’t push it around as much,” he joked.

Weighing somewhere between 500 and 1,000 pounds, the heft of the canoe came into play early in the journey. After launching from Missouri Headwaters State Park last week, a locked gate led to an unexpected portage at Toston Dam. The crew winched it from tree to tree until finally getting to a parking lot where a car jack lifted it high enough to load on a trailer.

Elpel digs into his solar-powered

Elpel digs into his solar-powered desk built into the canoe.

Elpel hopes to hone his birding skills and learn more about alarm calls that birds use. Astute listeners may recognize the calls for what is happening beyond the range of sight, he said. And he has 14 pages of GPS points that include camping spots and sites to see along the way.

When it comes to challenges of the journey, Elpel noted that the splendor of early June on the river may be short lived.

“Right now it’s pretty idyllic, and by this time next week the mosquitoes will be out in full force,” he said. “So we’ll get the real Lewis and Clark experience probably for the rest of the trip.”

Elpel holds up a bandana

Elpel holds up a bandana he made for the "Corps of Rediscovery" trip.


Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

State Reporter/Outdoors Reporter

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News