Location: In Montana, between Fort Benton and the confluence of the Missouri River with the Judith River
One of the best Lewis & Clark adventures we have ever had was a boat trip through the White Cliffs, a spectacular stretch of the Wild & Scenic Missouri River in Central Montana. This area is still very remote and pristine, and just getting the arrangements made and getting outselves out there was a blast in itself!
From Fort Benton, we trekked to Virgelle, a tiny ghost town eight miles off Highway 87 down a gravel road. Here a wonderful guy named Don Sorenson operates a bed and breakfast in an old general store that operated from 1912 to 1970. He has relocated a number of old homesteader cabins on the property that are also available for rent, and everything is crammed with cool antiques that you can buy. Besides the Merc and the cabins, the only buildings remaining in Virgelle are the grain elevator and the old bank building, where Don lives. The business caters to people like us who are going to canoe or float the Wild & Scenic Missouri.
On the inside, the Virgelle Merc is beautiful and homey, like a trip back in time to grandma’s house. Don greeted us like long-lost friends and generously made up a plate of cheese and crackers, salami, apples, and great lentil salad for us when he found out we hadn’t had any dinner. We had a great time relaxing and looking at everything. In our room, everything was cute and cozy and “just so.” Before turning in, we had the opportunity to meet Roni, a very vivacious lady from New Jersey who was our traveling companion for the next day.
The next morning, we awoke at the Virgelle Merc to a cool, crisp, beautiful day. The breakfast that Don served was amazing: a big poofy baked French toast with bananas and cream cheese, homemade whole hog sausage, and fresh fruit. Yum!
Don loaded us up in his van and took us to the Virgelle Ferry landing on the Missouri River, where we met Bill, our river guide for the day and the proprietor of the Missouri Breaks River Company. Bill is a rugged and straightforward man who appears to be in his 50s. He turned out to be extremely knowledgable about the geography, plants, animals, history, and politics of this region, and very easy to talk with over a long day trip together. Bill uses a small inland jet boat to cruise the White Cliffs and Missouri Breaks section of the Missouri. This trip was perfect for people like us and Roni, who want very much to see the region but perhaps don’t have the time or the physical conditioning for a multi-day canoe trip.
A big Labrador black dog at the ferry landing, reminiscent of Seaman, saw us off. As we entered the national monument, we learned how the cliffs were formed geologically and how Lewis & Clark and their weary men must have found them to be a delightful novelty after traveling for days through the scrubby mud hills of the Montana badlands. As a national monument, this section of the river is governed by strict rules about its use, such as traveling at “no-wake” speed. We slowly putted down river (the opposite direction from how Lewis & Clark saw it) and enjoyed a clear, bright, and beautiful day.
I’d write my own description of the White Cliffs, but it’s impossible to better what Meriwether Lewis wrote in 1805:
The hills and river Clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance. The bluffs of the river rise to the hight of from 2 to 300 feet and in most places nearly perpendicular; they are formed of remarkable white sandstone which is sufficiently soft to give way readily to the impression of water; two or thre thin horizontal stratas of white free-stone, on which the rains or water make no impression, lie imbeded in these clifts of soft stone near the upper part of them; the earth on the top of these Clifts is a dark rich loam, which forming a graduly ascending plain extends back from ½ a mile to a mile where the hills commence and rise abruptly to a hight of about 300 feet more.
The water in the course of time in decending from those hills and plains on either side of the river has trickled down the soft sand clifts and woarn it into a thousand grotesque figures, which with the help of a little immagination and an oblique view at a disance, are made to represent eligant ranges of lofty freestone buildings, having their parapets well stocked with statuary; collumns of various sculpture both grooved and plain, are also seen supporting long galleries in front of those buildings; in other places on a much nearer approach and with the help of less immagination we see the remains or ruins of eligant buildings; some collumns standing and almost entire with their pedestals and capitals; others retaining their pedestals but deprived by time or accident of their capitals, some lying prostrate an broken othes in the form of vast pyramids of connic structure bearing a sereis of other pyramids on their tops becoming less as they ascend and finally terminating in a sharp point. nitches and alcoves of various forms and sizes are seen at different hights as we pass. a number of the small martin which build their nests with clay in a globular form attatched to the wall within those nitches, and which were seen hovering about the tops of the <broken> collumns did not the less remind us of some of those large stone buildings in the U’ States. the thin stratas of hard freestone intermixed with the soft sandstone seems to have aided the water in forming this curious scenery.
As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end; for here it is too that nature presents to the view of the traveler vast ranges of walls of tolerable workmanship, so perfect indeed are those walls that I should have thought that nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she had first began her work.
It was amazing as we made our way slowly through this remarkable treasure, just us, Bill, and Roni. Aside from a couple of rangers at a pit stop and a handful of canoeists, we had the river to ourselves all day with just cows and cliff swallows for companions.
Most of the day we floated, looked, and talked (and ate a yummy lunch that was packed by Don). We stopped at Eagle Creek, a Lewis & Clark campsite, and took a short hike to the creek (fragrant fresh sage here). Another stop was at Hole in the Wall, a famous rock formation that forms an “eye of the needle.” Bill and Roni hiked to the top, but since Mary had hurt ankles, we skipped the hot and grueling climb and just loafed around the boat. It was so quiet and peaceful that you could hear the beating of birds’ wings as they flew overhead. We also had a cool and soothing swim in the mossy Missouri at the Lewis & Clark campsite called Slaughter River, and found some big river mussels that looked like giant clams.
Lest it all sound too Edenic, let me state that this river is also host to the meanest biting flies I’ve ever encountered! These hornflies loved me and could only be deterred temporarily by frequent applications of a thick coat of Deep Woods Off or Cutters. Next time I’m in this area I’m going to wear lightweight pants instead of shorts.
After about 9 hours on the river, we pulled in to Judith Landing (a spot named for Julia Hancock, who as Mrs. William Clark is one of the main characters in our book To the Ends of the Earth). Jimmy Griffin, Don’s partner at the Merc, was there with Bill’s truck, and they hooked up the boat for our trek back over miles of gravel roads. It was interesting to see the ghostly remains of abandoned homesteads and an old one-room schoolhouse. We also saw an antelope and a fox! Smoke slowly moved into the area as we traveled and cast an eerie haze over the scene.
With all the dust, the sun was quick to wane. I was a little anxious by the time we got back to Virgelle, because we still had to drive back to Fort Benton, and I didn’t want to be caught out on those gravel roads after dark! Fortunately, we made it off the gravel before sunset. We arrived at Fort Benton and the Grand Union Hotel (built 1882, restored 1999) about 8:30.
We had an interesting and fun dinner with Roni at the hotel’s excellent restaurant. I had a delicious white fish and Mary had duck breast. This place has great desserts!
Toppled into bed, exhausted but deeply pleased. A great day seeing a world-class natural wonder that is still almost unknown and untouched.