Central Montana’s Missouri River Playground

Canoeing and kayaking the Missouri River near Fort Benton

Last week I enjoyed two vastly different sections of the Missouri River, one in a canoe, the other in a raft.

I first strapped on my river shoes to slide a canoe into the water on the southwestern edge of Fort Benton. Mid September usually means low water and this year was no exception. The Bureau of Land Management has a convenient launch site but I’ll just say, we did not resemble eels gently slithering into the water.

Missouri River Outfitters provided our canoes and kayak, along with advice to paddle upstream first to go around a sand bar. We didn’t paddle upstream very far but my canoe was naturally trying to go downstream with the river flow, and we were trying to do the opposite. I had visions of Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery doing their westward trek all upstream.

After our two canoes and one kayak had gone around the sandbar and began going with the flow, it was an easy jaunt. The average current in this area is 3 1/2 miles per hour and with low water it was probably going slower than that.

Canoeing past the historic Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton

This short one mile paddle basically parallels Fort Benton’s Front Street and steamboat levee. As I was paddling I saw several people on the paved walking trail bordering the river, cars on the other side of the levee and a few residences. We also paddled right by the historic Grand Union Hotel where we would spend the night, and under a vehicle bridge and a restored pedestrian bridge. Our takeout was across the street from the re-created old fort that established the settlement now known as Fort Benton.

Another couple was using the takeout at the same time we were and they had launched upstream near Carter, about 14 river miles. They asked how far we had paddled and I said, with a tinge of embarrassment, that we had just done one mile. Well, it was a great mile and it was a perfect chance to see millions of years of sediment on the river bluffs, everything from glacial deposits to volcanic ash, cottonwood trees, wildlife and a slow meandering portion of the Missouri after it has tumbled over five waterfalls upstream near Great Falls.

Fast forward two days later and I was climbing into a raft about 90 miles upstream in an area we refer to as Wolf Creek Canyon. Montana River Outfitters provided the raft and their most experienced guide to give us a glimpse of what seemed like a completely different river.

Bridge where part of The Untouchables movie was filmed

We launched the raft at MidCanon, one of several fishing access and river access sites in this stretch of the Missouri.

Tall and colorful rocky cliffs and spires contrasted with bright green grass along the river’s edge. We floated by summer homes and year ’round residences in this beautiful stretch of the river.

The Missouri River is flowing through the Big Belt Mountains here (yes, this mountain range looks like an arc or a belt). The Big Belts are a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains and the technical term to describe them is Precambrian mudstones. I’m going to stick with rocky cliffs and spires!

This portion of the Missouri River is also a fisherman’s delight with huge numbers of trout. The river carries a “blue ribbon trout stream” designation which is determined by the number of trout per river mile. We only saw one fishing driftboat on the river but it was mid afternoon when we launched and I suspect that earlier in the morning we would have seen a few more.

Mountain sheep looking down at our raft

Our guide from Montana River Outfitters has spent years on the Missouri River and pointed out unique geography, history, wildlife and even the location for filming the movie “The Untouchables”. We saw deer, a variety of birds including a bald eagle, and mountain sheep. And, our guide worked the oars the entire trip which covered about 12 miles of twisty river.

Some facts to impress your favorite friends – the Missouri River is the longest river in North America. It flows 2,341 miles before it enters into the Mississippi River near St. Louis.

As the Missouri River flows through Central Montana it defies my common sense by first heading due north. Then there is a slow ramble northeast and finally the eastward flow before it leaves Montana.

This recreation paradise known as the Missouri River was once a critical transportation route bringing goods and people to the area. In early days the return trip downstream carried furs from area trappers.

Our raft crew near MidCanon launch on the Missouri River

This last week the Missouri River felt like my personal playground. Summer traffic on the river was over and we felt like we had this scenic river all to ourselves.

I don’t have a preference for canoes, kayaks or rafts. All rank in my “favorites” and there is nothing like floating down a beautiful waterway with Montana’s big blue sky overhead.

I’m ready to get back on the Missouri River again!

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