Best practice for Missouri River Canoe tripping.

Written by : Kelly Engen
Kelly has been guiding on the Upper Missouri River for over 7 years and has guided over 50 trips. Being a avid canoer and experiencing the unique challenges of the Missouri River, Kelly shares why boater etiquette is so important and reminds boaters things to consider when they are in the Breaks.

Missouri River Guides: tips and tricks

I first stepped into a canoe not far from the Missouri River Breaks, at the K-M Boy Scout Ranch in the North Mocassin Mountains, near Lewistown, MT. After this step into the old, unwieldy, freighter of an aluminum canoe and a few zig-zagging paddle strokes, my paddle partner and I were far less interested in the finer points of paddling. for instance, “should a thumb point up or down after finishing the “J” portion of the lake ‘J’ stroke?” or “would an otter tail have a better blade shape for this type of paddling?” We were convinced that the canoe was there to be sunk. Furthermore, we worked into the sunset swamping a boat determined to stay topside. Aluminum canoes do sink, and I eventually earned the canoeing merit badge. However, I don’t recall paddling “grace” being a requirement for merit badge fulfillment. 

Fast forward to my canoe guiding days on the Pacific Ocean in SE Alaska working with at-risk youth. During staff training I had severe Canadian instructors who ruthlessly assessed my ability to perform sideslips, crossbow draws, standing draws, reverse paddling, and whether I knew if a thumb should point up or down after finishing the “J” portion of the lake “J.” Lost were the halcyon days of considering canoeing a casual affair. I began to understand it as similar to the other graceful activities many people might hold in high esteem, namely- fly fishing, telemark skiing, and any type of dancing that requires coordination. I began to see art in movement and developed an appreciation for something that I thought was reserved for a bygone era. 

Best practice: #1 Respect

Similarly, I learned respect for my canoe, campsite, and others. These severe Canadian paddling instructors did show some heart, and encouraged us to treat the bottom of the boat the same way we might treat our grandmother’s faces: ideally, unscarred. This is positively critical for boats, which may I remind you are designed for floating on water.

Kevlar and fiberglass canoes are modern marvels. They are far too thin to handle repeated land bashings, and plastic boats will eventually look like the eraser nub of a #2 pencil after enough concrete and rock encounters (aluminum canoes should be reserved for getting swamped at Boy Scout camps). If you see an odd green smear at a popular takeout, that’s part of the boat left behind! Fully loading a canoe on a concrete ramp, then push grinding it out into the water is a great way to look like a boating bumpkin, get some cringing looks, and scare away any wildlife in a quarter mile vicinity. An easy rule to follow: pay attention to boat noise- grinding noises are bad! 

Likewise, there’s an art to crawling over a loaded boat, and it is not in the wheelhouse of most. If you don’t know a thwart from a yoke, consider not clambering over the top of the boat. Popping a thwart is neither fun for you in the field nor for the repair shop back home.

Best Practice: #2 Leaving it better

While we are not the Boy Scouts, we do take on their ideal of leaving campsites better than when arrived. Everyone loves finding river booty, an undiscovered six-pack floating in the cool water will lighten up a day of fighting 20 mph headwinds. Similarly, no one wants to arrive at a fire ring full of unburned tp, tin foil, and last night’s beer cans. It’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss the things that people leave behind in full detail. However, do your part to snatch up microtrash and other things that don’t belong. We once had a guest that adorned his boat with an old tire! (cue cheering and applause)

Best Practice: #3 Talk to other groups

Perhaps the trickiest part of Missouri River tripping is sharing space. There’s a fair chance you’ll see guides buzzing between campsites at popular sites. MRO loves good communication and we’re likely getting a sense of where people are planning to stay and how long people are out for. The monument is an enormous expanse of land and there’s lots of space to make it feel “your own,” However, rolling up to a site late in the day exhausted with a laundry list of demands of your would-be neighbors is poor etiquette, and downright irresponsible. Planning in real time means coordinating with other users to optimize shared space. The Missouri River Breaks is first come, first serve; so be prepared with a plan b for the night. Furthermore, be ready for the possibility that you’ll have to paddle on for a few more miles.

Also important regarding good communication with others is getting a sense of what the take out ramp (most popularly the Judith Landing ramp) is going to look like. Coordinating with groups, especially big groups, is critical to having a hazard free and efficient unloading experience. There’s only one ramp at each take out and they are not very big. They are host to canoes or motor boats getting on or off the water. You probably have somewhere else to be, but having patience is critical when offloading. Encouraging conflict will only slow down the process.

Best Practice: #4 Take pictures not things

 The brilliance of beauty in the Breaks is in part due to the balance between the two dominant rocks: soft, delicate, white sandstone and hard, dark shonkinite. These two stones are the yin and yang of the Breaks and are constantly evolving and changing the landscape. Between seasons, I have observed significant, multi-ton sandstone blocks “calving” off the white cliffs that have altered hiking paths and the visual appearance of the area. This sandstone is buttery soft and wears on a human time scale. It’s living geology and best left to Mother Nature to make the aesthetic decisions.

Hole-in-the-Wall has turned into a graffiti wall of initials and dates old and new. Other, better surveilled parks throw out huge fines and jail time for such misdeeds. It’s the honor system in the Breaks, and adding your initials is not an improvement. Similarly, hoodoos are fragile beings and will topple easily. It’s most likely the case that the eye of the needle fell due to natural causes, not tipsy local high school boys as the folklore goes. However, it’s a good reminder to be mindful of the fragility of the area. All this constant changing of the landscape whittles away the dirt and stone to reveal bison skulls, fresh concretions, and other charms and treasures. That chunk of petrified wood would look good on your mantle, but please give the thousands of people who will pass through an opportunity to appreciate it too. Snap a picture, sometimes that looks better anyway!

Best Practice: #5 Leave it alone

Being mindful of the environment on the Missouri Breaks means respecting wildlife, respecting the river, and respecting the landscape. Rattlesnakes are one of the biggest hazards in the Breaks. Leave them alone. We are firm believers in there being a high correlation between the unofficial state motto “hold my beer and watch this” and snake bites. These venomous creatures are a trip ender, though you’re not likely going to die from a mishap. They are permanently ornery and oftentimes “stand” their ground, forcing you to work around them. It’s good advice to carry a paddle or stick when getting into brush.

The other wildlife hazards are varied; there are raccoons that will clumsily open your cooler and brazenly eat your dessert while making full eye contact, horseflies that will take a souvenir out of you, and occasionally a wasp will get lost in a ½ full beer can. It’s real nature in the Breaks, and for better or worse you will be immersed in it; still it’s best to learn how to build good boundaries with the locals.

Best Practice: #6 Pay attention

The Missouri River most frequently has the appearance of chocolate milk (I still don’t understand how fish get around in there.) A big rainstorm will bring out an almost reddish hue. Yet even in a drought, you’ll have to get upstream to around Craig, MT and rub elbows with fly fishers and banana boats to achieve river clarity. The Missouri River of the Breaks is a calm, relatively hazard free, free-flowing stretch between a concentration of the five dams of the Great Falls and the massive Fort Peck Reservoir. The current varies between 2-6 mph. It all depends on where you are in the summer, and how good the skiing was the winter before. If you’re a river victim it’s most likely that two things happened: you drank too much beer and you neglected to put on your PFD.

Sober boat flips are rare. However, high winds will bring a sense of doom to your paddle experience. There are also those paddlers that seem to have a gift for paddling upstream, sideways, and into things. One of my favorite guests had advanced degrees from Oxford, Yale, and Harvard; but was quick to admit he couldn’t back his car out of the driveway. All this is to say, it’s a mellow river, but not fool-proof. You can float and fish your way down for the most part, but you might have to actually paddle (and paddle hard) when the going gets tough. Furthermore, all you rafters out there might begin reconsidering your choice of watercraft on the Missouri. Soon you will find your boat takes on all the appeal and appearance of an upstream sending sailboat when the wind turns against you.

Best Practice: #7 Fire restrictions

Lastly, be aware of fire restrictions. Fire is a real danger in the grassy, desert-like environment of the Breaks. Grab a chair and head to the river, that cigar might smoke best with a glass of scotch while dipping your legs in the water. Iron rings are usually fine to have a fire in, but we seem to be reaching stage II restrictions (no fires) earlier and more frequently. Also, wildfires bring out the best sunsets, but make for somewhat choked up skies during the day. Be mindful of the air quality and make necessary preparations for people who might have lungs that aren’t as strong as they used to be.

The Missouri Breaks is one of the treasures of the continent, but experiences will vary. The weather turns on a dime and the river can either feel like it’s all yours, or you may have to encourage your sharing nature. Ultimately, patience and the golden rule are a good starting point for working with others. No one will be there to judge your lake “J’s,” but it is your responsibility to ensure that others can enjoy the space too, whether that be with you or long after you’ve made it home!

And don’t forget a roll of tp and plenty of wag bags! Nature calls, whether the bathroom is stocked up or there’s no bathroom at all.