“This evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts we have yet seen. These clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the height of [about] 1200 feet. every object here wears a dark and gloomy aspect. the tow[er]ing and projecting rocks in many places seem ready to tumble on us. the river seems to have forced it’s way through this immence body of solid rock for the distance of 5 3/4 miles and where it makes it’s exit below has thrown on either side vast collumns of rock mountains high. the river appears to have woarn a passage just the width of it’s channel or 150 yards... from the singular appeaerance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.”
—Meriwether Lewis, July 19, 1805
The Gates of the Mountains are celebrated among the most iconic, scenic highlights of the Missouri River, yet Meriwether Lewis mysteriously found them “dark and gloomy.” I pondered his words as our expedition of rediscovery paddled into the canyon. Lewis previously gave high praise to the White Cliffs. What triggered his disdain for the Gates? Was it due to practical concerns or was it a reflection of his propensity for melancholy?
I imagined the Corps of Discovery working upstream against the current in the twilight hours more than a year into their ascent of the Missouri River since they left St. Louis. Their recent portage around the Great Falls turned into three weeks of unimaginably brutal labor. Above the falls, the Corps assembled Lewis’s custom-designed iron frame boat and consumed precious time covering it with skins, but lacked any pitch to seal the seams. It was a spectacular failure. On the heels of these setbacks, the Gates must have seemed ominous indeed.
Unlike the White Cliffs area, where the river was slow and the banks wide, the narrow Gates made it impossible to walk the shoreline with ropes to drag heavy dugout canoes upstream. Nor could the men use poles to push themselves forward against the bottom. Their only recourse being to paddle furiously against the swift current, consuming precious energy to merely avoid floating backwards.
Add to that the unknown, the uncertainty of what lay around the next bend. By any reasonable expectation, the river should have been filled with great boulders that sloughed off the canyon walls to create impassible rapids or yet more waterfalls. With the expedition ascending the canyon in the twilight hours and no place to halt and camp, it is easy to imagine the towering cliffs, shadowy holes, and streaked rock faces as dark and gloomy.
The Gates were quite the opposite for our little expedition. We were feeling worn and beaten after the arduous paddle across the artificial lakes at Canyon Ferry and Hauser dams. My personal gear was in disarray and not wholly dry after twice swamping the dugout canoe with waves on the shores of Canyon Ferry. My Uncle Joe and Aunt Diane graciously assisted us with the portages around each dam, delivering us exhausted yet renewed to the Gates of the Mountains. We camped at the mouth of the canyon, drinking in the beauty of the landscape.
My sister Jeanne joined us the following day. We shuffled gear and seating arrangements to bring her onboard and marveled at the fantastic cliffs and bonsai juniper and ponderosa pine trees growing from the rocks.
Funny how the rugged, wild landscape Lewis disdained is now what we treasure. Seven generations after his passing, we have carved up nearly every arable piece of land for roads and farms and cities, leaving only the most inhospitable scraps of wilderness in their pristine state. So precious is this wasteland of rocky cliffs that tour boats ply the river daily as tourists throng to see a remnant of the untouched world.
Yet, the swift river Lewis ascended is no more. Holter Dam backs water up fourteen feet deep through the canyon, and motor boats speed back and forth covering in minutes what takes us two days of paddling. For them, nature can be consumed for lunch with ample time to return home for dinner and a sitcom.
Our expedition encamped at Coulter Campground for two nights, named for John Coulter (or Colter) of the Expedition. It was a wholly appropriate place to read a passage from Stephen Gough’s book Colter’s Run, a work of historical fiction based on Colter’s life.
Our layover day provided the opportunity to hike the trails, to study new flowers together, and to learn new birds. Chipping sparrows and western tanagers accompanied us on our walk. Bald eagles were everywhere along the water.
Like Lewis and Clark, we have dined well. We were largely prepared to live off dry goods this trip, yet have daily enjoyed everything from bison burger and bison heart to elk meatloaf and batter-fried carp fillets, trout and walleye caught by Scott, plus cheeseburgers and fried chicken gifted to us at portage points, and pasties and cookies delivered to camp by friends and well-wishers. Here we savored Canada goose gifted to us frozen a few days prior by a fellow paddler who also once paddled the entire Missouri. With rhubarb imported from my mother’s garden, I baked a pie for dessert. Life is good for the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.
Continuing our journey, the Gates of the Mountains have become our Gates of the Prairie as we follow the route of Lewis and Clark in reverse. Paddling the length of Holter Lake through the winding canyon, cliff walls gradually transition into grassy hills. The skyline remains dominated by rugged hills, but no longer the snow-capped mountains of home.
Ponderosa pines, absent in the upper reaches of the Missouri, now dot the hills where soil moisture permits, creating open, grassy forests. This is the same species that grows to immense height and girth in wetter climates, and from which Lewis and Clark carved canoes in present-day Idaho for the descent of the Columbia. These prairie ponderosas are comparative dwarfs and bound to get smaller the farther we travel into prairie country.
John found the remains of an elk apparently killed by a mountain lion in the Beartooth Wildlife Management Area, now abandoned to a scavenging bear that turned tail and disappeared upon approach.
We were blessed with a tailwind to deploy the sails for the final stretch of Holter Lake. My mother met us with the truck and trailer to portage the dam, and Jeanne relinquished her seat in the canoe. Another camp, another night, and the adventure continues, now back to free-flowing river.