Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery From Three Forks, Montana to St. Louis, Missouri Five months / 2,341 miles
A journey of two thousand miles began with a great big log. Ours was a 10,000-lb. Douglas fir log hauled to camp from a local sawmill. The wood was hard, brittle, and full of knots. It took us three months to whittle the log down to a 500+ lb. canoe. Enlisting four friends and former students from my wilderness survival programs, I then led a five-month "Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery" expedition to paddle the 2,341-mile river from Three Forks, Montana to St. Louis, Missouri.
I was privileged to craft the canoe with Churchill Clark, the great-great-great-great grandson of Captain William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Following in William's footsteps, Churchill travels America "carving canoes and paddling trees." He oversaw work on the dugout canoe to design a boat that was both artistic and functional. Seeing the image of a beaver face in the bow, he sculpted it into the design, carving a corresponding tail in the stern. The resulting twenty-foot canoe was both a beauty and a beast, which I named Belladonna Beaver. We tested the canoe on a weeklong journey down the Marias River, then began preparations for the great Missouri expedition.
President Thomas Jefferson tasked Meriwether Lewis with more than following the Missouri River to its source in search of a potential water route to the Pacific. Jefferson commanded Lewis to study the geography and geology of the route, to note any useful resources, and to document the plants, animals, and fossils encountered along the way.
Herein is the enduring appeal of the Corps of Discovery. Rather than blindly race to the end, they engaged in a scientific journey of discovery, collecting samples and journaling about their observations.
In a similar vein as Lewis and Clark, our "rediscovery" of the Missouri River was more about exploring the river than merely paddling to the end. The water served as a highway to access an undiscovered country. Every campsite offered a new opportunity to hike and explore, identify new plants, forage for wild foods, hunt carp with bows and arrows, learn new birds, and seek to better understand bird language. The end goal of paddling to St. Louis provided a convenient excuse to spend five months camping, hiking, and exploring, slowly changing scenery as we migrated downstream.