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November 19, 2020

Missouri Breaks 1

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joe Brehm @ 3:01 am

June 24th. Junip and I are driving West to meet BJ in the shortgrass prairie of Central Montana to float the Missouri River for, quite possibly, 109 miles. He has graciously invited us to float through this remote section of shortgrass prairie and the Missouri Breaks country. 

We start our journey at her parents’ in flat Northwest Ohio, where Mabel the dog will nip at other buttocks until we return. Driving over the ditches that drained the Great Black Swamp, I gaze mournfully at the fields of corn. An immense swamp was here for a long time, though I know little about it. I can only guess that it was more rich and sacred than a pathetic field of doctored corn. The fields of corn and soybeans are bordered, in spite of best efforts, by thick green young forest. It makes me shutter, though I cannot entirely say why. 

Juniper’s dad has his acre planted with an amazing variety of trees, shrubs, and sunflowers. Just like J, he has scatter-planted various squashes and no longer remembers which type is where. We’ll all find out soon enough. Maybe late in the summer, two neighbors will again wander nonchalantly to the edge of their respective properties to check forbidden crops, waving at each other subtly in the low light of summer dusk. 

June 25th. We drove across half the country today, finally laying down at a city campground in Fargo, ND, and J is none too pleased to be sleeping close to the highway. It’s humid and quite warm, though palatable for two road-weary bodies and our wild souls. The human-made additions and subtractions from Toledo to Minneapolis do not make any sense whatsoever. The giant power lines (should be buried or power sourced locally), hundreds of big ugly billboards advertising worthless crap and injury shark attorneys, giant water parks (just go play in a creek), and thousands of square miles of only two species–corn and soybeans–gives the impression that there was no plan to this modern mess. There is hardly a trace of the prairie laid down upon the Great Plains; where there were indigenous people, bison, and a sea of tall grass is now a big sales pitch. 

You can see far enough across the plains to visualize the history: the U.S. government breaks treaties and steals land from people living in accordance with the laws of nature
, gives the land to settlers, all but destroys the bison (by far the most suited creature to occupy these lands), and the settlers replace the rotted bison with stupid cows who depend on people to grow inferior grasses for them. Now huge tractors farm genetically modified corn and soybeans using fuel that took the earth millions of years to create, just to trade huge quantities to other countries for things we probably don’t need. 

In contrast, I am ecstatic to see so many “prairie potholes” filled with ducks, great egrets, a flock of white pelicans, osprey, and herons. I’m eager to see these small, shallow ponds, which are critical breeding grounds for many of the duck species I love, including the northern shoveler. The ponds have a way of further dramatizing an already magnificent sky; ducks paddling the water appear to float through big cumulus clouds and the pink skies of sunset. In Minnesota, two river otters lope through an overgrown cornfield, hopping from pond to pond to hidden river. If there are otters here, we can still reverse the madness. I’d like to see bison set loose to stampede the cornfields back into prairie. We can grow our own food, make our own medicine from wild plants, build things out of local materials that belong on the landscape. We can make the land more diverse and resilient again, and make amends with the native peoples to whom the land really belongs. 

Friday, June 26th. After driving through probably 2 million acres of hayfields and hundreds of rolling golden prairie miles (from the Little Missouri National Grasslands westward into Montana), we finally arrive at James Kipp Recreation Area in Central Montana. This bottomland campground is surrounded by endless amber waves, small dark sinuous rivers, stony dry creek beds, and western meadowlarks.  

Little Missouri National Grasslands

We walk down to the river. A house wren has built its nest in an old cliff swallow abode under the bridge, filling the white-gray mottled bowl with twigs. The wren chicks stick their heads out of the nest just like the dozens of young swallows to beg for food from hunting parents. Fish gorge themselves in the seams and eddies on hatching mayflies and salmonflies while swallows swarm the air. The moon is an ivory thumbnail in the cool blue sky. Cottonwood and willow seeds drift in piles like snow. An immense white shape with black wing “sleeves” appears out of the north; the white pelican soars over the river and through the crescent moon
, not changing course.

BJ pulls into the campground just before dark with a big red canoe strapped to his truck. We are tired but start talking right away about this unique landscape and the politics that govern it. BJ also informs us that “there are a handful of Dick Creeks in Montana.” He has always been one of the most hospitable people I’ve ever known, and this trip is no exception. He’s arranged for canoes and taken care of many of the logistics, which would have been a pain in the ass to work on from afar. All we had to do was buy food, pack our gear, and get ourselves to Kipp. 

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