Peregrinate with Purpose My WordPress Blog

November 21, 2020

Missouri Breaks 3

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joe Brehm @ 2:31 am

June 29th. The point of this trip is simply to live, to exist in this place, and to observe. I aspire to live like the swallows: they fly to survive and catch insects but I suspect they are also playing, and do not trouble themselves with the idea of losing. If they die, they become the river and crumbly crags, and big cottonwoods. 

As we float, the river navigates the immense landscape for us. Sometimes we paddle, sometimes we just keep the canoe faced in the right direction. We float with BJ for a while, sometimes we find ourselves on opposite sides of the river, but we always take the same river channels as it braids through islands of all sizes. 

We finally camp at Connie’s Bottom, which has been an enduring joke ever since Missouri River Outfitters told us about this campsite. We imagined asking them dozens of questions about Connie’s Bottom, such as “can you ever hear the wind rushing out of Connie’s Bottom?” Though when we arrive, I have forgotten all about the joke because I’m tired and also because it is gorgeous. A huge sentinel cottonwood looks out over the river bend and bluffs, surrounded by sagebrush. Big cliffs rise a few hundred feet across the river, which sounds like the ocean as it runs over boulders sitting on the river’s edge. It rained most of the day, but we have a reprieve here, watching the misty rain evaporate from the valley. Watching weather move across the land gives one a sense that time is different here. This canyon has borne witness to soft rain, wild lightning, ice dams, and hard wind since time immemorial. The activities of mammals like us are not even a blink in the rock’s’ eye. The days feel full yet we do little but watch the land and take care of our basic needs.

I make a fire using leftover charcoal in the stone fire ring, lightning the freshly charred logs and slowly blowing the coal back to life. Split cottonwood branches we gathered along the way give the fire access to the wood’s dry middle. The place we gathered firewood was a big island full of healthy young willows and old cottonwoods. We took only dead and downed wood. J found the white fragment of a huge bird egg

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, surely either eagle or pelican. These two species’ eggs are very similar in size and appearance, as it were: white, chalky on the outside, and probably three times the size of a chicken egg. As we floated down the firewood island, no fewer than seven beavers slapped tails at us in warning as we floated past their willows. 

June 30th 

Wind blew in last night and cleared the skies. Missouri River Outfitters advised tying up the boats in a storm: “it’s not the rain you need to worry about
, it’s the wind.” I was paranoid about the boats blowing away or being carried downstream if the river swelled up from the rain. I got up out of the tent and walked down in the gusting wind and river dark and tugged the boats further inland. Though the water did rise slightly in the night, the boats would have been fine. 

In the morning we are all happy and relieved to see the brilliant sunlight and clear blue sky after being thoroughly soaked yesterday. The landscape shimmers with soft synchrony; the entire valley is bright, seamless, and wild. Every color is in its place, the scene appears correct. As I often do in such moments, I think of the brilliant Anishinaabe word megwayaak, which has two meanings: to be correct, and to be in the woods. Bright green sagebrush, creamy yucca blossoms, mustard-yellow grass, brown rock, dark slender shadows standing crisply in the cottonwood’s furrows, thin white cumulus, and the soft azure sky. Two coyotes sing loudly, and we jump to attention. Junip and I climb the small hill behind camp and we can see them through binoculars, more than a mile away, heads tilted high as they yip, howl and bark in blue cliff shadows. A raven calls from a huge bluff. BJ digs potato salad out of the cooler with one hand, a book about the Supreme Court in the other (his leisure reading). I fart loudly and he doesn’t flinch. J chases the raven. I search inward for the consistent ferocity of the joyful, singing meadowlark. 

Two fellows from a Hutterite colony 30 miles away fish our stretch of the riverbank. They show us a cooler full of big catfish, still wriggling. They are hoping to catch enough fish to feed the whole colony. Their accent is equal parts Dutch and rural northern Montana, flowing in big waves like a river over large boulders. They head upstream to check their lines and we prepare to shove off into the swift current. A swollen riffle just downstream of our boats further complicates the matter.  BJ wants to talk about how we will get in the water safely and I dismiss him, saying I already have a plan. When Junip and I push him into the current, the canoe’s back end catches on the bank and the boat wobbles. The canoe goes under, filling his boat with water. J dives in immediately, grabs the boat and some of his things. He gasps as he hops out of the boat and into the cold water. For some reason, I hesitate, following the boat and humans and gear downstream a few feet. I see the map floating ahead of all else downstream, so dive into the muddy water and grab it. We assess the damage and almost all of BJ’s clothes are swamped, including the ones he is wearing, though we lost nothing. He keeps saying, “fuuuuck” as he pulls his sopping wet clothes out of the bag. I feel horrible yet helpless to correct this mistake. BJ won’t let me help him shove off for the rest of the trip, responding “nah, I’m good,” when I ask if he wants help. I try to move on from this but have plenty of time to replay the incident, and it becomes obvious I acted hastily and foolishly resisted collaboration.

July 1st . I wake before dawn with a mind to watch the riverbank for wildlife. All week the river bank has been loaded with tracks: bighorn sheep, mule deer, whitetail, elk, two wolves, and a variety of bird tracks. As I stand in the tall grass overlooking the river,, I suddenly have the notion that a mountain lion might have similar intentions. The tall grass would make for great stalking, and a lion would make no sound walking these paths woven by boaters. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but I trust my instinct and seek some shelter. Like my primate ancestors, I climb a nearby tree (cottonwood) and sit on its big horizontal branch, listening to the dawn chorus: common poor-will, least flycatcher,  western wood peewee, cedar waxwing, warbling vireo, yellow warbler, and the meadowlark guru sound off to alert the world: “I am still alive.” If there was a lion lurking, it went undetected. I climb down, slip back into the tent next to a serenely sleeping Juniper, and rest my eyes again. 

I awake again in brilliant sun, birds still singing. Coyotes sing at the old Gist Homestead just north of our camp. We save them one of Junip’s river biscuits. There are no signs of the God-awful (in the awed sense of the term) storm that passed by last evening. It gave us only a sprinkling and some wind loomed large and dark to the east. I could hear distant thunder roaring and what sounded like the sky itself ripping apart miles away. Huge dark mammatus clouds peer down at the land above the electric blue heart of the storm

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, like a mother checking on her sleeping babe. Two ravens perched high on the cliff, looking not at the storm, but at the bright, clean evening light across the land. 

We hike around the old homestead and country beyond while BJ’s clothes finally dry out, much to the relief of my conscience. A small canyon has water and silty gray mud. J and I walk the creek eagerly to look for tracks. Fresh coyote and swift fox tracks travel steadily over the sloppy ground while I slip and slide around trying to stay vertical. Juniper and I hungrily read the tracks of these secretive animals in the silty soil, which registers the footfalls perfectly. BJ takes in the view and wanders ahead, back towards camp. Patches of milkweed hang over the bank with long, sharp pink flowers that grab your attention. A red-belted bumblebee takes pollen along with smaller sweat bees. A juniper hairstreak (butterfly) lands near my nose; its green and orange sparkles blend together in the middle of its wings around lateral lightning marks. 

A breeze picks up and releases millions of cottonwood seeds

, lofty diamonds drifting northeast. Back in camp, I wash J’s hair and mine with wild yucca root soap, something I had been looking forward to doing here. I harvested one small root two days ago and sliced it into thin rounds. Shaken up in one of our gallon water jugs, it lathers up nicely, turning my ratty river hair reasonably smooth. 

* * *

I stand on a fallen cottonwood six feet in girth
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, the biggest one I’ve ever seen. Cows have ruined the nearby bank (I wonder if bison would do the same?). 

Thunder claps and the wind picks up. We are almost, we think, to where we plan to camp for the night. We gaze at the shore intently for clues that this is it. A gopher snake appears in the water and swims towards our canoe, blunt nose at the conclusion of its lifted head. It floats completely on the muddy water as it swims; I had mistaken it for a drifting cattail or willow branch but it comes to life and J gasps. Startled, we steer around it and back towards shore to find our camp. Two guys who passed us in kayaks on the river this afternoon are settling into the area closest to the boats. We haul our gear past them as the rain falls and wind picks up further. BJ sets up his tent and J and I work on a small tarp shelter, which the wind quickly turns into a sail flapping violently. We get it tied down but never use it. The storm passes, headed elsewhere across the plains with life giving rain and lightning. 

I try to avoid the two kayakers. After only getting a few quick looks at them

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, I somehow know what their first question will be to us. Sure enough, as we are unloading one of them comes down to pretend to check on his boat and asks, “where did you start?” without so much as a “hello” or “how ya doin, fellow travelers?” No, this guy was all business, probably trying to do the whole stretch of river as fast as he could. I had anticipated this question and had a premeditated answer that I worked hard to suppress. Instead of responding, “your mama’s bedroom,” I answered flatly, “Coal Banks.” 

“Oh, then you must be on, what, day two or three?” 

“I dunno, maybe day four?” I answer, trying to hide my annoyance more out of principle than for any concern of his opinion of me. He leaves. Later, I can’t help but bring it up: “I mean, after all those miles out here, that’s the only fucking thing he can think to ask about?!” They calm me down quickly, but I am still disappointed in this fellow for being such a typical superficial white outdoor recreationist. I mean, I’m making a lot of assumptions here, but you can also learn a lot about people very quickly. An acceptable first question, in my current mood, would be , “did you guys see that we passed the place where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce were trying to escape persecution not all that goddamned long ago?  What can we do to make sure something that awful never happens to fellow human beings ever again?” I even would have been amenable to

, “what’s your bird list like?” We don’t see him or his companions again, except when they walk by to take a dump i the vault toilet.

Bobcat tracks cross the dirt road down to Lower Woodhawk, where I now sit by a cottonwood fire. Juniper and I climb the ridge to a small cliff table and watch the sun go behind the canyon wall, laying sweet golden light across the bisected landscape as it goes. We can see a broad swath of the Missouri; the river makes two opposite bends like a massive brown S. Rock wrens sing their bifurcated song and forage around the lichened boulders. A brilliant blue lazuli bunting sings from a weathered gray snag just above the table cliff, the whole world out beyond him. We sit still long enough to see three nice whitetail bucks emerge from the small canyon below our dangling feet. J says in an excited whisper, “that’s just what I wanted to happen!” The big river bends around the clay flats and eases on.

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