“We came too this evening in the mouth of a little river, which falls in on the Stard. side. This stream is about 50 yards wide from bank to bank; the water occupyes about 15 yards. the banks are of earth only, abrupt, ‘tho not high— the bed is of mud principally. Capt Clark, who was up this stream about three miles, informed me that it continued about the same width, that it’s current was gentle and it appeared navigable for perogues... This stream my friend Capt. C. named Marthas river.” – Meriwether Lewis, April 29, 1805
Mud. It defines our existence as the boundary between water and land. Mud is the event horizon separating the universe of wet from the universe of dry. To cross the threshold in either direction we must become creatures of the mud.
How many times have I stood on dry land with clean feet, staring at my canoe moored in the mire only a few feet away? No matter how well organized we may be, there is always some small item needed from the canoes that requires yet another trip through the mud. I wonder how the men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition managed to cope with it all the time.
While we camp on land, our canoes remain in the mud, especially my heavy dugout canoe. It is like living with a moat of mud bisecting one’s house, where the kitchen stove is on one side of the moat, while the fridge, pantry, and sink are on the other, where our bedrooms are separated from our dressers, where the bathtub can only be accessed by wading through the mud both before and afterwards. Doing laundry, either in the river or rarely in town, is a futile effort for creatures of the mud.
In the upper reaches of the Missouri, the mud was black, rich with organic matter, and typically only an inch or two deep, yet the problem was fundamentally similar. Sloshing around in sandals is fine, except that the constant dampness ultimately dries out the skin, causing deep, painful cracks beneath the toes. Barefoot is ideal to wade in and out and dry quickly, but not pain-free where the shore is covered with spiky cockleburs.
Repairing cracked feet requires diligent care to keep them clean and dry, applying lotion and clean socks and shoes until the skin knits back together. Yet, the moment one successfully finishes putting on dry shoes is invariably the moment something else is needed from the canoes.
The Missouri breaks have a special kind of mud, consisting of fine clay particles that make up gumbo, mud so sticky that it immediately cakes up thickly on shoes or tires, rendering walking or driving impossible after a rain.
In wet or dry weather, that gumbo forms an imposing barrier between the river and land. At some campsites we slogged barefoot back and forth through 50 feet of soupy gumbo that would suck any footwear right off the feet. There is a reason the Missouri is known as the “Big Muddy.”
Coping with mud is like enduring Chinese water torture: a slow drip of water on the forehead may be utterly harmless, yet keep it up long enough and a person will go utterly mad. At no point is the mud truly debilitating, yet like water torture, or mosquitos buzzing about one’s ear, how long can anyone endure a persistently minor annoyance?
We were pleasantly surprised that the mud largely disappeared through Fort Peck Lake where the shores consist of crumbly shale. Below the dam, the river is initially silt-free with sandy shorelines. However, it didn’t take long for the river to re-assert itself, and we again became creatures of the mud.
Continuing downstream, the landscape is less dominated by badlands clay, giving way to sandy bluffs instead. As elsewhere, any topography unsuitable for farming was typically bypassed by settlers, which aids in identifying blocks of public land. At one stop we found a veritable park of mixed sandstone and clay badlands features. We took a layover day to hike and explore our unnamed and under-appreciated public lands. At that camp, I tossed driftwood onto the shallow mud to make a rare dry path to the dugout canoe.
Sacagawea showed William Clark the yellow flowers of the golden currant near there on April 30th, 1805. We enjoyed the fruits of those flowers on our journey of rediscovery, each day later in our summer becoming a day earlier in their spring as we travel backwards through their journals.
The following day we ate lunch at the confluence of Marthas River, now known as Big Muddy Creek, the eastern boundary of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Most creeks in eastern Montana could be named either Big or Little Muddy Creek, yet here the shore was delightfully sandy.
Camping at another block of BLM land near Culbertson, Mont., we walked a dirt road, picking agates out of the gravel used to surface the roadbed. Here the soil is dominated by sand, and the river is too. Still we must slog through a foot of mud beneath the water, wading carefully forward, feeling for the edge, trying to discern if we can safely dive in without diving into a submerged stick, rock, or the gaping jaws of a long lost plesiosaur. Who knows what really lies beneath these murky waters?
Writing from my tent during a passing storm, my feet lay out the unzipped door, my toes encrusted with globs of half-dried mud. Thinking back to Lewis and Clark, I’m sure they lived as we do, as creatures of the mud.
(Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery, Tom’s books, and the expedition fundraiser for a new campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.)