img_3632At the turn of the last century, British polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton could have been the first human to stand at the South Pole. It was January, 1909 and after trekking on foot for over two months he and his three companions were a mere 90 miles from reaching the pole. This was Shackleton’s second attempt and the weather was turning nasty and bitterly cold. Huddled in a tent with his crew, I’m sure he wracked his brain plenty on whether to go on or not. Were the risks worth it?

He weighed the options and given that the weather was becoming more severe, their meager rations and the condition of his crew, he chose to turn around. He felt they could have attained the pole but there was too strong a likelihood that someone would have died in the effort. It wasn’t worth standing at the pole while losing one or more crew members.

Before returning to England,  Shackleton was able to send his wife a long awaited welcome letter. Succinctly he stated, “I thought, dear, that you would rather have a live ass than a dead lion.”

A handful of weeks ago, my wife Nancy and I rendezvoused with friends Charlie and Elaine and their dog Cache on the Upper Missouri River in Montana. Our last adventure together was just over a year ago when we met in Utah and paddled 100 miles of Green River into the Canyonlands.

The four of us are fascinated with the history of the Upper Missouri Country. This was an area rich in wildlife and consequently it was a preferred region for early natives to frequent.

Arguably the upper river country is best known to most folks for the famed Corps of Discovery expedition led by Lewis and Clark. Sent by President Jefferson to find out what kind of country the United States had just purchased from France. The acquisition known as the Louisiana Purchase added 828,000,000 square miles to the United States thereby doubling the size of the young nation. The bargain price was $15 million or .03 per acre or .42 in today’s dollars.

My dear friend Charlie is a mountain man, a cowboy and a desert rat at heart. Dripping wet this 82-year old kid might tip the scales at 120 pounds. And that is mostly gristle and beard. His shadow is hard to find. It’s no surprise because he eats, at most, a handful of food at each meal. This is not a good strategy while exerting yourself on a canoe trip.


Now mind you, Charlie is tough; just like gristle. In the early 1950’s while based in Korea, he survived his stint in the army on a forward observation post near the DMZ. Later in the ‘60’s he survived a crushed hip when a refrigerator-sized boulder hurried down a slope and pushed Charlie out of the way near Hell Creek in Montana where he and other Science Museum of Minnesota folks were on a dinosaur dig. He has survived a heart attack and a close encounter with a cougar. And he survived over twenty years of working with me as I found him an easy mark for a constant diet of pranks and jabs.

We started our 110-mile trip at Coal Banks Landing after shuttling a vehicle downriver 140 miles. This late in the year, few folks are paddling the river and that suited us fine.

The first five days of the trip were full of sunshine and warm weather. I was paddling in shorts and a t-shirt. Then things began to change. We had made camp just upriver from the well-known river landmark “Dark Butte.”  This is a massive dark igneous plug that pushed volcanic magma up through the overlaying sandstone eons ago. The sky was becoming more and more overcast so I put up my beloved Whelen tarp to stow our packs have a food prep and eating area. When I crawled into the tent after supper, sprinkles of rain began to fall.

All night the rain fell as a steady percussion. In the morning I donned my rain gear over a couple of warm layers and made my way under the sodden skies to the tarp to cook breakfast. While I heated water for coffee and prepared some high caloric bacon, egg and cheese burritos, the others began to pack up their bedding and stuff the wet tents into their bags.

Our plan for this day was to paddle 22 miles so we could bank some time for a desolate stretch of really wild country downstream, known as the “breaks.” This stretch of river would give us likely viewings and hearings of elk  and bighorn sheep.

Charlie, hunched and  hooded in his rain jacket, was ready to step into the canoe when I called out, “Hey, get your rain pants on.”

“I don’t have any.”


Remember it is raining and the weather front appears to be moving glacially slow. This is going to be an all-day rain. So I offer Charlie a small tarp to wrap around his legs to keep dry. He says “thanks” and proceeds to wrap his daypack and camera bag in the tarp.

Did I say “Arghhhh?”

Charlie’s paddling technique is fairly worthless. He constantly reminds me that I should have more mercy for an 82-year old man. But for as long as I have known him we each throw barbs at each other and at the end of the day we still love each other.

In paddling, Charlie prefers to lean back on the packs behind his bow seat as if he is in a recliner chair. He complained about how tired his twig-like arms were. I reminded him that the most important paddling muscles are in one’s core and suggested that he sit up and use his stomach muscles in paddling.

“I don’t have any stomach muscles,” he grumbled.

The hours of rain continued and we were planning to stop for a much-needed lunch at a designated camping and picnicking area at the Judith River Landing. I was getting concerned. I had noticed that Charlie’s paddling vigor had lessened. Paddling generates heat but you need to have fuel and Charlie’s partial burrito at breakfast had long been burned.

We came around the last bend before the Judith Landing and I was surprised to find a bridge crossing the river here. We were nearly underneath the bridge when two pick-up trucks passed overhead. One of them was hauling a canoe trailer loaded with 2-3 kayaks. Both vehicles pulled into the landing area.

We eased into shore and I immediately started assessing if there was any kind of shelter we could eat under. I always carry a few extra soups on a trip and this was a perfect time to fire up the stove and put some hot soup into us.

Charlie, whom had pretty much quit paddling the last hour before the bridge, could hardly get out of the canoe and I could see he was really shivering. This was not a good situation. The rain continued. The Missouri was turning into the “Misery.”

Charlie and Elaine went up to use the restroom while I secured the canoe. I walked up and there was a bearded, middle-aged guy shielding his lit cigarette with his hand waiting to use the toilet. I asked if he had seen an older guy and a woman come up. He jerked his thumb towards the bathroom and said, “They two of them are in there. And the older guy is really shivering.”

He took a drag on his cigarette and asked me, “Do you know the forecast?”


“Temps are dropping. Likely snow accumulation tonight and then another 36 hours of rain. It’s not good. And there is no way off the river in the next forty plus miles.”

At this point Nancy and I knew our trip was done. Now we had to figure out how to get out of here since our vehicles were located at the starting and end points. Nancy immediately went over to scope out the guys that were loading the kayaks from the trailer on to their vehicles. Turns out they had just completed the shuttle and were loading up to head back home to Alberta. The guy with the cigarette was the shuttle driver and he said while he would not drive us to our truck (he had already put in over 200 miles of driving on this day), he would take us to Fort Benton.

There was no group discussion as to whether we push on or end the canoeing here. In the book Deep Survival, author Laurence Gonzales, states that in order to save ourselves from an ordeal in the wilds such as getting lost or pushing on that we must accept that where are is definitely not where we intended to be when we set out on our journey. In essence the first step in surviving is a Buddhist principle, “Be here now.”

The amygdala, the warning center of the brain, sends us “danger. . .now!” Consequently our emotions might urge us to the finish line. At this point the mental map of our trip needs to be changed. To not do so results in what Gonzales calls a “bending of the map” and that can lead to tragedy.

Our newfound savior with a pick-up truck got Charlie into the front seat of the vehicle and cranked up his heat. The rest of us quickly loaded the boats and our soaked packs into the back of his truck. Then we all got cozy in the truck and pulled away from the river. And there was absolutely no regrets in our decision.

For at least twenty miles our driver had to negotiate a road that had been gravel and now was gumbo and slick mud. He said that most of the ranchers were pretty much marooned and that there is no way a two-wheel drive vehicle could make it out.

We wondered how much traffic crossed that bridge.

Savior Driver shook his head and replied, “Today with the roads the way they are, I wouldn’t doubt that no other traffic comes by.”

Hours later, each of us were pink-skinned from our extended hot showers and we sprawled out eating two wonderful pizzas. And believe it or not, I think Charlie ate one whole piece of pizza. It was an amazing recovery for soon he was back to being one sassy piece of gristle.