Ghosts of the American West: Virgelle, Montana
Paddling the Missouri River where Lewis and Clark once explored
By Laurie Gough
“I don’t tweet, twatter, twitter, Facebook, have internet or email,” were the first words I heard our river guide loudly proclaim as we set off to canoe a section of the historic Missouri River in Virgelle, northern Montana.
Rather than the tame goings-on of the last couple of centuries, it’s the little-known facts about Lewis and Clark and their expedition through unmapped Missouri River wilderness which guide Mike Nottingham loves to discuss. This eccentric mountain man, trapper, fisherman, wrangler, and river guide for the Missouri River Canoe Company even teaches you how to pronounce Sacagawea’s name correctly.
Here in Virgelle, Montana, river stories of the past are just some of the surprises you’ll find.
Imagine driving through miles of nothing but undulating golden prairie hills and coming across a revived homestead-era ghost town. Located in the Upper Missouri River Valley in northern Montana, the Virgelle Mercantile is unique.
Not only is the majestic old mercantile building the headquarters for the Missouri River Canoe Company—outfitters who will kit you up for a float down the historic river—it’s also a B&B and an outstanding homestead-era antique store.
Most intriguing of all are the seven original homesteading cabins out back, all moved here from a 40-mile radius and all complete with their own hard-living histories of homesteaders long since dead. These cabins aren’t just for show—you can sleep in them.
After a delicious home-cooked dinner and lively discussion in the dining room wifellow guests, you can walk right outside into a 19th century starry night and sleep in a real homesteader’s cabin.
Sleeping in the Sheep Wagon
I went one step further. I chose the sheep wagon. I’m always in search of cool places to sleep—sandstone caves, hollowed-out redwood trees, tree houses. How could I resist sleeping in a real sheepherder’s wagon?
All night long from my cozy narrow bed I heard coyotes howling in the distance as the light of the half moon glimmered through my canvas-topped covered wagon. I felt like Laura Ingalls.
The next morning, after a breakfast of French toast, sausages, fresh fruit, homemade biscuits and chokecherry jam, the theme of authenticity continued floating down the Missouri River through the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument—375,000 acres of rugged public land. Over 200 years ago, Lewis and Clark paddled through here on their Corps of Discovery Expedition from St. Louis to the west coast. Our guide kept pointing out that Lewis and Clark had to paddle upriver, against the current, while we were going down.
An easy paddle though it was, a river trip down this part of the Missouri River offers views that are impossible to experience otherwise. This is wild untamed country. Writing in his journal in 1805 about their river journey, Meriwether Lewis enthused about the “seens of visionary inchantment.” Bad spelling aside, he was right. As eagles soared above, I felt as if I we were paddling back through time, immersed in a remote and stark landscape of rolling yellow grasslands, piercing blue sky, and swaying cottonwoods along the riverbank, eventually taken over by white cliffs and immense sculpted hoodoos.
Not another Soul`
.From our canoes, we didn’t see another soul on the river or bank, not a house, not even a broken-down homesteader’s shack. In fact, the Missouri Breaks landscape today, thanks to stewardship and land management, looks pretty much the way it would have looked to Lewis and Clark, even more so now than in the brief late-19th century steamboat days when trees were felled to fuel the boats.
“The only difference we see now from what Lewis and Clark would have seen,” said Nottingham, “are the occasional Russian olive trees along the banks, which are invasive.”
There’s also the odd cow which comes down from one of the ranches for a drink. Back then, of course, it would have been buffalo. “In fact,” says Nottingham, “by the time Lewis and Clark were this far along the river, they had seen tens of thousands of buffalo.
One huge one even charged the men one night at a campfire. It came raging across the river and made right for their circle. Luckily, Lewis’s dog chased it away at the last minute.”
I can almost imagine the buffalo here, vast phantom herds of them. During the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition and for several centuries before, this river, the rugged surrounding uplands, and land stretching as far north as Edmonton, was home to the Blackfoot Indians, whose survival depended on the buffalo.
By the mid-1800s, 50 years after Lewis and Clark’s expedition, they would be a decimated people, their prized buffalo hunted by the new settlers to near-extinction.
In Virgelle, Montana, ghosts of the American west seem to be everywhere, their stories longing to be heard.
The Virgelle Mercantile is located eight miles south of US-87, about 66 miles northeast of Great Falls, Montana. At the Virgelle Mercantile Bed and Breakfast you have a choice of sleeping upstairs in beautifully authentically restored rooms, or sleeping out back in any of the six homestead cabins (plus one sheep wagon).
Cabins come with breakfast, wood burning stoves, charcoal grills, drinking water, cookware, dinnerware, and lanterns. Cabin guests share modern men’s and women’s bathhouse facilities located inside the old Virgelle Icehouse building. The antique store at the front of the building boasts the best collection of homestead-era antiques in the state.
For canoe lovers and history buffs, the mercantile is also headquarters to the Missouri River Canoe Company, which offers tours May through September and comes with a guide (even Lewis and Clark had guides) and shuttle service to the river.
Besides the stories you get to hear about the history of the river, guides also know all the best hiking spots along the way, and can take you to see tee-pee rings, abandoned homesteads, and the ‘Hole in the Wall’ which you can climb up to. A one-day paddle to Eagle Creek campground is 14 miles and includes lunch. You can also spend three days paddling the entire 50 miles to Judith Landing, camping along the way. For more info, see: www.virgellemontana.com
Also see: www.canoemontana.com; 800-426-2926
The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument has, in addition to a 149-mile stretch of scenic river, excellent hiking, boating, fishing and birding. See website
Laurie Gough is author of Kiss the Sunset Pig: An American Road Trip with Exotic Detours (Penguin) and Kite Strings of the Southern Cross: A Woman’s Travel Odyssey, shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and silver medal winner of ForeWord Magazine’s Travel Book of the Year in the US. See: www.lauriegough.com and www.travelwritinglife.com
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