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Travel: Canoeing Montana’s Missouri River

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

    When I opened my eyes, the sun was not yet over the horizon and the weak light it cast was wrapped in the heavy mist rising from the Missouri River. I lay still, warm and bundled under a heavy layer of quilts, watching through the small window beside the bed as the day came into its own.  Soon I could see deer grazing in the rolling fields around the other cabins, all, like my own, early homestead shelters that had been moved to the Virgelle Mercantile and refurbished for guests.

    By the time I was up and dressed the coffee was ready in the kitchen of the old Mercantile building. I poured a cup and the steam rose from the mug in my hand as I walked back outdoors out to take photos.

    After a breakfast of whole-hog sausage and baked French toast, washed down by pots of hot coffee, in the company of others there for the guided fishing and canoeing trips offered by the Mercantile’s sister business, The Missouri River Canoe Company, we gathered our gear and took the short ride down to the canoe launch.Once our canoes were loaded we paddled away.

   This stretch of the Missouri River is shallow this time of year, no more than a couple of feet deep in some places. We made steady progress, paddling hard enough to get where we were going but stopping whenever something caught our attention. The beauty of September in Montana is that the summer travelers have gone back to work and school. We had the river to ourselves, but we were not alone. Deer splashed across inlets and an eagle sitting on the branch of a tall Cottonwood tree studied us as we passed. Farther along, a silent, watchful Coyote, camouflaged in the tall grass, turned his head to follow our progress down the river.

       Soon, warmed by the sun and the exercise, our jackets came off. There wasn’t a cloud in the wide blue dome of the sky and only an occasional gust of wind worked against us as we paddled.

    I listened as our guide, a genuine Montana woodsman who makes his living guiding, hunting and trapping along the river, talked about Lewis and Clark’s journey along the same route through what is now the Missouri River Breaks National Monument. It was, he pointed out, with the exception of the occasional barn or fenceline and the grey-green Russian Olive introduced by homesteaders as a way to shelter flimsy cabins from the relentless wind, essentially an unchanged landscape. Soon, at a bend in the river, the eerie Hoodoos and white sandstone cliffs so unique to that portion of the river, the aptly-named White Cliffs stretch, came into view.    One more thing checked off the list of places I need to see before I die.

    After a couple of hours we pulled our canoes onto a pebbled strip of beach and stopped for lunch, digging into the sandwiches and fruit like we were starving, as though we hadn’t eaten a massive breakfast that morning. As we ate, I thought about something one of the group had said the night before. He’d been telling a story and mentioned a particular day— a special day—as one of the thirty or so he actually remembered of that particular year. I’d never really thought about it before but he is right. Most of the 365 days of work and worry, scheduled appointments, hurried commutes and eat-at-your-desk lunches, blend into a blur. Not much stands out. But, once in a while, there are moments that stay with us forever, etched into memory. They are special enough to share.    

    We packed up the scraps left from our meal and pushed away from the shore, paddling on down the river. More white cliffs and narrow coulees. More photos. More memories.

    At the end of the trip, gathering our gear and hopping back into the van that would carry us and the canoes back to our cars at the Mercantile, I let what I’d seen and done replay in my mind.  From the moment I opened my eyes and let them rest on the fog-softened view, to the last spectacular mile of Missouri River wilderness before we pulled our canoes out of the water, the day was special. It was a day worth holding onto and, in that way, worth sharing.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Under a Starlit Sky

     It’s been a long time since I was invited to a backyard campout. My 
children are old enough to get in the car and go to a campground with 
friends when they feel like it. Or, to take a climb into the wilderness and do 
some serious backpacking without me. So when my youngest, the only one 
left at home full-time, pitched a tent in the backyard and threw in a sleeping
 bag for me, I crawled right in.

    It’s funny how a landscape you know so well changes at night. Lying
 in the dark, looking up at the stars, the world is a very different place.

     Suddenly, ordinary neighborhood sounds become foreign and exotic.
The dogs, stretching and shuffling in their sleep in the grass beside us. The
 whispery footsteps of the cats as they prowl in the shadows, sniffing around
 the tent, chasing bugs in the hedgerow. The Amtrak train pulling into the
 downtown station, as it does in the wee hours of every morning, sounded
 closer. The hollow sound of cars on the road and solitary footsteps on the 
sidewalk in the darkness.

    My daughter and I lay there, side by side, snuggled into sleeping
 bags and cocooned in the narrow tent. The clouds scudded across the 
moon. We watched satellites track and airplanes blink as they passed.

    Occasionally, one of us would point to the place where a shooting star had just streaked, already a memory. And we talked.

    Just days away from her 15th birthday, she has a lot on her mind.
One year of high school behind her, three more ahead. She’s beginning to
 think about college and leaving home. I’m starting to think about a life with 
no more children in the house.

    Darkness is a good cover for things you need to talk about but just
 don’t get around to, or can’t find the courage to tackle when the sun is
 shining. Words whispered on pillows, indoors or out, carry great power. 
I lay there, listening, offering advice when I had it and comfort when I

    As we talked, thinking about all we were both leaving unsaid, I 
realized once again that growing up, like growing old, takes guts. Neither is
 easy to do. Either way there’s a lot to think about. And, in the right place, at
 the right time, with the right person, a lot to talk about, too.

    There were longer silences between us until finally, I heard the slow,
deep breathing that told me she was asleep.

    I lay there, dozing, lost in my own thoughts, until the birds announced the coming sunrise.

    At daybreak I crawled out of the tent and she followed a bit later. The 
thread of conversation was put away, like yarn wrapped around knitting 
needles, to be pulled out again on another night starry night.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be
heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the
author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

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About this blog

Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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