In the Community

Paddling the Missouri

September 16, 2022

As they carefully climbed over their gear, settled into their seats, and dipped their paddles into the water for the first time, the air was filled with a mix of emotions—apprehension, anticipation, doubt, optimism, and awe. It was early June, and 8 Montana Wilderness School students and 2 field instructors had just launched their canoes into the Missouri River at Coal Banks Landing. The plan? To canoe more than 100 miles over 12 days, following the paddle strokes of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery.

For most of the participants, it was their first time canoeing; for some, their first time on moving water. And while the journey ahead seemed unfathomable for them, the journey they had completed to reach this shore was just as impressive.

Montana is a state of extremes, and wilderness access is a microcosm of those polarities. We have some of the most incredible wildlife and wildlands, and their exploration and enjoyment is often the reason people move here—to fully engage in the outdoors across all four seasons. Yet too many other families, especially those in rural areas or those with fewer means, do not have the same capacity to explore the backcountry. That is where Montana Wilderness School steps in.

Since our first course launch, with 5 students in 2015, MWS has led 75 expeditions for 614 youth who accumulated more than 160,000 program hours. Courses run for one to three weeks and fully immerse students in vast areas of public lands and wild spaces. They run rivers, climb mountains, ride ranges, and navigate tricky stretches of challenging terrain. Each day students are on the move, staying active and developing the skills to continue these activities long into adulthood.

Learning to paddle a whitewater rapid or scale a formidable rock face or traverse complex terrain on a horse guarantees considerable technical skills, but it also teaches our students how to solve problems alone and collaboratively, how to intelligently consider risks, how best to help a struggling peer, how to safely stretch boundaries. And when around the campfire, they start to think critically about the space and world around them.

MWS’s guiding principle is ensuring that ALL Montana youth have a chance to explore this wilderness, soak up its history, learn about the Indigenous peoples who first called it home, understand what it means to have and use public lands, and become peers and often forever-friends with youth they might not otherwise have known. To ensure our cohorts are a mix of urban, rural, and Indigenous youth from a diversity of cultures, genders, political and religious affiliations, races, and socio-economic levels, we partner with organizations like Montana Community Foundation, so no one gets left behind. In eight seasons we have provided more than $740,000 in financial aid-directed scholarships.

In 2022, MWS ran 22 courses including hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, mountaineering, horsepacking, packrafting, and the 6 Missouri River trips. Canoeing is one of the two technical skills that are great for new backcountry enthusiasts to learn first (backpacking is the other), and the demand for more paddling opportunities keeps climbing. Participants leave the course filled with pride for the many lengthy paddling days, and with wonder for the slot canyons, rock formations, Teepee rings, and old homesteads they have explored.

As the five canoes slip into the water, there is almost a reverent silence for what’s ahead, but that quickly turns to chatter, laughter, stories, and song. What begins as a gathering of 10, will land at James Kipp Campground as a fully cohesive group of explorers who will always be connected by this week and this water.