Montana’s greatest wonder: The Missouri River (Part 5 of 5)

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The Missouri River flows near its confluence with the Yellowstone. (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

“… by every rule of nomenclature, the Missouri being the main stream and the upper Mississippi the tributary, the name of the former should have been given precedence, and the great-river should have been called Missouri from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Many people, especially Montanans, agree with this unknown author’s statement. However, the Mississippi was explored first and thus designated the primary stem, leaving the Missouri to receive tributary status. Also included in the argument is whether or not the Yellowstone River, the Missouri’s other major partner, should have received top billing … another question for the ages.

When the Missouri finally contacts the Mississippi, it has covered 2,546 miles, making it longer than the entire Mississippi and more than three times the length of the Yellowstone.

Whatever the Missouri’s national standing, for Montana it was a lifeline – a moving highway that gave birth to the state. On the way to the nation’s heartland, it collects the state’s memories and history. It is Montana’s great river.

One nameless writer, speaking of the attributes of other Montana rivers, said it well: “The Missouri is all these and more … It is the Milk and Mussleshell, the Wind and the Sun, the Big Hole and the Beaverhead and the Marias, streams of mountains and of plains moving toward their compulsive rendezvous with the distant ocean, carving shadows upon rocks, giving perspective to great spaces almost anesthetic in their dizzying emptiness, reflecting blazing suns and mellow moons, bordering their shores with tender trees of willows sweet to the eyes of men in a nearly treeless land.”

While the Yellowstone River’s original water sources collect very quickly, within a couple of miles, before sending the Yellowstone on its way, major contributors to the Missouri’s beginnings initially cover a great deal of ground and establish significant identifications of their own. Consider the Jefferson with its upstream continuations, the Beaverhead and Red Rock rivers. Together, they take in 294 miles. And when the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin come together to develop the mother river, each arrives swiftly carrying large quantities of water.

From the melding of its tributaries, this celebrated entity will have covered 734 beautiful Montana river miles before picking up the Yellowstone just across the Montana-North Dakota line. It is important to note that 510 of these miles are actual channel miles, while 223 of them are in reservoirs – 134 miles alone reside in Fort Peck Lake.

As the river takes leave from Montana, it continues to carry the direction and determination it had when it left Three Forks. It still has a long way to go before catching the Mississippi, but it has left the finest landscapes of its journey behind in Montana.

Rick and Susie Graetz work in Department of Geography at UM/Missoula.

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