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Story ID:1749
Written by:Kathe M. Campbell (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Family Memories
Writers Conference:$500 2007 Family Memories Writing Project
Location:Fergus Co. Montana USA
Person:Captain & Crew
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Across The Wide Missouri
by Kathe Campbell

"The Missouri Breaks," not only a fair movie, but a famous landmark we were eager to see for ourselves on a September afternoon. As in so many of our wanderings, we hoped to be launched back in history before it was too late.

In the early years of western settlement, there were no bridges across most rivers, only ferry boats. The first Missouri River ferry in Montana began operation in 1863. In those early days there were over two dozen ferries, some private for the benefit of a specific ranch, others open to the public for a fee. All were considered vital to Montana's livelihood, powered by the force of the river's own current.

Today, only three ferries remain, each with the capacity of one truck, properly balanced, or two or three smaller vehicles. They are funded by their respective counties and free to the public, their future uncertain, soon to be replaced by steel and concrete bridges. And so it was, my husband, Ken, and I, seeking a ride on one of the last nostalgic cable ferries across the wide Missouri.

We had driven off the lovely Bear Tooth Mountains eastward across miles of foothills, wheat farms, and one-room school houses perched like specks upon the prairie. Then to isolation covered to the horizon hosting tall grasses and windswept flowers, near colorless and washed out, without fragrance, more unrelenting than beautiful. Forget the postcard vistas with snowcaps, this was eastern Montana that the settlers found and came to hate, then loved.

By mid-afternoon, we found ourselves meandering down the long curvy hill along the breaks, a place only Mother Nature could love. Miles of boulders jutting from the sand and sage hillsides, an occasional water hole rimmed by bunch grass for a few deer and sheep, and rattlesnake infested. The movie, starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson and gangs of dirty, mean villains, was filmed near this godforsaken place. A far cry from the great river that is born amongst green valleys and giant willows in our glorious western Rockies.

We parked our truck near a mobile home resting beneath a near dead gnarly tree supporting a few leaves twirling on the breeze. Almost instantly she emerged from the place, the ferry Captain-mechanic waving a greeting. "Come meet me at water's edge, folks," came a big husky voice from the tiny frame as she climbed atop her four-wheeler. She was a feisty old gal in her thin, yellow-flowered cotton dress and wide-brimmed straw hat, grousing that Montana wanted to scuttle her barge. The old and oft unreliable contraption was to be replaced by a modern ferry in celebration of the Lewis and Clark bi-centennial.

Western movies portray these ferries well, just big enough for a vehicle or small herd of cattle, allowed to float out onto the river on a cable. Should the cable break, too bad. The great American heartland and the deep south will make fine sight-seeing. If the cable holds, the hulk floats across the river on the current, or is somehow powered.

Meanwhile, a van with petrified tourists, who intended to turn around, remained on the bank cheering us on, apparently stunned that we two old duffers had enough grit to drive aboard.

Sporting his usual big grin, Ken drove our brand new truck upon the boards as I silently prayed in light of his oft quirky ideas of fun. We engaged in chatter with another of Montana's true characters as she prepared to start up the 1930 model "A" engine that listed the ferry portside. Ken had owned a model "A" Ford as a kid and was bent on inspecting our means of watery passage should the ferry unexpectedly stall at mid-river.

And stall she did, the down-river current pushing against us hard, and the old model "A" coming to a sputtering halt. Cursing her four-letter expletives, the Captain tossed her work gloves and straw hat aside, claiming she worked better without all the frills. Ken insisted upon checking out the problem, thinking it was the spark or carburetor, both in line of grease and oil spattering everything in sight.

"Well mister, iffin' you ain't in no hurry, you can help me git this dang thing goin', you knowin' all about "A's" 'n all . . . and don't you be takin' no pictures of me there, young lady!" That's all Ken had to hear. Off came his shirt, soon up to his elbows in the kind of grease his mother had abhorred on her bathroom towels in his youthful model "A" days.

While hanging suspended upon the cable and listening to the experts bandy the quick fix around, I gave way to the starboard where the Big Muddy churned wildly against the side of the heap. Although suspended mid-river, it seemed like we were slowly taking our leave eastward down the Missouri. How disappointed Lewis and Clark must have been at this arid and ugly, venomous part of Montana, pulling their boats westward against the current. Nonetheless, their best was yet to come and I hoped ours was as well.

The late afternoon heat embroiled our plight as we sat helpless, assuming the old cable was fit. The Captain stowed drinking water and we had dregs of some wild and wooly coffee in our thermos that Ken gladly swigged down, along with a melted chocolate bar. The current was too strong for the three of us to hand-pull the ferry either way, and of course there was no cell service in the gorge.

Ken and the lady emerged from the engine house often, mopping their brows with oily rags, arguing their remedies, none bearing weight. Just the sorry urr-urr-urr of the ancient engine not making spark, a crankcase seemingly overloaded with oil. Although my stomach was hitting my back bone, I stowed a couple candy bars for Ken's diabetes, lest our plight leave us stranded overnight.

I could see beads of perspiration and worry on the Captain's furrowed brow as she leaned against the lifeboat, absorbed in thoughts, seeking answers. "Hope ya'll can cut water katty-corner ashore in this little ole tub before them rapids down river," belted out the old gal, slapping the little boat hard. My darlin's dauntless daring had taken leave and his lack of optimism was showing as he put his arm around my shoulder and gave me a squeeze. I decided not to intrude on his fearful thoughts - one of us was enough.

We had always been good canoe oarsmen on rivers, but it occurred to me that this one-armed lady may not be a match for the Missouri, and I doubted Ken was up to it after heart surgery. Oh horrors - would this harried misadventure be our waterloo?

"Don't ya'll be a frettin' now folks, we never lost nobody yet. 'Sides, iffin' ya never seen the Dakotas, here's yer chance," came the Captain's brand of facetious comfort over her raspy laugh.

Our erstwhile compatriots ashore used the Captain's home phone and soon a helicopter from Fergus County dangled a mechanic and supplies in our midst. Seems that castaways on the mighty Missouri were not out of the ordinary. He soon had us block and tackled, the helicopter dropping him ashore with enough cable to hitch to a cement piling. In no time we were inching across the Missouri, thanking the Captain and our rescuers, and glad to be traveling green farmlands just before dusk.

Neither of us spoke a word of fright or regret, but we both knew it was time to call a halt to our ever persistent living on the edge. We had courageously ventured aboard a relic, allowing a rare journey, this time upon treacherous waters, and darned glad to be alive to tell about it.

All Aboard at The Missouri Breaks ferry.
Where we're headed looks just the same.
The engine house and happy-go-lucky, Ken.
She may seem calm, but she's running wild.