We hooked up with Eaglerider Adventure Rentals of Central Montana for a van tour. George Fultz, one of the partners in the tour company, as well as a life-long resident of the area and former mayor of Fort Benton, was our driver.
George and the van.
The family of his partner Mike owns extensive ranchland within the boundaries of the monument, and it was their holdings that the tour was headed for. We drove for some miles on gravel roads, passing family farms -- George knew all the names -- old one room schoolhouses, homestead shacks and little coulees before reaching the cliffs above the Missouri. George kept up a narration the whole way about the land, its people and its history. He was pretty amazing. The Missouri was astonishing.
I wouldn't have been able to reach the white cliffs up close without a boat, but I could see them. George pointed out a Lewis and Clark campsite, which will be very relevant for me. I also got to taste the air, study the soil and plant life, and learn a great deal more about the lay of the land than I otherwise could have known.
One room schoolhouses:
The Elim School, where George attended first grade before consolidation.
The Eagle Butte School. We were able to go inside this one. At the back was a tiny apartment where the teacher lived, the classroom was about the size of the living room in a contemporary house, with two little cloakrooms or storerooms up front. There were rabbits sheltering in the building.
A homesteader's shack, and a view of the canyons dropping away:
This shack had very long views of about 270 degrees of horizon, with mountain chains in two directions. The winds there would drive anyone crazy, I think, that and the dizzying sky. The little canyon is a side canyon of the Missouri. If you look carefully at the white formations in the middle of the picture, they are what George called his "hoodoos" -- naturally occuring statuelike formations that look like so many robed monks or priests.
After touring the farmland and viewing the canyon, we headed back to Virgelle, via the ferry. The Virgelle Ferry is a seasonal crossing which has been operated by the same family since 1960, working for the county as part of the roads department. Virgelle itself is an old ghost town which has been revived as a B&B and a river outfitter's.
One final note. the_child found a rattlesnake skin when we were out looking at the canyons. It's a good sized skin.
There are loads more pictures at the flickr set if you're interested in more detail on any of this. I can also highly recommend the Eaglerider tours in Fort Benton if you ever travel out that way.