It's difficult to imagine those first explorers on this river. It's one thing to float
down with a strong, albeit gentle, four-mile-an-hour current behind, but what must it have
been like towing a 55-foot keelboat that drew three feet of water against this current?
Lewis talks about how his men are much of the time up to their armpits in water, with mud
"so tenacious that they are unable to wear their mockersons, and in that situation
draging the heavy burthen of a canoe and walking acasionally for several hundred yards
over the sharp fragments of rocks which tumble from the clifts and garnish the borders of
the river; in short their labour is incredibly painfull and great, yet those faithful
fellows bear it without a murmur."
We make our first camp a mile or two inside a section of the river called White Cliffs.
The walls here are cut by centuries of flood and fabulously eroded by wind and storm.
Composed of a soft sandstone, they have weathered into an architectural symphony of
columns, spires, pedestals, flying buttresses, alcoves. (Prince Maximilian saw
"pulpits, organs with their pipes, old ruins, fortresses, castles, churches with
pointed towers.") Across from the low promontory above the river where we pitch the
tent, the canyon rises nearly 300 feet, and from the dark shadow in a split just below its
escarpment, thousands of rock swallows flicker up into the twilight sky like bats out of
the mouth of a cave. A flycatcher peers at me with evident curiosity from a dead
cottonwood behind the tent, cocks its head and hops around the backside of a limb to peek
at me again, upside down. And when I descend to the river on a sweep for firewood, a great
Canada goose lifts out of the marsh grass at the edge of a gravel bar, soars across the
water toward the sandstone cliffs, and then veers upstream, climbing steadily until it is
lost in the aura of the setting sun. Night comes down with a pair of mourning doves softly
calling from the trees below the camp.
We turn in early and I lie watching the night sky through the open tent flap, great
thunderheads creeping up from the east on a full moon, monstrous anvils of silver-gray
cloud, black-hearted and shot with lightning, beginning to pile up into a space so
littered and bright with stars that even when the moon is finally eclipsed I can make out
Nabokov, cocooned in his bag, snoring peacefully in the aftermath of his strenuous day. I
roll on my back, thinking about the river, wild, virtually unmarked, missing only the
roving bands of Minnetarees, Blackfeet, Assiniboines, the buffalo and the grizzly bear.
Which is a lot, actually. The frontiersmen may have tamed this wilderness, made it safe
for the likes of us, but at the same time they profoundly diminished it. That should be
some kind of lesson.
Early the next day, about a mile or so above Stonewall Creek where the river narrows
through a steep-walled channel, we are swept into an eddy by the current and quite by
accident spot a large nest high up on the cliff face with three or four downy fledglings
peering down at us over their barricade of twigs and sticks. We nose the canoes into the
shelf of mud at the base of the wall and clamber out, cameras at the ready. Nabokov wants
a shot from above, and he is halfway up a chimney he's found that will take him to the top
when a big red-tailed hawk appears a hundred yards downriver, screeching like a banshee
and swooping toward us as fast as her wings will propel her. In a matter of seconds her
mate appears directly overhead, and together they circle the nest, shrieking their outrage
and dive-bombing my companion, who changes his direction and his mind about photographing
We proceed southeast with measured stroke, led, it seems, by two great blue herons who
lift from their mud-shoal perch as we approach, flap a time or two, retract their ungainly
legs, and settle into a long, graceful glide that carries them a quarter mile downstream,
where they wait for us to come loafing along. Mallards appear in the side channels.
Killdeer, tanagers, and a profusion of magpies throng the brush along the cutbanks, and
just before we stop for lunch we round the point of a low, treeless island and startle a
pair of double-crested cormorants into flight. In real life I am not much a watcher of
birds, but their presence and variety in this wilderness is so insistent that even an
apathist cannot remain indifferent for long. I find myself paddling hard to catch up with
the other canoe because its occupant, Bob Lewis--no relation to Meriwether--is an
We stop again at the ruins of an old stone cabin, once a sheepherder's camp, no doubt,
now a couple of standing walls with the ax-hewn window headers still intact and a pile of
scree where winter snows have toppled in the rest. Rusted bedsprings and the remnants of a
cookstove. Weeds and some small white flowers in the chinks between the mortared walls.
Our map tells us that Maximilian and Bodmer camped close to this spot in the summer of
1833, and we walk the canoes down to a point that resembles one of our reproductions of
the Swiss artist's paintings and sprawl on the bank, lunching on salami and
By late afternoon the country has opened up once more and the cliffs, though still
steep and high, have fallen back from the main channel as much as half a mile. The wind
has died and it is extremely hot. Nabokov confirms his growing reputation for careful and
considered action by suddenly standing up in the bow and levitating himself over the
starboard gunwale into the river. He emerges whooping and blowing with only his idiotic
head visible above the turbid water, then enjoins my idiotic son to follow, which nearly
overturns the canoe. I curse them sullenly for 15 minutes until they begin to complain of
the cold, and whine to come back aboard. More buoyant than they, I spin off with a flick
of the paddle, and let them float into camp.