The crooked Little Missouri River is in my bloodstream, deeply embedded in my psyche. I grew up working and playing on its banks in Slope County, North Dakota, and have canoed and kayaked almost every North Dakota mile of the river countless times, and frequently written about my explorations on my blog. My favorite stretches of the river are in the Deep Creek area, my home country, and through the North Unit wilderness of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The river flows into the Missouri River north of Bismarck (now Lake Sakakawea), where I now live, and thus in some way, I drink its waters each and every day. In my file cabinet are many maps of the Little Missouri River including a thick folder filled with Wyoming maps, accumulated in my quest to learn more about the place from which the river begins. Today, I’ve taken out that folder and am thus transported in my mind for many hours to these wild places, my spirit landscape.
The Little Missouri River originates west of Devils Tower National Monument in Crook County, Wyoming, due west of where I was born when my parents were stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base. How much more synchronicity can there be? It was destined that this sweet little river would burrow into my brain.
With a surname of Crook, I have some fascination with anything to do with Crook County and Camp Crook. These place-names “Crook” originate from the Civil War Union general, George Crook, a distant relative, who campaigned in the area in the 1870s and whose grave in Arlington Cemetery I’ve visited. There are several excellent books about Gen. Crook readily available for anyone interested in learning more. When I was a child, we took frequent Sunday excursions to places of interest, the Logging Camp Ranch and nearby Burning Coal Vein, Pretty and Bullion buttes, the Limber Pines, the Powder River area, Medicine Rocks and, naturally, Camp Crook, S.D.
“As a surname (Crook) first appeared as Crok, Cruke, Crokes and Crekes, which should indicate the name was once associated with a creek. … It is found in very old records in England, Ireland and Scotland. … One who dwelt near a bend in the river or road might be called Bend or Crook.” “Crook, an American Family, 1698-1955,” pg. 11. Crook is a historic market town in County Durham in the northeast of England and hosts an annual Crook Carnival every July as well as Crookfest, a music festival. Sadly, I did not visit Crook when I traveled to England in 2019 — yet another reason to return.
Back to the little river of my heart.
Located in four states (Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota), the Little Missouri River Basin includes 6,632,160 acres with most of the acreage in North Dakota at 3,608,800 acres, a good portion of which is public lands. (Source for my data: “Little Missouri River Basin: Land Planning and Classification Report,” U.S. Bureau of Land Management, May 1959 — a personally auspicious date for me). At the time the report was published, there were 1,818,429 acres in federal acres within the basin, a figure that is probably close to today’s acreage, although due to land swaps since then has changed slightly. More than half of this federal land is the Little Missouri National Grassland, the largest grassland in the United States.
The river is “a sediment laden muddy stream” and according to an early 1930s Bureau of Reclamation study, “a very heavy sediment carrier for its size” (now those are monumental understatements!). It arises southwest of the Little Missouri Buttes, four summits arising from an eroded mesa and prominent in the Devils Tower landscape, the tallest of which is 5,374 feet.
“A butte is a mesa’s orphan, the freestanding remnant of a larger landform. Protected from the erosional brunt of rain, frost and wind by its overlay of hard caprock, the butte’s mass stands flat-topped and steep-sided, always taller than it is wide. The parent escarpment may be but a gap of space away: imagine this gap filled with rock and you can picture the entire landform’s sweeping, high-crowned continuity.” — Ellen Meloy, “Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape,” edited by Barry Lopez, 2006.
The Little Missouri River’s headwaters are nearest to Flag Butte and Oshoto, WY, and it is “the only major tributary stream that flows north into the Missouri.” Said to be the longest undammed tributary, this isn’t quite true as the Oshoto Reservoir, an earth dam constructed in 1954, is situated a few miles from the headwaters, however, other proposed dams were never built due to the sediment load.” In 1914, construction work started on a dam near Alzada, Mont., “as a Carey Act Project, but “a freshet in Cottonwood Creek damaged the dam … and no further work was ever done on the project.” It was estimated that the Alzada dam would fill within 41 years so someone came to their senses thanks to the “freshet.” “Estimated duration of the (proposed) Bullion Butte Reservoir was 58 to 61 years until filling with sediment would be complete.” Again, wisdom prevailed and the Oshoto Dam is the one and only on the river.
From its source to its mouth, as the crow flies, as one can see from the first map above, the river covers about 300 miles, but its “crooked” twists and turns nearly doubles the river’s length to 560 miles. As a canoeist, I can attest that these bends can be tortuous, especially if the current is slow and the headwind fierce, a regular occurrence. One is frequently tempted to portage over these corkscrew landscapes, but the tall buttes along the canyon render this foolhardy. Once, while perched atop the Teepee Buttes near the Logging Camp Ranch, I asked my friend, Clay Jenkinson, who has famously hiked the length of the river (the North Dakota stretch twice) if he “cheated” and just plunged across these bends, a fair question, I thought. He said he most certainly did not, however tempted on a scorching summer day.
“The basin formerly consisted of broad rolling upland surfaces that since have been extensively eroded into breaks and badlands. This is particularly true in the lower reaches from the southwest corner of North Dakota to its confluence with the Missouri River. … a well-cut channel … spectacular, fantastic, colorful and intriguing.” (“Little Missouri River Basin,” 1959)
The report continues: “Elevations vary from 4,600 feet on Flag Butte at the source of the river in Wyoming to 1,900 feet at the mouth of the stream in North Dakota where it enters Garrison Reservoir.” An ignominious end, I might add, and the reservoir’s backwaters have flooded an area of the canyon that was once quite beautiful. A wonderful account of a river journey from a time before the Garrison Dam was written by Clell G. Gannon and published in vol. 1, no. 1, the October 1926 issue of the “North Dakota Historical Quarterly.” Gannon, with his pals, George Will and Russell Reid, all of Bismarck, floated in their 18-foot rowboat, christened the “Hugh Glass,” from Medora to Bismarck in June 1925, using 1894 Missouri River Commission maps. Gannon writes,
“There was no particular motive for the trip. It was a vacation and done for the mere joy of it, although back of it all was a passionate love for the Bad Lands and the Missouri River, and an intense interest in ornithology, geology, archeology and the historic associations with which the region is especially rich.”
The Little Missouri river drains a semi-arid region with seemingly endless bottoms of cottonwood and green ash and is abounding in short-grass forbs and prairie wildlife. “Slope County has 63 percent of its surface within the basin” (“Little Missouri River Basin,” 1959) — again, the serendipity that Slope County, N.D., was my childhood home, settled by my maternal ancestors, along the west fork of Deep Creek, a tributary that enters the Little Missouri River at the Logging Camp Ranch north of our place.
When I close my eyes and return to these wondrous places in my mind, I hear the harsh call of the Red-headed Woodpeckers in the cottonwoods and remember watching a female coyote swimming across just ahead of our approaching canoe somewhere north of Marmarth, N.D., the water dripping from her heavy tits as she emerged on the eastern bank, unperturbed by our silent arrival. Often, as our watercraft slips near the muddy bank, a beaver will splash into the river from their hole, startling us. And once when I was kayaking near Bullion Butte, I inadvertently trapped a baby beaver between my craft and the bank for a minute or two. It nearly fell into my kayak. Once, when Jim and I canoed the river at historic high water, the banks sailed by and we nearly slammed into the canyon wall where it takes a sharp bend at Wind Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP).
These river memories are made by keeping a sharp-eye on the four Little Missouri river gauges maintained by the US Geological Survey, at Camp Crook, Marmarth, Medora, and Watford City (actually at TRNP’s North Unit). The sweet little river in this arid country is more often a trickling stream and one must seize the moment when it is navigable, usually in the early spring, often when there are still chunks of ice on the banks. When we lived in Medora, Jim would dump me and my kayak in the river and at the end of his workday pick me up at a predetermined takeout and listen to my stories of close encounters with bison.
Aforementioned is my long fascination with the headwaters of the Little Missouri River and my quest to learn more about it, hence my collection of historical maps. In 2002, I corresponded with the U.S. Geological Survey attempting to pinpoint the official location of the river’s source. I received a reply from Roger L. Payne, the executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, and retained that letter in my files, from which I will quote extensively. He wrote:
“The earliest USGS topographic map on which the name Little Missouri River appears is the 1:125,000-scale Devils Tower, Wyo., map, published in 1905. Unfortunately, the exact source of the stream is not made clear, although it would appear to originate upstream of the present-day location of Oshoto Reservoir.”
“Presumably, because of the imprecision of the 1905 map, the BGN decided in 1930 to establish the official source of the stream. The Oct. 7, 1931 decision read “… rising in Sec.14, T53N, R68W of 6th P.M. Wyoming, Cook Co. [sic]. …” Following this decision, the USGS Devils Tower topographic map was reprinted in 1939, although with no change in the placement of the type for Little Missouri River, but this name placement did not alter the official source as established in 1931.”
“In 1957, the first larger-scale map, entitled Oshoto and produced at a scale of 1:62,500, was published. This is the map … on which Oshoto Reservoir first appears. The name Little Missouri River continued to appear upstream of the reservoir, yet the name was placed on the more “southerly” tributary, in conflict with the application decreed by the BGN in 1931. The exact source of the stream is not apparent on the 1957 map, because the feature extends beyond the edge of the map, but it is clearly, and incorrectly not the aforementioned tributary, ‘rising in Sec. 14, T53N,R68W. …”
He continues: “In 1962, the Army Map Service (AMS) in cooperation with the USGS, published its 1:250,000-scale Gillette topographic map. Despite the small scale of this map, the name Little Missouri River was clearly applied to the more “westerly” tributary (that is, present-day Deadman Creek). Although this corresponded to the location established by the BGN in 1931, the BGN was informed in 1974 by a representative of the USGS Mapping Center that the application was incorrect. Based on field investigation conducted by the Mapping Center, local authorities recommended that the source be depicted in accordance with the 1957/59 map, not the 1962 AMS map or the 1931 BGN decision. This investigation further revealed that the more westerly tributary was indeed Deadman Creek. Upon review of this evidence, the BGN voted on Dec. 10, 1974 to change officially the application of the name Little Missouri River to the more southerly tributary and apply officially the name Deadman Creek to the more westerly stream. This application is still official for federal use today, although … the name Little Missouri River appears ‘only’ downstream of Oshoto Reservoir on the 1984 Oshoto topographic map.”
Armed with all of this tantalizing detail and given the perfect opportunity during a driving vacation to Wyoming and Utah, Jim and I found our way to the landscape west of Devils Tower, Wyo., almost 20 years ago.
On the return leg, we left the freeway at Moorcroft, Wyo., just when one can begin to glimpse Devils Tower to the north, and thus began a two-day gravel-road adventure, one that included the loss of the Jeep’s muffler. It took some wrong turns, but we found the headwaters and climbed to take in view of the grassy and gently rolling landscape, so different from the rugged Bad Lands of the North Dakota reach of the Little Missouri River we know so well.
Confirming that indeed there was a reservoir, albeit small, near the tiny village of Oshoto, we knew the myth of the undammed river arose from the confusion in the maps described above, stemming from the 1984 version of the map that did not name the river above the dam. Nonetheless, about 555 miles of the river’s 560 miles run freely through the wild landscape.
We headed north, staying as close to the banks of the river as the roads allowed, the perfect exploration of the Little Missouri River country. Throughout its Wyoming and Montana reach, it is really more a prairie stream, dotted with place names signifying the river’s name. It isn’t until Camp Crook, S.D., that a bridge of any significance crosses the river, and after that, there are just seven more bridges of any substance, at Marmarth, Medora (interstate, highway and railroad), near Watford City, and the illegal bridge, all in North Dakota, and a whole lot of “Texas crossings” built by the local ranchers, wide places filled with rocks (some naturally occurring, some hauled in) rendering it easier to cross except in the rare instances of high water
Our destination that last night of the road trip was the U.S. Forest Service campground southwest of Camp Crook in the West Short Pines, one of the many “pine islands” scattered about this west river country, rolling hills covered with ponderosa pine, uprising from the prairie expanse, thus different from the more commonly occurring buttes. Short Pines was once a Forest Reserve in its own right, established in 1905, but is now part of the Gallatin National Forest. Sadly, there had been a recent fire in the area. We had the entire campground to ourselves and a splendid, star-filled sky.
Here in the West Short Pines, we found a whimsical USFS sign that merited a stop and we’ve laughed about it ever after. Seems if one was headed to Camp Crook, there was no wrong turn, a parable for my life and this epic entry.