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In the Canyon of the Clark Fork

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In the Canyon of the Clark Fork

If you begin from anywhere to come to the absolute headwaters of Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone, which flows south and east into Wyoming out of the Beartooth Mountains of south-central Montana, you must eventually travel twisting, winding, rising and falling U.S. Highway 212. With its stripes of paint and not-infrequent potholes, U.S. 212 is the most secondary of highways. After a careen out of the Rockies, it eventually veers due east and terminates in Minneapolis, disappears off the map, as if the city swallows it up. 

Following 212 west means threading through metropolises like Hector, Sacred Heart and Montevideo, Minnesota, before crossing into South Dakota at Big Stone Lake. It continues upstream through Dolan, Lebanon, Mud Butte and Bell Fourche before cutting across the corner of Wyoming into Montana; thence west by a little north through Broadus on the Powder and the orange hills of Pumpkin Creek and by Little Big Horn Battlefield. There it joins forces with Interstate 90 for 76 hectic miles before exiting at Laurel, slowing down again and working its way through Red Lodge and up and over 11,000-foot Bear Tooth Pass and into, finally, Wyoming again and the drainage of the Clark’s Fork. 

After crossing that river a single time, it wanders back to Montana and Cooke City with its touristy gift shops and restaurants, two-dollar gasoline and a police force consisting of an empty patrol car parked at each end of town. A few miles west, it passes through Silver Gate and the northeast entrance of Yellowstone Park, where it dissipates, as if it has its source in the meadows along Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River. 

In all of the travels of U.S. 212, the most spectacular are the miles in which it switches back and forth over Beartooth Pass, drops into Clark’s Fork and then climbs Cooke Pass, where waters of the river drain from the ridges of the Beartooths, tumbling through a boulder-strewn forest that looks as if the whole thing is a waterfall during runoff. 

Just before it crosses Clark’s Fork that once, U.S. 212 passes the entrance to a sort of secret place that Zane Gray or Louis Lamour might have used as the setting of one of their adventures; the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone canyon. 

The canyon is in two parts. The upper canyon is a wide-open glacial basin; a giant, u-shaped trough with benches on both sides of the river that trend away from each other in ascending arcs until the lines becomes just a few degrees off of parallel. On the benches are ranches, and the river runs slightly left of center in a slot it has cut for itself over 12,000 years; some 100 to 150 feet wide and 200 to 250 feet deep. There may be secret ways in and out of this slot, but by all appearances, once you are in that place, you must either go back or travel its 15-mile length to get out of it again. 

At the east end of the upper canyon Sunshine Basin joins and the benches disappear as mountains close in from the south. It is here that the river emerges from its slot and moves into the lower canyon, not so wide as the upper, yet just as steep-sided and wilder yet. No ranches there, just a glacial trough, rock stacked upon rock, agates, mule deer, mountain sheep, prickly pear, sage, rattlesnakes, cottonwood, scrub pine, at least two grizzly bears and the river running in the bottom.

It is Wyoming State Route 296 that rambles 48 miles from U.S. 212 to Wyoming 120, first crossing the river and then skirting along the bench on the south side of the upper basin before climbing up that mountain which squeezes the upper basin closed and over what has possibly the most politically incorrect place name in America today; Dead Indian Hill. Near Dead Indian Summit are also Dead Indian Creek and Dead Indian Gulch, all named for a wounded Nez Perce, the story goes, who was killed by scouts working for General Oliver Howard during the Nez Perce War of 1877.

It is at the top of Dead Indian Summit at a pullout replete with historical markers overlooking the upper basin that you can learn about that war, and the part of this place in it. 

In early September of 1877, the Nez Perce bands of Joseph, Looking Glass and White Bird, 600 souls and 2,000 horses, rode out of what was already Yellowstone National Park, and into Soda Butte Creek. How they made this passage is one of the great mysteries of this story, but somehow they did, and then rode past the prospectors in Cooke City and into the drainage of the Clark’s Fork. 

The Nez Perce had been on the move nearly continuously since leaving northeastern Oregon in late May, and had already engaged in a number of major and minor battles with the United States Army, losing some 150 people and 500 of their horses in the process. 

These Nez Perce, pursued since mid-June by General Howard, were trying to reach the Crow tribe, which lived along the Clark’s Fork in the broad, green, fertile valley running north from the mouth of the lower canyon toward the confluence of Clark’s Fork and the Yellowstone. As they worked their way across the upper basin, rode around the south end of the Sunshine Creek Canyon and climbed the draw toward what is now Dead Indian Summit, they dreamed of living in peace with the Crows, dreamt that their long ride was nearly over. 

Most assuredly some of them, a few of the leadership and warriors and wise people of the bands, knew this was just a dream; that the Army would not let them live in peace, not after this long, brutal chase, not after all the battles. And they would learn soon that the Crows themselves would not allow the dream. The Crows were not in a position to defy the Army by aiding their old allies. In just a few days, the Nez Perce would find out they were not welcome. But as they climbed Dead Indian Hill, the dream still lived. 

At the top of the summit, the Nez Perce arranged a feint, a diversion. They milled their horses, and then rode south, as if they were headed for the Shoshone River and what is now Cody. When Howard’s scouts saw this, they signaled the Seventh Cavalry under Colonel Sturgis, who had been waiting at the mouth of the Clark’s Fork Canyon, and the Seventh went racing south in pursuit of a phantom. Meanwhile, the Nez Perce, after just a few miles, dropped east off the ridge top and rode back to the north through what is now the famous Two Dot Ranch, following the spine of Dead Indian Hill to the head of Dead Indian Gulch, and then riding down the gulch and somehow working their way though the cliffs above the Clark’s Fork down into the lower canyon. 

Exactly how they did this is still another mystery, for the path they must have followed is nearly non-existent, steep, dangerous, and in places a single thread barely wide enough for one horse, much less the passage of 2,000 and 600 people.

In the lower canyon, near the mouth, is a camp site near the river. To get there, you must continue over Dead Indian Summit and drop down through Two Dot range, which is easily identified by the “No Trespassing” signs they have posted. Where 296 joins 120, turn north 15 miles, to Edelweiss, Wyoming, population 3. Turn left to Clark, five miles toward the mountains, where you must take the left road again.

This will take you over the terminal moraine left by the last glacier and up into the mouth of the canyon, where you will pass a sign that says “End of Pavement, 500 feet.” If you wish to go past the end of the pavement, be prepared. Have a 4-wheel-drive with good, sturdy tires and be willing to drive at walking pace over some extraordinarily rough road. 

The camp is a good one, though, in this place where the world seems to be at its most raw. From there, you can hike up the canyon and find, with the aid of a map and a little imagination, where the Nez Perce came to the river and crossed it. You can look up behind the spot and try to fathom how they came down the escarpment you are facing. You can look along the shore of the river and find bear tracks, and know that once upon a time, they would have been obliterated by the passage of 2,000 horses.

If this river could tell stories, it would tell about John Colter, Jim Bridger and the men who built Wyoming 296 and U.S. 212. It would speak of the families who built the ranches along the benches and in Sunshine Basin. But it is the silence in the place that speaks to the passage of the Nez Perce, and the wind that blows one way or another most all the time, the whispers and rumbles of the water itself, and the standing witness of the rock. 

If you begin from anywhere to come to the absolute headwaters of Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone, come with reverence, for Creation, and for the secrets the land holds in unseen tracks from long ago.

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Author info

Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

Tagged as:

travel, Clark Fork River, Nez Perce, Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone

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