Down the Missouri, Part II: Of Mice and Men

The Missouri River Canoe Expedition of 2003 took Todd Siefker and I through the White Cliffs of the Missouri and past several of the campsites of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  We actually stayed overnight in a few of the same camp sites used by the famed explorers.  We did not stay in those campsites because we wanted to somehow imitate the explorers.  As a matter of fact, we knew our two-man expedition paled in comparison to their epic journey.  For starters, we navigated the Missouri in a plastic Royalex canoe.  We also carried with us an array of ultra-modern outdoor gear that made our expedition more comfortable, faster, and lighter than that earlier sojourn.  We slept inside a nylon tent, kept the rain off our bodies with Gore-Tex jackets, cooked food on a Primus multi-fuel stove (it could burn everything from unleaded gasoline to jet fuel), and called our loved ones from the remote reaches of Montana on a cell phone.  We had nothing in common with Lewis and Clark.  Rather, we chose to camp where they camped because their 1805 and 1806 campsites were still the best sites for camping along the Upper Missouri, especially in a land dominated by towering bluffs and gullied badlands.

Near Cow Island, we found a campsite on the north bank of the Missouri.  Lewis and Clark slept there back in 1805.  We immediately understood why.  The location possessed all the necessary attributes of a perfect campsite.  It held a stand of cottonwoods near the river, which offered us some shade from the sun.  Dry, dead branches lay on the ground beneath the trees.  Those branches provided us the kindling for a cooking fire.  A gently sloping, gravel bank led up from the river to a flat plain of sagebrush.  The gradual rise of the bank eased the hauling of gear to the spot where we intended on setting up the tent. The gravel surface of the bank provided us a firm footing while we unloaded the canoe.  The gravel also kept us from sinking up to our knees in mud as we moved our gear from the canoe to the tent site.  At the foot of the bank, the Missouri slowly pushed its waters eastward.  A sluggish current allowed us to gather water, and to bath in the river, without fear of being carried downstream.  We had an excellent field of vision from the campsite.  We could see for a great distance in every direction.  If one of Montana’s xenophobic wackos showed up out there, we would see him coming from a mile away.  I am certain Lewis and Clark appreciated the site’s open vistas.  They needed to be on the look out for the Blackfeet Indians.

We put our tent under tall cottonwoods about fifty yards from the Missouri.  To the east, only a few feet from the tent, someone had dug a circular fire pit and lined it with smooth, round stones.  Bordering the rim of the fire pit, previous campers placed three large logs in the shape of a rough triangle.  The logs served as crude camp fire seats.  Off to the north, beyond the cottonwoods, stretched an ascending sagebrush plain.  It rose to a ridgeline and then fell away.  Approximately two hundred yards to our west the plain ended in a line of rugged hills.  Two hundred yards to our east the land became broken with hillocks and hollows.  Our camp sat squarely in the middle of what nineteenth century Missouri River travelers referred to as a “bottom.”  Bottoms denoted small pockets of fertility in the otherwise sparsely vegetated northern Great Plains.

After we finished unloading the canoe, we set up the tent.  We placed as much of our gear as possible under the rain fly and within the tent’s vestibule.  We put the remainder of our gear and storage bags along the outside edge of the tent.  Once our camp had been set up, Todd canoed across the river and a scaled a high, steep bluff in order to make a phone call.  Since we did not have cell phone service in the valley lowlands, he needed to be up high to send a call out.

While Todd made his phone call, I went fishing in a small backwater west of our camp.  I fished with a cheap, ten-dollar Zebco rod and reel combo.  At the end of its monofilament line, I attached a lead sinker.  Two feet above the weight, I tied on a standard-sized hook.  A foot above the hook, I slipped on a red and white, golf-ball sized bobber.  I slid a chunky piece of turkey Spam on the hook as bait.  Earlier in the week, I discovered that turkey Spam gave me severe GI (gastrointestinal) issues, i.e. the runs.  The Spam’s excessive salt content, mysterious turkey bits, and large quantity of fat did not sit well in my stomach.  Since the onset of my stomach problems, Spam had been my “go to” fish bait.

Within ten minutes, I had a giant German carp on the line.  The carp was one of the biggest I have ever caught; and being from Sioux City, Iowa, I have caught some big Missouri River carp.  Right after pulling the monster onto the bank, I hit it over the head with a hefty stick.  As soon as I knew it was dead, I returned to camp with it.  At about the same time, Todd came down from the mountaintop in a buoyant mood.  He had gotten through to Sioux City and his wife (who happened to be my sister Jean Ellen).

Although neither one of us had ever eaten carp, we planned on making a meal of the thing.  During my youth, I had not eaten the fish taken from the Missouri River at Sioux City.  The huge quantities of farm chemicals, feedlot runoff, and urban waste in the river there made me doubt the health of the fish.  But the Upper Missouri is cleaner, so we thought the fish would be safe to consume.  Both of us also wanted to “live off the land” as much as possible on this canoe trip.  Eating fish, including carp, meant we were actually living off the fat of the land.

Todd prepped the fish for grilling.  After cleaning it, he sliced it down the length of its spine – creating two long slabs of meat.  The pieces resembled slabs of pork ribs.  He left the scales on the fish, believing they would hold in moisture and keep the meat from drying out while on the fire.  Finally, he placed the two long pieces of carp on top of an iron grate over the fire, with the scaly sides facing down.

We cooked that carp through and through, not wanting any part of it raw.  Eventually, I took my chunk of meat and Todd took his and we sat down on our respective logs.  After adding a touch of salt and pepper – our only seasoning – we chowed down.

The carp tasted awful.  The rubbery light brown flesh took forever to soften enough to swallow.  But I ate it – all of it – including the dark red streak of flesh running down the length of the spine.  That strip of flesh was so rich, pungent, and vile, I almost threw it back up minutes after swallowing it.  But I did not want to waste any of the fish, believing that since I killed it, I must eat all of it.  At the end of the meal, my stomach ached with nearly two pounds of digesting carp.  Hours after the meal, I still felt like I was on the verge of vomiting.  Todd felt the same.

At 10:00 p.m., I turned in for the night with the fish burps and a sore stomach.  Todd came into the tent a little later, after smoking his nightly fireside cigar.  Some time after the orange ambers of the fire went out, I heard a scratching sound only inches from my head.  I knew that sound well.  I had heard it several times since we had left Fort Benton.  It was the sound of a mouse trying to get into one of the PVC bags lying on the ground under the tent’s small vestibule.  Not wanting a mouse inside one of the bags, where it could despoil our limited food supply, I hit the side of the tent with my forearm, hoping the jarring of the tent would scare the creature away.  The scratching instantly stopped.  But five minutes later, the mouse was back at it.  There was nothing I could do about the mouse.  I could not put the bags in the tent, because there was nowhere to put them. Hanging the bags from a tree with a rope would take too long and I felt too exhausted to do it.  I decided to try and get back to sleep.  Eventually I dozed off.

An hour later, I woke to the sound of scratching coming from the vestibule.  Once again, I hit the inside of the tent with the length of my forearm to jolt the tent and frighten the mouse away.  Just as before, the scratching stopped for a few minutes then started back up again.  Weary, and too tired to try to keep the mice out of the vestibule, I fell back to sleep.

I awoke for a third time at about 4:00 a.m. to the sound of scratching, gnawing, and scurrying.  The high level of noise outside the tent indicated that more mice had moved into camp since I had last been awake.  I had no idea how many mice now ran around outside the tent– but the sound of pattering feet and chewing indicated that dozens of mice had come in from the surrounding sagebrush plains.  I heard them bounding over bags, gnawing on god-knows-what, and even scratching at the side of the tent.  For the third time that night, I hit the side of the tent to push them away.  I also thought a bit of verbal abuse might frighten them off.  I yelled out, “I’m gonna kill you, you little f…  Get the f..k out of here!”  My threat did not faze them.  The mice did not even pause for a moment in their rummaging.  I began to fear for what I would discover in the morning.  The worst-case scenario would be a gaping hole in the tent’s mosquito netting or a big hole in one of the bags containing our food.  But I also recognized that running out into the night and dashing about camp like a madman was not going to keep them out of camp.  I tried to fall back to sleep – without success.  So I laid there, listening to the mice overrun our camp site.

An hour later, the sky began to lighten.  It was then that I heard a new sound in camp.  It was the sound of wings gliding through the air with a hushed “whoosh.”  The first bird landed in one of the trees near the tent.  I actually heard it alight on a branch.  Moments later, another “whoosh” signaled the arrival of a second bird.  That bird landed on a tree further from the tent.  In a couple minutes, still more “whoosh” sounds brought in more birds.  At least half a dozen birds took up positions in the trees overlooking our tent and the barren ground surrounding the fire pit.  I initially thought owls had landed in the cottonwoods.  Interestingly, the sound of the wings passing through the air had quieted the mice.  At first, I thought the mice had run off with the arrival of the birds.  But in fact, the mice had frozen in place.

A few minutes later, on the south side of the tent, I heard a loud, sharp “caw, caw, caw.”  Crows had come into camp, not owls.  The crow’s caws instantly put the mice on the move.  I heard the little creatures dashing out from the cover of the tent and nearby brush and moving en masse toward the north.  Within seconds, another crow, situated in a tree on the north side of the campground, let out a series of caws.  The cawing of the second crow halted the retreat of the mice to the north.  The fleeing pack turned back and ran across the bare ground near the fire pit.  With the mice now completely exposed, the crows left their perches and swooped down upon them.  I lay in the tent, listening to the sound of their wings as they moved in for the kill.

The crows slaughtered the mice.  I heard the death screeches and squeals of the rodents at the moment the crows hit the mice with their claws or beaks.  The dive-bombing crows continued their assault for several minutes.  Inside the tent, I listened to an odd symphony of “whoosh,” “whoosh,” “squeal,” “squeal,” and “caw,” “caw.”  The swirl of birds and mice ended soon after it began.  Once they had finished picking the campsite clean of mice, the crows, barking out an occasional caw, flew off with their prey.  The camp fell silent.

I never knew the final death toll of mice, but the rodents must have suffered a large number of casualties.  I felt a genuine gratitude toward the crows.  The black, much maligned birds helped us.  After the flock left the scene, I did not hear any mice outside the tent or under the vestibule.  I eventually fell back to sleep and slept soundly for the first time that night.  When morning came, I discovered a couple of tiny holes in two of the PVC bags.  Had the mice had another hour or two of gnawing time, they probably would have gotten into our food stores.  But the crows denied them those extra hours of life.

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