Drinking from the Source

Finding solace at the Missouri Headwaters.

Living in Bozeman can make a person immune to the spectacular. Every day we’re surrounded by striking displays of nature, much of which is steeped in history and ripe with recreational opportunity. We exist in a world of grandeur, yet, amidst our busy lives, it sometimes goes overlooked. One such example for this Bozemanite is a set of three serpentine waterways winding lazily through the valley floodplain not 30 miles from town. Brimming with bird life, native flora, and freshwater fish, the convergence of these channels is the source of (what should be) America’s longest river. Here, of course, we have the headwaters of the Missouri.

The area was inhabited by native tribes like the Nez Perce, Shoshone, Blackfeet, and Flathead for thousands of years. In 1805, Lewis and Clark were perhaps the first Europeans to witness the spectacle on their epic journey west. Later that century, the landmark was used as a frequent campsite during the fur trade. In 1960, Missouri Headwaters State Park was designated as a National Historic Landmark.

For some reason, and I blame this on Bozeman’s profuse proximity to outdoor splendor, I forget what all this space has to offer. Lucky for me, I’ve got a few friends keen on doling out a reminder. So, on a bright and sunny day, we load up and make the quick trip west.

With sweat caked to shirts and dripping from foreheads, we all agree that it’s time for a dip.

We arrive at the Three Forks confluence at noon. Half the group laces up running shoes while the other half buckles bike helmets. The heat of the day is spent exploring the park’s trail network and relearning the area’s history by way of interpretive displays and outdoor exhibits. There are a few other visitors, but for the most part we have the park to ourselves. At just over 530 acres, it’s not galactic in size, but to us it feels spacious. We wander without a sense of urgency, noticing sights lesser known and appreciating wildlife that call this place home.

A great blue heron takes off from the riverbank. Sandhill cranes call in the distance. We see a rattlesnake slither into deep, protective cover.

After a couple hours, our groups reconvene where the Gallatin flows into the Missouri. With sweat caked to shirts and dripping from foreheads, we all agree that it’s time for a dip. We’ve got dogs, drinks, and a warm beach to boot. I dive in and swim to the other side, out of breath and completely replenished. As I kick my way back, my pup jumps in and doggy-paddles out, meeting me in the middle of the river. There’s nothing like cold water on a hot day, be you human or dog. For the next hour, we play fetch and soak in the afternoon’s rays. When the sun starts to wane, we layer back up and head to the rigs for our next event.

Some of us grab cameras—the sunset is on the way—while others thread tippet through fly rods and tie various patterns onto the end of the line. With three tributaries, we’ve got options. I choose the Gallatin and saunter half a mile upstream before trying my first cast. There’s a piece of slack water that’s bound to hold a trout, but if he’s there, he isn’t interested in anything I have to offer. After a dozen or so attempts, I reel up and head around the bend.

Living in Bozeman for so long has caused me to take parts of its beauty for granted.

When I reach the next promising stretch, I wade out to the middle and position myself 30 feet below the first good hole. Before unhooking, I take another moment to examine my surroundings. The slow, cool water hugs my legs. The songbirds call in the canopy above me and the colorful hues come alive atop the Bridger ridgeline. Many before me have witnessed the same scene, and I’m hopeful that many others will do so in the future.

Indeed, living in Bozeman for so long has caused me to take parts of its beauty for granted. But in moments like these, I am quickly reminded. On this night, standing in the middle of a river with a cool gravel bed below me and a heavenly sky above, I am filled with wonder and amazement and the absolute assurance that there’s no place I’d rather be.