“Looks like you owe us a six-pack when the course is over Sabrina!” Poor Sabrina had stepped out of her kayak as we all pulled over to investigate an abandoned homestead along the river. She had placed her foot on what she thought was a compact surface, only to be deceived by many layers of mud that can give way. As she struggled to pull one foot free from the mud the other would sink in farther until grit and muscle came together to pull free her boots and wade to firmer ground. The Alaskan tradition of favors being called after a friend fills their rubber boots with water has made its way from the North Pacific to the banks of the Missouri River in central Montana. The boots though are not filled with the salt brine of the ocean but with the dark, silt rich waters of the Missouri River. This river has been known nationally as the “Big Muddy” since Mark Twain’s time, but one cannot understand how appropriate this name is until they themselves sink foot, ankle, calf, and knee into this mud. Some made scorn the sucking silt mud, but the mud is vital to the life along its riparian corridor, which supports the very ecology of the “Breaks” area of central Montana.
The riparian corridor the snakes down the white cliffs and breaks section of the Missouri River supports a very unique biological community with the ever moving mud at its center. One of the most important parts of the Missouri’s riparian ecosystem is the cottonwood galleries. These cottonwood trees are large and give shade to the grasses so that they do not lose too much moisture to the sun’s heating rays. The better grasses and the shade attract a multitude of animals such as deer, elk, cattle, and coyotes. The trees help transform the river bottom to a lush oasis in contrast to the surrounding sagebrush desert.