Megan Harrison: A Journey through the Prairie

img_1145The Great Plains for the last 10,000 years has remained an arid grassland receiving less than 24 inches of rain annually. This makes one wonder how can one of America’s longest river be located in such an dry environment. The Missouri river begins its journey in the headwaters in East Glacier N.P., continues through central Montana to North Dakota, and eventually joins the Mississippi in St. Louis, MO. The Missouri river valley is comprised of unimaginable Virgelle white sandstone cliffs, carved out coulees, and a surprisingly diverse plant community. Prior to the dams in the upper Missouri river, spring floods would help establish new river channels, transforming riparian vegetation for cottonwood seedlings. The seedlings would then be placed high on the river banks to avoid being torn out by winter ice. Over many years, the meandering water of the Missouri has laid down inches of sediment like pages in a novel. While kayaking down the Missouri, the geological features that remain redirects my focus and I become deeply observant of my surroundings.

The beginning of my own journey to the prairie began in mid-September. It had been my first kayak down a major river. It reminded me of a three lane highway: cottonwoods, grassland and sandstone cliffs. Early into the Missouri trip,  our group rested the boats on the muddy banks of Eagle Creek BLM campground. When we awoke the next morning, we hiked  from the south end of the campground heading east into Neat Coulee. As the trail enters the canyon, I am soon restricted by the sandstone walls. The sandstone is a yellow tan, but look closer and one will be able to see white Alkali present in horizontal layers. Within the wall that white Alkali has percolated downward by groundwater and precipitated out when it has reached a less permeable layer of shale. Dragging my fingers across these tan and white walls particles of sand fall from my touch. How old and fragile this landscape seems, weathering before my eyes.

Landforms on the upper Missouri are unlike anywhere I have seen in the state of Montana; a sense that I am unaccustomed to in the western Rocky Mountains. The Great Plains are a complex system of large and small rivers. I have come to learn the history water has left behind over the years.  I will remember my kayaking trip as a trip through time, and I will be curious to see how the future landscape will be affected by the Missouri’s hydraulic processes.

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