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Canoeing Jefferson River Canyon.

Paddle the river presidential
The history of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail
Madisonian Summer Times, 2010
Story by Ryan Bell for The Madisonian

      "I occasionally encourage (the crew) by assisting in the labour of navigating the canoes, and have learned to push a tolerable good pole." -- Meriwether Lewis, July 23, 1805. (Four days before discovering the Jefferson River.)

      Pound for pound, or rather, drop-of-water for drop-of-water, the Jefferson River may be the most interesting river in Montana. It has everything: scenic vistas, wildlife, recreation. Most people visit it to fish, but historically speaking, the "Jeff" is foremost a canoeing river. Two hundred and five years ago, on July 27, 1805, the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark paddled their dugout canoes up the waterway. Today, paddlers can recreate the journey by following the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, a stem of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

      "When I used to read about the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveling through here, it was just an abstract fact in a history book," says Thomas J. Elpel, president of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. "Now, when I paddle down the river past sites where they actually camped, their journey comes alive."

      The Jefferson River Canoe Trail grew out of Elpel's love for recreation and conservation.

      "I grew up in the Montana before 'No Trespassing' signs, back when you could go anywhere," says Elpel, a resident of Silver Star.

      Elpel watched as housing and farming developments encroached on the Jefferson River, and he wanted to do something about it. So he organized a local chapter of the Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail Foundation, and got to work mapping the river to identify public access points, places where people could camp, and opportunities where private land owners could contribute conservation or recreation easements to their land. The result is a handsome map people can use today to self-guide day canoe trips, or their own overnight expedition.

      "It's important to keep the river and the story alive for future generations," says Elpel. "This river is extra special because Lewis and Clark named it for the person who sent them on their journey, President Thomas Jefferson."

      The Jefferson River's christening is arguably the most symbolic, and yet understated, moment during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As the first American explorers of the region, Lewis and Clark had first crack at naming the landmarks of Montana. Their tendency was to name rivers in honor of political figures of the day, and thanks to them today's map reads like a roll call of the presidential chain of command, circa 1803-05. There's the Smith River (named for Robert Smith, secretary of the Navy), Dearborn River (Henry Dearborn, secretary of war), Madison River (James Madison, secretary of state), and Gallatin River (Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury

      With so many rivers to name, but so few governmental offices to name them after, you wonder if at some point they ran out. I imagine what that conversation would sound like today:

      Lewis: "Let's name this 'Bob' River

      Clark: "Nope. We used 'Bob' back in the Dakotas."

      Lewis: "How about 'Harry' River?"

      Clark: "You can't be serious."

      Lewis: "Well, shoot, I'm fresh out of ideas."

      Surprisingly, it took Lewis and Clark two years and three thousand miles of travel before using the most obvious name, that of President Thomas Jefferson. As the grand patron of their expedition, you'd think Lewis and Clark would've named something for him straight out of the gate. But they didn't.

      Then, on July 27, 1805, the expedition canoed up the Missouri River to where it forked at a confluence of three rivers. Lewis described the location in his journal as "an essential point in the geography of this western part of the continent..." The explorers determined that they would follow the southern of the three forks and christened it Jefferson's River, "in honor [of] that illustrious personage Thomas Jefferson President of the United States..."

      They meant for the name to pertain all the way up to present day Dillon, Montana. But later, the naming of the Beaverhead River reduced the Jefferson River to the 77 mile segment that flows between Twin Bridges and Three Forks, Montana. In terms of mileage, one of the other forks would've been more presidential -- the 183-mile Madison, or the 120-mile Gallatin River.

      In the long run, however, the Jefferson River does well by its namesake. President Jefferson was an enthusiastic bird watcher and fisherman. Philosophically, he believed in the virtue of the yeoman farmer. His agrarian outlook shaped how he viewed the future of the United States. Today, the 3rd President of the United States would find evidence of all these from the bow of a canoe on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

      "The viewscape from the river is remarkable," says Elpel. "You see trees, the river and wildlife in foreground, and mountains in background. It makes a lot of the river look like what Lewis and Clark saw when they traveled through."

      Unlike Lewis and Clark, today's canoeists paddle down river. It's easier work, and with 80 miles to cover, the faster speed enables you to complete the journey in 5-7 days. For a recommended $20 donation, get a copy of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Map. Made with the help of expert cartographer Robert Bergantino, this map shows where Lewis and Clark camped and other historic landmarks, as well as public access points for put-in and take-out, camping (a scarcity on the river), and other pieces of logistical information important to a trip down the river presidential.

      "Canoeing is a unifying theme to public access and conservation along the Jefferson River," concludes Elpel.

Used with permission of The Madisonian

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Canoeing Jefferson River near Lewis & Clark caverns.

Following Lewis and Clark
Grassroots Group wants to establish canoe trail on Jefferson River
Story and photos by Laura L. Lundquist for the Montana Standard, 07/25/2009

      The sautéed weeds seemed appropriate fare at the potluck lunch of a grassroots organization.

Long time JCRT members canoeing.

Jerry Aaker and Warren Swager maneuver their canoe along a stretch of of the Jefferson River that flows past an old gypsum mine.

      Also appropriate was the fact that the plants - lambsquarters and nettles - were all harvested next to the Jefferson River and represented a tiny fraction of the plants to be found there.

      The 12 people at the potluck enjoy not only the edible greens, but everything about the Jefferson River and are trying to save it. They are members of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Association and shared ideas and food followed by a recent float trip.

      Tom Elpel of Silver Star, association president, said the group started in 2003 with big ideas of conservation efforts along all three rivers that birth the Missouri: The Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson.

Eventually, they settled on a more focused mission of establishing a canoe trail from the headwaters of the Jefferson to those of the Missouri.

      The Jefferson mainstem is the shortest of the three rivers and is slow as it meanders through the flatlands. But according to Lewis and Clark Caverns ranger Tom Forwood, that's exactly why Lewis and Clark chose the river as their most likely route to the sea.

      The river has changed since the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1803-06. Forwood said irrigation and climate change have affected the flow making it low in late summer. In August, it can be easier to walk than float.

2009 Annual JCRT float trip.

Association members pause for a break during a canoe float of the Jefferson River below Cardwell.

      But in early summer, canoeists can see the same sights as Lewis and Clark along the majority of the river. The association is trying to diminish the biggest threat to that opportunity: Streamside development. To that end, they are trying to acquire or lease land for primitive camping spots along the river and encouraging land owners to put streamside acreage into conservation easements.

      Grassroots groups have many challenges, not the least of which is finding money for their projects. This can be even more difficult when based in a remote location like the Jefferson River Valley.

      Gathered in Elpel's living room, the group brought up recently listed real estate opportunities for possible campsites. With their bank account holding enough to pay for a car, they seemed undaunted while discussing the possibility of buying a $490,000 property and brainstormed for possible contributors.

      "If we could just get that first campsite, we'd be on our way," said Warren Swager, a retired doctor from Sheridan.       The group hope more people enjoying the river can make a louder call for conservation.

      Elpel bemoaned a piece of property up for sale a few years ago. The landowner offered to give the association a price of $200,000. Elpel approached Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks personnel with a proposal, but they couldn't justify it with a fishing access just three miles away, he said.

      Elpel said someone else bought the property and built a big house by the river.

      Over the sound of the trucks passing through Silver Star, the members discussed the big issue before the group: whether to become a chapter of the Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail Foundation. As a chapter, they would get federal non-profit status, but Janet Zimmerman, of Pony, had mixed feelings about some of the requirements of joining a larger group.

      "Not all of us can afford to pay for an annual membership," Zimmerman said. "But, it might give us better visibility and outreach. And they might have other resources we can use." A commission established by Congress recommended in 1964 that the Lewis and Clark Trail be marked and federally protected. The foundation began in 1969 to carry on the commission's work and has 36 chapters across the U.S.

      Swager liked the idea.

      "We'd be a specialized chapter because we have an agenda," he said.

      Although they had questions, if reports are good from two nearby chapters in Dillon and Three Forks, the association may become the 37th chapter of the foundation and be that much closer to keeping the Jefferson River a place of discovery.

      Three canoe trail topomaps are available for a $20 suggested donation. Send the donation and a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Association, P.O. Box 681, Silver Star, Montana 59751. Canoe rental and shuttles are also available in Silver Star at Granny's Country Store.

Used with permission of the Montana Standard

Houses crowding Jefferson River, MT.

Most of the river is still untouched from the time of Lewis and Clark, but development is starting to change that.

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Group works to develop Jefferson River canoe trail
By Janet Zimmerman for the Belgrade News, 09/02/2008

      It's been three years since the 200th-anniversary celebration of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and critics suggested that the occasion should have provided lasting benefits for the public.

      Perhaps thee critics didn't know that members of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Association have been working for six years to create a public canoe trail along the 80-mile Jefferson River so families can experience first-hand the excitement of the Corps of Discovery's historic journey.

      Earlier this summer, JRCTA members gathered in Silver Star for their annual meeting and canoe float on the Jefferson River. A letter was drafted and sent to each of the 140 landowners along the river corridor, seeking donations of land for camp sites as well as conservation easements to protect open space and wildlife habitat.

      At present, there are only three designated no-trace campsites on the route: Point of Rocks south of Whitehall; Canyon Corner near Lewis and Clark Caverns; and the Philosophy River near Willow Creek. But the group hopes to eventually establish seven or eight campsites along the river.

      Each landowner has received a complimentary copy of the new Jefferson River Canoe Trail Map published by the group, as well as contact information for the Montana Land Reliance for information about conservation easements.

      The Jefferson River landscape has changed little in the past 200 years. A float down the river has been described as being akin to an African safari because of the great numbers of birds, mammals, reptiles and plant communities that can be easily observed by the canoe traveler.

      The Jefferson River begins at the confluence of the Big Hole and Ruby rivers a few miles downstream from Twin Bridges. It merges with the Madison and Gallatin rivers near Three Forks to form the Missouri.

      Tom Elpel, president of the group, has witnessed the disappearance of favorite wild places most of his life. It seems that people only become aware of what is lost after it disappears. He hears friends and family regularly lament the loss of access to their favorite recreational places.

      "I want a different outcome for the Jefferson while we still have the opportunity," said Elpel, an outdoor skills expert and author from Silver Star. "We have a vision that the public will be able to retrace the journey of Lewis and Clark on the Jefferson River and learn about the daily activities of the expedition along the way."

      Supporter Ron Spoon, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist, sees the group's efforts as complimentary to the efforts of others who are working to preserve the water resources in the Jefferson for recreation and area agricultural users.

      Referring to the Jefferson as the "Forgotten Fork," Spoon says he sees all watershed users taking a more active role in working with county commissioners to conserve the river's resources. A growing public sentiment supports planning ahead to avoid the uncontrolled development that has occurred along the Madison, Yellowstone and Bitterroot rivers.

      Several area organizations support the concept. The Ruby Valley Chamber of Commerce has written a letter of support and the Jefferson River Watershed Council passed a resolution in favor of the project. The National Park Service recognizes the Jefferson River as part of the 3,700-mile Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.

      JRCTA board member Warren Swagger of Sheridan came to Montana from New York state in 1959. An experienced canoe traveler, he recalls his fondness for the canoe trails he explored in his youth on the lakes in the Adirondack Mountains.

      Swagger has contacted key state and national politicians to explain how a canoe trail on the Jefferson would benefit the public.But he admits there is much work to do yet, and plans to be part of a team that will present the proposal seeking support from legislators and civic groups this winter.

      "I feel an emotional debt to Lewis and Clark and the fact that they named this river after their leader, President Jefferson," he said. "There is great potential for a Jefferson Canoe Park trail; it really wouldn't cost that much and would be a great benefit to the community in many ways."

      For more information about the project and the Jefferson River Canoe Trail maps, visit the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Association's Web site at jeffersonriver.org.

Used with permission of the Belgrade News.

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Jefferson River canoe trail proposed
By Perry Backus of The Montana Standard, 10/18/2004

      SILVER STAR - When Thomas Elpel walks out his backdoor and sees the Jefferson River winding its way toward Three Forks, he can't help but wonder what it would be like to spend days drifting downriver.

      "I've been fascinated by the river for a long time," said Elpel of Silver Star. "It's so rich in biodiversity. It has so much wildlife that floating it is almost like an African safari."

      As it stands, there are no designated campsites along the river. Camping isn't allowed at state fishing access sites. Most of the rest of the land along the river is in private hands. Even the isolated tracts of federal lands along the river are hard to find and aren't developed for camping.

      "Right now you can't really connect fully with the ecosystem along the river," said Elpel.

      Elpel and a small but dedicated group of people hope to change that.

      The 3Rivers Park organization is proposing the development of a network of floater's camps along the Jefferson River. They are in the middle of a fund-raiser to purchase a 10-acre tract close to the river near the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park that could become the first campsite of the new Lewis and Clark Jefferson River Trail.

      Another rancher near Three Forks is working with the group on a 40-acre tract that may be added to the trail.

      Elpel wants eventually to see as many as seven or eight sites along the 83-mile length of the Jefferson River where floaters could stop for a night and enjoy the scenery and abundant wildlife.

      The hope is that private landowners will come forward with other parcels that could be purchased or donated to help establish the trail.

      "We're looking for any unused parcel on the river, especially those with natural barriers and room for people for roam," Elpel said.

      For instance, the parcel that the group now holds a buy/sell agreement on near the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park would open up thousands of acres of public lands for floaters to explore. The "Canyon Corner" 10-acre parcel runs along a sliver of Bureau of Land Management land along the river.

      "Whoever owns this property has virtual control over more than a half mile of BLM river front property," Elpel says of the Canyon Corner parcel.

      On the other side are thousands of acres of state-owned lands.

      "It's not simply a place where you could stake a tent," said Elpel. "Floaters would be able to go on awesome hikes in the park as well."

      The group is looking for people willing to help purchase the property at the cost of $79,900. People interested in donating may call Elpel at 685-3222 or contact him through the group's Web site at 3riverspark.org.

      "We're getting lots of enthusiastic support for it," Elpel said. "People are really concerned about access right now. We're interested in finding ways to work with ranchers to find ways to keep people on the land rather than seeing those lands split up into subdivisions."

      Elpel hopes to build an advocacy group interested in protecting the river.

      "We want to be able to sustain our Montana traditions that are so important to the people who live here," he said.

      Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commissioner Tim Mulligan likes the idea of volunteers coming together to help provide floaters access to camping sites.

      "Anything that can bring more people to the table is a good thing," Mulligan said. "It seems like this could provide some opportunities that are different from what is available now."

      The group's efforts would center on sites that couldn't be accessed from the road. Mulligan said those types of access are better managed by the state.

      Mulligan said he also likes the idea that the group is willing to step forward to help take care of the sites. While the state is always concerned about the increased need for opportunities and access, it also has to be aware of increasing costs to manage what it already has, he said.

      "We want to be able to be a good neighbor," he said.

      Considering the excitement surrounding the upcoming bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Elpel said it's a bit surprising that there hasn't been more of a focus on the Jefferson River. The river is part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

      "Of all the rivers that Lewis and Clark traveled, this is the one they decided to name after the president who sent them on their journey," he said.

      People who've lived along the Jefferson River for all their lives tell Elpel about how they've lost access to places they grew up fishing and hunting. If future Montanans are going to be able to enjoy the scenic beauty of the Jefferson River, people now need to do what they can to make a difference, he said.

      "We're interested in doing something now that people will be able to appreciate 100 years from now," said Elpel.

Used with permission of the Montana Standard.

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