Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
Jefferson River Canoe Trail
Sustaining Our Montana Traditions
By Thomas J. Elpel
The Lewis and Clark Jefferson River Canoe Trail was envisioned to establish a network of multipurpose backcountry campsites on private and public lands along the entire length of the Jefferson River. The public may float into these sites for primitive camping along the river. At each camp there are opportunities for such activities as bird watching, mushrooming, hiking, and fishing.
The Jefferson is a great river with great scenery, abundant wildlife, great floating opportunities, and an essential stake in our nation's history. Almost all land along the river is in private hands and development is encroaching everywhere. Yet amazingly, when you get into a canoe and experience the river from the viewpoint of Lewis and Clark, you discover how much the viewshed remains intact from the river. Most of the existing development is far enough back from the river that you only experience the cottonwood ecology along the river, against a backdrop of undeveloped mountains in the distance.
With the addition of strategically chosen backcountry campsites, floaters can take the Lewis and Clark experience from the water to the land, by camping and recreating in remote sites where the land seems nearly unchanged from 200 years ago.
This kind of open space and open access has been a critical part of the Montana tradition throughout our history. People who have lived here all their lives are accustomed to hiking, fishing, and hunting for miles and miles along the rivers and through the woods, across public and private lands alike. But with increased immigration and development pressure, people find that they no longer have access to places they have always used, especially along the river corridors. Hope is not lost, however.
Our organization is working to make the Jefferson River corridor into something that people can more fully experience and appreciate. All that is needed is a few more good sites to allow floaters a quality place to get out and stretch their legs, have lunch, or stop and camp. Our solution is to acquire some backcountry campsites along the river that are accessible only by water, or if by land, then only by non-motorized travel. We wish to avoid the maintenance problems and trash associated with roads and vehicles. Individuals who take the time for multi-day backcountry floats generally have a much greater conservation ethic, and are more likely to pick trash up than leave it.
Camping is presently allowed at isolated parcels of BLM land along the Jefferson River, and within the ordinary high water mark, as allowed by the Montana Stream Access Law. Our organization has produced a unique set of river maps detailing where camping is allowed.
The grassy meadows and cottonwood groves are also part of the river experience, with the potential for camping, hiking, bird-watching, mushrooming, or fishing from the bank, but floaters have little access to it. Local Montanans, as well as history buffs following the Lewis and Clark trail, are denied the opportunity to fully experience the Jefferson River ecosystem. Those who decide to camp along the river anyway are encouraged to trespass onto neighboring private lands out of sheer necessity to find decent campsites.
The Jefferson River Canoe Trail project is intended to provide river users the opportunity for a quality floating and camping experience without the need to trammel across private lands where they are not welcome. Campsites for the Canoe Trail are being chosen such that floaters will have a half or full day float in between each site. Our organization is working to establish campsites on suitable sites on existing state and federal lands, while purchasing land or negotiating recreation easements for additional campsites where necessary. Ownership of the land or easements will be placed with a nonprofit entity, while the full burden of site maintenance and management will be the responsibility of JRCT.
Floaters may follow the canoe trail with the aid of detailed conservation and recreation Canoe Trail Maps of the Jefferson River developed by JRCT. Campsites are presently undeveloped, designated for no-trace backcountry camping, with guidelines for proper use printed on the Canoe Trail Maps. JRCT will monitor use of the trail and evaluate the need over time for specific campsites, metal grills, or backcountry toilets.
It is the hope of our organization that the Jefferson River Canoe Trail will lead to greater public interest in sustaining not just the access, but also the quality of open space along the Jefferson River. We hope to work with landowners to secure conservation easements along the river in a way that will protect the natural character of the viewshed from the river, while helping to keep family farms intact and free from development.
Population growth trends in southwest Montana suggest that now is the time to make long-term decisions to sustain our traditions of open space and open access. The Lewis and Clark Jefferson River Canoe Trail is a significant step to preserve what we have left and to guarantee recreational access to keep future generations of Montanans connected with the land and its history.
About the Jefferson River Canoe Trail: The Jefferson River Canoe Trail is a project of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. We are seeking permanent solutions to sustain our traditions of open space and open access along the Jefferson River corridor. Founded by local author and wilderness survival skills instructor, Thomas J. Elpel, the organization takes a holistic perspective of conservation and recreation along the Jefferson, viewing the entire river system as a unified regional park. The Canoe Trail includes the entire length of the Jefferson along with the associated formal and informal fishing access sites, campsites, hiking trails, conservation easements, state lands and state parks, as well as adjacent BLM and Forest Service lands.
The task at hand is simply one of enhancing infrastructure to improve opportunities for traditional activities such as floating, hiking, camping, bird watching, wildlife viewing, hunting, hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, canoeing, rafting, mushroom hunting, and fishing. We seek to link sites on land and on water to better unite these parcels in a way that will sustain our traditions of open space and open access for future generations of Montanans.
Thomas J. Elpel, president
Jefferson River Chapter LCTHF
PO Box 697
Pony, MT 59747