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A Path to Fort Union

There is certainly more than one route to Fort Union Trading Post, a national historic site on the border of Montana and North Dakota. Back in June, I, along with some of Montana’s finest re-enactors of the mountain man and fur trading era, chose to take a path that included a 5 day, 30-mile excursion down a section of the upper Missouri River in a 24-foot Mackinaw called the Brass Turtle. Once at the fort, we spent another three nights with a hundred or so more re-enactors.

The rules are fairly simple for these trips. Dress the part and play the part. Almost all modern materials and devices are left behind. This means trading in your Gore-Tex and fancy hiking boots for oil cloth and leather moccasins, exchanging your matches for flint and steel, and cooking only on open fire and/or dutch oven. Water is stored in smelly old wooden barrels probably growing a plethora of bacteria, and beer is left behind in favor of rum and whiskey in period-correct jugs. The morning’s coffee is brewed filter-free in a large pail, and scooped out with your mug. Showers come in the form of a quick dip in the silty waters of the Missouri. Of course, with a group of guys who aren’t getting any younger (and for newcomers like myself), exceptions are made to allow for safer food handling (coolers are allowed, but disguised well) and more comfortable sleeping arrangements (Therma-Rests) for those who choose. Oh, and cameras are allowed, of course. I persisted. And bacon…lots of bacon (about 16 pounds came on the boat with us and was gone by the time we reached the fort).

On the open plains of Eastern Montana, storms quite literally materialize out of nowhere, and with only a canvas lean-to (that’s one wall instead of four) providing protection from the elements, things can get interesting.  And wet. We were lucky to encounter minimal hail, rain, and thunder storms, all of which came once camp was set up and we could take shelter in our tent.

We ate well (bacon and eggs every morning, fresh bread baked in the dutch oven, rabbit and venison cooked over the open fire) and drank plenty, sometimes even water. We explored the river and its banks – part of the very route once traveled by the fur traders and settlers of the 19th century – staring straight in to the same hills and trees painted by Karl Bodmer back then. 

Click photos for a larger view

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Six of us took position in the Brass turtle with most of the gear. The other two in the group paddled canoes out front, or alongside the larger boat

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Yes, there is a cannon on the bow of the Brass Turtle, and yes, we used it. A lot.

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We found a few great old buffalo bones near one of our camps. Buffalo haven’t been in the area for about 150 years.

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Morning coffee while breakfast cooks.

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Fort Union from the water.

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Technically in North Dakota at this point, but it’s still Big Sky Country.

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“Stick meat”. Venison on hand-forged skewers.

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Lucky for us, the biggest storm of the trip waited until we were at the fort to hit. Lighting to the east, after the storm had passed.