Boating the Upper Missouri River is not for the faint of heart

Science Center Objects

June 30, 2016

By Dr. Robb Jacobson

The Upper Missouri River is mostly left to its own devices, allowed to migrate as it pleases. As a result, the river provides complex habitat that may lead to retention and growth of larval pallid sturgeon. The complexity is also vexing for boat drivers because it means that opportunities to get stuck on sandbars are around every bend.

U.S. Geological Survey hydraulic habitat assessment boat in not enough water.

Figure 1. U.S. Geological Survey hydraulic habitat assessment boat in not enough water.

(Public domain.)

The boat of choice has an aluminum hull with a jet prop. On plane, these boats generally draft less than a couple of inches. Problems crop up when the water is shallower than that or the driver picks the wrong route in complex channels. The sandbars have a tendency to grab hard and hold fast. Getting a stranded boat off of a sandbar can require brains and brawn.

National Agriculture Imagery Program aerial photograph (2014) of part of the Upper Missouri River near Poplar, Montana

Figure 2. National Agriculture Imagery Program aerial photograph (2014) of part of the Upper Missouri River near Poplar, Montana. The river is flowing from left to right. The complex channel may promote retention of boats as well as drifting pallid sturgeon larvae.

(Public domain.)

Knowing the river and being able to read the water are key. Using GPS and digital aerial photography, boat crews have even more ways to read the water, but we’ve found that images only two years old can be inaccurate in places where the river is especially active.