A Ferry Tale

By Emily Standley

Once upon a time, in a beautiful land, a fair damsel, her prince, and the prince’s brother set off on a journey through treacherous wilderness to cross a wide, roaring river in search of treasure on the other side…

Alright, I’ll knock off the bedtime story nonsense. But what I wrote is true, sort of. Rather than royalty, the characters are actually me, my husband, and my brother-in-law. The “treacherous wilderness” is actually dirt roads through sagebrush country. And the roaring river is actually a very peaceful stretch of the Missouri. However, our adventure does take place in a beautiful land, and we did discover a true treasure.

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, my husband (Logan) and I decided we would finally visit the Stafford-McClelland Ferry, which we’d been hearing about since moving to Lewistown a year and a half ago. Logan’s brother is staying with us while he student teaches, and he agreed to join us, so we climbed upon our mighty steeds – er, crammed in my Subaru, and headed north.

There are three Missouri River ferries in Montana. The Stafford Ferry is located about 16 miles north of Winifred, accessed by a dirt road that runs alongside crop fields and pastures, then drops down into gorgeous breaks country, finally taking you to the river bottom. (If you’re curious as to what “breaks country” looks like, check out the photo below.) The three of us followed this winding (and towards the bottom, steep) back road down to the water’s edge. There, we were greeted with the kind of rustic charm you can only find in Central Montana.

The first thing we noticed was the large ferry and cable system stretched across the wide Missouri. Second was the quaint, well-kept house sitting across the bank, where the ferrymen reside. Third, the over-sized, rusted mailbox with a sign that reads, “CALL FOR SERVICE.” What was in the mailbox? A phone? A signal flare? A bullhorn? We opened it to find a walkie-talkie and a detailed, handwritten set of instructions for how to call the operator. I followed the directions and the radio let out a majestic trumpet call, or rather, a loud sequence of beeps. This sound was followed closely by a few indiscernible shouts from across the river, and a smiling ferryman meandering down to the floating platform.

When the ferry docked on our side, we loaded up the car, then stood at the rails to enjoy the slow but short trek across the Mighty Missouri. Watching the river slowly churning under the platform against the noise of a rhythmic, humming motor produced a unique sense of calm - one I realized, in that moment, many people don’t get to experience. Upon reaching the shore, we thanked the ferryman, climbed back in the car, and headed on our way. Luckily, this particular afternoon was sunny and dry, because the roads on the north side of the ferry are absolutely impassable when wet. (Seriously, if the forecast calls for rain, do NOT try driving this road. The gumbo clay will swallow your car whole.)

Because we had some time, we took a scenic drive to the top of the breaks on the north side. As with the south side of the river, the road is gorgeous, but very steep in some spots. We meandered down the road for another twenty miles before deciding to turn around and head back the way we came. If you have the time and want to explore more Central Montana towns, you can reach Chinook or Big Sandy by following the signs along this same road (74 and 64 miles from the ferry, respectively). But keep in mind that the whole route is dirt and gravel, so it’ll be a slow, albeit beautiful, journey.

There’s not much else to tell in this story. We headed back to the river bottom, were ferried across, and made the journey home, where we lived happily ever after, or at least, got a good night’s rest. We plan to return for more adventures next season, when we’ll hopefully spend the night at the free BLM campground across from the ferrymen’s house (yes, a free campground, right along the river!), do a little fishing, and maybe make the journey up to Big Sandy. It may not be a typical fairy tale, but the illustrations were gorgeous, and we truly did experience a genuine Montana treasure.

The Stafford-McClelland Ferry typically operates (weather dependent)
May 1st - November 1st
Monday – Saturday | 7am to 7pm
Sunday 9am to 5pm

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