National Geographic : 1981 Aug
expected to hit 165,000 by the year 2000. My first view of Billings was pleasantly impeded by the clusters of cottonwoods and willows along the riverbank. I was literally drifting into town, paddling a small inflat able yellow raft. Around me the Yellow stone was beginning to lose its mountain character, alternating between a few last, quick dashes around gravel bars and slow, deep turns under the remaining high buttes before the emptiness of the open plains. I beached my small craft on a bar in the mid dle of the river and stopped for a while to catch this change in mood. Behind me the Beartooth Mountains rose, framing the river valley in a distant frieze of snow and blue haze. Ahead I could make out white plumes of steam drifting off an oil refinery, a power plant, a sugar beet mill. A new glass hotel, 23 stories tall, caught the sun-"biggest building from here to Seattle," Montanans tell visitors. A century ago buffalo herds grazed these banks and Indians moved across the buttes. In 1877 Chief Joseph and some 700 other weary and starving Nez Perces crossed this river not far from where I sat.* Those Nez Perces were headed north, to Canada, on an *William Albert Allard told of the tragic march in "Chief Joseph," GEOGRAPHIC, March 1977. 269 "If it were paradise, everyone would be here," rancher Cleon Lesh (left) reasonswhen natural dry spells parch his land,watered by a tributary creek south of Miles City. Only rain quenches eastern Montana's oil-rich safflowers, a profitable "dry" crop (right), here tested at the Agricultural Experiment Station at Sidney. But irrigation is crucial to the main harvest,sugar beets. Dreaming of gold (below), weekend prospectorsFrank Fes senden, left, and Roy Kinne find morefun thanprofitin theirmod est haul of Yellowstone flakes nearLivingston.