Rest and Respite in Great Falls

I had planned on taking my first few no-paddle days for the trip when I arrived in Great Falls, MT. My arms weren’t super sore when I got here, but I could feel they’d benefit from a day or two of little to no use. My main contact in Great Falls had been a local Hash House Harrier. Long story short for those that don’t know, the HHH are an international ‘drinking club with a running problem’ located in almost every medium to large sized city in the world. I’ve used it as a method to meet new people with common interests in other cities, to get intelligence on where to go, where to stay, where to get good beer, etc.

Anthony let me stay in his vintage camper out in front of his house.

Electrical was hooked up but not water so I had to get a little creative and become a frequent customer of the coffee shop around the corner. I paddled into Great Falls on Sunday morning, it was rainy and cold. Anthony picked me up and we somehow found a way to balance my 20ft kayak on the roof of the cab of his pickup truck for the short ride back to his house. Later on that day, the local Hash group was playing sloshball – a form of kickball infused with cheap beer and a lot of fun. It continued raining hard all day, stayed in the 40s, but sloshball went ahead as planned. We all had a blast splashing around on a muddy field, chasing a kickball, downing beers and generally having a great time.

We adjourned to a local brewery for post contest refreshments than back to Anthony’s house for some more great food cooked by his wife Nikki. I truly treasure the HHH community both at home in St. Louis and in other places I’ve visited throughout the world. What an incredibly fantastic luxury to have to be able to have instant friends and people who will go out of their way to help you with anything you need in almost any place you find yourself in.

The next day was Memorial Day, and the forecast was for more rain – all day and more cold. The length of my stay in Great Falls was seemingly dependent on the arrival of my first re-supply package. Mainly food and a few other small items I’d need to ensure I’d be able to continue my trip fully stocked. Through some snafu with UPS, I learned my box is not expected to arrive until this Friday – not for two more days from today! I spent Monday afternoon having a couple beers at a local brewery and trying to come up with a plan. After a few iterations, I decided I was going to wait for Tuesday, when the weather was expected to be excellent, and when all the attractions and businesses in Great Falls would be back open for business. I’d then determine if I really wanted to wait until Friday for my package, or buy the stuff I needed at the local WalMart Supercenter and get back on the river.

Yesterday was glorious! Anthony loned me a mountain bike to get around town. After my morning visit to the coffee shop, I headed to the river and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. This is a fantastic museum in Great Falls that covers Lewis & Clark’s entire journey in 1804 – 1806 and beyond, with a pretty good focus on their time in and around the Great Falls of Montana, and their incredibly difficult month-long portage around the Falls. I dodged the kids on field trips at the museum and really enjoyed it. Then I biked down the hill to Giant Springs State Park – an amazingly crisp and clear spring on the banks of the muddy Missouri. The Spring forms what some consider the world’s shortest river – the Roe River at 201ft long. I spent a few more hours biking the excellent bike trail system along the river around Great Falls – some photos of the day on Instagram.

At some point in the day, I made up my mind to proceed on with my trip and not wait for my package. I contacted a few folks about getting a ride past all the dams and falls with my boat to continue on my trip and I have that arranged for this afternoon. Yesterday, I also met up with a guy from Great Falls who is considering a MO River trip in the next year or two so I talked to him for a while about planning and all kinds of stuff. I swung by an army surplus store to procure 12″ tent stakes for what Jim Emanuel promised I would encounter on the Great Plains: 80 – 100mph winds that my tent wouldn’t have a chance of standing up to without. Then I made a dreaded trip to Walmart to purchase food that would last me until my next re-supply box, along with an additional water container as this next stretch of river will be very limited in provisions and refill opportunities.

By the end of the day, the bike seat ensured my butt was in pain. Anthony invited me with his family and some friends to 50 cent wing night at his local VFW, and we had a wonderful time. Today is another fantastic day weather-wise in Great Falls. My shuttle is coming to pick me up around 2pm, then I should be on the river by 3:30 or 4. I’ll paddle for a couple hours to a campsite at Fort Benton, MT. From there on, I get into what will likely be the most scenic portion of my trip – through Missouri River Breaks National Monument. I’ll take my time, do some exploring and hiking in the canyons and cliffs along the river. From there it will be onto the first big lake – Fort Peck. Phone reception looks to be extremely limited over this stretch so I’ll likley be off grid for a couple weeks.

Spirits are good – mind and and body seem to be in good shape after R&R in Great Falls. Fingers crossed that the weather may have finally made a Spring-like turn for the better.

mf

Looking Ahead

One of the very first things I did when I put pen to paper on actually doing this trip was to write down every major category of planning that would need to happen to make this adventure happen:

UB Exit (my job)
Navigation Planning
Transportation
Supplies
Paddlers
Money Coverage
Budget
Re-entry
Research/reading
Blog
Emergency Plan
Insurance
Communication

While I didn’t use this as my strict outline for actually doing the planning, one item on the list came up today: Re-entry

It’s kind of an odd thing to think about two weeks into a 3+ month trip. But my first off day of the trip is today, I’m sitting in Mighty MO Brewery in downtown Great Falls enjoying a few beers as the cold rain continues to fall, and a very interesting article was posted on the MO River Paddlers facebook page.

http://erikelsea.com/post-expedition-blues/

The link is a translation to an original article by Martin Trahan, a Canadian explorer who paddled across the entire US, including the Missouri River last year. While his trip was about 9.75 times more epic than I expect my trip to be, including PTSD from riding out Hurricane Michael along the Florida gulf coast, Martin writes a truly heartfelt and revealing article about the experiences when an epic adventure comes to a close, and one returns to their “normal” life.

In thinking about my trip, it was something I was aware of, somehow. I can’t recall what prompted me to add ‘re-entry’ to my list of planning items for the trip, but it’s there. The people who have completed the entire Missouri River descent before me come from a wide variety of occupations and lifestyles. Some are retired, some are full-time adventurers, some are just taking a break from busy careers – probably the category with which I most closely identify. Going back to sitting behind a desk after 3+ months of paddling down a river, sleeping outdoors (almost) every night, and leading almost a 100% different life than what I am accustomed to is quite a change. It’s impossible to know how I will feel after the trip, how well I’ll be able to re-integrate back into normal life, or what other types of insane ideas I’ll have for how to continue to scratch the adventure itch that I know will be there in my life after this.

Not sure what the point of this post really is, probably just some ramblings after a couple beers on a rainy afternoon when I am more content to be here than out on the river. Certainly thoughts to keep aware of and on the horizon as I round the next riverbend and tally up the river miles.

mf

Through the Gates of the Mountains

When Lewis and Clark and their party reached the Rocky Mountains, they reached a point at which they did not see a way the river made its way through the mountains. The river makes a series of sharp turns around dramatic cliffs and mountains, hence the Gates of the Rocky Mountains. This was a place I was looking forward to experiencing since the very early planning stages of my trip. And although I’d be approaching the Gates from the opposite side that L&C did, the experience was no less awe-inspring.

I had the pleasure of paddling this stretch with Jim Emanuel, who had paddled the entire Missouri River, and kept on going to New Orleans, last summer. He was very familiar with this stretch of river and was an amazing guide. As an avid fisherman, he also made sure I was equipped with the best lures and bait for doing some real fishing on this stretch of the river.

Jim’s wife Vicki dropped us both off at Hauser Dam. We immediately had to load our gear in our boats and on our carts and roll them down a hill to the put in below the dam.

Hauser Dam

From there, Jim and I liesurely paddled and fished for the first 10 or 12 miles. I was only slightly alarmed when I heard the sirens going off at the dam, indicating an increase in water release. I learned they even sound the alarm if only releasing very small amounts of extra water, so it’s usually fine to ignore them. We fished for the better part of the day, me with absolutley no success and Jim with pretty decent results – a nice rainbow trout.

Eventually, we made our way into the wide open Hauser Lake and the upstream entrance to the Gates. Late afternoon light made for amazing sights as we entered the dramatic canyon.

I even got to safely check off an item I’d been wanting to experience on my list: to see a bear. As we entered the canyon, halfway up one of the hillsides was a black bear with its cub. I got a pretty good look with my binoculars. We paddled a few miles into the canyon before finding what’s probably the best campsite I’ve ever stayed at. Jim and I set up camp, built a fire, enjoyed a few beers and some nips of whiskey, shared good conversation and some warm dinner, and were in bed before it even got dark.

In the morning, we paddled about 3 miles down to Mann Gulch: another item I’d been looking forward to during the planning for my trip. In 1949, smokejumpers fighting a wildfire in Mann Gulch were overcome and raced to the top of a gulch to try to reach the ridge to escape the fire. 13 young men died in the fire, 11 not making out out of the gulch. Two more crested the ridge only to die from their injuries.

Jim and I made the 3 mile hike up the picturesque valley. Nearing the ridgeline, we began to see crosses and monuments that had been set up at each spot where a young man had died. We walked to each cross and paid respects, much more real for Jim as a life-long firefighter. We made our way to the top of the ridge and looked down on the other side to the incredible views below and the two crosses down below on the other side. As horrific as the tragedy was, being there in such an incedible place was quite a juxtapostion. The eternal resting place of these 13 men is beyond description in its beauty. It was a truly moving experience for all these reasons.

After we descended, Jim and I had a pretty long day of paddling ahead of us, through the rest of a serene and calm Holter Lake, yet another portage down below Holter Dam before setting up camp where the Missouri becomes a river again. A truly inspiring and unbelievable couple of days.

mf

River Angels of Montana

A risk I was aware of starting my trip when I did was the possibility of colder weather. May in St. Louis is generally pretty darn nice. Warm with a thunderstorm here or there, but generally good weather for being in the outdoors. I didn’t think Montana would be too far behind. I mean the day I dropped my boat in on the edge of Yellowstone, it was 75 degrees and sunny. I’ve learned over the last 12 days that Montana weather is second to none, including St. Louis, in terms of predictability and forecasting. Turns out, this last two weeks has been colder and rainier than normal. I’ve been told by multiple people that the weather in Montana is two or three weeks behind normal.

I camped for the first 4 nights along the Madison River. It was a little chilly maybe down into the low 40s at night, there was some rain here or there, enough so that my gear was wet in the morning, but no sustained downpours or frozen things. It started to get more uncomfortable down near the start of the Missouri in Three Forks. I spent a cold night on an island in the Headwaters State Park. The forecast for the coming week from there wasn’t too good. Continued cold – upper 40s to low 50s as a high during the day then down into the low 40s or upper 30s at night, along with rain scattered throughout. When Jim picked me and Norm up after our paddle from Three Forks, I didn’t expect that he and his wife Vicki would graciously host me for the next 4(!) nights at their amazing home outside Helena. It worked out that each day, I could paddle a pretty good stretch of the river (or the series of lakes that is the Missouri River in this part of Montana) then get back to Jim & Vicki’s house for an amazing dinner, a hot shower and a warm bed. I followed the advice I heard early on in my planning for this trip – never turn down a cold drink or a warm place to sleep.

Fast forward a few days. I bid farewell to Jim in Craig, MT, after paddling with him for 3 days and camping for two nights. The weather was much better. From Craig, I paddled an additional 20 miles to get to Cascade, MT by about 4pm. Having heard there was a boat ramp for the town right under the bridge, I was a little suprised to not see a boat ramp. As I passed by a few houses after the bridge, I saw a gentleman looking through binoculars down towards the river. I waved and asked him if I missed the boat ramp. He asked me where I was headed and when I responded St. Louis, told me I could stop there. I pulled in and soon found myself talking with Terry and Pam Curnow, river angels who’ve hosted many other MO River paddlers in their 44 years in Cascade. They quickly assured me I was more that welcome to stay at their amazing house, directly across a channel of the river from a pristine island on which we observed deer, pelicans, and lots of other wildife as we enjoyed some cold beverages. They fed me an amazing dinner of pork chops and corn, entertained me with a ton of stories, and Terry showed me his sprawling woodworking shop, where he’s built some amazing boats – see my Instagram post. Him seeing me paddle up in my wood kayak had to seem like fate. (Actually even more amazing, I had gotten a text earlier in the day from Norm Miller that said if I make it to Cascade, I need to find the “wooden boat maker” – well holy shit, guess who was the first person I saw in Cascade!)

I am continuing to follow the advice of not turning down a cold drink and warm bed tonight. I am enjoying the hospitality of River Angels once again, as I know eventually on this trip I won’t be so fortunate.

By the way, Terry invented this. A patio table that converts to a fire pit. Amazing

mf

File to: Timber Longboard Co. RE: Boat Report, Week 1

Canyon Ferry Lake, MT

Week 1 report regarding Timber Longboard Co.’s prototype kayak.

Overall, strong and successful first week. The 100 miles of the Madison River and the first 70 or so miles of the Missouri River presented your craft with various challenges and hurdles to overcome. Hydrodynamic classifications encountered include but not limited to: open calm lake water, wind-disturbed lake water, quickly flowing river, quickly flowing river with distrubed flow caused by obstructions, braided channels with tight turns, lazy river (not the water-park kind). Non-hydrodynamic features included a shit- ton of portaging a heavy-ass load on a questionable portage cart over pavement, rocky/gravel roads at various slopes and elevations.

Happy to report that watercraft exceeded all expectations. Some contact with rocks early on on the Madison, no significant scraping or damage to the boat. Kevlar layer on the bottom of the boat was a stroke of genius. Quite maneuverable when needing to navigate tight turns or corners. Some light cosmetic damage to top of boat due to repeated loading/unloading on top of vehicles for more significant portaging.

Cockpit comfort is nothing short of perfect. Captain did not attach seat to actual boat until 3rd day of paddling. Once that was done, no further slippage encountered. Perfect fit on cockpit skirt to aid in warmth and dryness on cold/wet days. Some issues with rudder not fully deploying, Captain having to manually deploy rudder in certain situations, though not an issue with Timber Longboard Co. but with rudder maker. Hatch stowage capacity has been satisfactory. All gear accommodated with no issues, Captain still trying to find out where the 30 rock of beer will be stowed.

Many compliments given by third party observers of watercraft in action. Craft able to be conveyed at upwards of 5mph in slack water, 10mph in short stretches in swiftly flowing water. Deck rigging, handles and other cosmetic work has been ideal as well.

Overall, 10/10 for initial performance of virgin watercraft. Would paddle again.

mf

One Week in the Books

Seven days of paddling completed. I’ve descended the Madison River, and nearly the first 50 miles of the Missouri River. An absolutely unforgettable week, no doubt, and an incredible beginning for what is sure to be an epic summer.

Picking up where I left off, Friday afternoon, I left the coziness of the lobby of the Sacajawea Hotel and walked the two miles back to where the Madison River goes under the I-90 bridge. In my mind, I was either going to set up camp under the bridge if it was raining hard and there was a good enough spot, or I was going to buck up and paddle another 4 or 5 miles into the Missouri River Headwaters State Park and set up camp in the rain. Well, it was raining, although not too hard, and sleeping under an interstate was not something I was willing to do this early in the trip. It was a good decision. The 4 to 5 miles was some of the most incredible I’d seen up until that point. So much wildlife – a dozen different waterfowl species, two deer swimming and running across the river in front of me, a moose staring at me from shore, the stunning meandering of the last miles of the Madison and the confluence with the Jefferson.

Immediately after the confluence, I headed to the backside of an island that Norm recommended for camping. As quickly as possible, I erected my tent in the drizzle, put all the bags I would need within arm’s reach of the tent, secured my boat then settled in for the night. It was 5:15pm. I spent the next 3 hours or so just organizing things, constructing a clothesline inside my tent, listening to some podcasts, snacking, reading, journaling, generally just lounging around within a 4 x 6 ft area that happened to be dry and somewhat warm.

I was meeting Norm at 7am at the boat ramp in the Headwaters State Park, about a mile down from my camp. Although only about 40 degrees, the rain had stopped so I packed up camp and headed downriver. Soon enough Norm was there with hot coffee and some breakfast for me. Before we got on the river, we walked up to the top of nearby Lewis and Clark Rock. Norm explained that this exact spot was where Lewis and Clark climbed to get a view of the confluence area, and to determine which of the three rivers might be the one that would eventually lead to the Pacific. Spoiler alert – none of them. Norm did a live video for the Missouri River Paddlers Facebook page, and I tried not to look like I was half frozen.

We got back down and soon enough were paddling the first few miles of the Missouri. The plan was to go from Three Forks down to Toston Dam, about 23 miles. Norm couldn’t have been a better tour guide. He pointed out spots along the way, some with historical significance like campsites for the L&C expedition, features mentioned in L&C journals, abandoned railroad towns, or where other MO River paddlers had camped. Even an insane story where Norm retrieved a paddler’s lost bag of $5k in camera equipment, located three months later based on a weak tracking beacon and GPS coordinates.

It was a cold an cloudy day, but it really didn’t rain all that much. We managed to stay somewhat dry and warm. After a few hours and many stories, we got to Toston Dam. We unloaded our boats and gear then walked over to check out the dam. A worker regaled us with tales of pulling bodies from the water intake as well as finding and attempting to remove a Youtube video of a kayaker going over the dam successfully. Eventually, a truck pulls around the corner, which is where Jim Emanuel enters the story.

Jim is a converted Montanan via North Dakota originally, who spent many years as a firefighter in San Diego. He caught the paddling bug a few years ago and last spring left his home in nearby Helena to paddle the entire Missouri. Then when he got to St. Louis, he decided to go all the way to the Gulf. Norm had let Jim know our plans, and with Norm needing to leave to guide a youth group on a river trip further down on the Missouri, it was Jim’s turn to be my river angel. He wasted no time in sharing his Montana hosptality, he hopped out of his truck with a bottle of whiskey – the warm up – along with a couple cold beers in celebration of a successful paddle that day. We shared river stories, finally loading our gear and two boats onto Jim’s truck to give Norm a ride back to his car at Three Forks. After dropping Norm off, we made it back to Jim’s amazing house outside Helena, where he showed me his two! boat sheds (take note, Sara). I was extrememly grateful for my first shower in 6 days and a filling meal of venison and potatoes.

Up early again today, Sunday, Jim loaded me up and drove me back to just below Toston Dam. Knowing I was heading back to Jim’s place tonight, I didn’t need all of my gear so I was travelling a little lighter. Before we even got in the water, Jim spotted an object floating in the river near the boat ramp. So mission #1 for the day was retrieving a scuttled cooler. I loaded up and paddled over to the empty, yet still in pretty good shape cooler. I went downstream a bit and threw it up on the bank for Jim to pick up on his way out. Just a small token of my appreciation for him hosting me.

I paddled about 25 miles from Tosten to Townsend, a beautiful stretch of river which included York’s Islands, named after Meriwether Lewis’ slave York who accompanied the expedition, and Crimson Bluffs, so noted by L&C for the colorful cliffs still seen today. At Townsend, I stopped for a snack and gathered my wits in order to enter the first huge lake of the Missouri – Canyon Ferry Lake. Where a river enters a lake, there are always splits in the channel, a maze of streams breaking off and splitting and eventually all leading to the lake. However, you have to choose wisely in order to avoid running aground in shallow water, or possibly encountering dangerous snags from trees and branches under the water. In this case, I picked as best I could, ended up dragging the kevlar-coated bottom of the boat a couple times, but nothing too bad. Once I finally got into the lake, the fun really began. Even though the wind was relatively calm, maybe 5 to 10 mph, the sheer size of the lake means any wind at all is going to lead to some big waves. Wanting to avoid waves crashing over my boat or even worse, a capsize very far from shore, I feverishly paddled through the rollers trying to keep my balance and my boat positioned not to take the brunt of the waves. After a short while, the waves died down a bit, and I was able to dig in to do some serious paddling. I was moving at a pretty good pace. For about the next 4 hours, I paddled pretty hard. I stayed somewhat close to shore for safety and for some shelter from the wind and waves. I also played music for extra motivation, knowing I’d be able to recharge all my gear at Jim’s house later on.

I made it about halfway up the lake – to a spot called White Earth, where I met Jim at about 5:15. Added to the 25 river miles earlier, 10 or 12 hard miles on the lake had me exhausted. It was only appropriate then, that back at Jim’s house, with his wife Vicki, we dined on Perch tacos from fish he had caught while ice-fishing on Canyon Ferry Lake.

I’m certain my arms will be sore tomorrow, the weather promises to be crappier than today, and Jim’s offered to paddle the last half of the lake with me. So 7 straight days and 150 miles of paddling does not earn you a day off, try 7 more! I’m loving every minute of this.

Crimson Bluffs, Missouri River

mf

Madison River Completed

Currently, I’m camped on an island in Missouri River Headwaters State Park. About 2 hours ago I finished paddling the last 4 miles of the Madison river. It flowed into the Jefferson River and I soon pulled out to set up camp on an island. However, this is not yet the Missouri River as the Gallatin river comes in about a 1/2 mile downstream from here.

Even though it was 45゚and raining, I think the last 4 miles of the Madison might have been the most beautiful. There are long, meandering curves, the water is generally calm and I think I saw more wildlife than I had on the entire Madison before. I saw pelicans, cranes, countless ducks and geese, other waterfowl I couldn’t identify; I saw 2 deer swim/run across the river right in front of me. I came around a curve to see a moose or elk sitting on the bank and staring at me. Plus, hundreds of small birds flying an inch or 2 above the water picking off flies for dinner. It was another spiritual experience not just for the natural aspect, but for the historical significance as well. Tomorrow morning, I will climb a rock that Lewis and Clark climbed as they reached the end of the Missouri River, and saw 3 rivers coming together. They also saw the forbidding rocky mountains in the distance. They knew their opportunity for making it over those mountains was short as the Winter was closing in. I on the other hand, huddled in my tent shivering, can’t wait for Winter to be over.

As the Madison and Jefferson converged, I snapped a quick photo of the spot that you see in the smaller picture at the top of my blog. Little did I know that one and a half years later, I wouldn’t be posing on that bank, but paddling by.

All in all, I paddled just short of 100 miles on the Madison. From the edge of Yellowstone Park, I tackled the first 2 lakes on the upper Madison. I skipped the dangerous sections below Earthquake Lake to Pine Butte and from Ennis to the end of Bear Trap Canyon. The scenery was unforgettable; the river was gorgeous. I feel like the varying conditions of the lakes and the different personalities of the river were an excellent primer for what is to come on the Missouri river. Tomorrow, the journey begins.

mf