Day 4 & 5: The Lower Madison to Three Forks

Waking up at Varney Bridge, I only had about 10 miles to paddle to arrive at Ennis, MT, probably the biggest town along the Madison. It was pretty uneventful paddling, kind of a grey day and nothing too treacherous, just a few braided channels to navigate. The river is relatively high during the spring right now, so I luckily don’t have to worry too much about running aground in the shallows. And the river moves at a pretty good clip, so I don’t really have to do much paddling. Arriving at the boat ramp in Ennis, I hoofed it over the bridge and into town and stopped in the first fly fish shop/outfitter/guide service I came to. I had a decision to make. After a few more miles, the Madison dumps into Ennis Lake, then enters Bear Trap Canyon. Researching the Madison, I knew I wasn’t going to paddle through Bear Trap. There is Class III thru Class V whitewater. I thought I’d be able to portage around those rapids on a hiking trail. After my first rough day of portaging on pavement, not to even consider off-road portaging, I changed my mind. I was going to get a ride around the Bear Trap.

After talking to Jess at Troutstalkers, she called to their other shop and soon enough, a gentlemen was on his way to pick me up and shuttle me down to Warm Springs, the start of the lower Madison. Joe Dilschneider pulled up in his big truck. Turns out, he’s from Ladue, MO, is a MICDS grad (the high school question, obviously) and has owned and operated Troutstalkers fly shop, outfitter and guide shop for 26+ years. He said he fell in love with the Madison Valley when he first saw it and never left…I can’t blame him. He found my trip fascinating and we shared stories on the 10 mile drive to Warm Springs. He snapped a couple photos of me for Troutstalkers’ facebook page so look for me on there…

He dropped me at a busy flyfishing boat put in, I had to wait my turn to get on the water. When I finally did, I actually didn’t head downstream. I crossed to the other side of the river, where a hiking trail starts that goes deep into Bear Trap Canyon from the downstream side. I secured my boat and hiked up the canyon for about 3 miles. The canyon was spectacular, with 2 or 3 thousand foot mountains rising up on each side of the cascading Madison.

I know religous folks experience moments of transcendence under certain circumstances; hiking alone up this canyon is about as close as I’ll come to those types of feelings. Nature is my church and this is one spectacular cathedral. I ignored the blisters forming on my feet due to my ill-equipped- for-hiking sandals and eventually made my way back to my boat. I bypassed a small school group who was stopped to observe a rattlesnake beside the trail.

Back on the water, I was enveloped in a cloud of flies. Landing on me, my boat and all my gear, I wondered where all the fish were to gobble up these bad boys. This stretch of river is a popular flyfishing spot, and I passed at least a half dozen drift boats. I pulled off to wait out a brief thunderstorm at a campsite, then paddled about 15 miles downstream, to the white cliffs section of the Madison, where my buddy Norm Miller recommended I camp for the night. I picked a spot opposite the cliffs and set up camp in what was obviously a cattle pasture, though the manure wasn’t so fresh as to expect any visitors that night.

It was a bit windy, so I had to use my tent as a wind break as I made a delicious turkey, edamame and rice dinner. I even broke out the fishing pole for the first time, with no luck. Ducks and other waterfowl that occupied the cliffs opposite my camp squaked well into the night and early on in the morning, but I was able to sleep through it. No angry bulls found their way into my campsite and I was packed up and on the water by 8:15.

Immediately, it began raining and got colder and hasn’t let up since then. I paddled the remaining 15 miles on the Madison to the I-90 overpass and pulled my boat out. The last 15 miles was a maze of twisting, turning channels and sloughs. My object was to try to stick to the channel with the most water, and least chance of running aground or hitting a snag. I pretty much managed to do it. At the bridge, I changed into some semi-dry gear from the waist up and walked the two miles in the rain into Three Forks. Once again, my golf umbrella really saved the day. I had a leisurely lunch at a local cafe, the fish and chips special and two local beers, along with a couple coffees to warm the body. The forecast for the coming week is not looking promising for paddling down the top of the Missouri – cold, wet and some snow mixed in.

I left the cafe and headed down 2 blocks to the Sacajawea Hotel, where I am currently enjoying the warmth of their spectacular lobby and using a few nearby outlets to charge my batteries.

The rain is supposed to continue all day and into the evening. My plan is to at some point walk back to my boat, and either paddle down a few miles and camp at Missouri River Headwaters State Park, or what I may end up doing is going hobo style and pitching my tent under the insterstate bridge and try not to get run off by the cops. Time will tell how things turn out, the adventure continues.


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