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.