The Last 200 Miles of Montana

After Fort Peck Lake, it was about 200 river miles left of the Missouri before it passes into North Dakota right at Fort Union. After two nights at the wonderful Fort Peck Marina, I was rested and well fed, my water was refilled and I had it in mind to make it to Fort Union in time for the Rendezvous happening June 13 – 16th (more on that in a separate post). Hunter from the Marina loaded my kayak up on a trailer early Tuesday morning, June 11th and dropped me about a mile down past Fort Peck Dam.

First things first, I was out of whiskey and had been unable to locate a re-supply in Fort Peck. Within the first half mile of my put in, there was a local cafe/bar. Seeing as it was around 11am on a Tuesday morning, I wasn’t too surprised when I found the place closed and I had to proceed on in a dry state. Life is all about dealing with challenges that are thrown your way, right? It was a good day weather-wise, I caught some good current coming out of Fort Peck Dam and made good mileage. The water was crystal clear and ice cold. I located an old shipwreck that Norm told me to keep an eye out for:

When I took a pit stop later in the day, I nearly stepped on a huge old set of elk antlers and what I was told is probably an old buffalo bone:

Would have made a spectacular hood ornament. Around 6pm I started looking for a place to camp. I located a decent spot just downstream of a humming floating water pump (I plan a separate post on this as well) . I watched a distant thunderstorm roll through as I enjoyed dinner and watched the sun go down until the cold wind forced me into my tent. I covered around 37 miles.

The next day I was out on the water early again. My goal for the day was the town of Wolf Point, about 43 river miles, where I was told about a bar that would allow me a good meal, a cold beer, possibly a TV to watch the Blues/Bruins game 7, and maybe even a re-supply on whiskey! Talk about motivated paddling!

I’ll mention that the majority of the left bank of the river in this stretch is part of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. You have to have prior permission to camp on that side of the river and I’ve generally been recommended to just kind of avoid that side of the river in general for this part of the river. I’ve heard and read many stories of encounters with people on the reservation – usually young, bored kids looking for trouble and finding it with paddlers moving through the area. Just last year, my paddle partner from earlier in the trip experienced being shot at from the other side of the river and spent a harrowing night huddled in the trees waiting for the partiers to tire out. So that set the tone for my paranoia for the day.

Around mid-day, I spotted a pickup truck on the left bank, and when I got closer, 3 or 4 younger guys hanging out near the truck. They may have been fishing, I wasn’t for sure. But when I passed, they made a few gestures and some unintelligible comments. I kind of just waved and passed by and thought nothing more of it. Much later in the day, I came to the town of Wolf Point – the largest town on the reservation. I was advised to not stop, pass by town to further down, which is where the bar was that I was heading to. As I passed town, who else do I see but the same truck and same group of guys next to the river. Again some gestures and comments, perhaps a bit more aggressive this time? As I passed them, they got in their truck and sped off. My mind immediately went to the worst – were these guys following me? Planning to intercept me at some point? Waiting for me to stop for the night then cause some trouble? I realized I had a publicly available link to track my exact location with the web site of where to find that link printed on the side of my boat. I immediately turned off my Garmin tracker.

As I approached my stopping point for the day, I had a few challenges. There was a spot I had in mind, on the right bank of course, right where a large old bridge (no longer in use) and a newer bridge cross over the river into the town of Wolf Point. My planned camp was in the trees and tall grass on the opposite side of a public park that was usually used for late night partying. I fully expected to see that same truck at the park waiting for me to pass by. As I approached, binoculars out, I luckily didn’t see anyone at the park. I quickly pulled into the right shore, quickly unloaded my boat, threw everything into the tall concealing grass, then pulled my boat into the grass. Satisfied I wasn’t seen, I set up my tent back up in the trees pretty much out of view of the public:

Adrenaline up and satisfied with my stealth camp, I made the short walk up the hill to Harry’s Nite Club. What an amazing place this was. I enjoyed fried cheese curds, a deep fried doughy taco called a Paco and many Busch Lights. They had the Blues game on, and no one paid any attention to the game all night or the various times I shouted and pumped my fist as they scored the cup-winning goals. I talked to a few locals about my trip and about my experience that day, them laughing a little bit but not seeming too surprised. And bless the liberal liquor laws of Montana, I was able to purchase and walk out with a bottle of Pendleton whiskey!

It was still light out when I left the bar and made my careful descent back to camp. All quiet over at the park once again and I even got a spectacular sunset over the river for my efforts:

I didn’t dawdle the next morning getting out of Wolf Point. I had a generally uneventful full day of paddling, about another 40 miles, getting close to the town of Brockton. I had wanted to get to potentially within a day’s paddle to Fort Union, as the main day of the Rendevous was in 2 days. Looking at my maps that night, it seemed I was still about 65 miles from Fort Union, more than likely a two-day paddle. The beaver swimming around my camp and loudly slapping his tail on the water in defense of his territory tried to keep me awake, but I got a good night’s sleep on the sandbar and was up with the sun. I set out around 7am, thinking I’d get as close as I could to Fort Union that day, but just camp when I got tired and then get to the Rendezvous the next morning.

As the day progressed, I was making good miles. I stayed energetic and well-fed with my homemade ground beef jerky, Cliff Bars, RX Bars and some fruit leather throughout the day. Around 5pm I had already hit my personal record for miles in a day on this trip at 50. I realized I was about 15 river miles out from Fort Union. I was still feeling pretty good and had at least 3 more hours of daylight so I went for it. The long meandering bends in this part of the river seemed to go on forever. Finally, I passed under the train bridge that pretty much marked the end of Montana and the start of North Dakota:

Another mile and I was near Fort Union. I could hear the comotion from the Rendezvous coming through the trees. When Fort Union was built, it was inches from the river, easy for the steamboats to unload at the Fort. 150 years or so has really shifted the channel of the river, so the Fort is now past about 200 yards of swamp and thick willows. I listened and thought I heard a voice calling my name…listening again. Yes! My name – it must be Jeff Brown, the guy I was in touch with about coming to the Rendezvous. He was calling me in. I pulled up onto a muddy bank, and saw that there was a path cut into the willows, providing a clear but very muddy path over to the Fort. The last 50 yards of the path were in waist-deep water. As I grabbed some essential gear for the night from my boat and left it parked in the mud, I was descended upon by a massive horde of mosquitoes. I scurried through the mud and the waist deep muck as darkeness closed in. I shook the hand of Jeff, dressed in authentic 1830s fur trader attire as he pulled me up the last mud bank. He had been tracking me all day and went down to call me in as I approached.

I was utterly exhausted – I did somewhere between 62 and 65 river miles that day, paddling almost nonstop for 13 hours. And as I passed from Montana into North Dakota, I moved into central time, making it 1 hour later in the day. Still, Jeff graciously walked the half mile with me through an approaching thunderstorm to his truck where he drove me into the nearby town of Fairview for a late meal and couple cold beers. I slept soundly in my sleeping bag on the dirt floor of Jeff’s true-to-the-period 1830s tent. The Rendezvous was awaiting me on the other side of that night’s sleep, and that is an altogether different post…

What can I say about Montana – nearly 700 river miles of spectacular scenery, abundant and diverse wildlife, weather that always kept you guessing, and some of the most gracious and generous friends and river angels that you’ll find. I couldn’t imagine a more successful start to this epic journey. And while I know the scenery from here on down likley won’t hold a flame to Montana, I am utterly blessed to have experienced this wonderful state and its people. I look forward to the adventure continuing…


Fort Benton River Press

When I passed through Fort Benton, MT a few weeks ago, I was interviewed by an aspiring reporter/summer intern, Zach Brown, from the University of Montana. Here is the article that resulted, online copy is behind a paywall. Hoping to get ahold of a hard copy at some point:

Two years ago, Mark Fingerhut was on his honeymoon driving through Yellowstone National Park when he decided he was going to kayak from Yellowstone all the way to St. Louis, Missouri.

Fast forward two years and Mark is 38 kayaking through Fort Benton on his journey. “We made it through Yellowstone and to the headwaters of Three Forks and being there I was just like I’m going to do this trip from here someday,” said Fingerhut. Then the opportunity presented itself this summer.

For the past 13 years, Fingerhut has worked for Ungerboeck Software in St. Louis. “I kind of just asked for some time off, for a sabbatical and they were very understanding with me,” said Fingerhut.

Someone else who has been very understanding about his trip is his wife. “She’s totally on board she’s happy to support me.” A good friend of Fingerhut’s runs Timber Longboard Company back in Missouri and asked if he could build his Kayak. Mark had to drive his big wooden kayak and all his equipment out to Montana. She flew out to Bozeman to put him in the river and drive the truck back home. “She’s supportive she says awesome, take your adventure and in a couple years when I decide to do the Appelachian trail you can support me doing that.”

It sounds simple right? Get a kayak, water and some food, get into the river and away you go. Unfortunately, this is not the case. “When I first started sketching out plans for the trip I thought maybe it would be ten grand for everything included… that’s probably an overshoot and I’ll be a lot less than that but who knows?” Said Mark. He does have some sponsors to subsidize that cost though.

This trip is about passion. Passion for kayaking but also, passion for the water. “My main cause is I’m raising money for Missouri River Relief. It’s an organization that’s based in Missouri and their mission is to kind of connect people to the river.” Missouri River Relief holds river clean-up events, they host educational programs and in Columbia, MO, they will take every fourth grader out on the river for a day and show them around.

There was no exact preconceived plan that Fingerhut had, “I was just going to go as the river and whether dictates.” Mark is planning his trip to be about three plus months. He does have some people along the way that want to see him. “I have had a lot of friends and family say we want to meet you, where are you going to be on this date. I’ve kind of tried to put together a rough plan of where I’ll be and when.” Fingerhut knows his trip is going to go fairly quickly, forcing himself to move slowly to enjoy the scenery that is coming up along the journey.

You can follow Mark’s journey by keeping up-to-date with his blog, Paddle St. Louis, A Journey From Yellowstone to the Arch in Support of Missouri River Relief:

The Boat Tunes Playlist

Early on in the planning for my trip, I made some decisions on how connected and how high-tech I wanted my experience to be. One of those decisions was to pack a small bluetooth speaker so I could listen to music and podcasts on the long days of paddling. I’ve been using Pandora as my music streaming service for years, but have only the free subscription. Counting on cell service to supply me with my music was not ideal. So I sprung for Spotify. With Spotify, for 10 bucks a month, I was able to download as much music as I possibly could fit on my phone. So in the months leading up to my trip, I downloaded as much music from my past as I could think of, and quite a bit of new stuff I was looking forward to listening to.

One pretty cool feature of Spotify is the ability to share and collaboratively create playlists. I think we were standing around before a hash prior to my trip and my good friend Matt mentioned we should get people to contribute to a playlist for my trip. Thus, the Boat Tunes playlist was born. The list was shared out with people who have Spotify, a Facebook thread was created with requests and the playlist began to grow. I did not look at it. I set a deadline for the night before I got on the water, the last time I’d have wifi to be able to download all the music. That night, I downloaded it all.

128 songs in all. Here are my comments and some funny anecdotes from listening to the Boat Tunes playlist off and on over the first month of my trip:

  • I exclusively listen to this playlist on shuffle/random. I leave it to the river gods to determine what I am hearing at any given time.
  • Someone, and I think I know who, loaded up the list with a bunch of Phish songs. I feel like every other song is a Phish song. And considering how long Phish songs are, 90% of the time I am listening to Phish. It’s not great.
  • I was paddling in some pretty big waves on Fort Peck Lake listening to the playlist when a Florida Georgia Line song came on. I make it a point to not skip over tracks, but in the process of immediately getting my phone out to skip this, I almost flipped my boat. Thanks, Louis C.O.C.K.
  • That same day, Surfin’ USA by the Beach Boys came out. You could hear my cackle in the nearby canyons as I surfed across the Fort Peck waves.
  • As I paddled among the amazing, world class fly-fishing waters of the upper Madison, weaving in and out of driftboats full of concentrating fishermen, Boats n Hoes came on. Perfect.
  • Each and every time Can’t You See by the Marshall Tucker Band comes on – and it seems to come on a lot, I smile, I rock out, and I am instantly in a Busch Light commercial. Thanks, Louis C.O.C.K.
  • Some contributors stuck with the water/river/boat/paddling theme for some of their songs. Others just added some pretty damn good music. Thanks, Laura.
  • Yes, Gloria by Laurie Brannigan is on the list and it has been played during and after the Blues Stanley Cup win.
  • Yes, dueling banjos is on there. Hardy har har.
  • Breathing Underwater by Metric? Whoa, things just got dark.
  • Careless Whisperer by George Michael. If Matt Frank had invested all the money he spends pushing this song up to the front of the line in bar jukeboxes, he’d be retired.
  • Colin added an amazing tune called Yes! We Have No Bananas a song by Billy Jones from the 1920s. Almost makes up for adding Cool for the Summer by Demi Lovato. Ugh, no.

This is a live and active playlist. If you have Spotify, you too can contribute glorious and awful music to my daily listening habits. Visit my link to this post on my Facebook page to get to the Spotify playlist link. I do need wifi to download the new songs, but it looks like I should have access the next couple days.

Thank you to Matt for the idea of the playlist and putting it together. And thanks (I guess) to the contributors for making my daily auditory experience a bit more interesting on my trip.