The Biggest Thing

On my 4.5 mile walk back from Fort Peck Dam to my campsite (correct, this place wasn’t built with pedestrians in mind – more on that later), I got to thinking about the single biggest human-created object I’ve ever seen. We can quickly get into a debate on definitions of ‘big’ and of ‘object’: is a city an object? The Great Wall of China? Do a lot of little objects make up something larger? Does big mean intricate, complicated?

On a restful Monday afternoon, over a few beers and a sunny, perfect day in Montana, I’ve decided this is the largest human-created object I’ve ever seen:

It’s hard to see but it’s there. The Fort Peck Dam. Lake on the right, the dam curves from the center, out to the right, then back to the left again. It’s the world’s largest hydrollically created dam, which I learned today means they dredged silt, sand and gravel from the river bottom to build it. The loaded all that slurry into a single massive pond, let all the water drain and let it dry out, rinse and repeat, layer upon layer until you have the dam. It’s 4 miles long and 1 mile wide at its base. It took 7 years to build, at its peak employed 10,000 workers making 50 cents per hour, killed 31 guys during contruction (an excellent safety record for its time), and cost what an average major league pitcher signs a contract for today: $84 million!

In my definition, this object was built to serve a single purpose, plus one big caveat is that you can see pretty much see the whole thing at once. That would disqualify the Great Wall (not counting from space – see I can qualify this however I want, this is my blog).

I’m trying to wrack my brain to think if I’ve ever seen anything bigger in my life. Have you? What would that be?


Reflections on the Upper Missouri River Breaks

Writing this post on Wednesday, June 3rd. Also, I may have to add the photos back to this post at a later date.

A week ago today, I put on at Carter’s Ferry and paddled 16 miles to Fort Benton, mile 0 of the 149 Upper Missouri River Breaks. This stretch of river is what most consider the most spectacular scenery on the entire Missouri River. The first half, generally from Coal Banls Landing to Judith Landing are the famous “while cliffs” – sandstone walls and natural monuments on both sides. So much to take in. Then after Judith Landing, the personalilty of the Breaks changes. It has more of a Badlands feel to it – rocky, muddy cliffs, but no less beautiful. As the Badlands is one of my favorite National Parks, I think I enjoyed the lower half the best.After camping with my friendly snake at Judith Landing, I put in a full day of paddling, stopping at a few interesting Homesteads – more on that. Around 5pm, I pulled into Gist Ranch – normally an excellent homestead to check out. But I think what happened is that the winter ice jams took out the cattle fences keeping them out of the campsite. The actual camp was a wreck with cow dung, a stench and generally just torn up ground. I paddled another mile or so to Snake Point. Still a bit torn up from cattle, but not as bad. The Breaks guide said this was the starting point for a short hike up a Badlands-type mountain, from where Meriwether Lewis spotted the Rocky Mountains for the first time. I had a relaxing dinner and evening watching the sunset over the river, and was even treated to a low-flying single engine plane right through the river valley to coincide with sunset – look to the left, it’s there:I set my alarm for 5:15 but ended up not neding at as it starts to get light this far north before 5am. I jumped up, grabbed a Cliff Bar and water and climbed the hill. 1000 ft and a pit stop to take my morning constitutional is a self-dug hole later, I was standing at the exact spot where Meriwether beheld the snow-capped mountains that would later nearly put an end to their westward exploration. No mountains were to be seen today, I was told the day before that the increased haze was due to wild fires in Alberta, Canada.I took a few photos of the scene as the sun came up over the mountains. Pretty sure I’ll be framing this panorama:Later that morning, I stopped by a Homestead that wasn’t marked on the map. If it gets published when I have reception again, I had an Instagram post that gave a short explanation of Homesteads along this part of the river. Basically, in the mid to late 1800s, the US government basically gave away tracts of lands in order to get people out west, settle the land and, ahem – move Native Americans off the land. While some stuck it out and made a life on the wide open plains through farming or raising livestock, many others weren’t able to sustain a life with the harsh Montana weather and conditions. Some of these Homestead sites can be found along the river here. Some are actually still in use as working farms, many others are just ruins of the old farm sites. You are able to stop and walk around in them. Some of the images are pretty stark. As I explored a few on my own, I had feelings of insignificance and impermanence. Here were homes and workshops of people whose lives were here or 10, 20, 30 years. And then it was done. They moved on to something better, something easier. And here were the remains of their lives and their work for that period of time. Captured in history.Another site I passed later that day was the Nez Perce Trail. While it isn’t a specific site you can stop and take a picture of, the map I was following was marked where the trail paralleled the river and eventually crossed over and headed North. As the young US was expanding westward, the Nez Perce signed a treaty to move to 7.5 million acres of land in Montana and further to the Northwest. As the 7.5 million acres became 1 million, 300 men, women and children of the Nez Perce refused to sign a revised treaty and tried to make a run for the northern border of Canada. Pursued by US troops, they were eventually tracked down, some killed and the rest forced to reservations. As I paddled by where these 300 tribespeople marched along and over the Missouri River, I reflected on the dark parts of our nation’s history, the sacrifices and horrible incidents that happened during our nation’s rapid expansion. Certainly, I’m proud to call America home. But I feel like educating oneself about the horrific things that got us to where we are today are a necessary part of being American.

When people talk about paddling the best parts of the Missouri River, many are referring to the Upper Missouri River Breaks. The incredible sights and scenery as well as the rich and plentiful wildlife along the way is matched only by the history to be found along the way. For someone who loves nature as well as history, this was a spectacular few days and I can only hope to make it back here to paddle this stretch again someday.


Update from the Breaks

Post written June 1, 2019 – not certain on when this will be able to post. Also, the photos I wanted to include in this post aren’t working so I may have to add back in later.

Currently, I am sitting at a picnic table at the campground at Judith Landing – at mile 88 of 149 in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Just had a very satisfying dinner of dehydrated ham, beans, ramen and sauerkraut. Got a little nip of whiskey next to me, I found the Blues game 3 of the finals on the radio and just started a fire to keep the bugs away. It’s been a busy few days since Great Falls.Wednesday, my plan was to prep my gear and food for the coming weeks, then catch a ride from Great Falls to below the Falls with my shuttle at around 2:30pm. Knowing that I was going to need to bring a lot more water with me than I had during the early part of the trip, I had to pack everything as efficiently as possible, using every square inch wisely. Around 11:30 I got a call from a local Montana number and answered. It was Casey at local TV station KRTV. When I stopped into Montana River Outfitters the day before to get some advice on the trip, the owner Craig apparently called a few contacts in the media and told them about my trip.I walked around the corner to Miss Kitty’s coffee shop and met the reporter who did a pretty quick interview. I told her she was more than welcome to spice things up with any photos or video from my web site or Instagram.

At 2:30, Phyllis and Jim Meade pulled up in their small truck with a substantial boat rack. Jim has been invovled with the Medicine River Canoe Club for many years. As the popularity of canoeing has given way to kayaking and stand-up boarding in recent years, they unfortunately had to dissolve the club in the past year or so. However, Jim and Phyllis will still dutifully portage Missouri River Paddlers around Great Falls. When I signed Jim’s clipboard, I flipped back to previous pages to see the veritable who’s who of MO River paddlers. Names I’ve heard, people I’ve talked to, peoples’ who’s books I’ve read or plan on reading. I felt honored to add my name to Jim’s list. They drove me to the most easily accessible put-in below Great Falls – at Carter’s Ferry. There are a handful of these really old ferries on the upper Missouri – big metal pontoons capable of carrying a car or two – and are pulled across the river on cables, that if you aren’t paying attention when you paddle through, you might just knock your head on…

I put in at Carter’s Ferry on what was easily the warmest day of my trip so far – 80 degrees and not a cloud to be seen. The 16 miles to Fort Benton was beautiful – the river cuts a pretty deep canyon in the plains a few hundred feet above. There were many cliffs of different colors based on the types of rocks and dirt slowly being eroded by the persistent Missouri. Without paddling too much at all, I made the 16 miles in less than three hours.In Fort Benton, I pulled into the fantastic canoe camp, where I was the only one there to enjoy the ample water spiggots and even hot showers! I strolled the mile into town to grab some dinner. I ended up at the local VFW – the second night in a row at a VFW – and happened upon a hot dinner, some cold beer and the hockey game on TV. I got to talking with the bartender, told her what I was doing and then was introduced to her mother and a few friends further down the bar. At that point, I was getting notifications that my news story had hit the web, so they pulled it up on their phone and were, what can I say? Impressed. Had a good walk back to camp after the Blues won in OT.

The next morning, I visited the excellent Interpretive Center for the Upper Missour River Breaks. Fort Benton is mile 0 of the 149 miles of the National Monument. I watched a short video where I was reminded that the Missouri’s course owes its winding and circuitous nature to our last ice age. Originally, the Missouri headed due north to Canada and emptied into the Hudson Bay! After the museum, I met up with Zach, who is interning at the Fort Benton Press from the University of Montana. Norm Miller had a contact at the weekly local paper and let them know I’d be passing through on my way to St. Louis. Zach and I talked a lot about my trip, he asked some pretty darn good questions, and he sent me a link to his band on Spotify – that was off the record.

After a few more errands and lunch in town, I headed back to camp for a quick shower then packed up my boat to shove off. Just before I got in the water, I shot Zach a text. As I paddled the mile from camp back down to Fort Benton, Zach set up his camera on the bridge to grab a shot for the article. I’m eager to see what kind of article Zach is able to put together.

I can’t say enough good things about Fort Benton. It’s a very historic town, very significant in the history of Montana and the Missouri River. The places and the people were fantastic!I paddled through the afternoon, around 19 miles down to a primitive campsite at Black Bluffs rapids. All the primitive campsite means really is that there’s a sign and a small fire ring, which I didn’t use. Most importantly, there is some grass that’s not out of control where I can set up my tent and not worry about insects or snakes. I spent the evening listening to far off thunder and watching the menagerie of birds come and go along the cliffs opposite my camp.

I was up early and on the river by 7 the next morning. About a mile down from my camp was Decision Point. It was here that the Lewis & Clark party paused for 10 days to determine which was the true path to the mountains – the (to be named) Marias River or what was indeed the Missouri. Contrary to the opinions of the majority of the men, L&C eventually decided correctly to continue up the Missouri. I climbed a nearby hill to take a look at the confluence and the helpful signage noting the spot. Then from about 9am to 3pm, I was covering a lot of miles – pausing only for a few minutes in Coal Banks Landing to register as a paddler of the Breaks.

I pulled into Eagle Creek campsite at Norm’s suggestion – not only a nice spot to camp, but opportunities to explore some slot canyons and ancient petroglyphs nearby. Plus, May 31, 1805, the Lewis & Clark party camped here. That’s right – 214 years to the day – yours truly is camping on the same spot. Apparently, there is a marker that specifies their exact campsite, but I was unable to access it because, appropriately enough, two bald eagles were aggressively protecting their nearby nests, and gave me a pretty good tower buzz when I got close.

On my way to explore the slot canyons, I ran into a group of 4 people who were also camping at Eagle Creek. After checking out the spectacular sandstone passageways and towers, I talked to the crew of 4, all from Colorado. Carol, a retired science teacher, Cora, a nearly retired BLM employee, then husband and wife Chris and Steve. I told them what I was doing and they invited me to join them for venison stew for dinner, followed by cherry tart for dessert. They plyed me with whiskey as well, and we spent an evening around the fire exchanging stories. Steve even sent me off with a small bag of his own elk jerky.

I was up again early and back on the river – a few miles down was one of the major landmarks of the Breaks – Hole in the Wall. I parked and climbed the rocky trail up to the top of the ridge. Me 10 years ago probably would have climbed out onto the actual Hole in the Wall, alas not today. I spent a few minutes at the top and managed to get some good photos of another family passing by in two canoes. (And check out that hawk photobomb, straight flexin’ and struttin’.)I played with the Go Pro while paddling the rest of the day. I did take another mid-day pit stop to hike back up into a couple more spectacular canyons.As the day got later, I motored on to Judith Landing, encountering a completely emtpy campsite except for a big old snake – can anyone identify what this is? And should I be concerned about sharing a camp with him?As I mentioned, finding enough drinkable water is a challenge on this part of the river. A few campsites that would normally have water suffered damage during the abnormally cold and icy Montana winter and their water supplies are shut off. I topped of my approximately 7 gallons of cpacity at Fort Benton and have been trying to go slow. They say you should consume at least a gallon a day. Luckily, Norm put me in contact with an outfitter in Fort Benton, and she told me where I could find a secret stash of water here at Judith Landing. Sure enough, shortly after I arrived, I located the old cabin, then a really old, disconnected gas station ice machine behind the cabin, inside which I found about a dozen large casks of drinking water! Sweet relief! I wasn’t running low on my supply, but I got more confidence topping off my supply, not knowing when will be the next opportunity to re-supply.Also note that today was the first day (and probably pretty much every day after today) I immersed myself in the river after a long hot day of paddling. Sweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet Relief!