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!