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?
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.
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!
I had planned on taking my first few no-paddle days for the trip when I arrived in Great Falls, MT. My arms weren’t super sore when I got here, but I could feel they’d benefit from a day or two of little to no use. My main contact in Great Falls had been a local Hash House Harrier. Long story short for those that don’t know, the HHH are an international ‘drinking club with a running problem’ located in almost every medium to large sized city in the world. I’ve used it as a method to meet new people with common interests in other cities, to get intelligence on where to go, where to stay, where to get good beer, etc.
Anthony let me stay in his vintage camper out in front of his house.
Electrical was hooked up but not water so I had to get a little creative and become a frequent customer of the coffee shop around the corner. I paddled into Great Falls on Sunday morning, it was rainy and cold. Anthony picked me up and we somehow found a way to balance my 20ft kayak on the roof of the cab of his pickup truck for the short ride back to his house. Later on that day, the local Hash group was playing sloshball – a form of kickball infused with cheap beer and a lot of fun. It continued raining hard all day, stayed in the 40s, but sloshball went ahead as planned. We all had a blast splashing around on a muddy field, chasing a kickball, downing beers and generally having a great time.
We adjourned to a local brewery for post contest refreshments than back to Anthony’s house for some more great food cooked by his wife Nikki. I truly treasure the HHH community both at home in St. Louis and in other places I’ve visited throughout the world. What an incredibly fantastic luxury to have to be able to have instant friends and people who will go out of their way to help you with anything you need in almost any place you find yourself in.
The next day was Memorial Day, and the forecast was for more rain – all day and more cold. The length of my stay in Great Falls was seemingly dependent on the arrival of my first re-supply package. Mainly food and a few other small items I’d need to ensure I’d be able to continue my trip fully stocked. Through some snafu with UPS, I learned my box is not expected to arrive until this Friday – not for two more days from today! I spent Monday afternoon having a couple beers at a local brewery and trying to come up with a plan. After a few iterations, I decided I was going to wait for Tuesday, when the weather was expected to be excellent, and when all the attractions and businesses in Great Falls would be back open for business. I’d then determine if I really wanted to wait until Friday for my package, or buy the stuff I needed at the local WalMart Supercenter and get back on the river.
Yesterday was glorious! Anthony loned me a mountain bike to get around town. After my morning visit to the coffee shop, I headed to the river and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. This is a fantastic museum in Great Falls that covers Lewis & Clark’s entire journey in 1804 – 1806 and beyond, with a pretty good focus on their time in and around the Great Falls of Montana, and their incredibly difficult month-long portage around the Falls. I dodged the kids on field trips at the museum and really enjoyed it. Then I biked down the hill to Giant Springs State Park – an amazingly crisp and clear spring on the banks of the muddy Missouri. The Spring forms what some consider the world’s shortest river – the Roe River at 201ft long. I spent a few more hours biking the excellent bike trail system along the river around Great Falls – some photos of the day on Instagram.
At some point in the day, I made up my mind to proceed on with my trip and not wait for my package. I contacted a few folks about getting a ride past all the dams and falls with my boat to continue on my trip and I have that arranged for this afternoon. Yesterday, I also met up with a guy from Great Falls who is considering a MO River trip in the next year or two so I talked to him for a while about planning and all kinds of stuff. I swung by an army surplus store to procure 12″ tent stakes for what Jim Emanuel promised I would encounter on the Great Plains: 80 – 100mph winds that my tent wouldn’t have a chance of standing up to without. Then I made a dreaded trip to Walmart to purchase food that would last me until my next re-supply box, along with an additional water container as this next stretch of river will be very limited in provisions and refill opportunities.
By the end of the day, the bike seat ensured my butt was in pain. Anthony invited me with his family and some friends to 50 cent wing night at his local VFW, and we had a wonderful time. Today is another fantastic day weather-wise in Great Falls. My shuttle is coming to pick me up around 2pm, then I should be on the river by 3:30 or 4. I’ll paddle for a couple hours to a campsite at Fort Benton, MT. From there on, I get into what will likely be the most scenic portion of my trip – through Missouri River Breaks National Monument. I’ll take my time, do some exploring and hiking in the canyons and cliffs along the river. From there it will be onto the first big lake – Fort Peck. Phone reception looks to be extremely limited over this stretch so I’ll likley be off grid for a couple weeks.
Spirits are good – mind and and body seem to be in good shape after R&R in Great Falls. Fingers crossed that the weather may have finally made a Spring-like turn for the better.
One of the very first things I did when I put pen to paper on actually doing this trip was to write down every major category of planning that would need to happen to make this adventure happen:
UB Exit (my job)
While I didn’t use this as my strict outline for actually doing the planning, one item on the list came up today: Re-entry
It’s kind of an odd thing to think about two weeks into a 3+ month trip. But my first off day of the trip is today, I’m sitting in Mighty MO Brewery in downtown Great Falls enjoying a few beers as the cold rain continues to fall, and a very interesting article was posted on the MO River Paddlers facebook page.
The link is a translation to an original article by Martin Trahan, a Canadian explorer who paddled across the entire US, including the Missouri River last year. While his trip was about 9.75 times more epic than I expect my trip to be, including PTSD from riding out Hurricane Michael along the Florida gulf coast, Martin writes a truly heartfelt and revealing article about the experiences when an epic adventure comes to a close, and one returns to their “normal” life.
In thinking about my trip, it was something I was aware of, somehow. I can’t recall what prompted me to add ‘re-entry’ to my list of planning items for the trip, but it’s there. The people who have completed the entire Missouri River descent before me come from a wide variety of occupations and lifestyles. Some are retired, some are full-time adventurers, some are just taking a break from busy careers – probably the category with which I most closely identify. Going back to sitting behind a desk after 3+ months of paddling down a river, sleeping outdoors (almost) every night, and leading almost a 100% different life than what I am accustomed to is quite a change. It’s impossible to know how I will feel after the trip, how well I’ll be able to re-integrate back into normal life, or what other types of insane ideas I’ll have for how to continue to scratch the adventure itch that I know will be there in my life after this.
Not sure what the point of this post really is, probably just some ramblings after a couple beers on a rainy afternoon when I am more content to be here than out on the river. Certainly thoughts to keep aware of and on the horizon as I round the next riverbend and tally up the river miles.
When Lewis and Clark and their party reached the Rocky Mountains, they reached a point at which they did not see a way the river made its way through the mountains. The river makes a series of sharp turns around dramatic cliffs and mountains, hence the Gates of the Rocky Mountains. This was a place I was looking forward to experiencing since the very early planning stages of my trip. And although I’d be approaching the Gates from the opposite side that L&C did, the experience was no less awe-inspring.
I had the pleasure of paddling this stretch with Jim Emanuel, who had paddled the entire Missouri River, and kept on going to New Orleans, last summer. He was very familiar with this stretch of river and was an amazing guide. As an avid fisherman, he also made sure I was equipped with the best lures and bait for doing some real fishing on this stretch of the river.
Jim’s wife Vicki dropped us both off at Hauser Dam. We immediately had to load our gear in our boats and on our carts and roll them down a hill to the put in below the dam.
From there, Jim and I liesurely paddled and fished for the first 10 or 12 miles. I was only slightly alarmed when I heard the sirens going off at the dam, indicating an increase in water release. I learned they even sound the alarm if only releasing very small amounts of extra water, so it’s usually fine to ignore them. We fished for the better part of the day, me with absolutley no success and Jim with pretty decent results – a nice rainbow trout.
Eventually, we made our way into the wide open Hauser Lake and the upstream entrance to the Gates. Late afternoon light made for amazing sights as we entered the dramatic canyon.
I even got to safely check off an item I’d been wanting to experience on my list: to see a bear. As we entered the canyon, halfway up one of the hillsides was a black bear with its cub. I got a pretty good look with my binoculars. We paddled a few miles into the canyon before finding what’s probably the best campsite I’ve ever stayed at. Jim and I set up camp, built a fire, enjoyed a few beers and some nips of whiskey, shared good conversation and some warm dinner, and were in bed before it even got dark.
In the morning, we paddled about 3 miles down to Mann Gulch: another item I’d been looking forward to during the planning for my trip. In 1949, smokejumpers fighting a wildfire in Mann Gulch were overcome and raced to the top of a gulch to try to reach the ridge to escape the fire. 13 young men died in the fire, 11 not making out out of the gulch. Two more crested the ridge only to die from their injuries.
Jim and I made the 3 mile hike up the picturesque valley. Nearing the ridgeline, we began to see crosses and monuments that had been set up at each spot where a young man had died. We walked to each cross and paid respects, much more real for Jim as a life-long firefighter. We made our way to the top of the ridge and looked down on the other side to the incredible views below and the two crosses down below on the other side. As horrific as the tragedy was, being there in such an incedible place was quite a juxtapostion. The eternal resting place of these 13 men is beyond description in its beauty. It was a truly moving experience for all these reasons.
After we descended, Jim and I had a pretty long day of paddling ahead of us, through the rest of a serene and calm Holter Lake, yet another portage down below Holter Dam before setting up camp where the Missouri becomes a river again. A truly inspiring and unbelievable couple of days.
A risk I was aware of starting my trip when I did was the possibility of colder weather. May in St. Louis is generally pretty darn nice. Warm with a thunderstorm here or there, but generally good weather for being in the outdoors. I didn’t think Montana would be too far behind. I mean the day I dropped my boat in on the edge of Yellowstone, it was 75 degrees and sunny. I’ve learned over the last 12 days that Montana weather is second to none, including St. Louis, in terms of predictability and forecasting. Turns out, this last two weeks has been colder and rainier than normal. I’ve been told by multiple people that the weather in Montana is two or three weeks behind normal.
I camped for the first 4 nights along the Madison River. It was a little chilly maybe down into the low 40s at night, there was some rain here or there, enough so that my gear was wet in the morning, but no sustained downpours or frozen things. It started to get more uncomfortable down near the start of the Missouri in Three Forks. I spent a cold night on an island in the Headwaters State Park. The forecast for the coming week from there wasn’t too good. Continued cold – upper 40s to low 50s as a high during the day then down into the low 40s or upper 30s at night, along with rain scattered throughout. When Jim picked me and Norm up after our paddle from Three Forks, I didn’t expect that he and his wife Vicki would graciously host me for the next 4(!) nights at their amazing home outside Helena. It worked out that each day, I could paddle a pretty good stretch of the river (or the series of lakes that is the Missouri River in this part of Montana) then get back to Jim & Vicki’s house for an amazing dinner, a hot shower and a warm bed. I followed the advice I heard early on in my planning for this trip – never turn down a cold drink or a warm place to sleep.
Fast forward a few days. I bid farewell to Jim in Craig, MT, after paddling with him for 3 days and camping for two nights. The weather was much better. From Craig, I paddled an additional 20 miles to get to Cascade, MT by about 4pm. Having heard there was a boat ramp for the town right under the bridge, I was a little suprised to not see a boat ramp. As I passed by a few houses after the bridge, I saw a gentleman looking through binoculars down towards the river. I waved and asked him if I missed the boat ramp. He asked me where I was headed and when I responded St. Louis, told me I could stop there. I pulled in and soon found myself talking with Terry and Pam Curnow, river angels who’ve hosted many other MO River paddlers in their 44 years in Cascade. They quickly assured me I was more that welcome to stay at their amazing house, directly across a channel of the river from a pristine island on which we observed deer, pelicans, and lots of other wildife as we enjoyed some cold beverages. They fed me an amazing dinner of pork chops and corn, entertained me with a ton of stories, and Terry showed me his sprawling woodworking shop, where he’s built some amazing boats – see my Instagram post. Him seeing me paddle up in my wood kayak had to seem like fate. (Actually even more amazing, I had gotten a text earlier in the day from Norm Miller that said if I make it to Cascade, I need to find the “wooden boat maker” – well holy shit, guess who was the first person I saw in Cascade!)
I am continuing to follow the advice of not turning down a cold drink and warm bed tonight. I am enjoying the hospitality of River Angels once again, as I know eventually on this trip I won’t be so fortunate.
Overall, strong and successful first week. The 100 miles of the Madison River and the first 70 or so miles of the Missouri River presented your craft with various challenges and hurdles to overcome. Hydrodynamic classifications encountered include but not limited to: open calm lake water, wind-disturbed lake water, quickly flowing river, quickly flowing river with distrubed flow caused by obstructions, braided channels with tight turns, lazy river (not the water-park kind). Non-hydrodynamic features included a shit- ton of portaging a heavy-ass load on a questionable portage cart over pavement, rocky/gravel roads at various slopes and elevations.
Happy to report that watercraft exceeded all expectations. Some contact with rocks early on on the Madison, no significant scraping or damage to the boat. Kevlar layer on the bottom of the boat was a stroke of genius. Quite maneuverable when needing to navigate tight turns or corners. Some light cosmetic damage to top of boat due to repeated loading/unloading on top of vehicles for more significant portaging.
Cockpit comfort is nothing short of perfect. Captain did not attach seat to actual boat until 3rd day of paddling. Once that was done, no further slippage encountered. Perfect fit on cockpit skirt to aid in warmth and dryness on cold/wet days. Some issues with rudder not fully deploying, Captain having to manually deploy rudder in certain situations, though not an issue with Timber Longboard Co. but with rudder maker. Hatch stowage capacity has been satisfactory. All gear accommodated with no issues, Captain still trying to find out where the 30 rock of beer will be stowed.
Many compliments given by third party observers of watercraft in action. Craft able to be conveyed at upwards of 5mph in slack water, 10mph in short stretches in swiftly flowing water. Deck rigging, handles and other cosmetic work has been ideal as well.
Overall, 10/10 for initial performance of virgin watercraft. Would paddle again.
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.
Currently, I’m camped on an island in Missouri River Headwaters State Park. About 2 hours ago I finished paddling the last 4 miles of the Madison river. It flowed into the Jefferson River and I soon pulled out to set up camp on an island. However, this is not yet the Missouri River as the Gallatin river comes in about a 1/2 mile downstream from here.
Even though it was 45ﾟand raining, I think the last 4 miles of the Madison might have been the most beautiful. There are long, meandering curves, the water is generally calm and I think I saw more wildlife than I had on the entire Madison before. I saw pelicans, cranes, countless ducks and geese, other waterfowl I couldn’t identify; I saw 2 deer swim/run across the river right in front of me. I came around a curve to see a moose or elk sitting on the bank and staring at me. Plus, hundreds of small birds flying an inch or 2 above the water picking off flies for dinner. It was another spiritual experience not just for the natural aspect, but for the historical significance as well. Tomorrow morning, I will climb a rock that Lewis and Clark climbed as they reached the end of the Missouri River, and saw 3 rivers coming together. They also saw the forbidding rocky mountains in the distance. They knew their opportunity for making it over those mountains was short as the Winter was closing in. I on the other hand, huddled in my tent shivering, can’t wait for Winter to be over.
As the Madison and Jefferson converged, I snapped a quick photo of the spot that you see in the smaller picture at the top of my blog. Little did I know that one and a half years later, I wouldn’t be posing on that bank, but paddling by.
All in all, I paddled just short of 100 miles on the Madison. From the edge of Yellowstone Park, I tackled the first 2 lakes on the upper Madison. I skipped the dangerous sections below Earthquake Lake to Pine Butte and from Ennis to the end of Bear Trap Canyon. The scenery was unforgettable; the river was gorgeous. I feel like the varying conditions of the lakes and the different personalities of the river were an excellent primer for what is to come on the Missouri river. Tomorrow, the journey begins.