Through the Gates of the Mountains

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.

Hauser 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.

mf

File to: Timber Longboard Co. RE: Boat Report, Week 1

Canyon Ferry Lake, MT

Week 1 report regarding Timber Longboard Co.’s prototype kayak.

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.

mf

Madison River Completed

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.

mf

Day 4 & 5: The Lower Madison to Three Forks

Waking up at Varney Bridge, I only had about 10 miles to paddle to arrive at Ennis, MT, probably the biggest town along the Madison. It was pretty uneventful paddling, kind of a grey day and nothing too treacherous, just a few braided channels to navigate. The river is relatively high during the spring right now, so I luckily don’t have to worry too much about running aground in the shallows. And the river moves at a pretty good clip, so I don’t really have to do much paddling. Arriving at the boat ramp in Ennis, I hoofed it over the bridge and into town and stopped in the first fly fish shop/outfitter/guide service I came to. I had a decision to make. After a few more miles, the Madison dumps into Ennis Lake, then enters Bear Trap Canyon. Researching the Madison, I knew I wasn’t going to paddle through Bear Trap. There is Class III thru Class V whitewater. I thought I’d be able to portage around those rapids on a hiking trail. After my first rough day of portaging on pavement, not to even consider off-road portaging, I changed my mind. I was going to get a ride around the Bear Trap.

After talking to Jess at Troutstalkers, she called to their other shop and soon enough, a gentlemen was on his way to pick me up and shuttle me down to Warm Springs, the start of the lower Madison. Joe Dilschneider pulled up in his big truck. Turns out, he’s from Ladue, MO, is a MICDS grad (the high school question, obviously) and has owned and operated Troutstalkers fly shop, outfitter and guide shop for 26+ years. He said he fell in love with the Madison Valley when he first saw it and never left…I can’t blame him. He found my trip fascinating and we shared stories on the 10 mile drive to Warm Springs. He snapped a couple photos of me for Troutstalkers’ facebook page so look for me on there…

He dropped me at a busy flyfishing boat put in, I had to wait my turn to get on the water. When I finally did, I actually didn’t head downstream. I crossed to the other side of the river, where a hiking trail starts that goes deep into Bear Trap Canyon from the downstream side. I secured my boat and hiked up the canyon for about 3 miles. The canyon was spectacular, with 2 or 3 thousand foot mountains rising up on each side of the cascading Madison.

I know religous folks experience moments of transcendence under certain circumstances; hiking alone up this canyon is about as close as I’ll come to those types of feelings. Nature is my church and this is one spectacular cathedral. I ignored the blisters forming on my feet due to my ill-equipped- for-hiking sandals and eventually made my way back to my boat. I bypassed a small school group who was stopped to observe a rattlesnake beside the trail.

Back on the water, I was enveloped in a cloud of flies. Landing on me, my boat and all my gear, I wondered where all the fish were to gobble up these bad boys. This stretch of river is a popular flyfishing spot, and I passed at least a half dozen drift boats. I pulled off to wait out a brief thunderstorm at a campsite, then paddled about 15 miles downstream, to the white cliffs section of the Madison, where my buddy Norm Miller recommended I camp for the night. I picked a spot opposite the cliffs and set up camp in what was obviously a cattle pasture, though the manure wasn’t so fresh as to expect any visitors that night.

It was a bit windy, so I had to use my tent as a wind break as I made a delicious turkey, edamame and rice dinner. I even broke out the fishing pole for the first time, with no luck. Ducks and other waterfowl that occupied the cliffs opposite my camp squaked well into the night and early on in the morning, but I was able to sleep through it. No angry bulls found their way into my campsite and I was packed up and on the water by 8:15.

Immediately, it began raining and got colder and hasn’t let up since then. I paddled the remaining 15 miles on the Madison to the I-90 overpass and pulled my boat out. The last 15 miles was a maze of twisting, turning channels and sloughs. My object was to try to stick to the channel with the most water, and least chance of running aground or hitting a snag. I pretty much managed to do it. At the bridge, I changed into some semi-dry gear from the waist up and walked the two miles in the rain into Three Forks. Once again, my golf umbrella really saved the day. I had a leisurely lunch at a local cafe, the fish and chips special and two local beers, along with a couple coffees to warm the body. The forecast for the coming week is not looking promising for paddling down the top of the Missouri – cold, wet and some snow mixed in.

I left the cafe and headed down 2 blocks to the Sacajawea Hotel, where I am currently enjoying the warmth of their spectacular lobby and using a few nearby outlets to charge my batteries.

The rain is supposed to continue all day and into the evening. My plan is to at some point walk back to my boat, and either paddle down a few miles and camp at Missouri River Headwaters State Park, or what I may end up doing is going hobo style and pitching my tent under the insterstate bridge and try not to get run off by the cops. Time will tell how things turn out, the adventure continues.

mf

Days 2 & 3: Quake Lake, Portage and the Madison

Yesterday started pretty early. I packed up camp at the marina, then liesurely paddled the last two miles of Hebgen Lake while enjoying a day old egg and sausage bagel. Near the dam that is the reason Hebgen Lake exists, I pulled my boat out, unloaded all my gear, put the boat onto my C-Tug cart, pulled the boat up a rocky slope to a gravel parking area, then loaded all my stuff back in it. (No this won’t be the first time I do this today…)

My google map scouting told me I should be able to roll my boat about a mile down the road to a campground where I could put back in. After 500 feet of downhill rolling, the wheels on the cart started screeching like a banshee. This can’t be good. I took the boat off the cart, disassembeled it and examined the wheels. Sure enough, the weight and pressure on the axles was causing some of the plastic to get scratched and worn down. I wasn’t going to make it very far at all with this development. In my best McGyver impression, I pulled out the vaseline I had packed for the purpose of relieving paddling induced chafing throughout the trip and generously applied a coat to the axle. Back on the road without even a squeak! Fantastic.

I made it to the campsite and the appropriately named Ghost Village Road. The road parallels the Madison as it enters Earthquake Lake and looking across, sure enough there were a few old dilapidated houses, abandoned after the earthquake of 1959. I could put my boat in here, but there were some pretty hefty rapids and boulders in the water. I walked about a mile ahead, scouting a way through. My mind went back and forth; should I put in and risk it? Should I painfully portage another mile and play it safe? After a quick bite for lunch, I decided to go for it. I put in the rushing water and made it about 200 yards, I didn’t really hit anything and wasn’t in danger, but I felt like I wouldn’t be able to 100% control the fully loaded boat safely down these rapids. I was able to pull out, unload all my gear, mount the boat, then reload all my gear. Second time.

I got back in the water at the upper end of Earthquake Lake, not before hitting a rut and rolling my boat and cart over on its side, much to the amusement of some onlooking fly-fisherpeople. Earthquake Lake formed when a 7.5 quake hit in 1959, the largest quake to ever hit the Rocky Mountains. The ensuing landslide killed 28 campers at the height of summer tourist season, and dammed the Madison River. Engineers eventually cut a new pathway for the water to escape before the lake became too full, thus averting even more catastrophe downstream. One effect of such a relatively young lake is that the lake is full of dead tree trunks. It was very eerie paddling through dead forests, while keeping an eye on the water for what could be a disaster waiting to happen if I did hit a submerged trunk. The first 1/3 of the lake was calm and enjoyable. Then the wind came up. I paddled the last 2/3s of the lake, probably 8 miles, into a 30 to 40mph headwind. The waves were large and I really had to put some effort into it to make any progress.

I finally made it to the end of the lake. The take out is conveniently located about 10 yards upstream from where the lake gets funneled into the narrow man-made channel, which leads to about 3 miles of boat crushing, and often fatal class 5 rapids. I was pretty terrified of getting too close to the suction, so I stopped well short of the spot, then pulled my boat with a rope along shore til I got to the take out. What should have been relief turned to more bad news, as google maps failed to show the 150 – 200 ft elevation change to get back up to the road from the take out. Portage sequence, queue the music. Unload boat, load on cart, haul gear up the hill, haul boat up the hill. Repeat. Ugh. I finally made it up to the road exhausted, and was really crossing my fingers someone would stop and offer to load everything on their car for the ride down the mountain. It didn’t happen. Not all too bad though, this was a pretty steep decline down into the valley past the crazy class 5 section of the river. I stopped two more times to apply a fresh coat of vaseline lube to the cart, and to let it cool down as to not overheat the critical components. My plan had been to portage everything about 3.5 miles to another put-in on the free-flowing Madison. Luckily, as I got to the bottom of the hill, about 2.5 miles into my portage, I saw an oasis and my stop for the night – the Slide Inn. I quickly got a campsite, a couple beers and made my first dehydrated meal in the rain. Back in my tent, I cracked open my journal to record the day’s events, only to pretty much fall right asleep due to the exhaustion from the day.

Today, I was up early and after speaking to the staff at the Slide Inn, recommended for me to put in the Madison about 3 more miles downstream from where I had planned. They told me there were quite a few rocks and rough spots still and with my boat, I should play it safe. Who am I to disagree? A fly-fishing guide Wyatt helped me load the boat onto the roof of his truck and hauled me, my gear and the MOstar down to the Pine Butte put in. I quickly unloaded and reloaded and was off at around 11am. It’s now 6:30 and I’ve been off the water for about an hour after making about 32 miles today. The river was fast, rough, with just enough boulders that I had to keep my head on a swivel the entire day. Luckily, I didn’t hit anything major, the rudder only got stuck once resulting in me having to jump out waist deep into the cold water to unjam it. It was a little cold and rainy later in the day, but I’m sitting comfortably in camp typing this so all in all, a pretty darn good day. Just got a message that Sara made it home safely after a 24 hour return trip, so very thankful there as well.

Instead of posting photos of the past two day’s events, I uploaded quite a few shots to my Instagram. They roughly correspond to yesterday’s and today’s events, sorry I can’t be bothered to integrate them into my narrative. As always, please enjoy.

mf

Day 1 – Hebgen Lake

It’s the end of the first day on the river. I’m tucked into a dirt beach next to the Kirkwood Marina on the lower end of Hebgen Lake. What a time to be alive when I can have cel service while camped at a mountain lake in between two large mountain ranges.I made it about 16.5 miles today, first mile or two on the Madison as it exited Yellowstone then the rest on the lake. Other than a brief pop up shower with some wind which forced me to the bank, the weather was excellent, mostly sunny and in the upper 60s and 70s. Sara dropped me just upriver from the rte 191 bridge near the town of West Yellowstone. A young fly fisherman was surprised to be witness to the start of the journey and obliged us by snapping a photo. My gear was mostly packed and organized, so I was fairly quickly able to get everything loaded. We said our goodbyes and soon enough, I was paddling.Some key takeaways and learnings today:

  • Gear storage and organization will be a work in progress. For example, I had to scramble to locate rain gear when it started raining so that process will need to be more efficient.
  • I got the feel for sticking to the sheltered side of the lake to stay out of strong winds and big waves. This will be an ongoing theme throughout the trip.
  • I managed a couple crossings of the lake, being quite far from shore, yet completely comfortable and in control. Timber Longboard’s boat was incredible and I am extremely happy with its performance on the first day. It really moves when I want it to.
  • I made 16.5 miles in about 5 hours, most of it on non-moving water. So I know I will be fully capable of cranking out high mileage days on this trip. I will have to continue to remind myself to take it easy, enjoy the ride, stop and explore. The MR340 racing mindset is going to have to go by the wayside.
  • I got my first experience navigating a braided channel, where a river dumps into a lake. It’s like a maze and you have to pick the correct channel or you end up stuck in sand or mud. I managed to do that twice today, but luckily was able to jump out of the boat and pull it a few feet over to deeper water.
  • The indescribable beauty of an alpine lake surrounded by snow covered peaks was just as amazing as it sounds. Pictures hardly do it justice, so I tried to just take it all in.

Tomorrow will be interesting. I’ll paddle the remaining mile on Hebgen to the dam, after which I’ll load the kayak on my cart and portage her about a mile along a two lane state highway to the put in on earthquake lake. I am somewhat disappointed, as I found or from a couple locals that the Earthquake Lake museum and visitor’s center doesn’t open until memorial day. I was really looking forward to learning more about the tragic 1959 quake that killed about 30 campers and accidentally created the lake through which i’ll be paddling tomorrow.Bonus funny story from today: I’ve been in touch with another long distance paddler, Ellen Falterman. She did the entire Missouri River two years ago and is doing the Mississippi this summer. On the drive up this morning, she messaged me a picture of the Mississippi headwaters and said, “where you at?” A little confused, I responded, Montana, on my way to the Madison river. Apparently we’re are starting our journeys on the same day, just a few thousand miles apart, to her surprise.mf

Summer of Sara

Hey there! You might know me from blog posts such as “The Patient Wife” and “She Who Knows Dehydrating.” Well, that’s me! Mark and I thought it would be interesting to share my perspective on his adventure, since a lot of the questions he’s gotten have been about how I feel and what my plans are.

First, a little background. Mark and I started dating around the time of his first MR340. My friend Susan and I drove to Jefferson City to see him and Norman at one of the checkpoints. We were armed with Subway sandwiches and a dashboard jesus and were completely blown away by how many people were out there racing and supporting racers. It was amazing. We saw them for about 15 minutes, they passed on our sammiches after being tempted by fast food burgers courtesy of Mark’s cousin and were off. I went on to be ground support for the next three MR340s that Mark did, and even one last year that he didn’t. It’s exhasuting and exciting and I love it.

Before the last 340 he did, in 2017, I tried to talk him out of it. I thought that he should try something new; a different river or a more challenging race. I can barely do the same 5k or 10k more than once, I couldn’t imagine 340 miles of the same river (and yes, I know the saying about the river and changing, so I’ll stop you there). On our honeymoon, we stopped in Three Forks, Montana, home of the Missouri River Confluence. Mark was so excited and told me that one day he was going to paddle the entire thing. I believed him, because he’s that kind of guy, but I had NO IDEA it would be so soon.

In the summer of 2018, Mark asked what I thought about him doing it in 2019. I told him to go for it, but was cautious that he might not get everything planned or work wouldn’t give him time off or that something would come up. Nothing did, obviously, we’re here in Montana getting ready to cook the last homemade meal he’ll have for weeks. Everything fell into place. We talked about financial needs and boring stuff. And scary stuff. But we came up with a plan and the rest played out pretty much how you’ve read up until now. However, I got so many questions. So. Many. Concerns. Mark thought he had a lot, but those were about logistics and maps and food. So let me answer a few.

1. Are you going too? No, I never, EVER thought about going with him.
I’m a land girl. I love water, but only for swimming. I get sick on boats and I hate them for long periods of time. I got sick on the lazy river once, AS AN ADULT. So no, it never crossed my mind.

2. What are you going to do for four months? The same thing I do every night, Pinky…
This has probably come up the most. “You can do whatever you want!” “It will be like a party every night!” “The Summer of Sara!” I mean, that sounds like a blast, but I still have a job, the truck, two cats, and a boat (haha) load of new chores to take care of…looking at you, yard. So while I’ll have plenty of alone time to go out and get crazy, realistically I’ll be at home a lot, most likely playing Zelda (finally!) because one thing I don’t get to do a lot with one TV is play video games.

3. Aren’t you worried/nervous/scared? Yes? I have to say yes, right?
All joking aside, of course I’m nervous, but not about Mark. He knows what he’s doing and has a solid plan. I’m worried about stuff like my packages getting lost in the mail and him not having resupplies or one of the cats going missing or a tree falling on his car while I’m out of town for the weekend. You’re welcome, because now you have those same fears.

4. How often are you going to go see him? Maybe once.
Most of his trip will be far away from StL and I can’t take a ton of time off to go do that. Besides, we’ll be in contact and talking enough that the months will fly by. And I’m encouraging others to go find him along the way, he will love to see friends along the river!
I plan to post updates about Mark and will plan on an event closer to when he’ll finish. It’s important to both of us that so many friends have reached out and asked us these questions about the trip, it just means that you care! And it means so much that he has your support and love.
Happy blog reading and following, feel free to shoot me a message if there is anything you’d like to know about where to find him.

Love and kisses, SF