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.
The Missouri River starts where the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson rivers come together in Three Forks, Montana. Brower’s Spring (44°33’02″N 111°28’20″W) is considered the ultimate source of the Missouri River. That is basically considered the furthest point from which water flows which ultimately ends up in the Missouri River. It is 300 river miles upstream from Three Forks. Those who want to say they’ve paddled the entire Missouri from the ultimate source paddle from Brower’s Spring. Many others begin their journey where the Missouri actually starts, in Three Forks. I chose to start on the Madison River.
Why? I think it’s for a few reasons:
In fall of 2017, Sara and I had the chance to honeymoon in the western US, and explored Yellowstone for a few days. We did the obligatory photo op at Old Faithful and strolled along the paths near there where the geysers and boiling springs dumped into the Firehole River. As soon as I could, I dove into google maps and started tracing where that water goes. The Firehole River dumps into the Madison in Yellowstone a few miles to the west of Old Faithful. 100 miles down the Madison to Three Forks. So yeah, the same water that shoots into the sky from Old Faithful ends up passing in front of the Arch in St. Louis. Pretty awesome! While I cannot legally paddle the Firehole River or the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park, I can start at the park border on the Madison.
Another reason I chose to start on the Madison is because not many other people do. In talking to some experts on Missouri River expeditions, a few have started on the Madison but the great majority start at Three Forks, or further up the Jefferson. The more I researched the Madison, the more confident I became in my choice. It is a world class fishing river, very popular with fly fishermen. It has some fast-flowing water and some pretty challenging rapids – up to class V – but these areas are able to be portaged by a touring kayak unequipped to hit much whitewater.
The lower stretch of the Madison River is a popular place floaters like to go for leisurely summer days. There are some larger lakes on the upper Madison – Ennis Lake, Hebgen Lake and Earthquake lake, which was actually formed when a landslide triggered by a 7.5 earthquake in 1959 plugged up the Madison. Unfortunately, 28 people died in the disaster and there is a visitor center that I look forward to visiting. There are opportunities to camp and various spots along the river as well as a couple small towns to grab a bite or last minute supplies. I expect to take 6 or 7 days to descend the Madison to Three Forks, putting in at the head of Hebgen Lake just outside West Yellowstone – right around here (4°42’46.6″N 111°05’50.2″W).