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.


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.


Planning a Descent

It’s hard to recall the exact moment I decided I was going to paddle the Missouri River. But suffice it to say, shortly after I made the decision (or maybe even before), I learned of this book.

Complete Paddler

Starting in 2002, over the course of three summer trips, Dave Miller completed a descent of the Missouri River, from Three Forks, MT to the Arch in St. Louis. He created what’s widely considered the Bible for Missouri River thru paddlers. It’s a book rich in all sorts of details: preparation for the trip, gear considerations, maps, routes, GPS coordinates, places to camp, historical references (heavy on Lewis & Clark), warnings, directions and all sorts of other practical information.

I quickly purchased the book and hungrily devoured it within a few days. I was even more convinced to do the trip, but also struck by the reality of how much prep would go into this trip. Initially thinking about the trip, I knew I would have to devote quite a bit of time on the following areas – in no particular order:

  • Professional plan: what to do about that pesky job on a 3+ month trip
  • Navigation: river maps, stops, resupply, meeting points, portages, etc.
  • Supplies: what to bring
  • Transportation: getting me, my boat and my stuff to the start
  • Paddlers: am I doing this solo or finding others to join me?
  • Trip budget: what am I going to spend?
  • Money coverage: financial obligations while I am gone
  • Re-entry: getting back to normal after the trip
  • Research/reading: learning as much as possible about the trip and related historical materials
  • Blog/social media: sharing the experience with the world
  • Emergency plan: what will I do when shit happens
  • Insurance: health care coverage in the absence of a job
  • Communication: staying in touch with others while on the river

There may be one or two big categories missing here, but I think I did a decent job of figuring out the big stuff right up front. The bulk of the prep for the last 18 months or so has generally fallen into each of these categories. Later on, I did decide to undertake this trip as a fundraiser for Missour River Relief, so that would have to be one additional area.

The center of all my planning is a massive Google spreadsheet with 8 tabs that generally correspond with the larger categories listed above. Two of my key tabs are my gear list and my itinerary. I will post the content of those in the coming days. I am also tracking potential sponsors for my trip, not so much for stuff for me, but for donations that we’ll eat, drink or raffle off at the kickoff barbeque/fundraiser in April.

Another obsession over the last couple months has been food dehydration. Surely deserving of its own post, I’ve run the food dehydrator almost nonstop since we got it, prepping meals, ingredients and snacks and stocking the deep freeze in preparation for the trip.

Lastly, the Missouri River Paddlers Facebook group is a very active community of 2,500+ people who have some connection or interest in the Missouri River. There’s an almost contact flow of questions, pictures, stories, experiences and resources that get posted and shared about the river. Norman Miller is the administrator of the site and has accumulated a great wealth of resources and materials about trip planning, maps, logistics, photos and stories from those who’ve paddled the river. Along with Dave Miller’s book, I was able to find almost all the information I needed for the trip.


The Journey Starts on the Madison

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).