The Journey to Montana

Thursday morning I departed St. Louis fully loaded, the MOstar securely strapped on the roof, and tied down in both front and back. I promised to swing by my office on the way so that coworkers could check out the boat. My big boss with lots of outdoor and fishing experience laughed at my tacklebox that I packed for when I get the inclination to cast a line in. He promised to send me pictures of the bait and lures he recommends, and he’s actually floated and fished stretches of the Madison, which was coincidental.

Planning the 22+ hour route to Livingston, Montana, the main challenge is interstate 29 between Kansas City and Omaha. The entire route is closed due to Missouri River flooding, go figure. So my alternate route took me up through Hannibal, MO, into and diagonally across Iowa, through South Dakota, Wyoming and finally Montana.

It was a pretty grey and uneventful first day. As I approached Eldon, Iowa, I started seeing signs for the American Gothic House. With a big nice boat on the car and all my gear to live off of for 3 months in the car, I planned on sticking to the road with little or no detours or stops. Conveniently, the American Gothic House was only a mile off the road so I was able to pop in for a couple quick photos.

I grabbed a Jimmy Johns sandwich for the road and blasted through Iowa and into South Dakota. The ground in SD was obviously saturated with so much recent rain. Almost every farm field I passed had standing water, all the ditches were full, and the creeks and rivers I passed were out of their banks. All this water will eventually drain to the Missouri, ensuring flooding and high water levels well into the summer. Later afternoon brought out a welcome sight of the sun and I eventually made it to my day 1 goal, Chamberlain, SD – about 12 hours and 750 miles. The boat held steady the entire way.

A quick dinner of a South Dakota specialty, Chislic, and then I set up camp at a simple roadside spot. I woke up to frost on my tent and had to fish the gloves out of my bag in order to avoid finger numbness while I packed up. I loaded up on gas and coffee and was on the road by 6:30 for what promised to be a bright sunny day. A couple hours in, I decided to take a short detour and drive through Badlands National Park. It’s probably my favorite National Park, so I swung through and took some pretty good photos and videos with the boat and the Badlands as a backdrop. I knocked out the rest of SD, the Northeast corner of Wyoming and entered Montana before I saw my first flashing red cherries.

With a boat prone to being blown by the wind strapped to my car, I was doing close to the speed limit almost the entire trip. From South Dakota, through Wyoming and into Montana, the speed limit is a generous 75 or 80 mph. So I was kind if confused as the police SUV pulled in behind me. The polite officer informed me I had passed by a mandatory boat inpection station for invasive species. He had me double back to the station and a couple of guys looked over my boat, filled out a form and had me on my way. Just a warning for failing to stop at the inspection.

At Billings, MT, a rainstorm blew in and I really had to fight the wind from pulling my car and boat out of my lane. Out of 22 hours, that really was the only time I was a little concerned about the security of my tie down job. Soon enough I made it to Livingston, MT and the home of Norm Miller and his girlfriend Chris. Norm is the defacto Missouri River paddling community historian, expert, collector of information and artifacts, and an excellent host. in 2004, Norm paddled UP the Missouri River from St. Louis to Montana, then crossed over the Rockies then down the Columbia, retracing Lewis and Clark’s journey. He and Chris showed me a few cool sites around Livingston, including the nearby Yellowstone River and the only existing statue of Sacajawea riding a horse. Norm was part of the committee to erect the statue in 2016.

We had a fantastic meal at a local Florida themed restaurant, and I was able to exchange life stories with Norm and Chris and gather more information about the trip ahead of me. Sleep came quickly and I was ecstatic to be done with such a long drive.

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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).

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