Making Friends the Hard Way – A 26-Mile Portage Around Five Hydroelectic Dams in Montana, August 1 – 4, 2012
// August 20th, 2012 // Uncategorized
With a hand-drawn map, a prayer and healthy dose of determination, I set off from Dick’s RV Park in Great Falls, Montana on August 1 to tackle a mammoth 26-mile portage around five hydroelectric dams that block downstream passage on the Missouri River below Great Falls. Each of these dams are huge and, with the exception of Black Eagle Dam, the first of the five, inaccessible to paddlers. For this reason, a portage route utilizing urban streets and rural roads had to be mapped out. Wes Malchow, who along with his wife, Kathy Jutras, manages the Missouri River RV Park in the small town of Cascade, 50 river miles from Great Falls, was nice enough to drive me to four of the five dams and search out portage route options on both sides of the river. After hours of driving and scouting the river, we decided that a 26-mile route from the Broadwater Bay boat ramp in downtown Great Falls to the Widow Coulee boat ramp, downstream of Morony Dam, the last of the five dams, was the safest route to take. It would also be the most challenging.
Dick’s RV Park is lovingly nestled between a busy highway and a busy airport and is bordered on the remaining sides by a (thankfully) abandoned railway and the muddy, yet quiet, Sun River. In true testament to its name, the Sun River was a dappled fluid diamond in the early morn as I drifted beneath the old iron rail bridge en route to the Sun’s confluence with the Missouri. Morning commuters zipped across cement spans as I paddled leisurely across the Missouri’s width and took out at the Broadwater Bay boat ramp. With the heat already on the rise and the aluminum kayak cart and solid rubber wheels securely in place, I set off across the parking lot in search of my destination, Widow Coulee.
Here’s a sure fire way to meet people: fill a 16’ foot sea kayak with gear and tow it on wheels through the city of your choice. I guarantee that people will come out in droves to ask you what the heck you’re up to. It also helps to have your picture on the front page of the local newspaper a few days before you disembark on your journey. I got no further than the boat ramp parking lot when retiree Fred Berry, who was launching his newly repaired boat for a test run, asked me if I was “the guy in the paper”. I replied, “Uh, perhaps…”, hoping that he hadn’t confused me with an aging rock star or a serial killer.
After crossing a few busy streets as polite motorists waited patiently, I started north on 5th Avenue and ran into Jim Langert. Jim, who had also read the story in the Great Falls Tribune, struck up conversation from the front seat of his car. I learned that Jim, whose right leg is amputated below the knee, had lost 125lbs over the last 18 months and that he works out regularly in a local swimming pool. He uses molded plastic devices that are specially designed to create resistance underwater. When attached to his arms and legs, he’s able to get a full body workout at the pool.
Only a few blocks later I was hailed down by Timothy, a friendly gentleman and fellow kayaker who, again, recognized me from the newspaper. Timothy, sporting a white “Pay It Forward” t-shirt, offered a wealth of paddling information about the section of the Missouri below the dams and where I could find assistance if I ran into trouble along the way. Further up 5th Avenue he tracked me down again, dropping off a photocopied map of the river section we had discussed.
Minutes later I was befriended by Kelly, a goateed Great Falls native who earns money collecting scrap metal. Having lived beside the Missouri his whole life, aside from stints driving transport trucks and working on fishing boats in Alaska, Kelly has always wanted to travel down the mighty river to its confluence with the Mississippi. I urged him to pursue his dream, reminding him that it’s never too late in life to embark on an adventure. Like Timothy, Kelly returned an hour later with several bags of rice, gifts from his elderly mother who had read about me in the newspaper. Fifteen minutes later, he returned again with a bag of chili mix and more rice, gifts from his sister this time.
Further down 5th I chatted with homeowner and retiree Don who was busy sprucing up the colourful garden that ringed his beautiful cedar sided home. Next it was a chat with potter Gary Doos and his grandsons, Trent and Tiny. Gary, a friend of Judy Erickson, who some of you may remember as the woman who ripped a hole in the crotch of her pants while offering to cook me dinner, had also read the article in the newspaper and nicely offered up his home as a place to stay next time I was in Great Falls.
A few blocks later I chatted with 5th Avenue resident Rob and his young son, Kade. Rob and some friends were excitedly gearing up for a week-long fishing trip on a nearby river and were eager to hear about my own journey. I was also joined for a short while by a 7th grader named Austin who was riding around the neighbourhood on his BMX bike. Austin was looking forward to a new year of school and loved telling me about some of the summertime adventures he and his family had partaken in, most of them water-based.
5th Avenue, for the most part, was a gentle, but taxing, uphill portage all the way to 37th Street. Temperatures had risen to 90°F by noon. In the heat, an unfortunate issue with both kayak wheels was most unwelcome. Short pieces of metal wire that I had been using to keep the wheels on the axle had become jammed in the plastic plugs that allowed the tires to rotate on the axle. A sweaty roadside repair was necessary. Within ten minutes I was up and running again.
At 37th Street I worked my way up a steep grade and followed 6th Avenue for a stretch before edging over to 7th for the remainder of the walk to the northern outskirts of town at 57th Street. I looked out over wheat and barley fields that stretched to the horizon. After towing the boat through residential neighbourhoods and meeting hordes of friendly folk, this new territory looked desolate and daunting. There was no shade, no people and no end to it. Save for a scurry of activity at Malmstrom Air Force Base to the west, and the endless rush of traffic along the highway, the bleak and foreboding landscape offered a sterile calm that left me feeling very tiny and a little ill.
A motorcyclist held up traffic at the highway intersection, which allowed me to cross without issue, and an army officer named Matt pulled over to offer me a lift. I politely refused, saying that I was doing the portage under my own power. “But thanks.” I added.
Trucks sped by, stacked high with hay bales. I sweated profusely as I worked up yet another moderate grade and turned to see the city of Great Falls fading away in the river valley below. I was visited roadside by Laura, a woman I had met weeks earlier on the Jefferson River, upstream from Three Forks. She had been leading a group of teens on a day-long canoe trip, part of a week-long summer camp for youth. Laura and her friend Joe wished me well on my journey and continued on theirs.
As the temperature neared the mid-90s, blackflies hounded me mercilessly, biting through my socks and T-shirt every few seconds and preying on any exposed skin. I was delirious from the heat, stopping every hundred feet to rest. My feet were blistered and swollen, painful with every footfall.
Four anonymous motorists stopped to offer me a ride but none were as comely as sweet Jordy, a transplanted Californian who now wrangles horses at a ranch in the nearby town of Belt. Dressed the part of a cowgirl and sporting a friendliness that could have only arisen here in Montana, as opposed to caustic Los Angeles, Jordy’s infectious energy and undaunted encouragement boosted my sagging mood and made my afternoon a brighter place.
I left the highway at its junction with Highwood Road and decided to make camp in a carpool parking area. My Cascade friends, Wes and Kathy, showed up at around 7pm, bringing with them two gallons of water, one cold and one frozen. I sat in the air-conditioned comfort of their vehicle and related the events of the day. Wes informed me that I had walked eight miles, five shy of my goal of thirteen, half the distance to Widow Coulee fishing access. It was now obvious that completing the portage would take more than two days. My feet were not happy with the news.
As rural residents began their morning commute into Great Falls, I began Day 2 of this 26-mile manual portage by towing my kayak in the opposite direction, away from town, deeper into a yellowed desert of wheat fields shorn of their bounty. It was harvest season, which meant that trucks hauling grain and convoys of combines were the norm on the narrow, shoulder-less roads. Green mile-marker signs made progress somewhat tolerable and helped me gauge the distance remaining to Widow Coulee, my final destination, the spot where I would be reunited with the Missouri River.
I was taking photos of Homestake Ranch, along picturesque Box Elder Creek, when up pulled local resident Ron LaMotte. A former facilitator for Outward Bound, an organization that helps get city folk into the great outdoors. Ron gave me a quick 10-minute lesson in safety and survival techniques. His delivery was engaging and professional; his advice enlightening and useful. Ron suggested that I look up his friend Terri Baker who owns a thrift shop in Fort Benton, a river town that I would pass through following the portage. (As it turned out, Ron alerted the Fort Benton newspaper and I was able to meet with his reporter friend Walleyne Flanagan for an interview while in Fort Benton.) When told of my kayak wheel dilemma, which had acted up again, the ever-resourceful Ron went to his mini-van and promptly emerged with two large cotter pins that were a perfect match for the axle.
The steep road out of Box Elder Creek seemed never-ending in the morning heat. My fragile fingers, which had been gripping the plastic carrying handle on the kayak’s bow for more than a day, had become blistered and sore; their skin and meat squeezed into a painful position that resembles the numbing whiteness that occurs from carrying plastic grocery bags heavy with food for long periods of time. Every hundred feet I would switch hands until the discomfort became too great. Then I would take a much-deserved break, drink water, curse and resume the torture. The smiles in the accompanying photos seem to mask my pain.
At the junction with Salem Road, I left the pavement behind and rolled the kayak over rocks and dirt for the first time during the expedition. Also at this junction was a sign that read “Widow Coulee 13 miles”. I had reached the portage’s halfway point.
A stiff wind blew across the fields of barley and wheat, shorn clean by crews of combines that raced up and down the rows on each side of the road. Grain trucks and their subsequent squalls of choking dust sped by me in both directions, dumping their payloads in silver granaries that dotted the horizon.
I managed a total of 10 miles before making camp on a roadside strip of dead, spiky grass. Friendly Kelly, whom I had met the day before on 5th Street in Great Falls, stopped by for a visit. He was on his way to Widow Coulee fishing access, having never been there before. I admired his desire to seek out new places. Perhaps one day he will embark on his own Missouri River journey and tell his story to me over bowls of chili and rice. But for now, I listened intently as he related the plotline of a new Jennifer Aniston movie that he had seen recently.
For the second consecutive night, Wes and Kathy sought me out and brought gallons of cold and frozen water as well as warm water, Epsom salts and a plastic tub in which to soak my feet. Oh, the relief! They also gave me some blister medication which helped to heal toes that had been crammed into cheap running shoes and pounded over jagged rocks that littered the rural roads. Roadside visits do not come much more thoughtful than those of these three new friends. They had all gone out of their way to help someone who only days before had been a stranger. From them we can certainly learn anew lessons of acceptance and selflessness. I am eternally grateful to be surrounded by folks as awesome as Wes, Kathy and Kelly.
My strategy on Day 2 had been to camp within two miles of Belt Creek, the most formidable obstacle of the portage. Belt Creek, or “Belt Crick” as it is known in these parts, begins many miles to the northeast, beyond the townsite of Belt, which lies on its banks, and empties into the Missouri about three miles below where I intended to cross it by bridge. From the fairly level prairie atop the creek draw, the distance by road to the bridge crossing far below was approximately ¾ of a mile. Climbing out of the creek would require a tremendous push, or pull in my case, up a steep gravel and dirt road that measured 1.2 miles to the level prairie on the far side. With 8.5 miles remaining in the portage, it quickly became obvious that Day 3 would require a humongous effort to finish at Widow Coulee by day’s end.
Just before I began the descent into the creek draw, I revisited an oddly placed site dedicated to the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805-06. These early American explorers had arrived at this same site after months of travelling up the Missouri with a dedicated crew of military men and intrepid souls. Not only had they had encountered the numerous “great falls” and countless rapids that lie upstream, but they also had to contend with how to get across the chasm that came to be called Belt Creek. While reading the interpretive signs and seeing artists’ renditions of the hardship that the Corps of Discovery had endured, I felt both a sense of inspiration and relief; inspiration from their relatable accomplishment and relief in the knowledge that our hardships differed greatly. I had roads and bridges to walk on and people to bring me ice water and foot baths at the end of long days!
The descent by road into Belt Creek was nothing more than a simple display of gravity. The kayak travelled downhill mainly by its own accord, needing no coaxing or convincing. The steep walls of the creek draw were laced with layers of grey and rust coloured rock, their rounded tops dotted with fragrant sagebrush. The creek itself, like many in this badlands area, was a shallow, meandering ribbon of clear water, its contents curiously having more volume upstream than down. The closer Belt Creek got to its confluence to the Missouri, the less water ran between its banks. Thirsty land and rapid evaporation are factors that create peculiarity in landscape such as this.
Once arriving at the bridge, I removed most of the gear from the kayak and hefted it in stages up the steep road. At a roadside spot I chose based on the fact that I was breathless, I piled the gear and returned to the boat for another shuttle. Thankfully, the lightened kayak climbed the hill easier than expected and I carried on over a stretch of easier grade, then positioned the boat in the roadside weeds and returned several hundred yards to the gear pile. Sweating and shouldering a multitude of waterproof bags, and grinning at the irony of carrying such gear in an area more arid than any through which I had travelled during this expedition, I continued on up the incline to its apex beside the aptly named Forder Farms. A lone brown stallion behind a wire fence stamped the dirt angrily and snorted at my presence, then whinnied and galloped out of sight, leaving me with a cloud of biting blackflies and a long walk back to the gear pile.
After sorely heaving a duffle bag full of gear to the kayak, which was now positioned halfway between the two gear piles, I decided to place the bag in the boat and pull the works up the hill to the farm. This idea lasted about three hundred feet until I nearly exhausted myself from the effort. I shouldered the bag and slowly waddled up the hill, well aware that my energy level was now waning.
With all the gear now at the top of the hill, minded only by an angry horse and hungry flies, I returned to the kayak only to discover that I had forgotten to switch on my SPOT satellite tracker while at the bridge below. I realized that if I turned it on now, there would be a gap in the tracking route. So I walked 20 minutes down to the bridge, switched on the device, said hi to a curious mule deer loitering in the sage, walked back to the kayak and pulled its reluctant bulk up to the gear pile. Winded, but relieved that I had overcome the obstacle that is Belt Creek, I packed the kayak and, in the words of Lewis and Clark, “proceeded on.”
The climb out of Belt Creek, a mere distance of 1.2 miles, had taken 4.5 hours to achieve. Owing to the fact that the portage had to be done in stages, I estimated that I had walked at least three times that distance. It was now 4pm and any progress that was to be made would be done with sore shoulders and ravaged feet. Even ascending the slightest inclines in the road felt like climbing mountain passes. Even more daunting was the fact that the road had taken a turn to the east to bypass a large wheat field. I felt as though I was being led further from the Missouri. Then, a sign appeared which read “FAS (fishing access site) 5.3 miles”. Widow Coulee, in fact, lay attainably near. This fact buoyed my spirits and I carried on for another hour until the pain in my feet drove me off the road. I set up camp in the shorn stubble of a wheat field and waited on Wes and Kathy’s arrival.
Watermelon, lemonade, ice water and another foot bath were served up in the rear of Wes and Kathy’s vehicle, a virtual ambulance during this damnable portage. We discussed their upcoming road trip to eastern Tennessee to visit Kathy’s mother as well as the goings-on at In Cahoots for Tea, a Great Falls tea shop owned by the couple. Before their hour-long drive back to Cascade, they drove down to Widow Coulee so Kathy could see the Missouri in its badlands setting. Along the way they saw several mule deer and a coyote and reported that I had exactly 3½ miles left to reach my destination, which meant that I had walked a meager, but hard-won, 5 miles on the day.
It bears noting that this campsite was atop a gentle rise upon which I could see for miles in any direction. This site marked the highest point of the portage. In the predawn darkness I could see the glow of Great Falls and the lights of the air force base that lay more than 10 miles away. There had also been an alarming stillness at night. There were no sounds, not even the stirring of insects or the rumbling of passing aircraft. Here, nature had been muted by pesticides and agriculture. Here, nothing flourished except our incessant need to feed a planet overpopulated with hairless monkeys possessing little foresight and an abundance of ignorance. Perhaps when our greed finally exceeds the stockpiles of grain, the sound of hunger will be heard in the night, coming across the plains in the wails and cries of children, descendants of gluttons, burdened by generations of ignorance and irresponsibility.
Day 4 began as a chilly affair. The temperature had dropped to 46°F during the night, necessitating a layering of clothes in the morning. Those layers were quickly shed as the day warmed. A desire warmer than the sun burned inside me to end this portage. Only 3.5 miles of road lay between the Missouri and me and I wanted to narrow that gap as soon as possible.
Excepting a few minor inclines that drew out groans and gritted teeth, the road to the river was mostly downhill, descending into a wide valley carved over eons by the river. From hundreds of feet up I could see the Missouri snaking its way north and I longed to be atop its surface in my little red kayak. Before the final descent to the river, I encountered a cattle guard embedded in the road. For those unfamiliar, the premise of the guard is to prevent cattle from crossing into adjoining property while allowing vehicles to proceed unhindered. Cattle guards were not designed, however, with kayak wheels in mind. The distance between the rails is too great and, as I learned after attempting to cross the guard on foot, will flatly stop anyone attempting to pull a boat on wheels over it. In my case, the sudden stop forced the kayak cart to collapse. I had to lift the boat off the cart, drag it off the guard and mount it back on the cart. I’ll also add that it was the first time I had ever encountered a cattle guard while portaging a kayak, but it wasn’t the last.
The final descent to the river came in the form of a steep 21% grade, hugely welcomed by my crippled fingers and ravaged feet. Gravity again lent its hand and the arid valley opened wide to accept a weary adventurer and his dusty kayak down to the river’s edge. But our journey was not complete until we made another cattle guard crossing. This time I stole from a large pile of cut weeds and placed the rotting vegetation between the rails in order to facilitate passage. My plan was hugely unsuccessful as the cart promptly collapsed again and the same procedure as before had to be followed; all this within sight of the boat ramp.
Finally, after 3½ days of self-inflicted torture, balanced only by an abundance of friendly support and encouragement from strangers and friends alike, the 26-mile portage was complete. I had successfully worked my way around five hydroelectric dams and I had done so completely under my own power.
After a last minute visit from a Wildlife and Fisheries officer that insisted on inspecting my life jacket, I slid the boat into the swift current, wedged my arse into the contoured seat and sighed heavily as a cooling breeze swept across the Missouri’s surface and gently caressed my sweaty face. I grinned and turned the camera on the towering walls of the surrounding badlands. I was home again. And I was happy.