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Billings, MT to the confluence with the Missouri River
In the spring of 2006, Harry Campbell and I (the author) canoed the upper portion of the Yellowstone from just north of the National Park 175 miles to the Highway 87 bridge east of Billings, Montana. At that time I had originally planned to complete the journey all the way to the confluence with the Missouri, but other considerations did not permit me to complete the river during the bi-centennial of Captain Clark's return journey down this storied river to ultimately re-join Captain Lewis at the confluence.
So, six years came and went since my first Yellowstone expedition before I was finally able to schedule time to complete my goal of canoeing the remaining portion of the river. To provide myself with another incentive I also purchased a custom built 20' wood and canvas canoe from Mr. Jerry Stelmock at Island Falls Canoe of Atkinson, Maine. The canoe would not be completed until mid- summer, so I planned to take possession of my new craft in July and scheduled the river trip for September. In the meantime I had a truck rack especially designed to accommodate and protect the new 20' canoe in transport and drove out to Maine the first of July to meet Mr. Stelmok and pick up the craft at his shop.
Because I was enthusiastic about finally finishing the river I talked extensively to anyone who I thought would be interested in my anticipated adventure and during one such dissertation my friend, Mark Panasuk told me he would like to go with me. I had never camped or canoed with Mark, and was aware he did not have extensive canoeing experience; so it seemed quite a leap of faith for him to express a willingness to commit two weeks or more of his time to participate in such an extended canoe trip. We discussed the trip off and on for a couple of months before ultimately finalizing our plans.
Now this part of the story falls into the category of "the best laid plans of mice and men". The summer of 2012 turned out to be one of the driest and hottest on record so the water flows in the Yellowstone were correspondingly low. Mark started to receive requests for his power plant services for mid-September and his daughter's wedding was scheduled for late August so this would limit his window of opportunity to a maximum of two weeks. But we all know that the prevailing winds blow from the southwest don't we? The travel distance on the river would only be about 360 miles and with favorable winds we were not to be intimidated.
Mark and Jan gained a new son-in-law on August 25th and at the wedding his brother Scot mentioned to him that the Yellowstone was "awfully low". This information was relayed to me when Mark called to let me know Scot had volunteered to drive Mark's vehicle directly to our final destination, thus eliminating the need to shuttle vehicles before starting our trip. This was a great opportunity as it would save us a full day prior to launch, but the observation; "The river is awfully low." really troubled me.
I Googled the official USGS website and found the Yellowstone flow rates varied from about 62% of average for the date, from Billings to Miles City; to 47% at Glendive and only 31% at Sidney. Worry! Worry! Worry! Finally at the last minute I decided not to jeopardize my new 20' work of art; unloaded it from the truck, and replaced it with my forty five year old 18' Grumman. Rocks and shallow water meet your match!
We finally launched our canoe about 4:00P.M. September 3rd. near Huntley, MT after leaving the truck beneath the cottonwood trees behind a horse corral and right next to the river. I had wished to leave the truck where it wouldn’t be vandalized or otherwise molested so asked at a horse training facility and was given permission to leave the truck for a couple of weeks. It was a perfect location as the corral acted as a shield against unwanted attention during our absence.
We only traveled about ten or twelve miles on gentle currents this first day before setting up camp on the north shore of the river in an area frequented by cattle. The site was just west of a section of state lands designated as voyagers rest, doubtless because the voyage of discovery had camped at that location over 200 years ago. There was not really a good reason for us to select this site other than the fact darkness was fast approaching. All it offered to two travelers was a level area sufficient to pitch the tent and grass cropped short by cattle to minimize mosquito habitat.
We broke camp early next morning and our first full day on the river found us expeditiously on our way amid disturbed waterfowl and bald eagles. It would only be a short run (twelve miles or so) to Pompeys Pillar, but we would also be faced with at least one portage around an irrigation diversion farther downstream at Waco. Again, river currents were mostly mild as they would remain for the remainder of our trip, so the dozen miles to the pillar slipped by in relative serenity. Every day we enjoyed scores of Canada geese, eagles, pelicans, cormorants, mergansers, as well as a few grebe and kingfishers as we paddled. We even watched two different eagles dive to the surface of the river for fish. The geese and pelicans especially seemed very shy and would take flight long before we were within range where good photos were possible. Mark, ultimately took all the wildlife photographs.
Pompeys Pillar was hardly noticeable as we approached in our canoe down the river due to the intervening belt of cottonwoods. We soon learned that this riverine area was largely devoid of trees at the time William Clark passed this way due to the severe impact of numerous bison crossing and grazing along the river; so the large stone formation had stood out much more dramatically 200 years ago. In addition the pillar is the only major rock formation on the south side of the river.
With the exception of a few buildings, tilled fields, trees along the river, and cattle instead of bison, the view east and west along the river from the top of the pillar probably looks much the same as when Clark viewed it over 200 years ago. I am sure that even today he would have no difficulty recognizing the landscape. The view to the west is especially vast and must have made a great impression on Clark as he gazed back over the flat valley floor at the distance he had come. The corps was covering as much as 70 miles a day at the time, so one may imagine how anxious they were to return to civilization.
We delayed here for over an hour, climbed the pillar and absorbed a bit of history before continuing our own journey. The Waco diversion dam is about twelve miles downstream so it would be necessary to make that portage before the day was out. We also hoped to continue beyond this obstruction to complete a total of about 30 miles of the river for the day if we were to remain on schedule.
The Waco diversion dam was easily portaged by carrying around the left side of the in stream structure, and it was only a matter of a few minutes before we were able to continue on. This proved to be typical, which was well as we were not as well organized as would certainly have been necessary for extended portages. As a matter of fact we had allowed ourselves redundancy in several areas of our food and equipment so a couple of extra trips were required to pack our gear at each diversion. Also, what proved to be typical, the wind increased and we unexpectedly found ourselves paddling much of the afternoon down river, but up wind.
As hoped, we were able to travel around thirty miles total for the day and for our second camp, encamped on the north side of the river about four miles west of Custer. This would result in a portage early next morning around the Custer irrigation diversion while we were yet un-tired. One thing I would point out here, is that this trip is the farthest possible experience from wilderness. Indeed at virtually every campsite along the way, while we were the only ones encamped and would hear geese and other waterfowl calling to each other, we could also hear traffic swooshing along the interstate or be awakened by the rumble of rail traffic during the night. In one such camp (our fifth, near Sheffield) the bluffs across the river magnified the sounds of the trains to such a degree they sounded as though they were running through our campsite.
The next morning, Wednesday, we portaged around the Custer diversion without any problems and continued downriver past our next portage at the Meyers diversion. In the afternoon the wind had again kicked up and we found ourselves paddling against a stiff breeze. At one point the wind even forced us to wait for around a half hour before we could make any meaningful progress. Continue on, though, we did and ended the day near Amelia Island where we enjoyed a beautiful campsite.
The following day, our third full day on the river, resulted in excellent progress. At day’s end we were at the Forsyth diversion near dusk where we portaged and camped at a public campground which had potable water and public toilets. In three full days, plus three hours, we had traveled about 112 river miles. We took the opportunity to get cleaned up and fill all our water carriers. We had used a Katadyn base camp filter system earlier in the trip, but both of us preferred to secure potable water from a public supply while it was available. The camping fee here was only $3.50 for one in possession of a Montana fishing license. Standard fee without a fishing license was $12.00, but because the campsite was established using conservation funds derived from sales of fishing licenses, the fee was less. It was a real bargain!
While we were setting up camp we noted that there was an SUV parked at the adjoining campsite with two canoes on top. One canoe was built of fiberglass covered cedar (what is termed a cedar stripper) and the other was an Old Town wood and canvas. I went over to talk canoes and we met Mr. Pete Pride from McCall Idaho (firstname.lastname@example.org) a canoe builder and repairer of wood and canvas canoes. I talked about the canoe I had purchased from Island Falls Canoe (www.islandfallscanoe.com) and found that Pete was familiar with Jerry Stelmok and his work. Seems like it is a small world!
The following day we again made excellent progress and ended the day near Sheffield at a point probably twenty miles west of Miles City. As we approached the location of our camp several wild turkeys scurried up the bank and we found many shed turkey feathers scattered around the site. During the night a chorus of coyote howling entertained us and we felt the canines may have been hunting the turkeys. A beaver also expressed his displeasure at our presence by periodically slapping the water with his tail. We actually only saw one beaver and noted the absence of beaver houses along the river. The evidence they did leave were literally hundreds of girdled cottonwood trees along the entire river.
The location of this, our fifth camp, would permit us to by-pass Miles City the next day and find a campsite nearly at the half way point from our starting point to our destination at the confluence with the Missouri.
As it turned out we passed the half way point by the time we set up our sixth camp just east of the Kinsey Bridge, where we were about 157 river miles from the Montana/North Dakota border and about 175 miles from the confluence. The greatest surprise of the day had been Buffalo Rapids. We had anticipated this river feature would not be encountered until the following day and by the time we knew what it was we had already gone through. There were boulders twice the size of a pickup truck scattered at random in the stream bed for a distance of a half mile or more (one doesn't think to calculate distance when they are concentrating on traversing a rapid); and I was thinking Buffalo Rapids must be really bad if this one wasn't even mentioned. As it turned out Mark checked the location of the Buffalo Rapids, using the GPS feature on his iphone, after we had set up camp below the Kinsey Bridge and found it was upstream of our location – not downstream. We had made it through just fine, but I'm sure at other water levels this could present a real hazard to open canoes.
At the water level we were experiencing, the river frequently shoaled out over distances of a half mile or more, often leaving us with almost no water to float across. This happened so frequently we eventually started taking the first riffle over each shoal which promised sufficient depth to float the canoe. Often a better choice would appear further downstream, but as often, it would not. Obviously we scraped bottom often and I was very happy that I had left my new wood & canvas canoe at home as it would have been a shame to subject such a work of art to such conditions. Had there been three inches more water in the river I would have equally lamented leaving it behind.
The river for several miles in the vicinity of Buffalo rapids had greater depth and more gradient than the rest of the river and was somewhat more interesting. Obviously it also had greater potential for damaging our craft or otherwise bringing us to grief, but was well within the capability of most intermediate level canoeists at this water level. It was my favorite portion of the river.
The following day the river continued to show us more interesting water in the morning, but the gradient flattened toward evening as we reached the section in the vicinity of Terry, Montana. Here the gradient had flattened and we had seen the last water that could be termed "rapid". We started seeing fewer pelicans and other fish eating wildfowl as well, suggesting less favorable fishing conditions. While we saw eagles every day we did see fewer of them each day from here to the confluence. We did start seeing blue wing teal however, and saw several flocks of this beautiful bird between this point and the end of our journey. Our camp this evening was located about five miles east of Terry and about 40 river miles west of the town of Glendive.
Next day, due to an early start and continuous effort, we paddled all the way to Glendive where we decided to eat a fast meal purchased at a Taco Johns rather than take the time to prepare our evening meal in camp. Also, because it was late we ended up camping in a relatively public location near the boat ramp. This proved for me to be the least desirable campsite of our journey. We had covered around forty miles which might seem to be a lot of distance to travel in a canoe, but as previously stated, Clark’s corps covered as much as 70 miles per day albeit in much higher water levels.
Next day we traveled only around twenty five miles before making camp about five miles downstream of the Intake diversion. We spent more time at the diversion as it was more extensive than any we had seen previously and we felt we were ahead of schedule and wanted to study the diversion and associated equipment.
The Intake diversion is locally famous as the most upstream migration of paddlefish. Fishermen gather here every year to snatch these plankton eating fish which may achieve weights of up to a hundred pounds. If these fish are not cleaned properly the taste of the flesh may be severely compromised and fish cleaning stations are set up where experienced people clean your catch for free in exchange for the caviar. This benefits the angler, the caviar collectors, and various local charities as about five dollars from every pound of caviar collected is donated.
We awoke to a beautiful calm, sunlit morning with the surface of the river glistening like a mirror. This day we would paddle around 40 miles and pass by the Elk Island Recreation area; the Seven Sisters Recreation area, and the coal fired power plant at Sidney before setting up our last camp of the trip about two or three miles beyond the Route #23 bridge.
We were now about 27 miles from the confluence with the Missouri. Our campsite was a level grass covered bench elevated about ten feet above the river. It stood out as an attractive campsite from a considerable distance upstream and was apparently a popular campsite for other river users as well. This and our prior camp were also the most isolated from the noises of humanity even though the highway and the rail line was not significantly more remote.
The last mornings paddle over the mirror smooth surface of the river took us across the Montana/North Dakota border and to the highway #200 bridge and the abandoned rail bridge just upstream where we ate lunch. Here was located one of the only remaining lift bridges in the area. It had been built in 1913 and the bridge had only been lifted once to check its function when it was commissioned as it was already obsolete upon completion. The bridge over the years had served as both a railroad and highway bridge.
There was a tunnel which was part of the construction to the east of the bridge also constructed at the same time (the only railroad tunnel in North Dakota). The tunnel was and is shored up with heavy creosote treated timbers and (amazingly) was constructed from the top down. I still haven't figured out exactly how this was accomplished. Since the bridge and tunnel were abandoned for actual service they have been maintained as a tourist attraction.
After lunch the wind velocity increased as usual and we found ourselves paddling against the strongest wind of the trip. It was more like paddling a windswept lake with significant waves lifting the bow of the canoe and the canoe thudding into the trough of the following wave. It proved to be a tough paddle for about twelve miles to the confluence. We had been paddling as hard as we were able and made good progress despite the wind in our teeth. A new building ultimately came into view and I asked Mark if it was Ft. Buford. He yelled back that he didn't recognize the building and had never seen it.
A few hundred yards farther we noticed muddy water in front of us to our left and I had assumed the wind had stirred up sediment in a shallow spot on the left side of the river. A few yards farther and we realized we were entering the Missouri and the boat ramp was straight ahead. The new building was the visitor center at Ft. Buford and had been built after Mark had last been to the site.
As we approached the boat ramp the muddy Missouri handed out one final insult. About ten yards from the ramp we ran aground on a sand bar. We both enjoyed being caught and fooled by this one final obstacle. After finally landing at the ramp a hearty handshake capped off the longest canoe trip either of us had experienced as we congratulated each other on the accomplishment.