After several amazing weeks in Idaho, we departed Idaho and almost immediately became enamored with Montana! Traveling down a 2-lane road, no other vehicles in sight, we were in a “valley” (albeit at +/- 6,000 feet elevation), with massive mountains on one side that must have topped 12,000 feet, and on the other side for maybe 5-10 miles (as far as you could see) just massive slopes of grasses.
Even before we left Idaho, we had another reminder of why the skies were so hazy – our own personal view of a forest fire, way up on the mountains to the left of us, from US Route 200. Up on the slopes above us churned an out-of-control fire. Based on the steepness of the slopes of these mountains, it is no wonder why fires spread so fast and are so hard to contain.
If you have not spent time traveling in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the best term I can think to describe these states is massive. Everything is massive in scale. I have no way other to describe this, other than to encourage you to travel these states. You will be quickly humbled.
Our first night we camped at a National Forest Service campground (Sloway) – right across a river from active train tracks. Now, to sicko’s like me and my bride, the sound of trains and their whistles are heaven sent. For whatever reasons, these trains, running throughout the night, blew their whistles – long and loud. All night long. Most people, as I understand, do not find these sounds endearing. We, on the other hand, do.
Our destination was a return to the Jackson Hole area in the Grand Tetons for 4-5 nights, specifically the Gros Ventre Campground. I still don’t know how to pronounce this campground, so use your own imagination. It is a great campground, even given that it offers no services other than trash collection and a dump station. I will say the sites are a little close together, so if you have someone next door that loves the sound of their own voices, it can feel like tight quarters. Bose headphones are a wonderful invention.
On our way, we came through Dubois, ID (we had stopped there previously). In looking at a map, I saw a road that would get us to Jackson Hole and our campground, but it took us a bit north, on a gravel road (for about 20 miles), and deposit us in Jackson. Can I say gorgeous? Our friends generally use better judgment than we do as to routes, but since we were traveling on our own, we had no reservations about taking the road less traveled.
Nothing but gravel. At roughly 60 mph, do you know what kind of dust that throws up? Yup. The truck and trailer were encased in gravel dust – reminded us of our trip to Alaska. One of the consequences was the plastic doohickey that serves as a release valve for our freshwater tank was sacrificed by some random rock that must have gotten flung up. The result? Fresh water pouring out of our trailer.
By the time we get to Jackson Hole and the campground, we knew we had no fresh water. While I happen to think my reputation for not being handy is well earned, I did carry a spare doohickey. Nothing 2-3 hours under the trailer in 90-degree temperature didn’t fix. Of course, I didn’t fix it. We went to the dump station where they offer potable water, started filling up the freshwater tank, to see it dripping out the same fixture as I had just replaced and “repaired”. A 4-5 day stint in Jackson Hole turned out to be a one-night stand, the next day heading north in search of civilization and doohickey installation expertise.
Off we trudge, heading north through Yellowstone (oh, the horror!), up along the Gallatin River and through the Gallatin National Forest to the Red Cliff NFS (National Forest Service) campground, located right along the Gallatin River. Here, in testament to my God-given handyman expertise, I fixed the water problem. A screwdriver was used, but no small animals were sacrificed. Thankfully no small children were nearby to listen to my expletive-laced play-by-play.
This campground was just beautiful, with the river right beside us, and cliffs to our backside, where one could hike – or rock climb, as a young couple so aptly displayed. We set up our chairs near the river to ponder worldly issues.
After a two-day break at Red Cliff, we continued our march north. Past Big Sky, into Bozeman and Belgrade we continued with gorgeous views. But the real treat in store for us was the ride north towards Great Falls. Now anyone who has ever listened to me (thanks to both of you) knows what big fans we are of interstate highways (not). However, Interstate-15, roughly from Helena towards Great Falls (we did not go that far) is one of the prettiest interstate drives we have ever been on. Roughly running along the Upper Missouri River and through the mountains, this drive is spectacular.
As I understand, the Missouri River begins not too far west of West Yellowstone in the Centennial Mountains of western Montana. It roughly tracks north and east through the Big Belt Mountains, through Great Falls, and then east towards New York City. Well, maybe not that far east, but east, until it drops south and joins up with the Big Muddy.
For our next stop, we stayed at a National Conservation Lands campground (Coal Banks Landing) at the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument for a whopping $5 per night with our Senior Pass, right on the Missouri River.
We would be remiss if we did not mention the Visitor Center here and a volunteer named Helen. If you are paddling down this way, you would be missing a huge opportunity by not chatting with her. She is extremely knowledgeable about the area, attributes of the river, the wildlife, and just an overall great and friendly resource.
Now, there is not much around here. From the two-lane paved road, it was about a 10 mile drive in on a gravel road. And in the area are just farms. For miles.
From our campground my bride ported me and my kayak to Loma, MT and I paddled downriver 21 miles on the Mathias and then the Missouri rivers, back to our campsite.
I have to say, this may have been one of my most epic paddles. First, there was no one else out on the river. I mean no one – not a soul all day. And this was a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Second, there was so little along the way that was man-made. A few power lines, a few remnants from farms past, but that was about it. But mostly, I was following a section of the path of Lewis and Clark!
Granted, I was paddling downstream in a sleek ocean kayak, with a few water bottles, an energy bar, and beautiful weather. They were paddling upstream, in shitty weather, not knowing where they were going, probably with scurvy, carrying lard and flour, in wooden rafts, with tchotchkes to trade with Indians in exchange for silly things – like food. Pretty much the same experience. I feel you, brother.
We were told that the national monument begins at our campsite and travels 120-140 miles downstream, and that the prettiest views are along that path – highlighting the white cliffs that Lewis and Clark wrote about. I have to say, if the views got any prettier than what I saw, well, that will have to be for another time. If you paddle down from where we are camped, it is strictly pack-what-you-need in your canoe, because there are no roads into the river for many miles. Campsites along the river can only be accessed by canoe. We are talking remote.
But my point is that the views I had throughout this paddle couldn’t have looked much or any different than when Lewis and Clark traveled this route over 200 years ago. The views were breathtaking – enjoy a glimpse of what I saw.
And did I mention this is where the deer and the antelope play?
We are off now to meet up with friends in Great Falls, where some unsuspecting laundromat, electricity, water, and internet service awaits. Sweet.